A Weekender's Guide to Singapore
From spectacular gardens to futuristic skyscrapers, rollicking food stalls and five-star hotels — here's how to make the most of a short stay in Singapore.
March 02, 2019
This may be a Weekender's Guide, but forget any notions Singapore is only worth it for a couple of nights. Sure, there's still a lack of chewing gum and the place remains wondrously devoid of litter, but the city-state that was once so restrictive even Cliff Richard and his shoulder-length 1970s-hair were deemed too wild for entry visas has long been anything but boring.
From some of the most spectacular gardens on the planet to futuristic skyscrapers; from rollicking food stalls to five-star hotels; from historic churches to temples, mosques and any other place of worship you can think of; Singapore is like an intricately-patterned Rubix Cube that never has a square out of place.
WHERE TO STAY
There are just two M Social hotels in the world with one in Auckland and the other — the original — in Singapore. Situated just metres from the Singapore River, this first of potentially many M Socials is 293 rooms of urban hipness that while being in a quieter part of the city, is still within walking distance of the bars and restaurants of Clarke Quay. With the acclaimed Phillipe Starck having overseen all the interiors, the Singapore M Social proudly proclaims to welcome "adventurers, explorers and those who live for new experiences".
Perhaps more specifically, the M Social is targeting young professionals who embrace the idea of shared work spaces. Sure, you can tap out the finishing touches of your conference presentation up in your room, but why not do it downstairs instead amidst the "visual dramas" of the restaurant area and bust out a bit of networking while you're at it?
That said, if you're like me and can't quite get past the novelty of a loft-style hotel room, you may find yourself wanting to savour that space as well. The M Social has five room configurations, all of which are a stylish, successful exercise in how to do a lot with a limited number of square-metres. Our loft may not have been palatial in size, but like the most enviable tiny houses, seeing the genius of how everything fits together was extremely cool.
As in, under the stairway to your mezzanine floor bedroom is a sink that doubles as being both for a bathroom as well as a kitchen. There's also a mirror and fridge as well as an open wardrobe and hidden drawers for storage. Even some power-sockets are discreetly within an under-stair drawer.
Then there's the dining room table that's actually two tables with a smaller one that slides out. Add to that a toilet and shower across from the stairs and then behind the living room couch, a floor-to-ceiling window that extends to both levels of the loft. The views outside are the combination of oversized tropical foliage and skyscrapers that define Singapore, while the entire wall of the upper floor next to the bed is mirrored. Some may find that somewhat randy, while others will notice how it makes the bedroom feel bigger (and a third category may appreciate both).
Whether hunkering down in your room or making contacts on the ground floor, it won't be long until you bump into Aura the robot. Aura zips her way throughout the property, has senses to stop her bumping into walls or furniture (or people) and can even operate the lift on her own if you're requesting something like extra water or towels for your room. Minus the flying, it's like the Jetsons come to life.
Aura's less cute, less mobile cousin is Ausca who parks himself next to the breakfast buffet at the Beast & Butterfiles restaurant. Ausca is an egg-focused robot and with a few instructions will prepare them exactly as requested.
Come lunch or dinner time, Beast & Butterflies do credible Asian fusion in a setting that's self-described as being home to "visual dramas" in the form of lava lamps, chandeliers, retro furniture and even a wall display of several dozens tablets (of the electronic kind). Visual dramas indeed. Dinner was tasty and fun, but it was the robots that really topped it off.
Away from all the technology, the M Social has a proper length rooftop pool for burning off all the holiday calories. While mostly enveloped by skyscrapers, the pool still overlooks the river and like the hotel overall, the setting embodies the lush but highly urbanised paradox that is so wonderfully Singapore.
EAT AND DRINK
Singapore is inarguably a foodie's paradise, but don't be surprised if finding those classic budget "hawker stall" meals you've heard about might require a quick bit of Googling. As in, if you're staying in a big hotel and are frequenting the more upmarket touristy areas, you may not necessarily stumble upon the best cheap eats. If you do though, you'll be able to nail a sensational dish for just a few dollars.
Some of the most famous, most loved-by-the-locals hawker centres are places like Chomp Chomp Food Centre in the centre of the island (20 Kensington Park Road — especially recommended for its satay), Maxwell Road Hawker Centre in Chinatown (1 Kadayanallur Street — the Tian Tian Hainanese chicken rice is worthy of those lengthy queues) and the Old Airport Road Food Centre (51 Old Airport Road — whether the spring rolls or the curry puffs, the stalls here are off the chart delicious).
