SINGAPORE – Funny thing about travel. Some places you build up and build up in your mind, and then when you go you feel like Norm walking into Cheers and finding the taps have run dry.
Other times, you’re not quite sure what to expect and end up getting bowled over by a place. The latter was how I felt about my recent trip to Singapore.
I knew it was a small state with new, tall buildings and a Formula One race and the Raffles Hotel (home of the Singapore Sling). I knew you can’t chew gum and that there was a bit of a racial mix. And I knew about the relatively new Marina Bay Sands hotel, with its infinity pool on the roof (which I didn’t get to try; even former travel editors don’t get everything they want).
But that was about it, really. Which means I didn’t arrive with a huge set of expectations.
Instead, I arrived with very much an open mind and found a really tremendous destination; clean, yes, but also very green and hugely multicultural and far more vibrant and colourful than I expected.
I found two-story “shophouses” with stores on the bottom and homes above in shades of periwinkle blue, lime green, vivid orange and deep red. I found wonderfully intricate, wildly colourful beaded shoes in a Peranakan shop in the Geyland area, Peranakan meaning a mix of Malaysian and Chinese cultures. I dined on gently spicy and deeply fragrant curries and sipped mango lassa at a tasty and dirt cheap “hawker centre” in Little India. I wandered past luscious Hindu temples in Chinatown. Near Kandahar Lane in the Kampong Glam/Muslim area, I spotted a corner store advertising perfumes without alcohol that was kitty corner to a sleek restaurant with a giant sign for Guinness beer.
I took a night cruise on the Singapore River past the 70-plus restaurants and bars in Clarke Quay, where you can dance and drink almost all night and not have to worry about crime, it being almost non-existent in tightly regulated Singapore. (There apparently was a purse snatching a couple weeks ago in Chinatown, and it was deemed so serious that when I was in the area there was a big sign on the ground warning folks that an ACTUAL CRIME had recently been committed).
I saw families splashing about in the Marina Bay Sands pool and at the Swissotel Stamford Hotel downtown. I saw kids and grandparents enjoying colourful flower gardens and a towering, indoor waterfall in the new, billion dollar Gardens by the Bay. I tasted deeply spiced and lovely laksa; a Malay soup served out of a hole-in-the-wall streetside joint that even Gordon Ramsay couldn’t beat in a head-to-head contest.
I saw lovely parks and beautiful old hotels like Raffles and the Fullerton, which sits on the Singapore River like a grande dame. And I enjoyed the ultra-fine Changi Airport, where they ask you to not only rate their customs and immigration officers but also their duty free shops and even their toilets. I gave an excellent recommendation on all three in case you were wondering, and you probably weren’t.
I also took a sip of bottled water on the Metro, thus violating the no-drinking or eating on the subway policy and earning the evil eye from a local.
It strikes me that Singapore might be the Canada of Asia. It has a reputation for being perhaps a little straightlaced, but with a ton of features to offer travellers. I think it might be the ideal introduction to Asia; a kinder, gentler sort of place that’s foreign enough to most North Americans to be interesting, yet familiar enough to be comfortable.
The Swissotel was a fine choice; right in the middle of the downtown action and directly above the City Hall MRT station. There are two pools, with an outdoor bar between them, plus tennis and a beautiful Willow Stream Spa that’s at their sister property next door, the Fairmont Raffles.
They also have a slew of restaurants and bars on the 70th floor, with amazing views out towards Singapore’s islands and over to the islands of Indonesia.
It’s a great spot for families. I didn’t make it there but it sounds like Sentosa Island is another great bet for folks with kids. There’s a cable car ride and a Universal Studios, as well as some beaches and a number of hotel options, from cheap to the chi-chi Shangri-La.
Over all it’s a city with great shopping, including famous Orchard Road; a winding, tree-covered version of Rodeo Drive but with some affordable options at one end. The food is exquisite. I ate some wonderful curry puffs at a clothing/shoe store in Geyland called Rumah Bebe, as well as trying the laksa and something called rojak and sampling a slew of Indian treats.
I had a fine dining experience at a restaurant called Wild Rocket, where a former lawyer trained in England serves up everything from salad with chilled coconut ice to duck confit with Asian spices to a wonderfully tasty snapper and lamb tandoori.
The temperature in Singapore seldom goes below 29 degrees during the day. The hotels are superb. There are tons of pretty parks and lots of open space. And friendly locals.
I went in not knowing what to expect. I came out a huge fan.