Despite Singapore’s reputation as a perennial stopover for long-haul Australian and Far Eastern travelers, we would have felt shortchanged if our late spring visit had been only over a long weekend.
Our five-day stay in the obsessively clean and polite tropical South Asian city allowed us to do more than scratch the surface. Our extended sojourn provided a balanced exploration into Singapore’s interesting past under British governance; its currency today as a thoroughly modern, dynamic metropolis; as well as a glimpse into its future as one of the most impressive destinations in Asia.
With a population of 5.5 million mainly Chinese, Malaysians and Indians, Singapore is a thriving, ambitious, breathtaking place that is constantly changing and reinventing itself. Despite our early April visit that coincided with spring break in the region, Singapore never felt overly crowded — except during our obligatory visit to the Merlion, the city’s most iconic landmark. The water-spewing half-fish, half-animal sculpture facing the Esplanade and Marina Bay was hands down the most popular subject included in the Singapore selfie.
Bright lights, small city
Singapore has made great strides in recent years to become a stable, safe and prosperous country. This transformation seems to be mapped onto its skyline, which is a striking mixture of the low-slung, shuttered British colonial buildings set against canyons of towering glass skyscrapers.
Once we got our bearings from the double-decker bus tour, we were surprised at how physically small Singapore seemed. Going from Chinatown, to the Colonial District, Little India to the Central Business District (CBD) and Marina Bay to the Quays near our hotel, was simple using the wonderfully efficient and spotlessly clean metro system.
We also enjoyed riding the ubiquitous double-decker bus; the theme-park-like cable cars arching over docked cruise ships on the way to Sentosa Island; a slow, 30-minute ride on the deluxe Ferris wheel called the Singapore Flyer, with spectacular views out to the South China Sea; and, perhaps best of all, a cruise on the brightly painted, Chinese lantern-decorated bumboats that troll the waterways between the Quays and Marina Bay.
A ‘fine’ place
When we arrived at the gleaming and spotless Changi Airport, our driver welcomed us with a bit of local humor: “Singapore is a fine city. They fine you for everything.” He told us there were ordinances against chewing gum and jaywalking. He also said the citizens endure extremely high taxes and pay to drive into the city center.
From a tourist’s point of view, there are many benefits from the strict laws, including a low-crime rate, sparkling, polished streets and new, ultra-fashionable stores, bars, clubs, cafes and restaurants. New construction projects are everywhere, in every neighborhood, all posted with polite signs asking for the public’s forgiveness for any inconvenience caused by the development.
That said, Singapore isn’t without a few, unexpected quirks. Walking along the quieter and more low-key Robertson Quay — away from the congested Clarke Quay, I was delighted to find a small hair salon called the Blow Bar where a complimentary glass of wine was served with a cut and blow dry.
Food, culture, history
Mention Singapore and there’s a strong chance the conversation will turn to food. Along with shopping, eating ranks as Singapore’s national pastime. The abundant choices of cuisines and the range of restaurants made selecting the next meal an adventure. Our favorite dinners were taken outdoors under twinkly white lights, at restaurants along the river. We happily sampled Belgian, Indochinese, German and Australian cuisines.
For anyone hungry for culture, Singapore’s museums are a banquet. After a day touring the Singapore Art Museum, the National Museum and the Peranekan Museum, we were more than ready to sit down at a British pub across from the excellent Asian Civilizations Museum, to enjoy a tall glass of dark beer and a perfectly chilled chardonnay.
Speaking of cocktails, a trip to Singapore is really not complete without a stop at the infamous Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel, where the renowned Singapore slings originated. Yes, it was touristy and overpriced, but just sitting where the likes of Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham and Joseph Conrad had sat, under the same cooling bamboo palm fans, eating peanuts after tossing the shells on the wooden floorboards was a truly memorable experience.
Singapore is a rewarding world-class destination — especially for those travelers willing to savor it longer than just a between-flights stopover.
Singapore: More than a stopover