Travel Asia: Head for South-East Asia’s scintillating Singapore

Singapore bumboat

In our latest Travel Asia article Liz Newmark discovers that South-East Asia’s smallest island Singapore is big on activities of all kinds, and far more than a modern business mecca.

I have always been fascinated by Singapore as my mother was born there in 1931. She lived there until the family moved to Aldershot, Hampshire (the contrast could not be greater) – her father was in the army – just before the Second World War began.

Looking through old photos of my mother as a child in Changi, you see an almost old colonial world of beautiful white dresses, tea on the lawn and tennis clubs. Belle epoque villas and verdant parks. Not to mention the stunning 1897-built Raffles Hotel, not that my mother ever stayed there but the family may have visited for a drink. The iconic, gin-based Singapore Sling was created in 1915 by a Raffles barman, Ngiam Tong Boon.

Sadly much of this world – not of course the iconic Raffles, one of the few remaining great 19th century hotels in the world, which has recently undergone extensive renovation and not lost any of its charm – has been razed to the ground to make way for skyscrapers and offices. But Singapore has risen again as a buzzing, modern metropolis, a foodie’s mecca and with endless cultural and sporting activities.

And it is still very green. Nearly half of Singapore’s land area is under green cover. As well as endless parks and gardens, do not miss the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve with more tree species in a hectare than the total tree species in North America.

Or check out the VIPs (very important plants) – the thousands of orchid species in the National Orchid Gardens in the UNESCO World Heritage Site Singapore Botanic Gardens founded way back in 1859. More than 200 hybrid orchids have been affectionately named after celebrities including Nelson Mandela, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Jackie Chan.

And if you like your nature inside, look no further than the 35-metre waterfall in the misty conservatory at the Cloud Forest by the Bay or the world’s tallest indoor waterfall. Deep in Jewel Changi Airport’s retail complex, the towering 40-metre-high HSBC Rain Vortex is surrounded by a lush indoor garden.

ASIA TRAVEL Singapore Sentosa Island
Singapore Sentosa Island

Now Covid-19 restrictions have finally been lifted, and from 1 April all fully vaccinated travellers are free to visit this wonderful island quarantine-free. The festivals and sporting events are back too – including the Art Festival, the Film Festival (September or October), the HSBC World Rugby Singapore Sevens and August’s Singapore Food Festival with the best of ‘Mod-Sin’ (Modern Singaporean) cuisine.

To plan your trip, look no further than the endlessly informative Singapore Tourist Board and the Visit Singapore website. From food lovers looking to broaden culinary horizons, artists seeking inspiration or party animals looking for a hip club, Singapore is sure to exceed your desires. Just remember to brush up your ‘Singlish’ – Singaporean local slang with colourful catchphrases like to ‘chope’ (reserve) a seat – before you go.

Here are just ten must-do activities on the island.

1. Hike above the city
Explorers looking to get back to nature should pay a visit to The Southern Ridges, a ten-kilometre network of ridges, pathways and bridges elevated above the city skyline. The hiking route is a favourite haunt of birdwatchers and nature lovers, and visitors can expect to see up to 43 species of birds.

2. Explore Singapore’s natural heritage
Lose yourself on Pulau Ubin, an unspoilt island sanctuary teeming with native flora and fauna, and a haven for explorers. Accessible by bumboat from Changi Point Jetty, Pulau Ubin is also home to Chek Jawa, a 100-hectare wetland that comprises numerous ecosystems and rare wildlife species. And Pulau Ubin is only one of as many as 64 offshore islands surrounding Singapore, including Sentosa, St John’s and Sisters’ Islands.

3. Be inspired by art
Formerly Singapore’s Supreme Court Building and City Hall, the National Gallery Singapore is a visual arts institution that is home to an extensive collection of modern Singaporean and Southeast Asian Art including Singapore’s Chng Seok Tin and Eng Tow. Visiting artists and all tourists can expect to be inspired by the works on display at this 64,000-square-metre art space.

4. Get in on the action
Push the limits of your fearlessness at Sentosa, where a host of adrenaline-pumping outdoor activities await you. The island is home to iFly Singapore – the world’s largest vertical wind tunnel for skydiving and Mega Adventure Park – Singapore, with its 75-metre-high zipline.
Vertigo-inducing thrills can also be found at Skypark Sentosa by AJ Hackett, which houses a 47-metre Bungy Tower and a 42-metre vertical skywalk. And if speed watching is more your style, Singapore also pioneered the first Formula 1 night race, with 23 corners in the Marina Bay Street Circuit.

ASIA TRAVEL Marine Bay Singapore
Marine Bay Singapore

5. Peruse world-class brands
A shopaholic’s paradise, towering over the Marina Bay skyline, Marina Bay Sands® is home to some of the world’s finest consumer brands. The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands® boasts world-class labels including Cartier, Bulgari, Patek Phillipes and Limited Edt. The dizzying array of outlets from Adidas to Zara also features Fendi, Ferrari and Paul Smith.

6. Tickle your taste buds at a hawker centre
Singapore’s food tradition has always centred on fusion and harmony between diverse cultures. Broaden your culinary horizons by sampling the island’s array of multi-ethnic street food at a local hawker centre. The Singapore Tourist Board recommends visiting Lau Pa Sat and Amoy Street Food Centre. The latter houses Michelin Bib Gourmand-listed stall A Noodle Story, one of many award-winning food choices around the island.

7. Sample world-class cocktails
Some of the world’s boldest and most innovative bartenders call the island home, with Singapore clinching 12 spots in Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2018. The art-deco inspired ATLAS and aptly-named NATIVE – where bartender Vijay Mudaliar whips up cocktails with locally-sourced ingredients – are just some great places to grab a drink.

8. Seek thrills with the family
Thrill-seeking families who want to push the limits of adventure have endless options to indulge in on this sunny island. A must is a visit to Universal Studios Singapore. With 24 movie-themed rides and a host of family-friendly activities, fun and excitement abound at this world-class theme park. Alternatively, take a walk on the wild side at the Night Safari, where you’ll come face-to-face with over 2,500 nocturnal animals. Opened in 1994, it is the world’s first night zoo.

9. Hunt for inspired curios
Check out Kampong Gelam if you’re in the mood for treasure hunting. The district is a tantalising blend of Malay heritage and innovative new establishments. Of particular note is Haji Lane, where quirky boutiques sit shoulder to shoulder with traditional wares like Persian carpets and kebaya (traditional nonya dress) dresses. Other history-rich hotspots include Chinatown and Little India.

10. Make new friends in the neighbourhood
From bookbinding business Bynd Artisan at Chip Bee Gardens to veteran local musicians at Wala, Holland Village has always been home to passionate individuals and exciting new business. Take a walk around the neighbourhood, chat with its locals, and uncover the many stories that this artistic enclave has to offer. Other off-the-beaten-track delights include the Art Deco-style buildings of Tiong Bahru, colourful shops and traditional food stalls in Joo Chiat/Katong and trendy coffee café-full Everton Park.

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