Singapore: One night stand

By Ewan McDonald

One city, two days, five senses. Ewan McDonald tries to satisfy every one of them in a 48-hour stopover.

Jam-pack your stopover in Singapore with great food, shopping and sightseeing. Photo / Getty Images
Jam-pack your stopover in Singapore with great food, shopping and sightseeing. Photo / Getty Images

So you're going to Europe. Maybe for the first time since that Continental bus tour on your OE, 80 cities in 20 days, when the two of you got together in Brussels. Or was it Copenhagen?

The ticket to Over There includes a night, maybe a couple of days, in Singapore. Is that enough time to see, let alone taste, smell, hear or get up close to the place?

Chances are you'll be directed towards Sentosa. It's the knockdown, dragout champion of Singapore tourist attractions. Each year five million visitors take the cable car, monorail, boardwalk or causeway to the island to play on the beach, golf courses, butterfly park, underwater world, adventure rides, Universal Studios theme park, spas and what the Government coyly calls an "integrated resort" (read: casino).

But the all-go, can-do city-state has many more local, less worldly enticements. Some ideas:

GARDENS BY THE BAY

Suspend belief. And disbelief. This gobsmacking fantasy on reclaimed waterfront next to the gargantuan Marina Bay resort has been described as "stepping into Pandora", the make-believe planet of Avatar. If you haven't seen the movie or been here, it will be almost impossible to comprehend this 21st century concept.

Simply, it's a 100ha park incorporating three waterfront gardens, designed to realise the Government's dream of transforming Singapore from a "Garden City" to a "City in a Garden". It has spent more than $1 billion to import 250,000 rare plants, housed in two huge conservatories: the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest.

The 1.2ha dome creates a dry climate and features plants found in the Mediterranean, Australia, South America and South Africa. It's pretty enough, but you may wonder what the fuss is about.

Then you walk into the forest, and you're inside the Auckland Domain Wintergardens on steroids.

In its 0.8ha, environmental and architectural scientists have brought cool, damp subtropical regions - like our rainforest - into the sweltering heart of Southeast Asia.

The world's most advanced greenhouse is built around a 42m "mountain". Walk inside it, through and beside a 35m waterfall, past orchids, conifers and camellias - and, there, at its base, is a "secret garden" of plants and ferns from Aotearoa.

Outside are the supertrees, palm-like sculptures from 25m-50m, vertical gardens that nurture plants, offer shade, work as environmental engines (air conditioning, vents, solar engines), and mastermind light shows. But wait, there'll be more: this vision of Tomorrowland is nowhere near finished, and won't be for several years.

Top tip: Go in the morning; there are fewer visitors and the temperature is more comfortable. It's a short taxi ride from the city centre; main attractions are a wee hike from Bayfront metro.

ETHNIC QUARTERS

Singapore was founded on the principle of cultural diversity. Sir Stamford Raffles decreed that the Chinese, Malay, Indian and Muslim populations should live there, and there, and there, and the English would have the prime real estate.

The remnants of these "kampongs", a much nicer word than ghettoes, are the enclaves known as Little India, the Arab Quarter and - curiously for a nation where 77 per cent of the population is Chinese - a few square blocks of Chinatown.

Let's start there, though it's not exactly the area Raffles decreed should be the Chinese district but a relatively recent re-creation, tarted up for tourists.

Gorgeously redecorated pre-war shop-houses are home to merchants bartering silk, handicrafts, gold and jade jewellery. Tea, medicinal herbs, traditional clothes.

Enjoy, but appreciate what you are buying into. Its food alley, the lantern-draped boulevard of Smith St, is often lauded as authentic cuisine - more by tourists than locals.

On its fringe is Ann Siang Hill, where immigrants have forged a K Rd or Melbourne laneway feel with wine and coffee cafes, vintage clothing and music shops ... it's buzzy, but not why you flew from Auckland to Singapore.

Little India remains colourful, attractive and - in a good way - gloriously grimy and slightly down-at-heel. Ground-level shops and their first-floor houses are garishly painted: indulge your senses as stores hawk saris and bangles, spices and incense waft from doorways and Bollywood soundtracks blare into every orifice.

Eat here: Food is superlative, drawing on southern and northern Indian cuisines, and cheap (even by Singapore prices). Vegetarians will leave happy. Possibly even vegans.

Sleep here: Little India and neighbouring Bugis are the island's backpacker districts.

These days, the Arab Quarter seems to be more politically correctly known as the "Middle Eastern Quarter". Smaller but more vivid than the other locales, you'll find fabrics, carpets, leather, perfume, jewellery and baskets - and more assertive shopkeepers.

Its axis, Arab St, is a parade of bright textiles and cheap Med-ish restaurants, overlooked by the gold-domed mosque; nearby, seek out the narrow alley of Haji Lane, which has spawned a counter-culture of young fashion designers, artists of varying mediums and talents, and hip bars.

