„It’s all about the location“ is especially true for the Marina Bay Sands Hotel. It is located directly at Marina Bay, just a few minutes walk from the Central Business District, and offers a great view of the Strait of Malacca.
What’s even better: it is right in front of the stunning Gardens by the Bay. About each and every hotel in SE Asia decorates its brochure with the magical term ’strategically located‘, but here it is nothing but the truth. And of course, you can see the 200 m tall hotel from many places around the city, at least a glimpse or a piece of it keeps shining through the other high-rises.
It is probably the most iconic building Singapore features right now, although there are a few tough competitors, and the number is rising every few weeks.
Whenever you see an advertisement or video about the hotel, which is also a huge casino complex, the one thing highlighted is the roof pool, which is only available to hotel guests.
I’ll get to that particular feature later.
Travelling through South East Asia for almost 9 weeks, and with a stretch of a week in Singapore, we decided to splurge a little and try the Marina Bay ourselves. A special rate discount at Asiarooms made the decision, albeit still expensive, a little more easy.
When you come from Changi Airport and go to the hotel directly, you can either take the hotel shuttle, or go by MRT (or taxi, of course). Since we transferred ourselves from another hotel, we opted for the MRT. There are several stations near the entrance of the hotel, in particular the Bayfront MRT. This was the easy part. Now comes the hard part: finding the entrance.
There is actually an entrance to the hotel – roadside, where all the taxis stop. To get there, you have to walk around the hotel (and NOT follow the signs to the hotel or the Gardens by the Bay). To use the underground access to the hotel, you need to pass along the entrance to the casino (with probably long queues of people waiting for access), find your way through an underground shopping maze, use the entrance to the hotel shuttle service, and take an escalator up to the ground floor.
Sounds complicated? It gets worse.
We dropped our bags off at the reception, since we were early and our room was not ready. This was according to plan, and we grabbed a hotel key card as identification and went for a tour of the Gardens by the Bay. Now, there is a walkway to the Gardens by the Bay which leads right through the Marina Bay Sands. Only you can hardly get there. There is no simple way of entering the Dragonfly Bridge from the hotel. Later we found out it is accessible from the mall only. In the end, we strayed through the subterranean walkways until we found an exit from the MRT leading to the Gardens. The shorter version would have been to leave the hotel through the front entrance and head for the Gardens.
Seriously, this thing is about 350 meters long, and there is ONLY ONE MAJOR EXIT. Head. Bang. On. Desk.
Sceptically, we suspected we were just idiots, so on the way back we took the Dragonfly Bridge. Which left us with a great view of the hotels innards, but didn’t give us any opportunity of getting there. Behind the hotel we made it down a narrow staircase (an elevator is also available) between concrete pillars, only to find ourselves unable to access the hotel again, so we had to walk halfway around the whole thing once more, just to enter through the main entrance – there even isn’t a side entrance coming from the Marina Bay / business district. It is like no one should be able to get there, unless arriving by limo or taxi service.
The Looks – Hotel
From the outside, it is nothing but stunning, I’ll give you that. On the inside, though, it is a different story. For about 20 seconds, the aerial construction is impressive. Then it just looks like a huge airport or railway station hall, and it is about as busy and noisy.
The oval above is the café, in front of the main reception area near the main entrance in tower 1 (there is another reception desk at tower 3). During our visit, a group of classical music players was playing live music, but they had a hard time fighting the constant sound from the surroundings. We didn’t even consider stopping there, because it was anything but cosy or relaxed. The whole place was an affront to anyone with a good sense of hearing.
This is the ground floor and breakfast restaurant as seen from floor 15, where our room was. The air was getting considerably warm and sticky up here. Cooling this vast three-tower construction must be a huge problem.
The Looks – Room
The room was pretty spacious and overlooking the bay, which was about its best feature. Don’t get me wrong: the bathroom was very nice, the place had lots of space, but the rest kind of didn’t fit in with the whole top hotel experience and price tag. I’ve seen rooms far more luxurious and comfy for less; the furnishing and carpets and general interior design didn’t exactly look top-notch, but rather dated.
