The best holiday I’ve had in recent times was a five-day trip to Singapore, where I customised my itinerary as per my penchant for nature, offbeat travel and food. Somewhere between the primeval charms of Pulau Ubin island and the macabre depictions at Haw Par Villa, a unique theme park, I discovered the true nature of Singapore – happy, quirky and all-embracing.
Singapore Airlines is known to be among the best airlines in the world and I was excited to get an upgrade to their luxurious upper deck. My friends and I – we planned the vacation around the 50 year celebration of Singapore’s independence which meant that there would be a lot of special events to experience and free entry to a variety of places. The flight experience was even better than what we had expected, if that was possible – ample leg room, economy seats that felt like business class, smiling crew, an array of in-flight movies and music and delicious Singapore Sling and authentic Singaporean cuisine for dinner.
We checked into the stylish Studio M Hotel and were totally awed by their creative ‘loft rooms’. These rooms look tiny but they have a loft which gives you extra space. Seen from above, the walls with their forest foliage print look taller than average and the white furnishings give you a calm feeling.
The hotel is located right next to Singapore River and one can walk or bike along the riverside, along Clarke Quay and all the other piers until one reaches the famous Singapore Merlion with the water fountain spouting out of its leonine mouth. We did that while the rooms were getting ready and returned post lunch time for a much needed nap.
In the evening, we friends dressed up and decided to explore the night life of Singapore. We did a cocktail trail starting with the sophisticated multi-cuisine bar and restaurant Club 39 and moving on to 28 Hong Kong Street, Singapore’s best known speakeasy pub which features among the world’s best craft cocktail bars.
On our second day in the Lion City, we were ready for some serious exploration. I love exploring small cities on foot and Singapore with its beautiful green spaces and colourful buildings is designed for a walking tour. We walked along Fort Canning Park, a beautiful park complex leading up to Singapore Pinacotheque de Paris, a private art museum.
We proceeded to Singapore Botanic Gardens, a gargantuan garden complex with many little parks inside it like butterfly garden, ginger garden, orchid garden, beautiful waterfalls, a simulated rainforest and the symphony lake with its abundant lotuses. We were amazed by the scale of the botanical gardens and the care that had gone into its creation and maintenance.
For lunch, we decided to go to Little India. Contrary to its name, one can get local food as well in the humble little eateries at Little India. If you ever set up base in Singapore, this is where you should come for all grocery supplies for Indian cooking at home. Unfortunately, nasi lemak was sold out for the day; so I settled for nasi goreng, Indonesian-style fried rice. We even saw a movie poster announcing the screening of a Tamil film in one of the streets. The population of Tamilian Indians in Singapore is significant.
In the evening, we continued our cocktail trail at 1-Altitude, a stunning luxury bar and restaurant atop the tallest building in Singapore. Needless to say, the views were spectacular. We spotted the Marina Bay Sands Hotel in the distance, identifiable by the supine ship on top of its edifice. Later, we went to Marina Bay Sands Hotel and there, we sampled Thai fare crafted by celebrity chef David Thompson at Long Chim.
On our third day in Singapore, I wanted to go to Gardens by the Bay and feast my eyes on the ethereal man-made Supertree Grove. The grove is full of vertical gardens hat are 25 to 50 metres tall. We were also mesmerised by the beautiful sculptures, the vast variety of tropical plants and the lake in the middle of the gardens.
From there, we took a train and bus to reach Changi Village Terminal, the starting point for a ferry to the mysterious Pulau Ubin Island. Home to secret mangroves, wetlands, forests, campsites and hordes of beautiful pied hornbills, the island reminded me of the meerkat island that Pi discovers in the middle of the sea in Yann Martel’s booker prize winning novel ‘Life of Pi’.
In the evening, exhausted by all our walking, we sank down on our seats in the bus to be treated to the much talked-about Singapore Night Safari. Vague shapes in the dark passed by as we coursed along slowly through the park and the audio guide identified them as deer, lions and other wild animals. Getting off the bus and exploring the enclosures of the tiger, hyena and exotic birds was an even eerier experience.
I had earmarked day 4 as the art and museum day and we went around exploring the arty neighbourhoods of Bras Basah Bugis. We stumbled upon several magnicificent museums and temples including the Singapore Art Museum and the larger National Museum of Singapore, with several educative installations.
From there, we proceeded to the little known Haw Par Villa, a garden complex built by the Chinese brothers who took over the Tiger Balm empire from their father. Now a theme park dedicated to Chinese mythology, the park is most famous for its Ten Courts of Hell with their life-size depictions of the punishments for heinous sins in the afterlife. At Haw Par Villa, you can also see the Tiger Cars that the brothers used to drive.
In the evening, we decided to visit Singapore’s most famous amusement landmark – Sentosa Island. Given its commercial reputation, I wasn’t expecting much but Sentosa Island turned out to be a pleasant surprise. I was totally charmed by the ‘crane dance’ we watched in the night, featuring mammoth machinated cranes on the sea, lit up in dazzling colours, their love story accompanied by haunting melodies. I also enjoyed walking on Sentosa Beach and seeing the Sentosa Merlion decked up in a rainbow of colours.
On our last day in Singapore, we only had time to explore the city-country until lunch time. And we decided to dedicate our time to its most colourful and interesting neighbourhood – Chinatown. Here, I had the good fortune of experiencing the serenity of Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and walking among the festoons and colourful street food stalls. I also glimpsed the Mariamman Temple and shopped for souvenirs for my friends back home in the markets lining the streets of Chinatown.
Singapore is one of my favourite travel memories for three main reasons – the surprises, the company and the satisfaction of having made the best of my five days there.
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