Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Summer Tavern in Singapore

SINCE 2006, I’ve visited Singapore more times than any other country I’ve had the chance to go to, thanks in large part to the events I’m assigned to cover there.

Which also means I’ve stayed in some really nice hotels there such as the New Majestic Hotel that I posted here, The Scarlet, Raffles The Plaza and most recently, Swissotel The Stamford.

But for my money, the most memorable place I stayed in Singapore is still the first and it’s not even a hotel. See, as I wrote before, when people travel, especially in a foreign land, the last thing they usually care about is the place they’re staying. Since they’re either more concerned with their business or more excited with their sightseeing itinerary, clean rooms and adequate facilities are usually the only particulars most will look for as accommodations options go.

A hotel has to have a lot of character in order for transients to consider it as something more than just a place to call it a day. And character is exactly what Summer Tavern has in spades and then some.

This backpackers’ hostel (not a hotel) where I stayed and wrote about in 2006 for the i Section of the Manila Bulletin is certainly nowhere near as fancy as the other places I mentioned. But the experience of staying at Summer Tavern is something that you really can’t put a price on. Since I wrote about it, I’ve become good friends with Khalil, the very genial Jordanian owner and general manager. Even when I stayed in other places during my succeeding visits in Singapore including the most recent one this month, I always try to take the time to visit Summer Tavern and enjoy the sumptous dinner that Khalil himself cooks for his guests.

It’s equally heartwarming to see how much of the place has progressed since my first visit. At the corner of Carpenter Street in Magazine Road now stands Central mall that easily adds more shopping and dining options in the area.

And just across Summer Tavern now stands Hotel Tavern, a full hotel version with the same value-added amenities. For those with a little more money to spare, the room rates are still comparatively affordable.

Oh, and have i told you that a copy of my article is framed and posted somewhere in the reception area? Yes, it is and it always feels good to see that. Well, here’s a slightly revised and updated version of that 2006 piece:

Looking for a cheap, chic place in Singapore? Try Summer Tavern

THE big booming voice at the other end of the line sounded so reassuring. “Come stay with us,” he invites. “I’ll take care of you.”

For anyone who just arrived in a foreign land they’re not very familiar with, no other words can make you feel more safe and secure. And in Singapore, there are probably few innkeepers who are capable of making one’s brief visit even more special than Mr. Khalil Abuthinin of the charmingly quaint bed and breakfast hostel known simply as Summer Tavern.

At least that’s how I felt during my very first trip to Singapore a couple of weekends ago for our recent Cirque Du Soleil coverage. Since my original accommodation arrangements did not come through and given my limited financial resources, I had to scrounge for a cheap place to stay in the net at the last minute.

Although I still had the option of staying with a friend of my editor and save myself a few more pennies, the notion of actually staying in one of these backpackers’ havens sounded more intriguing and appealing after reading what they have to offer in their respective web sites.

And it’s not just because the rates are dirt cheap at the Singapore dollar equivalent of around P900 to P1,300 a night. It’s also because of the amenities that are already included with such rates like toast breakfast with refillable coffee, maps, towels, local calls and more important for journalists like myself, CD burning, printing and unlimited broadband internet at no extra cost.

The catch is you’ll have to share the same fully air-conditioned room with about 20 other strangers (both male and female) from possibly 20 other countries at the most in an otherwise up-and-down dormitory-type of bed. Yes, it feels like the United Nations on a much smaller scale. Of course, it’s understandable that not everyone would feel comfortable with this kind of setup. Khalil, a Jordanian who is a hotelier by profession, felt this way himself prior to the establishment of Summer Tavern in 2004.

“I never actually stayed in a hostel all my life,” he admits. “Most of them are designed for low-end people and did not suit my class so when I was starting out this business, I traveled to many parts of Southeast Asia and stayed in lots of hostels in 2003 to see what they’re like. That’s when I realized that I have to make my own place different by making it big and luxurious and something that would suit all nationalities.”

Along with several partners, Khalil found a four-story building located in Carpenter Street in trendy Clarke Quay, which he describes as “the most premium area in Singapore” that would serve as Summer Tavern’s future site. The building housed a former “shophouse” and was supposed to be a corporate office that was abandoned by its original investors after the SARS outbreak during the early part of the decade. With an investment of S$400,000 which he says is “the most expensive hostel set-up in the whole of Southeast Asia” (at least at the time), the building was renovated and by March of 2005, Summer Tavern was established.

