When I recently told a friend I had gone to Singapore, she said, “Hmm … hard for me to get excited about Singapore. Hope it was a gateway.”
Well, no, it was not. It was my destination.
And I loved it.
Understand, this is no Third World country. Kind of reminds me of Korea, the way everything has been updated and, yes, sanitized.
There is, of course, the well-known Way of Singapore Life … no spitting, no chewing gum, no, well, a lot of stuff. For instance, rainwater belongs to the state. Locals can’t collect their own.
And the government heavily recommends (and that means virtually orders) locals to buy a new car every 10 years. That, a local friend explained in a way that made me understand he thoroughly agreed, is so beater cars don’t break down on the highways and thus, hold up Singapore’s main purposes in life — business and efficiency.
One upside is no, or at least very little, crime.
I went out for breakfast one morning and somehow left my hotel room door ajar. Came back hours later (not my original intention) and not a thing had been touched … not my expensive laptop or my cell phone or any of the other goodies you leave lying around when you think you’ve just stepped out for a few minutes.
Okay, what DID I like about Singapore.
First and foremost, at least for me, Gardens by the Bay, which I will describe later.
And the various ethnic neighborhoods.
And the food.
And the public transportation, which is saying a lot for someone who loathes public transit.
And the nightlife.
And more food.
Where/What is Singapore?
First, a bit of information. Singapore is a group of islands that sit just off the very southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, about 80 miles north of the Equator. The main island is 14 miles north to south, 26 miles east to west, about 3.5 times larger than Washington DC.
It’s a city state, meaning the entire tiny country is a single city which is then divided into many districts.
It’s also less than 200 years old. Modern Singapore was founded in 1819 by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles as a trading post of the East India Company.
But for much of that time, Singapore had a somewhat sketchy reputation. It was Lee Kuan Yew who forged the Singapore of today with its emphasis on rapid economic growth, support for business entrepreneurship and, yes, also limitations on democracy. Today, it is one of the world’s major commercial hubs, the fourth-largest financial center and one of the five busiest ports.
Surprisingly, I found Singapore to be a great walking city. I’m not big on huge, gleaming mega-hotels and, rather, stayed in the New Majestic, a boutique hotel with 30 rooms (and swimming pool) just a couple of blocks from the light rail system. It was also just blocks from the center of Chinatown, with its shopping stalls, some impressive temples and lots of small eateries.
And the other districts … Little India, the Malay District (known as Kampong Glam), Tiong Bahru with its food courts and others … are also great for walking.
Forever Views, Nightlife
Ah, let’s get to the good stuff … rooftop views, must see spots … FOOD! But first, the views:
* The place everyone heads to is the Marina Bay Sands Skypark Observation Deck. You can’t miss the hotel, one of Singapore’s most distinctive. It stands like a three legged tower with a massive boat sitting completely across its top. That boat is the rooftop deck, with swimming pool, bar, restaurants, palm trees. It’s $17 to go up and the views are spectacular. But…
* For killer city views at a bargain $3.70, head to the 50th-floor rooftop of Pinnacle, the world’s largest public housing complex. Cabrini Green, the infamous Chicago Housing Authority project, it decidedly is not. Landscaped and dotted with artwork and beach chairs, its skybridges connect seven towers and provide a gobsmacking, 360-degree sweep of city, port and sea.
* 1-Altitude, an intense millennial-focused bar, 63 stories up the OUB (United Overseas Bank) Building. This place comes with strobe lights, booming music, cover model locals looking like they stepped out of Maserati ads, exotic drinks and the highest viewpoint of the city.
* And my serious fav, the rooftop bar and walking platform of IndoChine, the restaurant atop the tallest “supertree” of Gardens by the Bay. It comes with views of the Sands, of the Singapore Flyer ferris wheel and so much more. Yes, it’s lower than 1-Altitude, but the rooftop has plenty of room for you to set up a tripod and photograph the skyline without glass or strange railings or a crush of bodies in your way.
Meanwhile, Singapore truly comes to life at night.
No amount of outdoor air conditioning and giant sun shades could convince folks to do Clarke Quay by day thanks to sweaty equatorial heat. But at night, the transformed warehouse district becomes a magical fantasyland of moving lights, bustling shops and pubs attracting two million people a year.
Gardens by the Bay, spectacular enough by day, turns into magic at night. And just about any street shimmers with brilliantly colored lights.
It’s truly hard to eat badly in Singapore. But the days of locals squatting along sidewalks serving delicacies from steaming woks is long, long gone. Street food is now all inside, in well-regulated food courts. One of the best known is in Tiong Bahru Food Centre, but truthfully, you can find a food court just about anywhere.
A short stroll from my hotel, I stumbled upon China Town Food Street with, among many, many other things, noodle soups, prawn fritters, half a dozen varieties of duck, crispy fried carrot cake, oysters, assorted BBQ seafoods … Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, vegetarian and a scattering of places that advertise they are organic.
And, then, there are the sit-down restaurants. Literally across from my hotel was Candlenut, a Peranakan (a blend of ethnic Chinese/Malay and more) restaurant where dishes were served family style to the table. We had Ngoh Hiang – deep fried beancurd rolls stuffed with minced pork, various coconut curries and (okay, I didn’t say this was my favorite) stinky durian ice cream.