Top tip: The three quarters are close to the central hotel district; a short taxi or metro ride (the stations are informatively named Chinatown, Little India and Bugis Junction). Singapore likes a leisurely start to the day, so you'll get most out of an afternoon or evening visit. Remember you'll be outside. A long way from the aircon.

HAWKER CENTRES

Take the word of a 15-year restaurant critic who has committed some of the most heinous crimes known to the human gut, from San Sebastian to Invercargill: eat, or treat, yourself to at least one meal at a hawker centre.

Twenty years back Singapore was famous for its street food. The stallholders were infamous for, shall we say, less than hygienic food preparation.

In the 1990s the Government corralled the vendors into new or refurbished centres with running water, clean toilets and stringent hygiene regulations. Its subsidiaries own 107 centres and keep an extremely close eye on operators - not bad when each centre can house myriad stalls.

Head to the Maxwell Rd Centre - even the New York Times has described Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice, only one of about 200 stalls, as a "chicken rice shrine". You may have to queue and you'll certainly have to pay an outrageous $3 for a platter of meltingly smooth, chili sauce-endowed delight.

Not far away, Tiong Bahru has a mouthwatering fresh-food market at ground level and slobber-inducing food centre on the mezzanine.

Hawker centres pulse from late breakfast to later supper. You eat at communal tables but there's a curious local etiquette known as "chope". Approach a table and check the chairs. Locals "bags" them by placing something like a tissue or a bus ticket on the seat while they go to the stalls to order their food. If someone's marked their territory, move on.

How do you order? Look at the pictures and point. Better still, check out the plate of the guy in front and do that universal, "I'll have what he's having" manoeuvre.

Top tip: There are too many too-good centres and dishes to list here: ask your hotel staff for their recommendations and directions.

NIGHT SAFARI

I've cuddled lion cubs, patted cheetah, stroked and fed dingoes. But this was just a slither too far.

The Night Safari excursion begins with a slightly cheesy 60-minute introduction to nocturnal animals. Towards the end, keepers pretend that one of the stars has gone missing and don't say what it is.

Two race to my aisle. Open a cage beneath my feet, that I haven't noticed in the darkness ... and unwind a three-metre python that's been coiled there for 45 minutes while I've been watching a hyena and other furry friends. Kiwis don't do snakes. Not this one, anyway.

The Night Safari is designed to turn the conventional idea of a zoo on its head. While traditional nocturnal houses reverse the day-night cycle so animals are active when it's more convenient for humans to see them, this is an open-air zoo set in a humid tropical forest that is only open at night.

The 1040 animals from 120 species, almost 40 on the threatened list, can be seen from walking trails or a tram.

Lighting is around moonlight level, enough to see elephants, rhinoceros, tapirs and tiny shrews but dim enough not to disturb them. There are few cages - leopards are behind bars, for one - so animals are on the other side of barriers like cattle grids, moats designed to look like streams, and hot wires, disguised as "twigs", to keep animals back.

It works. The tram drives so close to some animals that you feel a lion might amble up to say hello; deer trot along the path within touching distance. The python was, too.

Top tip: The Night Safari is open every night from 7.30pm-midnight. It's about an hour's drive from downtown; Singapore Attractions Express runs regular buses.

ORCHARD RD

Visa? You probably won't need one to get through Customs but it'll help in negotiating your way around this part of town: 2.2km long, its 22 malls carry 5000 brands, mostly the glamorous ones like Prada, Giorgio Armani, Louis Vuitton, Dior, Dolce & Gabbana, Cartier, Patek Philippe, Burberry.

And believe it or not, with the way both currencies are tracking at the moment, it's also a place where almost everyone is getting a bargain.

Your faithful correspondent doesn't pretend to know about such things, so will quote a French authority on shopping.

Presence Mystery Shopping visited 30 shopping avenues around the globe, checked out more than 400 stores and - ranking atmosphere, appearance, greetings and experiences with passers-by - voted Orchard Rd as the world's best boulevard. Ahead of London's Bond St, New York's Fifth Ave, Paris' Ave Montaigne.

Big-box malls include Orchard Central, which groups shops by commodity (if that's the right word) and houses the world's tallest indoor climbing wall (no, don't see the connection either) and a roof garden with food court.

Nearby 313@somerset is more mid-range. Inside ION Orchard are six flagship stores for those flash names at the top of this section; Ngee Ann City is the largest mall, built around a six-story Japanese department store, Takashimaya.

Orchard St is beautifully landscaped, wide foot paths and greenery, but you'll likely prefer the underground walkways linking the malls. Who wants to step outside aircon into the real world?

Top tip: Orchard, Somerset and Dhoby Ghaut metro stations service the street. Orchard and Somerset are beneath the ION Orchard and 313@somerset malls.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies twice daily from Auckland to Singapore.

Further information: See yoursingapore.com.

Ewan McDonald travelled courtesy of Insight Vacations and Singapore Airlines, which flies to Singapore 19 times a week from Auckland and Christchurch, with assistance from the Singapore Tourist Board.

- NZ Herald

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