Definitely not 5-star.
The room has a balcony overlooking the bay, with a great view, but the balcony itself is a lost cause – no deck chairs, no extra lighting, it is there but not meant to be used, which is a pity – and the shrubbery planted along the balconies of the hotel doesn’t look appealing either. Airconditioning was okay, although pretty loud for a venue in this price range.
Spacious, but a bath tub hard to get into, and a little short, too. To the left side there was a separate toilet, plus a smoked glass sliding door in front of the whole bathroom area. Nice, but not top-notch. The offered spa products were boring and uninspired, nothing special.
Since we stayed for one night only, I can’t vouch for the maid service. The room seemed to have been cleaned thoroughly.
WiFi is available for hotel guests free of charge. Some people claim they have been charged a ‚resort fee‘, though – we haven’t, but we did book a special. The choice of TV stations was multinational, but pretty poor, and lacked in local options, e.g. would have loved to see The Asian Food Channel (which is produced in Singapore and broadcasted through most of SE Asia); the hotel TV system was similar to the ones seen in cheap hotels in other places. Pretty unspectacular.
The keycards of the Marina Bay Sands serve not only as room cards, but also as access keys for the elevators, and you can get some discounts here and there. To my utter surprise, we were given an extra card with access to the pool area, and the key cards were magnetized. I would have expected a more modern system with less flaws – half of the time the keycards didn’t work properly, a problem that could easily have been fixed by use of RFID. This is annoying enough in itself, but sub-par for a top hotel.
Speaking of elevators… it is understandable that not all elevators go to the top floor, and some floors can’t be reached from everywhere, and due to the layout of the hotel and the pool area, there are specified entry points for the latter. The elevators were fast and reliable, as is to be expected, but getting to the roof terrace was still a tad complicated. Which leads us directly to
Before you enter the realm of the few (thousand) chosen ones, who have seen this infinity pool, you need to pass through a strict control point, and I am all like: seriously? You cannot simply get up there, you have to have two different keycards to even access the area, and here comes the next BIG WTF moment: hotel guests are required to wear a neon plastic wrist band in the pool area at all times, like one of the all-inclusive-resort identifications. Only that the only things being inclusive here are dry pool towels and a view.
The view is spectacular, no doubt. But that’s about it. The pool is pretty narrow, and of course packed, because everyone and then some wants to see the spectacular pool, and some people seem to have been camping on the deck chairs since sunrise. There is hardly space to sit down, let alone relax, and the place has the „luxurious“ flair of El Arenal in the afternoon on a hot July day.
As a bonus kicker, guests are advised in hotel brochures and signs in the elevators to NOT wear the provided bathrobes on the way to the pool, because the hotel wants to keep up its elegant standards. About 80% of the people in the elevator wore said bathrobes, and that’s smart, because there is no place to change clothes on the roof, and seriously, why shouldn’t I change into my bathing suit in the hotel room?
Many lounge chairs and benches are covered with crumpled wet towels of guests, who will probably not return, and the service isn’t savvy enough to make more room for new arrivals. Swimming in the pool is out of the question because of the iPhone-waving crowds, and the whole experience reeks of Spring Break more than anything else. This is not a place to enjoy your afternoon, unless you sit with the in-crowds, who sip champagne overlooking the bay – which is indeed a lovely view.
We take the mandatory plunge in the pool, look down to the Singapore river, and then make our way back to the hotel room, getting rid of the darned wrist-band as soon as we can. I am terribly sorry, but this is no way to treat any customer in a 5-star-hotel. (The ‚Club Room‘ guests seem not to have to wear IDs and can use another elevator up there).
