Singapore: Visiting the bustling metropolis

By Tori Mayo

The thriving island city-state of Singapore has come a long way from its swampy roots as a banana republic.

Singapore's beautiful city skyline. Photo / Thinkstock
Singapore's beautiful city skyline. Photo / Thinkstock

As I look up at the towering buildings in Singapore's thriving business district, and try to breathe through a thick blanket of humidity, there's a tangible buzz in the air.

In 1819 it became a British colony and - thanks to the help of statesman Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles - a pivotal trading post between Asia and the West.

Since gaining independence in 1965, Singapore's star has only continued to rise.

Mangrove swamps have made way for a concrete jungle of condos, glitzy shopping malls and slick skyscrapers. The 19th-century warehouses lining the Singapore River at Clarke Quay, where junks once moored, now play host to a merry mix of modern and traditional bars, clubs and restaurants.

Dempsey Hill, a leafy suburb where the British military were once based, is now an ultra-hip hang-out with army barracks converted into galleries.

But Singapore is by no means merely an urban metropolis.

Sentosa, just a kilometre from the southern coast of the main island, is a green hub where stressed-out workers head for relaxation. Meaning peace and tranquillity, this mini island (linked to the main island by a causeway and cable car) is largely covered in secondary rainforest, where peacocks and monitor lizards roam free.

Attractions here include an historic fort, walking trails, two golf courses, the Universal Studios Singapore theme park and Sentosa beach.

Back on the mainland, Singapore's old-world charm is also very apparent in the traditional architecture and local way of life. A microcosm of the Far Eastern world, the island is home to Chinese, Indian and Malay enclaves.

Walking around Chinatown, I stumble into an area of low red-roofed buildings surrounded by imposing offices. A legacy from the late 18th century, these are shophouses, low-rise premises built to house shopkeepers above their businesses.

They're used for a number of different reasons these days but their multicoloured elaborate facades continue to add character and charm to the cityscape.

Former private residence now a museum-come-shop Baba House, on the edge of Chinatown, is a fine recreation of a 1920s Peranakan shophouse and well worth a visit.

Equally distinct in character is the vibrant, flower-festooned fiesta that is Little India. Deepavali or 'festival of lights' is in full swing when I visit, and the streets are swathed in yellow flowers, lights and festive decorations.

Alongside the tikka houses, tailors and Hindu temples, it's the markets and arcade stalls that really dominate the area. After purchasing an abundance of Indian bangles and a refreshing mango lassi, I find time for some preening at Queen's Tailoring & Beauty Parlour. For five Singapore dollars my eyebrows are threaded while two seamstresses fashion garments in the cosy room.

An unlikely find in Little India, I lunch in Broadcast HQ - a trendy record shop, club and cafe with a simple mid-century vintage interior. I tuck into their Broadcast St-Louis-style Ribs in a rum and coke marinade and Smokey Fries With Lime Ketchup, while listening to a podcast mix on wireless headphones.

Eating is a national pastime in Singapore and a visit wouldn't be complete without sampling cuisine from the melting pot of flavours in a hawker centre. These bustling, canteen-like food courts are a more sanitary hybrid of the unregulated market stalls of old.

There are more than 100 on the island, housing a total of 15,000 stalls. For as little as $S5 ($NZ4.75), diners can choose from Malay, Indonesian, Korean, Thai, Japanese and Vietnamese dishes.

Shopping is another obsession in Singapore. Locals used to do their shopping in open street markets, where shoe shiners and sugar cane vendors plied their trade. The first shopping arcade arrived in the Sixties and now Orchard Road, Singapore's most famous shopping street, is an intimidating maze of malls. Strangely, British high street staples, Marks & Spencer, H&M and Topshop sell collections here in line with UK seasons, irrespective of the Far Eastern climate.

The locals, though, don't seem too worried. As I soon realise, Singapore thrives on embracing variety.

WHERE TO STAY

W Singapore Sentosa: On Singapore's exclusive sister island of Sentosa, just a 15-minute drive from the main island, the newly opened five-star W melds fashion-forward glamour, whimsical design and a clever integration of technology.

While clearly a magnet for young, impeccably polished types, the fun design and facilities are ideal for families too.

Travel-weary guests would be wise to check in to AWAY Spa on arrival. The rejuvenating Detox Massage is just the tonic to help you get back on track.

Guests mix and mingle over cocktails at Woobar, dine on grilled, aged meats at Skirt and a veritable global smorgasbord of Asian and Western dishes at The Kitchen Table.

Bling knows no bounds here and words, orchids and neon lighting dominate the design of the tech-heavy bedrooms. Cushions state LOVE, water bottles demand DRINK ME and the hairdryer insists BLOW OUT.

Sentosa Cove's staff are seriously attentive. W's Whatever/Whenever concierge service offers everything from wake-up calls to Insider Tours of the city.

WHERE TO EAT

Tamarind Hill Singapore: Nestled above the forested Labrador Nature Reserve, in one of Singapore's few restored 'black and white' houses, this elegant restaurant serves traditional and contemporary Siamese cuisine brought to long dining tables. Visit samadhiretreats.com

Pollen: British chef du jour, Jason Atherton has opened this unique restaurant under the shadow of the futuristic 'Supertrees' of the Gardens By The Bay park. Mediterranean-inspired cuisine is served in a vast biosphere-like, climate-controlled space, surrounded by lush vegetation. Visit pollen.com.sg

White Rabbit: An abandoned garrison chapel built for the British military in the 1940s located just off the trendy Dempsey area, is now home to this old-school restaurant and bar, serving classic European comfort food and age-old cocktails. Visit thewhiterabbit.com.sg

WHERE TO PARTY

Zouk: Four distinctly different clubs: Velvet Underground; Phuture; The Wine Bar and the main Zouk room form legendary mega club, Zouk. Phuture caters for a younger R&B-loving crowd while the main Zouk room is the hub attracting classic club heads. Visit zoukclub.com

Orgo: Cocktails created by impressively-skilled Japanese mixologists are quaffed in transparent cubes in this quirky pop up-style rooftop bar and restaurant. Don't miss the spectacular views of the Marina Bay development. Visit orgo.sg

Broadcast HQ: This intimate restaurant, club and store, curiously located in Little India, has a cosy, warehouse feel featuring vintage furniture, a subdued colour palette and exposed brick walls. Visit www.broadcasthq.com

WHERE TO SHOP

PACT: A must for discerning design lovers and unlike anything else around Orchard Road, industrial minimalism is the hero here. This three-in-one clothing and lifestyle boutique, salon and cafe, is a seriously hip union of menswear boutique, KIN, Japanese-Vietnamese inspired cuisine by Kilo and hair salon PACT + LIM. Visit visitpact.com

Asiatique Collections: A one-stop-shop for cosmopolitan globetrotters looking to take home a little something from the `Emporium of the East', this elegant furniture and home accessories boutique in fashionable Dempsey blends contemporary design with Asian and European influences. Visit asiatiquecollections.com

TRAVEL FACTS:

W Singapore Sentosa Cove is from $S209 ($A173) per room/night with breakfast and cocktails for two. For bookings, visit whotels.com or call +65 6808 7288.

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