At Clarke Quay, we dove into the iconic “chilli” crab at Jumbo. Honestly, the crab with its hard shells covered in chili sauce, was more trouble than it’s worth. But the rest of the fish dishes – prawns, seafood rice, braised abalone in oyster sauce, some kind of whole fish – were fantastic.
For casual local places, there was Char, which focuses on Chinese-style meats and included a surprisingly tasty beef lung dish and more kinds of pork than I could count.
For fancy, there was IndoChine atop the tallest “SuperTree” at Gardens by the Bay. My absolutely fav, perhaps of the whole trip, was a Vietnamese dish called Thit Heo Kho, braised pork belly with quail eggs in coconut cream set in a coconut husk and served with fresh coconut slices. The pork was so tender, it almost had no substance and was intensely flavored.
But one of the sweet little surprises of the trip was a coffee bar in the Changi Village district where I discovered an amazing mango bacon sandwich and 3D art lattes where somehow they carve standing foam kitties, piggies and whatnot atop iced lattes. The regular, western sandwiches (roast beef for one) were of impeccable quality with fresh lettuce, medium rare roast beef slices and thick homemade bread.
Sorry, you do not go to Singapore to lose weight.
Would I go back to Singapore? Yes, absolutely. Only this time I would spend an entire week instead of just a few days.—Story and photos by Yvette Cardozo, RFT Ski & Dive Editor
Not to Miss
We did come up for air occasionally to do something other than eat. Here are some things you really shouldn’t miss in Singapore:
* The National Museum, with its really great history of the island, including a comprehensive look at the Japanese occupation during WWII.
* The Intan, a curious private museum owned and run by Alvin Yapp who woke up one day and realized his Peranakan/Chinese heritage was being lost. So he started accumulating antiques, including an intricately carved Chinese ancestral altar, rare porcelain ware, hundreds of stunningly valuable beaded slippers and so much more. The tour includes a great talk by Alvin. You can also arrange for a dinner in the museum, prepared by his mother
* Bumboat ride on Singapore River. It’s actually a river taxi with many stops along the way. You can hop on and off (they come every 10/15 minutes) or do the whole trip, which takes about 40 minutes and costs about $18.
* Yes, high tea or a Singapore Sling at Raffles Hotel. Of course, neither is cheap. Tea is $43 (plus 16% tax), but it’s a slice of history, as is the $22 Singapore Sling, which here is done the “real” way with a multitude of liquors and juices. Reservations are necessary … a few days in advance during slow seasons, but a month or more in advance during holidays.
* Changi WWII War Trail + Museum Tour. By bus to a war museum, beachfront site of battles, chapel, huge defense canon.
* Public transportation. The light rail system is clean, efficient and cheap. It’s a great way to whisk through the countryside.
* Orchard Road, the mile-long, high-end shopping mecca flanked by upscale pedestrian shopping centers. Name an international gourmet food shop or the highest end store – Prada, Armani, Louis Viutton, Dior, Cartier – and it’s here.
* Changi airport … honest. It’s won so many international “best this” and “best that” awards that they can hardly keep count (480 at last tally). Even before you clear security, there’s a four-story slide and countless shops and restaurants. It’s so popular with locals that students come here to study. Then once through security, there are gardens, restaurants, children’s play areas, a hotel, a swimming pool, a free movie theater showing recent, full-length movies. Plus, there’s a quiet zone for people with long layovers, including massage lounge chairs where you can even ask for a bed cover. And yes, Changi has been voted best airport to sleep in for 18 years in a row.
* Finally, my absolute favorite, Gardens by the Bay – a grove of “SuperTrees,” two garden domes and restaurants. Entrance to the general grounds and the nightly sound and light show is free though the garden domes are not. There’s a drier Mediterranean dome with more cacti than you knew existed and the tropical dome with an encircling, elevated walkway, waterfalls and killer views. The SuperTrees, ranging from 80 to 160 feet tall, are covered in tropical plants and lit at night so that they transform into a scene from the movie Avatar. Plus, threading through the grounds is an elevated, outdoor walkway. –YC
If You Go
Singapore is a city state on an island just off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. It’s about 80 miles north of the equator which means heat and humidity. Temperatures hover at 90 degrees during the day with little seasonal variation, although it’s slightly cooler in December and January; hottest in April and May. It rains year round, but the rainiest is December/January.
Singapore – http://www.yoursingapore.com/
Gardens by the Bay – http://www.gardensbythebay.com.sg/en/home.html
National Museum of Singapore – http://www.nationalmuseum.sg/NMSPortal/
The Intan – http://the-intan.com/
Clarke Quay – http://www.clarkequay.com.sg/en/
Raffles Hotel – http://www.raffles.com/singapore/
Changi WWII War Trail tour – http://www.journeys.com.sg/singaporewalks/tours_changiww.asp
For a photo diary of my trip to Singapore: https://plus.google.com/u/0/116146064817580609744/stories/02d08940-8250-3a44-b174-dcc4094a1d1514caf57bfb1?cfem=1