Call me middle-aged, but I don't stay in hotels so I can Instagram the champagne bucket or Facebook a photo of the oh-so-cool bath that sits ludicrously in the bedroom like the hatched egg of an inappropriate dinosaur. I don't want a hotel whose bathroom is so swish it omits a towel rack – or maybe even a door. And I really don't need my shower gel to be made from flowers handpicked in the Himalayas by happy ethnic tribespeople.
We're living in the era of spin and unabashed self-promotion. Of form over function, of look-at-me design over comfort, of ludicrous hotel luxuries invented only to create social media hype. Someone forgot to tell the Mandarin Oriental Singapore, though. Oh happy days, a hotel that still lives in the past, when what really mattered in a hotel was good food, great service and a very agreeable room. A time when quiet confidence trumped pretension.
This suave hotel opened on Singapore's Marina Bay in 1987, before the World Wide Web was even invented. It looks like a 1980s building – solid and dependable in concrete – because that's exactly what it is. The dim, somewhat moody central atrium has wraparound corridors that soar to the 21st floor, and lift shafts with glass bubbles that zoom up and down. It could be the set for a 1980s disaster movie. Or a hushed Zen temple. As for the Cantonese restaurant, it hasn't changed its name (Cherry Garden) nor classical cuisine since opening day, although the plating has evolved.
This isn't to suggest that Mandarin Oriental Singapore has overlooked the 21st century. It has, of course, been upgraded and refurbished several times. Most recently its entirely new MO Bar rocketed up the list of must-visit bars, quite a feat considering the competition in Singapore. Its clever cocktails are all up-to-date with recent fads (yuzu, squid ink, soju) and names (Mother of Dragons).
The hotel is far from old-fashioned – but it reminds you of another age when luxury hotels were simpler, less flamboyant, less about appearance than about what really counts, which is comfort and impeccable service. In other words, you don't check in here to pose poolside with your selfie-stick. If, however, you care to stay at a great hotel without boasting about it to your 500 "friends", come here.
The location is great. Marina Bay and downtown skyscrapers glitter beyond the windows, and colonial-era government buildings are beautifully illuminated in the foreground. The swimming-pool terrace sprouts palm trees and cabanas and is uncrowded by other buildings, creating a surprisingly resort-like oasis for an urban hotel. All the restaurants impress, especially the Cantonese, Italian and steakhouse. The dim sum at Cherry Garden is hugely popular with locals at weekends. No surprise, since it's designed to be eaten, not Instagrammed.
Sometimes retro appeal can itself be a gimmick. An excuse for uncomfortable neon-hued chairs shaped like kidney beans, and useless decorative gramophones that serve no purpose. What you get in the guestrooms at Mandarin Oriental Singapore, though, is an ergonomic desk chair and state-of-the-art sound system. Subtle lighting and soothing, earthy colours in purples and browns. The subdued, sophisticated decor is bad for social media photos, good for relaxation, great for framing the cityscape beyond the windows.
Mandarin Oriental Singapore's retro appeal that has more to do with character than appearance. Sure, the hotel isn't going to pop your eye with avant-garde decor or challenge your inhibitions with see-through bathrooms. But it offers something that seems to be increasingly forgotten in the social media era of travel. It offers familiarity despite its luxury, and service that never lets you down. Substance, in an era that seems to have forgotten what that means – or that it matters.
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Visit Singapore and Mandarin Oriental Hotels.
Singapore Airlines, Qantas, Scoot and Emirates Airlines fly direct from Australian cities to Singapore.
Mandarin Oriental Singapore, in Marina Bay, has an excellent spa and restaurants. Rooms from SGD 420 ($430) a night. See mandarinoriental.com