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Travel

Notes from a small island

Sophie Marie Atkinson
Singapore’s strait-laced reputation belies the startling array of attractions it offers to even the most world-weary of travellers

Despite its minuscule size (710 sq km), Singapore is the little island that truly punches above its weight. It is the world’s fourth leading financial centre and is home to more than 7,000 multinational corporations from the US, Japan, and Europe. The World Bank has ‒ for seven consecutive years ‒ named it the easiest place in the world to do business.

Some business visitors could struggle to fill any spare time they might have, unable to see past the nationstate’s sterile reputation of strait-laced conformity. But those with even a free day or two can get under the skin of this buzzing metropolis by acquiring a taste for what fuels the population.

First stop food

With an astounding 20,000 eateries to cater for a nation of around 5.3 million, it’s fair to say that food is an important part of Singaporean life. While breakfast and lunch tend to be rushed in favour of the working day (if the opportunity arises, try Wild Honey for a breakfast meeting or upmarket Les Amis for a lunch to impress clients), evening meals are an entirely different matter.

The best places to experience local dishes are the hawker markets ‒ Newton Circus is the most famous, but for a less touristy experience head to Lau Pa Sat or Maxwell Road. Must-try dishes include chicken rice, beef rendang, roti prata, satay and chilli crab. Lately, Singapore has morphed from a street-food paradise into the food capital of Asia. The tiny island is now positively heaving with gourmet venues run by leading chefs, from L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (the Frenchman who wields an incredible 28 accumulated Michelin stars) to Japanese-born Tetsuya Wakuda’s restaurant Waku Ghin (the chef’s first outside Australia) and Jason Atherton’s Pollen (sister of London’s Pollen Street Social), which is housed in a vast, cooled conservatory called the Flower Dome.

Even prior to the gastronomic boom, good food has never been hard to come by in Singapore, but decent bars have long been a different story. Finally, the place appears to be emerging from behind the shadow of the sickly sweet Singapore Sling (created by bartender Ngiam Tong Boon in the Long Bar of the famous Raffles Hotel).

For sundowners with a view, head to 1-Altitude, the world’s highest al fresco bar, conveniently located in the heart of the financial district; New Asia Bar, where, on a clear day you can see Indonesia and Malaysia; or Maison Ikkoku, which offers up a striking view of the grand Sultan Mosque. Lantern Bar is about as sophisticated as they come. Designed by the highly sought-after Andre Fu and located on the rooftop of The Fullerton Bay Hotel, it too boasts sweeping views of the city’s skyline and landmarks. Or simply make like a local and grab a beer, some chicken wings and hang out at No. 5 Emerald Hill.

A rich cultural mix

Thanks to a colourful history of migration, Singapore is a melting pot of Chinese, Malay and Indian cultures, and a trip to the city is not complete until you’ve visited at least one of these ethnic enclaves.

Wander down Serangoon Road and peruse the vibrant clothes and artwork in Little India before stopping off at Tekka Market ‒ Singapore’s liveliest wet market ‒ to take in the vibrant array of fresh Asian produce and witness the locals going about their dailyfood shopping rituals. Sri Veeramakaliamman ‒ the temple home to Little India’s most devoted laity ‒ is well worth a visit, too.

For a cultural hit, stop off at the Chinatown Heritage Centre, which traces the days of Singapore’s early Chinese migrants and their struggles to make ends meet. Then stroll along New Bridge Road and browse the streetside stalls hawking barbecued meats, traditional Chinese sausages and tacky souvenirs.

The Peranakan Museum showcases a mixed-heritage culture unique to a handful of locations in Southeast Asia, of which Singapore is one. Peranakans are descendants of late marriages between 17th century Chinese traders and local Malays, with unique cultural costume and cuisine. Housed in a former school built in 1912, the boutique museum showcases vivid garments, porcelain, furniture and artefacts and tells the story of how this rarefied world evolved.

Singapore is, of course, a mecca for those who like to flex their Amex. The obvious choice is to hit the overcrowded and touristy Orchard Road; packed with designer names, it’s the city’s shopping nexus. But those in the know go against the grain and head straight to Arab Street in the heart of Singapore’s Muslim community, where shoppers can snap up luxurious fabrics at bargain prices. Others prefer to poke around the many antiques enclaves that scatter the island on Dempsey Hill, in Tanglin Shopping Centre or around Pagoda Street in Chinatown. Or for some late-night bargain-hunting, bump elbows with the locals and haggle over everything from (fake) designer watches to food at the bustling Bugis Street Night Market, once a notorious haunt for the island’s soldiers.

Reach for the five-star experience

Visitors can also opt to experience a bit of history via some of its striking architecture, from the vernacular Malay houses and black-and-white bungalows of the colonial period, to world-class postmodern experiments such as the iconic Esplanade theatre and the eyesore in the sky that is Marina Bay Sands (you really can’t miss it), which, despite its foibles, does lay claim to a hotel with a breathtaking infinity pool located 57 dizzying floors above ground.

On which note, there’s no shortage of upmarket, often OTT, hotels in Singapore. The aforementioned Marina Bay Sands is one of the newest and swankiest, and a W opened on Sentosa (a revamped island resort which is 15 minutes by taxi from the city centre) in September 2013. Or take your pick from the five star Fullerton, Shangri-La, Mandarin Oriental, Grand Hyatt or Ritz Carlton, most of which house lavish spas should you feel the need to wind down.

The Parkroyal (pictured) lays claim to 15,000 sq m of solar-powered, zero-energy sky gardens, and the kooky Wanderlust Hotel in Little India, with its ‘Industrial Glam’-themed lobby, boasts décor that ranges from monsters to typewriters and spaceships. The New Majestic Hotel offers such amenities as a glass-enclosed bathtub, a concept room curiously dubbed the Pussy Parlour and a minimalistic room with curvy surfaces, aptly named Fluid.

Seen all there is to see? Eaten all there is to eat? Feeling flush? Charter a yacht to the nearby island of Lazarus or take a short taxi ride to Sentosa, which boasts Singapore’s only beaches. Or, for the last word in luxury, the 300-acre island of Pangkor Laut, a fraction of which has been developed into a resort, is only hours away from Singapore. It offers guests private bungalows positioned on stilts in the ocean, the chance to take private yoga classes and a choice of seven restaurants. If that doesn’t wind you down after a chaotic couple of days in one of Asia’s finest cities, nothing will.

Image credit: Parkroyal Hotels

good food has never been hard to come by in Singapore, but decent bars have long been a different story

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