As Singapore celebrates its bicentenary, it is the perfect time to visit, says James Litston
Expect a celebratory air this year as the Lion City holds it bicentennial celebrations. Although its history dates back centuries before that, it was the arrival of the British East India Company's Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819 that saw the founding of the modern city. It's a milestone being observed with festivals, fireworks and events.
Separated from Malaysia by the narrow Johor Strait, this island nation's cultural diversity and cosmopolitan buzz add up to a thrilling city break or stopover en route to somewhere further flung. Air New Zealand and Singapore Airlines fly direct from Auckland to Singapore.
Raffles' legacy lives on in the grand hotel that bears his name. Raffles — a Victorian masterpiece and a Singapore icon — is currently undergoing refurbishment and will reopen later this year with updated suites, decor and dining (rafflessingapore.com). In the meantime, the exclusive Fullerton Bay Hotel is so close to the water that it stands on stilts above it.
Its location provides phenomenal views towards towering Marina Bay Sands and puts it within a stone's throw of the after-dark buzz of Marina Bay itself. Doubles from $760, including breakfast.
One of Singapore's newest hotels (it opened in December), the Six Senses Maxwell brings flamboyant style to a heritage setting in Chinatown. Behind its restored facade lie hardwood floors, silk rugs and gorgeous fabrics; there's also a rooftop pool with city views and a sundeck (a spa will be added this year). Doubles from $370, excluding breakfast.
The spot where Raffles landed on the north bank of the Singapore River is marked with a marble statue. Admire the skyline, then head inland past the National Gallery and the green space of Padang.
Continue past St Andrew's Cathedral and Raffles City shopping centre and gaze up at Raffles Hotel.
Take a break from the city heat in the leafy Gardens by the Bay (gardensbythebay.com.sg), which occupies 101ha on the waterfront. Admire the "Supertree" sculptures and look out for wild otters, then head into the climate-controlled domes to be immersed in tropical plant life. Stay till dusk to catch the Garden Rhapsody sound and light show. Admission $31pp.
In a city of skyscrapers, there's no shortage of epic viewpoints — but they don't come more iconic than from the top of Marina Bay Sands (marinabaysands.com). The rooftop infinity pool is restricted to guests, but the Sands SkyPark Observation Deck has the same views (admission $25pp). Alternatively, make a reservation for fee-free access to the hotel's SkyBar, where cocktails cost $20 and up.
Glitzy malls make Orchard Rd the centre of Singapore's shopping scene. Visit complexes such as ION Orchard and Paragon for designer brands, or try the likes of Lucky Plaza for more affordable finds. This year's hottest new opening is Design Orchard (designorchard.sg), which showcases fashion and home accessories from more than 60 Singaporean designers. For even more local flavour, browse Haji Lane's boutiques or bargain-hunt in Little India.
Raffles Long Bar, where the Singapore Sling cocktail was invented, has now re-opened after renovation. But you can also seek out something similarly Singaporean at Native (tribenative.com), whose cocktails feature regional ingredients. Mango, turmeric, jasmine blossom and cinnamon are among the more mainstream, but the beverage to order is Antz — a tropical blend of coconut yogurt, rum, tapioca and edible ants, which are sprinkled on top as a creepy-crawly garnish ($25).
Although many cities offer everything from Michelin-starred restaurants to street food, Singapore goes one better — it has the world's first Michelin-starred street food stalls. Hill St Tai Hwa Pork Noodle draws crowds for its signature bak chor mee (noodles with minced pork), while Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle is famous for, you guessed it, chicken rice.
You'll have to wait in a queue before you can try these extraordinarily flavourful dishes, but with prices from around $5, this is world-class cuisine at exceptional value.
Off the map
Enhance your urban escape with a beach break on Sentosa, one of Singapore's cluster of smaller islands. Easily accessible from Downtown by taxi, tram or cable car, it offers a laid-back alternative to the main island's urban sizzle. With three man-made beaches and family attractions such as theme parks and an aquarium, there's lots of distraction along with quiet corners befitting its name (which means "peace and tranquillity"in Malay).
● To find out more about Singapore's Bicentenary.