While its buzzing city centre has been completely rebuilt as a shining example of a modern Asian metropolis, Singapore still retains the charm and grit of a bygone era. By Lauren Arena
There’s no denying Singapore is a city on the move. Its ultra-modern CBD is constantly reshaped with more and more reclaimed land making way for new business precincts and entertainment and retail centres. These shining new buildings give the sovereign city-state an overwhelmingly cosmopolitan feel and together with its expanding repertoire of celebrity restaurants and designer boutiques, old Singers now seems more akin to Paris or New York City than any of its Southeast Asian neighbours.
But then I venture out of my temporary home at the almighty Marina Bay Sands and the steamy heat reminds me that I’m much closer to the equator.
Arguably the most recognisable structure in the ever-expanding Singapore skyline, Marina Bay Sands is a city within a city. Well, technically it’s an integrated resort, but this architectural marvel is so big and its facilities so vast, that it really is a destination in itself.
What was once a landfill site is now home to a 2,561-room hotel, massive casino, lotus-shaped art and science museum, and Southeast Asia’s largest convention and exhibition centre, which can accommodate up to 45,000 delegates. There’s also the plush boutiques of Marina Bay Shoppes, an MRT (subway) station, world-class theatre, and more than 60 food outlets, including six celebrity restaurants. Oh and let’s not forget the world’s most formidable infinity pool, 200 metres above ground level on the hotel’s 57th floor. This is definitely the place to see and be seen, and with more than 10,000 employees, the luxury hotel runs like a well-oiled machine. In 1965 the then prime minister of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahaman, said he’d hoped to make Singapore ‘the New York of Malaysia’ and now, wading my way through the 150 metre-long superstar pool, I realise that Marina Bay Sands has made it so.
Despite the unrelenting expansion of the CBD, the clean and green city remains so, culminating with Gardens by the Bay.
A fecund landscape with 101 hectares of lush greenery, verdant trees and tropical flora from across the globe, Gardens by the Bay also forms part of the redeveloped Marina Bay area, with its grove of iconic Supertrees now a national landmark.
The tallest of the 18 Supertrees houses IndoChine restaurant – a unique dinner venue with a stunning 360 degree view of the city below and capacity for 80 guests. But wandering through the grove, I reach the illustrious Cloud Forest – a cool-moist conservatory that houses a 35-metre tall mountain shrouded in tropical vegetation and a magnificent indoor waterfall (yes, it’s the world’s tallest).
Next-door is the Flower Dome, a world of perpetual spring where the perfume of thousands of Mediterranean flowers and desert plants fills the air – it’s intoxicating. The colourful collection of buds and blooms can be admired from the adjoining Flower Field Hall, a clever event space that can accommodate 1,100 guests for a cocktail function and 700 for dinner.
Like any modern city, Singapore’s rich multicultural history has been nurtured and preserved, with a wildly exquisite mix of people, religion, and culture.
Nestled close to the city’s central business hub, the contrast between old and new Singapore is most apparent in Chinatown. Exotic shophouses that once held opium dens, brothels, and factories, still line Chinatown’s streets, albeit as retail outlets, offices and restaurants. Market stalls are also in abundance here, selling everything from tea leaves and moon cakes, to tee-shirts, key rings, and tropical fruit, particularly durian – oh yes, there’s lots of durian.
But what this historic precinct is perhaps best known for is its vibrant street food. The recently revamped Chinatown Food Street (the name says it all) is a great place for groups to sample an array of local delicacies.
I opt for a much-loved classic in Hainense chicken rice– boiled chicken breast with fragrant rice and fresh ginger and chilli sauce. It’s a simple dish, but its delicate flavours make it memorable. Those looking to further immerse themselves in the local culinary scene should also try a fried oyster omlette and the much-loved durian chendol for dessert.
Nearby, in downtown Singapore, an urban oasis awaits in the PARKROYAL on Pickering. Opened in January 2013, the eco-friendly hotel incorporates 15,000 square metres of lush gardens into its innovative structure and an invigorating scent of lemongrass permeates all 367 of its environmentally conscious, sustainably chic rooms and suites. The conferencing facilities here are also top class, with a charming business centre. But the Orchid Club Lounge and private rooftop terraces are the best place for smaller groups who deserve a little extra attention.
