Singapore is home to one of the world’s greatest airport hubs, but don’t rush, treat yourself to an indulgent, recharge in the Lion City, writes Mike Yardley.
Sparkling clean, sultry, super-safe and supercharged Singapore never ceases to enthral me. It was particularly exhilarating to be back in the Lion City, after the pandemic’s long interruption to free-flow travel. It felt to liberating to reacquaint myself with the multi-sensory exuberance, verdant pockets of tropical tranquillity and unabashed innovation coursing through Singapore. Up at the crack of dawn on Marina Bay, I embraced the urge for an early morning walk. The curving embrace of the Singapore River was still and sensuous, as the rising sun gilded the water in playful bolts of liquid gold. Alongside a clutch of eager joggers, I set off on the charming riverside trail wrapped around Boat Quay, Clarke Quay and Robertson Quay.
This area bustles with colourful waterside eateries and bars, hitting top-gear after dark as one of Asia’s hottest night-spots roars into life. But in the early morning calm, it was a vision of serene tranquillity. Across on the other side of the river, the trail rubs shoulders with the carefully conserved Historic District, faithfully paying homage to the state’s British influence. Grand old dames include Old Parliament House, Victoria Theatre, City Hall and the former Supreme Court.
The leafy precinct, thickly clad in rain trees, continues to cradle the timbered charm and village green loveliness of the Singapore Cricket Club, where the groundsman was up early with the heavy roller, while an army of workers were busy dissembling the safety barriers after the just-held Singapore Grand Prix. I popped into the Asian Civilisations Museum, a stupendous pioneer in showcasing pan-Asian art.
I feasted my eyes on the Chinese collection of Dehua porcelain figures, Taoist and Buddhist statuary. The South Asian Galleries feature a dizzying range of pieces from across the ages including magnificent bronze and sandstone sculptures of Buddhist gods, from India. Don’t miss the Khoo Teck Puat Gallery, the permanent home for the cargo recovered from the Tang Shipwreck, a sunken 9th century trading ship bound for Persia, discovered 25 years ago in the Java Sea.
The recovered trove included over 60,000 well-preserved ancient ceramics, produced in China during the Tang dynasty. After some face-time with Singapore’s beloved water-spout mascot, the Merlion, overlooking the striking good looks of Marina Bay, I headed up to the top of the 57-storey Marina Bay Sands hotel, with its rooftop sky deck – which is longer than the Eiffel Tower is tall. Singapore loves its bling-bling retail therapy and The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, now bustles with nearly 200 stores. You’ll be just a short walk from the world’s first floating Apple store, which recently opened on Marina Bay.
Definitely venture across the road to the jaw-dropping botanical blockbuster of Gardens by the Bay. Boasting over a million plants from 19,000 species, this architectural frenzy of aerial walkways, supersized steel trees and mega-conservatories is quite the head-turner, no matter how many times you visit it. The giant domed Cloud Forest and flower conservatories engage all senses, tripping you across the planet’s botanical wonders, complete with a spectacular indoor waterfall.
Then there’s the Flower Dome and Floral Fantasy, a retina-burning spectacle of celebratory colour, as if you’ve entered a whimsical word of eternal spring. I booked my foray there through Pelago, who have teamed up with Singapore Airlines to offer amazing sightseeing deals in key destinations. From attractions and city tours to local hidden gems, rich with culture, pick and choose from all of Pelago’s hand-picked experiences. You can pay on Pelago with your KrisFlyer Miles or earn KrisFlyer Miles with every booking. https://www.pelago.co
Gardens by the Bay is still my runaway favourite Singapore attraction, which of course is also swooned over after dark, when the Supertrees Grove unleashes an electrifying choreographed light and sound show. It’s like an appetiser for Marina Bay’s free light and water theatrical extravaganza, Spectra. This frothy symphony of dancing fountain jets, colourful visual projections, lasers and mist effect, all led by an orchestral soundtrack, burst into life every night at 8pm and 9pm.
Where to stay? Edging the electrifying sweep of Singapore’s iconic Marina Bay, set back on a gentle rise, the Ritz-Carlton, Millennia Singapore is endearingly referred to as “The Big House.” Since lustily opening its doors to the world on the eve of the new millennium, it’s easy to see why this prestigious property has cultivated a rock-solid reputation as a destination hotel, where you soon feel right at home. Beloved by locals and visitors alike, after checking-in to the Ritz-Carlton Millennia Singapore, I can fully appreciate why many guests are quite content to confine themselves to the hotel.
I was tempted to follow suit because the sheer profusion of in-house enticements, culinary adventures, libation spots and languid indulgences are just so good. The Covid age quietly ushered in a slate of fresh innovations to the luxury hotel, that on one hand celebrates Singapore’s evolutionary story from colonial trading outpost to plucky city-state, while also revving up the homely ethos to “The Big House.”
The East Wing of the hotel is home to the new Library Reception, redefining the guest check-in experience. Inspired by a grand residential library, natural oak wood floors and ceilings project a sense of understated elegance. The space is well- stocked with literature on diverse subjects, encouraging guests to linger, kick-back and relax as long as they desire. Adjacent to the Library Reception is the Lounge, with three grand chandeliers and expansive walls adorned in blue herringbone fabric. This vast residential parlour is a prized spot for enjoying light bites, à la carte dining options, or a five-tier afternoon tea experience. Don’t mind if I do.
Next to the Lounge, another new showstopper, Republic, a food and beverage outlet that effortlessly transforms throughout the day. But come evening, it’s a must do, to imbibe on lustrous liquid history at Republic Bar. Showcasing an expansive cocktail menu, the mixology is steeped in historical anecdotes stemming from Singapore, the United Kingdom, the United States and Italy. The 1960s’ is a recurring theme at Republic, as it wasn’t just the decade that Singapore achieved independence, but cultural and social revolution refreshed the world.