If views and a more relaxed ambience are more important to you than cost, you can get an overpriced, essentially nameless approximation of hawker stall food on the river just past Clarke Quay. Here you can choose your international cuisine from dozens of establishments and eat open-air with gentrified Chinese shop-houses, modern skyscrapers and the gigantic wickets that are Marina Bay Sands the backdrop.
Beyond the hawker stalls and the restaurants by the river, one night we caught up with Kiwi expat friends in their local neighbourhood of Katong. Once a traditional Singaporean enclave, then engulfed by development, modern day Katong — in a hospitality sense — is of late something of a trendy throwback to the days pre the country's rapid-expansion. As such there are places like where we dined, Sinpopo Brand, that aim to be a nostalgic reminder of cafes and shop-houses of decades gone by. Specialising in Peranakan cuisine, the dishes (nasi lemak, pork chops in curry sauce, durian pengat with coconut ice cream etc.) and the décor could place you just as easily in Melaka or Kuala Lumpur as much as they do in Singapore.
Drink-wise, we did what so many Kiwis seemingly forget or are blissfully unaware is an option: we waltzed into a fancy five-star hotel and ordered at the bar. Not just any bar and not just any hotel, but the rooftop bar of the Fullerton Bay Hotel. As luxurious as any hotel in the city, the property is over the water and the roof has a mostly see-through pool that's surrounded by tropical plants and sun lounges. Mojitos were ordered, peanuts consumed and with the best view of Marina Bay Sands on the island, it's not inaccurate to conclude we felt very pleased with ourselves.
SEE AND DO
Be suspicious of anyone who tells you they were bored in Singapore. Fine, they were bored while their other half drained the credit card in the mega malls of Orchard Road, but if the great outdoors is more their thing, did they try the Bukit Timah Reserve? This sensational patch of jungle (163-hectares, 12-km from the city centre) could briefly have you thinking you'd landed in Sumatra or Borneo and is one of the great urban green lungs of the world.
Speaking of green lungs, the reputation Singapore Zoo has long had for being as good as any zoo anywhere on the planet is still justified. At 28-hectares, Singapore Zoo is big already by international standards, but when you also include the 35-hectares of acclaimed Night Safari next door as well as the new 12-hectare River Safari, you're looking at 75-hectares of greenery and wildlife.
The zoo alone has over 300 species of animals that roam in ingeniously created enclosures with barely a wall or fence in sight. We ticked off both the zoo and the River Safari, reluctantly leaving the Night Safari for another time given we had a date with a laser light show coming from the top of Marina Bay Sands.
It's here that Singapore has showed Dubai that being the tallest doesn't necessarily make you the most interesting. The trio of hotel towers that comprise Marina Bay Sands may only be 207-metres in height (still tall but less than a quarter the height of Dubai's Burj Khalifa), but since their completion in 2010 they have become a true visual icon of Singapore. Sure, having the world's longest infinity pool as your rooftop probably doesn't hurt, but it's the bigger-than-you-expect curvature of the towers as well as their incorporation of gardens that makes them so compelling up close.
Gardens and greenery are a recurring theme because yes, you could spend your Singapore days exploring the theme parks of Sentosa Island and yes, there will always be another gargantuan mall to discover (or in the case of a place like Haji Lane, another charming shopping district), but it's Singapore's environment that's arguably its number one drawcard. Right next to Marina Bay Sands are the award-winning Gardens By The Bay and if there's only one place you visit in Singapore, make it here.
On reclaimed land and occupying a whopping 101-hectares, there's everything from gigantic indoor waterfalls to the biggest glass greenhouse in the world to the jaw-dropping beauty of the Supertree Grove. The 18 supertrees are man-made tree-like structures that are anywhere from 25-50-metres high. Covered in real plants, connected by suspended walkways in the sky and strikingly lit at night, this is modern Singapore at its very best.
Indeed, modern Singapore is never far from view, but from WW2 sites like the Changi Prison Museum (undergoing redevelopment but reopening in 2020), to historic office buildings, shop-houses and hotels (namely Raffles, the Fullerton and Fort Canning), to mosques, temples and churches that date back a couple of centuries, the romantic, old-world, steamy Singapore that captured so many colonial imaginations is still not hard to find.
One way to find it might surprise you: on two wheels. I've been visiting Singapore from as far back as the mid-80s and in a first-world nation with equatorial heat and a wondrously efficient public transport system, it never occurred to me ride anywhere. That all changed when I saw bikes for hire outside our hotel and right next to the Singapore River. Downloading the app and unlocking the bike, the ride all along the flat from Robertson Quay to the centre of town took less than half an hour and was a revelation as far as getting from A to B in a city where you normally do that underground.
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