A stone’s throw away from Bugis MRT Station, the city’s Malay quarter is filled with rows of of old haberdasheries and new shops selling local wares. The infamous Arab Street, a textile haven, is where you’ll find bales of silk, beautiful batik cloth, lace and organza, as well as customisation and tailoring services. Extravagant carpets, antiques, and hand-crafted wicker goods are also on offer – an ideal place to shop for trinkets.
But for a little edge, visit the area by night, in particular Haji Lane. This tiny lane, hidden away in the heart of the Muslim quarter, is a fashionista’s paradise. Local designers and young entrepreneurs have transformed this narrow strip of pre-war shophouses into an aggressively hip locale with quirky boutiques, bars and cafés. It’s a favourite haunt for Singapore’s hipsters and when I arrive late on Sunday evening, its shisha cafés are abuzz with cool characters, all mingling casually under a cloud of sweet-smelling shisha smoke.
A cacophony of car horns, bicycle bells, and vibrant chatter, Little India is where the sights, sounds and, ah yes, even the smells of Singapore are stepped up a notch.
This is the city’s foremost Indian enclave and its charm lies in the fact that many ancient trades can still be found by its roadsides, alleys and back lanes. Groups can have their futures foretold by fortune-telling parrots, and try their hand at weaving floral garlands at flower vendors like Omsivasakthi Flower & Trading.
I would encourage all visitors to ditch the dazzling designer boutiques of Orchid Road (Singapore’s high-end shopping strip) and embark on a far more authentic shopping experience at Little India’s 24-hour shopping mecca, Mustafa Centre – but be prepared, because despite its modest exterior, Mustafa is an assault on the senses. Literally everything you could ever need and want is here. It may not be this seasons’ latest trend, but with level, upon level, upon level of knick-knacks, decorative items, foodstuff, apparel, textiles, jewellery, and electronics, this is bargain hunting at its finest.
As in Chinatown, I eat my way through Little India’s bustling streets and find a culinary gem in Banana Leaf Apolo Restaurant. Here, traditional North and South Indian cuisine is served and cutlery is optional. I order the restaurant’s signature dish, fish head curry – stewed red snapper head in a rich tamarind-flavoured curry served with Indian pickle and Nan bread. It’s an absolute must-try for any spice-lover. And don’t be afraid to eat the entire head – the lips are the juiciest part!
For unique accommodation in Little India, stay at Wanderlust. This design-driven boutique hotel occupies an historic 1920s building and its owner, Loh Lik Peng, gave four local design agencies one floor each to create their own interpretation of contemporary style. Fans of QT Sydney will love this property.
More to see and do
Raffles Hotel – No visit to Singapore is complete without a visit to Raffles’ Long Bar for a Singapore Sling – or two. Sling-making classes can be organised for groups and the hotel’s sumptuous Raffles Courtyard offers an elegant outdoor event space.
Fullerton Bay hotel – This boutique 100-room property is simply stunning. Perched along the waterfront, the hotel’s French-themed Clifford brassiere (80 pax) oozes elegance, while its three floating event pods (each seats 20) offer a sleek, contemporary meeting space that’s literally on the harbour. A new restaurant and event space will also be launched here in May 2014.
Sentosa Island – Touted as ‘Asia’s favourite playground’ the island is just 15 minutes from Singapore’s city centre and features three beaches, 17 hotels, a casino, and Universal Studios Singapore. While most of the island’s attractions are geared towards families, the luxurious Capella Singapore will excite even the most refined incentive travel delegate.
Singapore Zoo – Home to the world’s widest primate collection, the zoo serves up a lively rainforest-inspired experience with walk-through exhibits and meet-and-greet opportunities with its beautiful animals, including the cheeky squirrel monkey. There’s also the nearby Jurong Bird Park, Night Safari, and recently opened River Safari, where you can catch a glimpse of Singapore’s two giant pandas, Kai Kai and Jia Jia.
Clark Quay – Take a bumboat ride around the harbour, check out the famed Merloin monument, and get off at this thriving night spot. It’s also home to one of Singapore’s best cooking schools, Coriander Leaf, and the chili crab juggernaut, Jumbo Seafood. Arguably the biggest purveyor of chilli and black pepper crab in all of Singapore, incentive delegates will know they’ve been spoilt after a feast at Jumbo. Book an outdoor table by the river to make the most of the location.