If you are touting your own horn as a top hotel with 5 stars, you’d better have the service to prove it. Again, the Marina Bay Sands falls short. Yes, the staff showed (expected) courtesy and politeness, and were clearly willing to help customers ease their way through the hotel. But…
We observed doormen who did not open doors for guests, and kept chatting instead (not to mention they didn’t properly fit into their uniform). A guy with a beer belly protruding from an open red jacket is not what I expect to be standing (sic!) in the open door of a 5-star hotel. And it doesn’t end there. We arrived on the last day of a conference sort of thing. Around 2,000 rooms changing guests at the same time is a lot to manage, and it was managed poorly. People at express check-outs could not check out because these handled check-ins as well. The staff was helpful, but this was clearly an organizational flaw.
The shuttle service to the airport is a better bus stop in the belly of the beast, with the charm of a 1980ies bus station, narrow ceilings, and bored people waiting for hours, again, not what I would expect from a top hotel airport shuttle service. The staff at the pool felt like police checking on potential suspects, not like hosts welcoming guests – that’s a total no-go.
The hotel has an attitude. And it doesn’t live up to it. I’ve been to top hotels with kind, attentive staff caring for their customers. The Marina Bay doesn’t, not if you are the everyday occurrence of tourist.
Restaurants & Shopping
The list of star cooks and restaurants in the Marina Bay Sands is impressive. As a matter of fact, most of these are not located in the hotel, but splattered through the adjacent huge shopping mall. The shopping mall itself has a very confusing layout and offers the well-known global brands. What I did miss were local goods, as in Asian designers or specialties – it was the same stuff you’ll find in Dubai or Los Angeles or London or Hamburg. This is probably what the customers want? To me it was boring and disappointing. And then, of course, there is the casino.
After Las Vegas and Macau, I didn’t need to see yet another casino, but I would have liked to at least take a glance. (I suspect it looks like all casinos in the world). Unfortunately, that would have made it necessary to take my passport, register, and stand in line for about 20 minutes to be granted access. Again I thought: seriously?
Singaporean Nationals have to pay a 100S$ fee to enter the casino. They pay their fee and enter, you can even buy the fee tickets at machines. Foreigners don’t have to pay the fee, but have to prove they are foreigners. Right. And having paid my hotel room at the Sands, it would have been easy to grant access for hotel guests through an entrance solely for that purpose, but instead, they expect me to queue for the chance to spend money?
We spent some time at the food court of the mall, grabbing dinner, and having Dim Sum at Din Tai Fung the next morning, which was really good. A glance at the restaurants with names like Wolfgang Puck or Mario Batali showed dark, deeply underlit rooms with designer furniture and hefty price tags, but nothing that would have made me drool for their foods. Compared to, say, the restaurants at the Wynn in Macau, this lacked flair and inspiration.
The Marina Bay Sands is an event, not a hotel. It is a place of pilgrimage, and that may be part of the problem. They have a high turnaround of guests, but I bet not many return customers except for congresses and conventions. It is like a one-night-stand: you want it, you enjoy it while it lasts, but afterwards there is an awkward feeling, like you have been betrayed of the real joy. Hordes of tourists get here to take the obligatory picture of themselves in the pool, to have „been there, done that“ (guilty as charged).
It is an overpriced experience, though. For the same price you pay per night at the Marina Bay Sands (even considering my 50%-off-deal), you can find at least a dozen top-rated 5-star hotels in Singapore easily, which deliver a more personal and more professional service, plus truly luxurious surroundings and a relaxing atmosphere.
If it were not for the Gardens by the Bay in walking distance (which are absolutely awesome), and the architecture, I’d rate this 4 stars maximum, more leaning to 3 stars.
Would I Go There Again?
No. Although I love the Gardens by the Bay and can hardly wait to see how these (and the city) develop in the next few years, I’d rather stay someplace else, with better value for money, and a relaxing, joyful atmosphere, where I feel as a valued guest, not as a customer to be milked.
Marina Bay Sands
10 Bayfront Avenue