Settle in at the rich, dark toned, natural wood bar and work your way through the imaginatively created menu, from the “Mythical Beast” that was once spotted on the island, to the British designer behind the “Mini Skirt” and how Ferruccio Lamborghini went from producing tractors to “Miura” – the first super car. Republic is exquisitely detailed with handcrafted red Venetian glass, embodying the opulence and residential style of 1960s’ home parties. Linger long! Only open 18 months, earlier this year, Republic catapulted itself into number 12 in Asia’s 50 Best Best Bars List for 2022.
Republic’s opening has lent a sense of symmetry and balance between the East and West wings of the hotel, with Colony restaurant, on the East wing, richly taking its design ques from honouring the colonial period. The evocative charm of Colony is characterised by an eclectic mix of vintage and bespoke furniture featuring tartan and houndstooth prints, while old maps, photographs and postcards adorn the walls and partitions, like nostalgic totems to the bygone era.
Seven different conservatory kitchens, helmed by ‘live’ culinary showmanship, detail a food narrative of the culinary journey and heritage that transformed Singapore, which gave its cuisine, a sense of identity. There’s the Ice Bar, the Grill & Rotisserie, the Steam Basket, the Wok, the Tandoor, the Fruit Stall and the Patisserie. Ask any local and you’ll soon discover that the Colony is a red-hot dining destination. You’ll have to book well in advance. Another headline experience is the Journey afternoon tea. Indulge in savoury local highlights, served in a five tier ceramic tiffin, also known as ‘tingkat’ in the Malay language, alongside a glass of Champagne or fruity Prosecco. The artful desserts from The Patisserie are beyond drool-worthy.
Another legacy of the Covid age? The Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore became the only hotel in the world to offer an augmented reality hotel art tour experience, allowing you to interact virtually with art pieces by renowned artists such as Frank Stella and Dale Chihuly. The novelty has been like cat-nip for millennials and tech-savvy guests.
The hotel is home to one of the largest contemporary art collections in Southeast Asia, including 350 “museum quality” pieces. Most of the 4,200 art pieces were specially commissioned for the hotel. The augmented reality art tour encompasses 14 key works including “Cornucopia” and “Moby Dick” by Frank Stella; “Sunset” by Dale Chihuly and “Double Screw” by John Rose. You’ll be constantly surprised by what is fluttering, flying and leaping around you, as you explore the works. Look out for the white beluga whale!
Renowned for heart-stealing views from its spacious guest rooms and suites, I felt totally blissed-out while enjoying a soak in my spacious bathtub, while drinking in the epic views from the hotel’s distinctive octagonal bathroom windows. The property features an exclusive Club Lounge on level 32, with an array of benefits. Push the boat out and upgrade your stay to include the Ritz-Carlton Club Experience.
This elevated private sanctuary serves up a supreme panorama of Marina Bay and the Kallang River precinct. Luxurious details include custom-tailored furniture and hand-woven carpets, complementing Indonesian teak wood flooring, Italian marble and shimmering crystal.
Nosh your way throughout the day with five culinary presentations, starting with a lavish buffet breakfast to mid-day snacks, afternoon tea, hors d’oeuvres & cocktails, plus desserts. I had felt duly obliged to do extra laps in the hotel’s knock-out pool, after far too much calorific goodness! https://www.ritzcarlton.com/en/hotels/singapore
Venturing out? When it comes to happy-bellies, Singapore is synonymous with hawker culture, which refers to the vast array of street food courts where delicious, local dishes are served. Two years ago, hawker culture was elevated to UNESCO’s “List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” What a mouthful. Don’t try saying that while you’re chowing down on that revered Singaporean speciality of chilli crab. Two of my favourite hawker haunts are the Maxwell Food Centre near Chinatown and the Newton Food Centre, which starred in Crazy Rich Asians.
In Little India, the Tekka Centre has become a hawker institution offering great grub from a variety of cuisines. There are always long snaking queues for the paper-thin thosai at the Tekka Centre. My top pick? An onion rava masala thosai: potato curry wrapped in a crispy shell of the fermented pancake, loaded with onions. Thosai is pronounced “dough-say,” originating from South India. I am also still dreaming about the mixed plate of shrimp fritters, fishballs and potatoes drenched in a spicy thick orange sauce, that I devoured at Temasek Indian Rojak.
In Singapore’s historic Muslim quarter of Kampong Glam, amid the hipster boutiques, make tracks to a seriously glam Art Deco-style Bar, Atlas. Inspired by the great art deco lobbies of European hotels and their beverage traditions, Atlas has curated a collection of over 1300 gins and 250 labels of Champagne. It’s a stand-out glamour pad for a nightcap or two.
It’s always fun staking out some in-the-know haunts frequented by the locals and a star specimen is the Coconut Club at Ann Siang Hill. It’s reputed to serve one of the best plates of nasi lemak in Singapore. Unctuous, fragrant, top-quality coconut milk is used to cook the rice and crispy chicken. Nearby, stroll down Club Street to Le Bon Funk where a carefully handpicked selection of organic wines awaits you, purposefully chosen to suit Singapore’s sultry climate.
Singapore Airlines operates services from Auckland and Christchurch with a current total of 21 flights a week to Singapore, including Auckland services to Singapore operated by alliance partner Air New Zealand. Singapore Airlines’ renowned in-flight dining service, KrisWorld entertainment system, in-flight Wi-Fi and meticulous service are all part of the package. Book now with Singapore Airlines.