From the moment you land in Singapore, an ironic sense of calm descends. While the country boasts a population of 5.79 million, it remains easy to wander the streets, attend the top tourist attractions, and visit the hottest bars without bursting that bubble of personal space.
I hadn’t been to this intriguing country before, which I guess is why I felt so surprised to feel so at home. Here, in South-East Asia, you are made to feel welcome through how easy it is to communicate and the willingness of all you meet to help you out. I had been told it was a particularly safe destination for women, and, after spending three action-packed days traversing Singapore city, I believe this to be true.
An early lesson we learnt was that taxis in central Singapore are cheap. Even better, the drivers are fabulous. They’re genuinely friendly, interested in what you are doing and ready to offer advice and direction.
This is not a country where you will get ripped off, with drivers not obsessive over the final cents displayed on their meters. Taxi stands should be easily found at main tourist attractions and shopping centres, though be aware that not all will take credit cards.
Fares will increase during peak hours. There is an increase of 25 per cent after 5.30pm, and 50% from midnight onwards. In other words, travel between 9.30am and 5.30pm and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how little your transport costs you.
A very popular tourist option is the SIA (Singapore Airlines) Hop-on bus, run by Duck & Hippo. There are four different routes that the distinctive fleet loop around from 9am, and a seat on this open-air double decker is the perfect vantage point to familiarise yourself with the lie of the land. Headphones are provided, and offer a limited, yet beneficial, rundown on some of the key buildings of each neighbourhood.
Being able to jump on and off gives you the opportunity to have a good fossick through the likes of Little India, get to know entertainment areas such as Clarke Quay, and drop you off at the Singapore Flyer.
Head straight to the top of Mount Faber to ensure you get the best views from your cable car, as you head across to Sentosa Island. Alternatively, you can always opt for the Sentosa Express – but bear in mind, you’ll be standing alongside every other tourist looking for a free ride. It’s not nearly as scenic a trip!
It’s Singapore’s version of the London Eye and it’s well worth a whirl. Whether we struck it lucky or not, we had one of the 28 (4m x 7m) capsules entirely to ourselves and enjoyed the slow circuit that reached 165m (42 storeys) high at its peak. On Asia’s largest observation wheel you can also step things up a gear with the Premium Champagne Flight, Singapore Sling Flight, or Sky Dining Flight.
Meander along the Singapore River in a bumboat to experience yet another view of the city. This 40-minute sightseeing cruise has been running up and down the waterway since 1987 and prides itself on sharing the engaging tales that unfolded through Singapore’s development from “an obscure fishing village” to today. It puts things in perspective when you realise the bars and restaurants of bustling Clarke Quay Precinct were once chop shops.
Afloat Marina Bay, the all-important selfie reigns supreme. Unfortunately, it might be hard to nab yourself a snapshot against the backdrop of the Marina Bay Sands without a few extra ‘friends’ in the frame. But you know you were there, right?
Consider this the Gold Coast of Singapore – albeit with a significant military history element. Here you’ll find everything from Universal Studios, Madame Tussauds, and the S.E.A Aquarium, to a 47m (17-storey) AJ Hackett bungy, indoor skydiving and one of South East Asia’s steepest zip wires. You can see why families – and Donald Trump – choose to make this their base, staying in one of the many hotels that make up Resorts World. (Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met at Capella Resort.)
However, Sentosa, in Malay, means ‘peace and tranquillity’ and to truly find this it’s straight to Tanjong Beach Club you go. While Palawan Beach has the title of southernmost point of continental Asia, the quietest of the beach clubs goes to Tangjong. That’s not to say this European-flavoured locale is without atmosphere – momentum will do nothing but build as the hours go by. But, in the meantime, if you are happy to head there during the daylight hours, gather your friends, secure yourself a lounger ($53, redeemable on food and drink), and offer yourself up to the sun, while sipping of your favoured poison.
Singapore Zoo et al
How many zoos does Singapore have? At first glance, you might think one – and then, three. Singapore Zoo is an ‘open’ wildlife park set in the lush Mandai rainforest; River Safari is, unsurprisingly, river themed, with the stars of the show being the manatees and giant pandas; and Night Safari will have you cruising past lions, tigers, elephants and more, under a cloak of darkness. All three attractions are in one area, but ticketed individually.
It’s all about timing with these wildlife parks and you could plan yourself quite the fur-filled day. Night Safari is perhaps the most popular, due to its unique set-up. Tickets are purchased for either 7.15pm, 8.15pm or 9.15pm entries, and you’ll find people queuing from as early as 45 minutes before go-time. This is because of the bottleneck that occurs when everyone is trying to get themselves a seat on the 40-minute tram ride. You don’t have to take the tram. In fact, there are plenty more areas to explore that the tram cannot take its punters, so those with a dedicated desire to seek out the likes of the fishing cat, clouded leopard and hog badger will be off into the darkness. We couldn’t decide whether children would be entertained or alarmed, but can’t argue with the fact the elephants looked more at ease and driving alongside free-range tapir is one for the books.
