Extra time in Singapore

30 Jun 2016 by Clement Huang
Singapore has so much more going for it than when I first came here 20 years ago, when there really wasn’t much to do beyond shopping on Orchard Road and eating in food courts. Since then, Singapore has invested heavily across a slew of sectors including retail, leisure, hospitality, dining and more recently, arts and culture. Walking down the main artery today, barely recognisable now with its vast malls disappearing beyond subterranean walkways or up cavernous escalators, you’re reminded of the enormous changes that have taken place and given a taste of the eclectic array of delights now accessible to visitors. So if you’re thinking of tagging on a break after business, or simply in town for some leisure time, here are some highlights worth exploring. New arts showcase  Two of Singapore’s national monuments, the former Supreme Court and City Hall, have been transformed into the National Gallery Singapore, which opened last November to coincide with the 50th anniversary of independence. It’s an attractively designed space (look up at the glass “Reflecting Pool” roof) with permanent galleries housing two long-term exhibitions: “Art in Singapore since the 19th Century” and “ Art of South-East Asia since the 19th Century”. The first major international collaboration was with France’s Centre Pompidou in March, and will be followed by one with Tate Britain in October. The July-August calendar includes “Chua Ek Kay: After The Rain”. You’re never short of eating options in Singapore and here alone you’ll find eight venues on site. Admission is S$20 (US$14.70) for visitors and S$15 (US$11) for children. nationalgallery.sg Timeless heritage meets striking newcomer  After a sneak peek at the one-of-its-kind Sir Stamford Raffles suite (US$10,000 a night), I peered down into the lobby of the iconic Raffles Singapore and heard the antique grandfather clock – which has been part of the hotel since it was founded in 1887 – chime precisely on the half hour. A timeless moment of continuity amidst all the urban change; across the road is the avant-garde South Beach Development, with its wave-like aluminium and steel canopy, comprising offices, retail space and 654-room hotel The South Beach. Designed by Philippe Starck, the property has 43 “Imaginative Social Spaces” and three experiential bars (Court Martial Bar, Laugh and Prefix). The Raffles isn’t so much a hotel as a museum piece (it’s actually been declared a National Monument by the Singapore Government). If you’re lucky enough to stay here you’ll enjoy every heritage-fuelled minute, and even if you’re not, you should make a point of visiting the hotel and arcade, rounding off with a Singapore Sling in The Long Bar – and if you’re peckish, try the delicious satays and burgers after you’ve tossed your peanut shells on the floor. A new family suite-staying package, The Raffles Generations, provides under 12s with an Adventure Passport with which they can discover aspects of the heritage hotel (prices from S$918/US$668, among other benefits). Another suite package, The Raffles Experience, focuses on the hotel’s 12 Personality Suites, named after famous names who’ve stayed in the hotel (Ava Gardner, Charlie Chaplin, John Wayne, etc) and includes a tour by resident historian Leslie Danker. Both packages run until December 31. raffles.com/singapore and thesouthbeach.com.sg Family fun at all levels  As the cable car soars skywards en route to Mount Faber, offering a breathtaking 180-degree panorama of the city, I haven’t got the nerve to sit back in the seat. We’re so high up the giant Superstar Gemini cruise ship squeezes into the cabin’s window and far down below little dots are splashing around on the Adventure Land rides. From this vantage point it’s clear that Sentosa Island, the city’s main leisure destination, is a triumph of design as much as entertainment, with no end of attractions and top-brand hotels crammed into its leafy environs. The Shangri-La Rasa Sentosa, situated on the extremity by Siloso Point, is one of those resorts that instantly relaxes you as you walk through its windowless lobby and take in the balmy air, pool and sea views. It remains in good shape for a property that had a S$80 million (US$58 million) facelift six years ago. We stayed in a top floor (11th) corner terrace sea-view room which has striking resort and island views ahead, with tankers and container ships moored to the right (we were told it appeals to one UK guest so much he comes twice a year, each time for 45 nights). From behind the port to the right, majestic sunsets sink behind hazy cranes, their orange glow burning the waters. This 454-room resort must be one of the busiest I’ve ever seen, so busy that even the “overflow” Horizon Pavilion, above Dine on 3, was packed for breakfast. Although the Shangri-La in the city is considerably larger, at 747 rooms, it didn’t feel quite so condensed on account of its split tower, valley and garden wings. The Rasa’s outdoors cater for everyone, with an adult-only pool section at the top, and generous beach beyond. When I could wrestle my nine-year-old off the water slides – where staff have an excellent, effortless rapport with the children – we went kayaking around the bay and had the best views of the daredevils descending on the Megazip cables. shangri-la.com/singapore/rasasentosaresort Flora and fauna surprises  Tame peacocks, including one albino who we saw sleeping on the branches, are undoubtedly the stars of the show at Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Resort & Spa. They strut their stuff and are adept at hopping onto the loungers and skirting the waters. Watch out for the monkeys too – height is no barrier, we saw one on a ninth floor balcony – and monitor lizards, which seem to fit in with the resort aura as they waddle past without much alacrity. In a corner near the waterfront a garden is taking shape, featuring laksa leaf/Vietnamese mint, Thai holy basil, banana, mango and mangosteen trees, identified by annotations. A sizeable orange dragonfly caught my eye; this isn’t the urban trip I quite imagined. In between the cable car rides, we’re encouraged to touch a large snake, as more lizards dash past, and I’ve never seen so many koi carp in the space of 72 hours as we marvel at the beautiful fish in the resort and by the Waterfall in the Shangri-La city hotel, and feed them in the pond by the café at Mount Faber. I’d forgotten how green Singapore is too, providing a soothing environment from the moment you step out of Changi Airport. Gardens by the Bay, spanning 101 hectares of reclaimed land adjacent to the Marina Reservoir, is teeming with botanical varieties and the Flower Dome is the world’s largest greenhouse, while the soaring green towers of the Super Tree Grove are designed with large canopies that provide shade by day and are illuminated at night. gardensbythebay.com.sg Universal thrills  If you’re travelling with family, a visit to Universal Studios Singapore on Sentosa is a must. Granted, it won’t be the most relaxing few hours of your life, but your kids are sure to love it. In the space of an hour, I had Donkey sneeze on me in the Shrek 4D animation in Far, Far Away, saw my heartbeat go into orbit on the Ancient Egypt indoor rollercoaster (beware long queues) and lost my hat in the windy, watery tunnels of Madagascar. Beyond the rides are activities such as rock climbing in Jurassic Park, and visual features such as Lights, Camera, Action, which replicates a hurricane on a film set. A scarily lifelike Frankenstein gave us a hug on the way out. rwsentosa.com Dining delights  Walking into Telok Ayer Market (known colloquially as Lau Pa Sat), even before we’ve taken a seat or ordered our first satay, I can tell this is going to be a gastronomic treat as we manage to grab a table amid the lively atmosphere. This grand dame of hawker centres was built in the 19th century and is still going strong into the 21st (its most recent facelift was in 2014). The choice is bewildering, with every imaginable Asian dish served up beneath its distinctive octagonal design and ornamental columns, but we go for a few safe classics, such as the crab, chicken rice and sambal green beans with chillies. If you’re intending a pincer attack on the black pepper chilli crab – and you can’t come to Singapore and not get your fingers dirty – bring your own tissues or wipes as we couldn’t find any on site. According to Mastercard’s 2014 survey on dining habits, Singaporeans spent an impressive average of US$198 per month eating out, second only to Hong Kong’s US$218. Every time I visit Singapore I come away frothing about the flavours and variety. If nothing else, stay on for the food. Click on yoursingapore.com for more details on year-round attractions, festivals and events
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