Culture / Travel

Around the World in 12 Days — Singapore, Asia’s Hottest City, is Full of Surprises

The Cloud Forest, Street Food Finds, Hotel Wonderlands and the Singapore Sling

BY // 11.08.19
photography Jane Howze

Editor’s note: Jane Howze is flying around the world in 12 days. Here is her first report from Singapore.

Many people spend years planning bucket list trips that take them away for weeks, even months at a time. Not I. My husband and I, perhaps because we are still working, don’t have that luxury, not to mention that I get a little homesick after 10 days away. In 2013, we circumvented the world in 17 days with stops in Dubai; the Maldives; Phuket, Thailand; and Sydney, Australia. The minute we returned we started plotting our next trip.

Our goal was to revisit the Maldives. We decided to sandwich this ultimate relax-and-renew spot between visits to Singapore and Dubai, two of the planet’s glitziest cities. It also allowed us to fly two of the world’s best airlines —Singapore and Emirates.

Singapore is halfway around the world, yet it is easier to get to from Houston than one would think — just a quick change of planes in San Francisco. We left Houston early evening, flew to San Francisco and boarded a 10:30 pm United flight. We ate dinner, slept eight hours, had breakfast and landed refreshed 16 hours after takeoff. It was easier on the body than shorter flights to Europe, where you are no sooner asleep than it is time to land.

We had only 48 hours in Singapore, and we were determined to not let jet lag slow us down. It didn’t.

Singapore’s appeal was spotlighted in last year’s blockbuster, Crazy Rich Asians, that showed off this bustling, culturally diverse city with immense futuristic skyscrapers, well-preserved temples, spotless subway system, gorgeous gardens, world-renowned food hawker stands and Michelin starred restaurants. Even one hawker stand has a Michelin star. Being located about 85 miles north of the equator means that the temperature is much the same (hot and humid — think September in Houston) all year ‘round.

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Singapore, a roughly circular island is 40 miles wide at its widest but seems much larger, mainly due to meticulous planning, swamp and tidelands reclamation, immense national pride and an aggressive marketing campaign. One city slogan is “Limited Space: Unlimited Opportunities,” and that’s true. Singapore is cleaner than Disneyland. One will not find discarded paper or chewing gum, unwelcome odors, peeling paint, graffiti, or dirt that is not part of the landscape. It is quite remarkable.

There is no shortage of hotels of all types and price ranges. We passed on the Las Vegas like triple towered Marina Bay Hotel with its often photographed 58th floor rooftop swimming pool spanning the three towers, and the newly refurbished Raffles hotel, home of the Singapore Sling, in favor of the newer five star Fullerton Bay Hotel, a 100-room beautiful glass box facing the trendy Marina Bay, a showpiece of Singapore’s reclamation, and favored by business travelers not wishing to stay in the financial district. Our well-appointed room faced the Marina Bay hotel, and our small balcony gave us front-row viewing for the Marina’s nightly sound and light show.

Gardens by the Bay, one of Singapore’s top tourist attractions features the Flower Dome, the world’s largest greenhouse (Photo by Jane Howze)
Gardens by the Bay, one of Singapore’s top tourist attractions features the Cloud Forest, with the world’s tallest indoor waterfall greenhouse (Photo by Jane Howze)

Making the most of our limited time, we walked to the Gardens by the Bay, a 250-acre nature park which is one of Singapore’s most popular tourist attractions and its premier urban outdoor recreation space. It would take an entire day to do this attraction justice, but in our limited time we visited the various gardens reflecting the cultural diversity of the city, the Children’s Garden which doubles as a waterpark and its two domed facilities.

The Cloud Forest replicates the cool, moist conditions found in tropical mountain regions and features the world’s tallest indoor waterfall, orchids, ferns, anthuriums and best of all, an escape from Singapore’s unrelenting heat. The Flower Dome, the world largest greenhouse at nearly two acres, features flowers from five continents. It is a spectacular and magical feast for the senses.

We walked back to our hotel through the Shoppes at Marina Bay, a relatively new Galleria-type mall connected to the 3,000-room Marina Bay Hotel. The facility is an architectural marvel housing 300 luxury brands from all over the world and has a canal with boats running through the middle, six celebrity chef restaurants, two theatres that each seat 2,000 people, a museum and casino. There are several jaw-dropping water features that are their own tourist attraction. We particularly enjoyed the Louis Vuitton store which one reaches by walking through an underwater hallway lined with art to reach the store which is on its own island.

Singapore Discoveries

 We were able to nab scarce tickets to Singapore’s Bicentennial Experience, a five‑act multimedia event that highlights Singapore’s 700-year history through elaborate sets, special effects and actors. Set in the city’s historic Fort Canning Park, the experience also includes a series of outdoor pavilions and installations.

The interactive indoor event was a bit amateurish for my taste, but the outdoor art exhibits and gardens were innovative and gave one an appreciation for the determination, spirit and diversity of the Singaporean people. The Bicentennial Experience has extended its run through the end of November, and tickets, if you can get them, are free.

Shoppes at Marina Bay (Photo by Jane Howze)
Singapore’s futuristic shopping mall features luxury brands from around the world (Photo by Jane Howze)

Sometimes the best travel experiences come with no expectation. A spur-of-the-moment breakfast with a Houston architect living in Singapore resulted in a recommendation to visit the Singapore City Gallery as a place to escape the heat and “see the interesting planning taking place.” While walking through Chinatown in late afternoon, we stumbled into this spectacular museum and art gallery that traced Singapore’s dramatic transformation over the past 50 years to become one of the most vibrant and livable cities in Asia and presented its plans for the next 25 years.

Much of the future planning deals with an aging population, something that we should be addressing in the states.  Twenty-five years ago only one in 74 Singaporeans was over 65. In five years, one out of four Singaporeans will be over 65. The government is addressing its aging population innovatively in a data-driven partnership between government and enterprise. (That is the Singapore model.)

By 2030 every Singaporean will be within 10 minutes of both a park and the subway system. We were only halfway through its 40 interactive and immersive exhibits as the gallery closed and shooed us out.

Singapore Food Choices

Singapore is known for its hawker stand centers that feature authentic local dishes served in an open-air community seating at cheap prices. One of the most popular hawker stand locations is Maxwell Food Centre which, from the crowds, seems to be favored by both locals and tourists alike. We feasted on Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice, Dim Sum and tapioca pudding as we sat at picnic tables with locals.

Chijmes, is a former convent converted into a trendy bar, restaurant and entertainment complex. The convent’s former classrooms and school halls have been converted to themed restaurants, casual cafrs, hip bars and clubs, as well as stores. It is clearly the place to mix and mingle for young affluent Singaporeans. You can sit in one of the beanbag chairs scattered throughout the courtyard under a canopy of sparkling lights as you wait for your table at one of the restaurants or poke your head in the chapel, now used for private events and featured in the wedding scene of Crazy Rich Asians.

No trip to Singapore is complete without the requisite visit to the home of the Singapore Sling which was invented at the Long Bar at the recently and magnificently restored Raffles Hotel. When we arrived, there was a line snaking out the bar’s door consisting almost entirely of Anglo-American tourists. That should have been the tip off. Maybe it is because I find the combination of weak gin and sweet fruit juices not to my taste and the $26 price tag a bit distasteful.

Not every experience is worth toasting, although we raise a toast — not of a Singapore Sling — to this magical city.

Next stop: Maldives.

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