Gardens by the Bay
Be you a botany boffin or simply happy to stop and smell the roses, you’ll find yourself entertained at one of Singapore’s most iconic attractions. The trick, however, to planning your visit to the 250-acre nature park, however, is to not go until at least 4pm. This gives you enough time to jump on an audio tour, wander through the various displays, and head down to Satay by the Bay for a cheap and cheerful dinner, before getting back, tout de suite, to secure your spot to watch the Supertree Grove take on a whole new life. For 15 minutes, at both 7.45pm and 8.45pm, the 22-metre-high plant-encrusted tree towers are engulfed in a light and sound show that no visit is complete without.
Marina Bay Sands
Don’t leave Singapore without heading to level 57 of Marina Bay Sands. The bizarre, yet impressive, boat structure, which stretches across three towers filled with hotel rooms, is iconic – and very, very high.
A tip for first-timers would be to decide first whether you would like to head to the observation deck (offering access to the furthermost glass barriers) or for a drink. Tickets are required for the deck and must be purchased at ground level for $24, before taking an escalator down (yes, down, and that’s the key point here) to where you can access a lift to the top. If it’s a drink you’re after – perhaps a $945 Veuve Clicquot Champagne train (five bottles) or $4988 Dom Perignon trio of magnums – then line up for Ce La Vie. You’ll be docked $21 per person at ground level, but, as you may well have already established, the prices of alcohol in Singapore are as heady as the views out across the city. ($27.50 for a glass of rose.) Head towards the pool end of this curious boat as that’s where it’s easier to sit and admire the view – and the alcohol choo-chooing past.
Travel up this hill and you’ll pass foreign ministries and international schools that are a sure sign Dempsey Hill is expat-ville. It’s green, lush and quiet, yet the hilltop offers as many as 30 different restaurants and bars, from Jim Thompson Thai and White Rabbit, to John the Grocer. It’s another great night-time spot, but still worth a visit for lunch, when PS Café does a roaring trade with its flavoursome dishes that with satisfy an expat’s desire for designer fare that isn’t too foreign.
Traditional Singapore fare will see you eating satay chicken skewers, laksa and chilli crab. What you will quickly discover, at any of the 100 hawker centres around town, is that to eat from these areas is to eat on the cheap. Consider them outdoor food courts, with not a McDonald’s in sight. They provide an opportunity to be adventurous and try things that perhaps you’ve never heard of… or just stick to the chicken and peanut sauce, you can’t really go wrong, as one of the other great things about Singapore is that it is clean!
If it’s sounding a bit beyond your culinary comfort zone, both Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle, and Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle, have been awarded Michelin stars. And you’re still talking about dishes that start at $3.
World famous, this 2.2km street is laden with back-to-back malls and department stores. It’s here you’ll find everything from Adidas to Zara.
ION Orchard comes with its own observation deck, ION Sky, on levels 55 and 56, while Orchard Central has a 24-hour rooftop garden. For a high-end shopping fix, Scotts Square is the place – it’s homes to the likes of Michael Kors, Christian Louboutin and Hermes. But whatever you do, and wherever you go, if you like something, just buy it, you’re likely not to be able to find it twice.
The Sentosa Express departs from VivoCity, which means you can easily do some shopping after a day’s outing on the adventure island. It’s the biggest mall in Singapore, and is well patronaged. It’s a good idea to make use of the information stations to ensure you actually find what you’re looking for.
Describing itself as a place for “expatriates, yuppies and professionals”, Tanglin Mall is a more manageable four-storey shopping centre that is, clearly, the go-to for those working in the area. It’s not far from Dempsey Hill, making it a good place to get a retail fix in before dinner.
An easy way to make most of your time on the ground is with a package that opens the door to more than 20 deals – from attractions and transport to meal deals. It opened the doors to a wide range of activities for us, and did help guide us as to where we went and what we did. Available to travellers on the airline, packages include accommodation (ours was the highly commendable Concorde Hotel on Orchard Road) and complimentary use of the SIA Hop-on Bus.
Despite our best efforts, three days on the ground didn’t seem to be quite enough time to get to all that Singapore has to offer. Here’s our list for next time:
For direct flights from Christchurch – without even a stop in Auckland – it’s Singapore Airlines or bust. From January 7, 2019, this route will be travelled with the A350, a next generation aircraft with all the trimmings.