It’s a 12-hour flight to Singapore, an island city state just off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. Singapore might suggest glitz and money with its architecturally dazzling skyline punctuated by tall skyscrapers, or the plethora of designer brand stores that litter its various shopping districts and malls. But I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Singapore is rich with its own eclectic culture, history and art.
Home to four ethnic groups, Malays, Chinese, Indian and Arabs, as well as a large expatriate community, it is a cosmopolitan city welcoming its guests. Coupled with its rich vegetation and outdoor attractions, Singapore offers a variety of activities and sites for holidaymakers.
Flying To Singapore
Singapore Airlines is the country’s first attraction. Flying business class, my expectations of service on the island itself were thus raised. Dressed in a uniform designed back in 1972 by French designer Pierre Balmain, the iconic Singapore Girls do a fantastic job of looking glamorous whilst taking care of you on board. But, an extensive entertainment system also helped. Between movies, meals, and some naptime on a fully reclining flat bed, we landed in Singapore in no time.
Art in the City
Art installations and sculptures abound in the city from Roy Lichtenstein’s work in Sculpture Plaza to the National Museum of Singapore.
Checking into the Ritz Carlton Millenia hotel, I was taken aback by the eye catching artworks placed throughout the hotel; 4,200 to be exact. The hotel houses the largest collection of contemporary art in Southeast Asia, and includes pieces by Andy Warhol, David Hockney, and Dale Chihuly amongst others. iPods are available at the concierge desk for guests to check out and listen to a guided tour of the hotel’s artwork, the highlight of my stay at the Ritz.
That’s not to say that my suite’s view from the 23rd floor wasn’t incredible either, nor service impeccable and staff gracious, but it was so novel to be in a hotel that brought art into every space possible.
An art-themed package can be arranged for guests, including a docent-guided tour of the National Museum of Singapore and a visit to the art studio of Mr Ong Kim Seng, a famed Singaporean watercolorist. If you’re lucky, he might be there to guide your around himself.
Gardens and Parks
The Singapore Botanic Gardens includes thousands of beautiful exotic hybrids of orchids, many of which are unique to the place. Halia restaurant set in the midst of the Ginger Garden is perhaps the best place to enjoy the view of dense vegetation and its pungent smell.
Jurong Bird Park contains over 8,000 birds from 600 different species displayed in natural settings. A beautiful conservation effort and park, viewing parrots and storks with beautiful plumage in such close proximity thrilled me so much, I couldn’t help but wonder how the sight of these birds would thrill young ones. I purchased postcards to write to my nephew and niece and tell them about the parrots and penguins.
Orchard Street is a long avenue on which malls and stores are all lined up for eager and determined shoppers. The crowds on a Friday afternoon were no joke. I was quite pleased to see that one remnant of British presence on the island included numerous Marks and Spencer outlets, but Japanese Uniqlo also served me for some essential extras, whereas high end European and American stores were great for casual perusal. Heading back to the hotel, I couldn’t resist exploring the Millenia Centre adjacent to the hotel where retail and recreational outlets abound.
Large and sprawling, the experience is different. Local stores and food courts cater to the many offices around and are hectic with thousands of shoppers and commuters.
Visit the food court, fruit stands selling jackfruit and dragonfruit by the piece and interesting blended fruit juices stand next to assorted Asian fare. It’s almost as fun simply walking by and inspecting things as much as sampling and eating.
But after getting lost in the throngs I decided to rest my weary feet at Kenkos, a chain massage and reflexology parlor found in various locations in Singapore. Inside, clients pause for massages on the go or try a fish spa treatment.
Putting aside my hesitations, I decided to try it. It’s a basic foot scrub and massage delivered by tiny fish that nibble on the dead skin cells on your feet. The sensation is at first tickling but then relaxing; my feet have never been so smooth. I then sat down on a lounge chair for a session of reflexology.
A fish spa session cost 18 Singaporean dollars and the reflexology 48 — money well worth spending after much walking.
Clarke Quay is historically known for its transitory warehouses for goods transported through Singapore on their way to China or the West. Today, the beautifully persevered area has been converted into assorted restaurants and night spots and it makes for a pleasant stroll at night. Singaporeans of all ages are out, either looking to have a good night at the many pubs or for a stroll after dinner with the family. It’s crowded yet lively but a great place to catch a cool breeze at night.
To understand Singapore a little more, visit the ethnic neighborhoods that have flavored Singapore’s identity to be what it is today. Visit in the morning when shops are open and the atmosphere is bustling.
Little India is an overwhelming dose of Indian reality. Start off by eating at Little India’s hawker center, the Singaporean version of food courts, prepared in the street but is perfectly clean whenever you go.
A full bowl of biryani with chicken costs 4.5 Singaporean dollars, and cooling coconut milk 1.5, it’s the cheapest meal you can buy.
In this part of town, where old colonial era buildings have been preserved, it’s interesting to observe how different facets of Singaporean history meld together physically and socially.
A quick jaunt to China is a short cab ride away. China Town is marked by a large temple, and many elderly Chinese sit and socialize in its central square. Stores in Chinatown are more interesting. Chopsticks and calligraphy brushes make for interesting souvenirs, but there’s plenty of street food to sample as well. I made do with a bag of roasted chestnuts, munching as I walked around enjoying the sight.
For the Kids
The Singaporeans are quite enthusiastic at the moment about integrated resorts: large mixed-use development projects that integrate various recreational facilities with hotels and other attractions suitable for children. Sentosa, a small island connected to mainland Singapore with a bridge, now houses the recently opened Universal Studios. The government hopes the studios would lure tourists over the long run to the island; so far it’s been doing its job quite well.
To give the little ones a bit of history, insist on taking them to the Images of Singapore museum where the country’s history is explained with visuals of the island’s culture and traditions. Thorough and simplified, it’s a great way to quickly understanding the influence of British presence on the island.
Sentosa island’s offerings are plenty, and it would take several days to enjoy all its activities and outlets.
For the best skyline view, go to the Singapore Flyer, the world’s largest observation wheel, particularly when observing it over a decadent dinner served while you’re up in the air. Follow it up with a night safari at the Singapore zoo. The novelty of the experience awakens the child inside everyone.
It is a basic tram ride through the zoo at night, winding its way slowly between zebras and tigers, bearded pigs, babirusas, sloth bears and scimitar-horned oryxes. The fact that I was unable to identify a good portion of the animals was a surprise. I felt like some animal identifying lessons had been dropped from my first grade curriculum.
The abundance of wildlife housed in naturally adapted settings was altogether more marvelous when animals stopped to stare at us while winding on our trail. Slightly unnerving and slightly enchanting, I would suggest this as a must see for both children and adults.