The idea for the place is to have what Khalil would describe as “a scheme with a classic look.” Khalil says the name is called Summer Tavern because summer is usually the peak season for tourists in Singapore and tavern is a better term than hostel because “it is a sign of luxury and does not sound low-end.” And with 90 beds and an online reservation system where a credit card is not at all necessary, vacancy is rarely a problem in this place. Getting an accommodation is as easy as walking in cold turkey, which is actually what I did.

From the brightly-painted exterior to its East meets West lobby that features a European-style in-house bar and a spacious living room area with several big couches for guests to chill-out and interact with each other, Summer Tavern has the look of a boutique hotel with a very distinctive appeal. There is a cozy reading area filled with travel books and local newspapers and yes, there are also four Compaq Presarios with bright LCD monitors for guests wanting to surf the net.

There are also nice little touches that adorn the reception area. Easily noticeable are the news clippings about Summer Tavern, the award certificates like the Best Small Hostel given by and the nature photos of Khalil’s brother, who also works at the place and is a pretty good amateur photographer. There are also several golden kettles, a trophy that looks similar to an Emmy, and a collection of currencies and several bottles of beer including our fifty-peso bill and our own San Miguel Beer.

“Our actual official opening was April of last year but our first two customers, a couple of Germans, entered our doors as early as March,” Khalil recalls. “Then there was a flood in our area and media people who were covering it noticed our place and were asking what this place is. Two days later, they were already interviewing me.”

While Khalil was quite happy with the media exposure that Summer Tavern enjoyed, he also admits to “paying a price” for granting such interviews as 20 more hostels offering similar amenities mushroomed in Singapore shortly after that. Today, there are more than 100 establishments offering the same kind of services and “come as a guest, leave as a friend” concept that Summer Tavern pioneered.

“It’s a relatively new phenomenon for us,” says Rocson Chang, then Area Director for Philippines and Brunei of the Singapore Tourism Board. “The emergence of low-cost budget carriers like JetStar Asia opened a whole new market for people who travel and as a result, led the rise to a wider range of accommodation options in Singapore. There is also a stronger growth of these budget hotels and backpacker hostels as a result of their diversity and value-added features.”

For its rates, Summer Tavern is a steal. Worried about losing your valuables? Khalil and his extra friendly crew will give you your own small locker to keep them or he can store them himself in his own safety deposit box inside his office. Security still an issue to you? Khalil says not to worry as the nearest police station is just right around the corner and he himself is pretty much known in the neighborhood. A burly guy who comes across as a nice hybrid of Robert De Niro and Fernando Poe, Jr., there is little reason to doubt him when he declares his guests are well-protected.

And I can’t help but feel extra special in this place. During my first night, guests were treated to a DVD screening of Hotel Rwanda. My request to catch an episode of Rock Star: INXS was likewise granted. For those interested, Khalil also organizes trips to Johor Bahru, Malaysia where just about everything you can buy in Singapore is 50 percent cheaper.

On my last night, Khalil who is also a trained chef, treated one of his friends to a birthday party and the hostel’s guests were automatically part of the celebration as we were all treated to chicken barbecue wings and a glass of red wine each.

“We are not the Ritz Carlton,” he says. “You prefer to go about your business and be left alone, that’s perfectly fine with us. But we encourage you to open your heart and you will be more than a friend to us. Either way, the quality of heart-to-heart attention that you get from us is tremendous. You’ll find that our guests are mostly professionals including lawyers, accountants, sales executives, engineers and software programmers and many of them actually come back. At Summer Tavern, people are the most important to us. Once you come here, the place is not mine anymore but becomes all yours.”

Summer Tavern is located at 31 Carpenter Street in Clarke Quay, Singapore. For online reservations, visit their website at In the newer Hotel Tavern just across it, all rooms have individually controlled air-conditioning, TV, free internet access and coffee / tea making facilities. For Superior Single Rooms, bathroom is located just beside their rooms with 2 rooms sharing one common bathroom.

A fun night at Summer Tavern:

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