Steeped in history yet firmly rooted in the 21st century, Singapore is a multi-faceted city where East meets West and old contrasts with new
Singapore is the quintessential melting pot; a fascinating blend of cultures and cuisines. It's a city where the pace of progress is relentless but, on the whole, not at the expense of its rich heritage.
Like so many tourists travelling East, I first visited the city-state four years ago en route to Australia. With only two days there, I saw enough to make me want to return. I was fascinated by the way that reminders of the city’s illustrious colonial past appear to sit so comfortably alongside iconic new developments.
My initial impression of Singapore as a city of contrasts was reinforced when I returned there recently. In my absence, the monorail system that now connects the city with the island of Sentosa had been completed; a whole raft of new developments were underway in the Marina Bay area; and the Singapore Flyer – like the London Eye, only bigger and better – was a new addition to the city skyline. The Flyer towers 165 metres above the city and gives unobstructed views in every direction. By day, you can see as far as Malaysia, but the glittering city skyline by night is a sight to behold.
Yet you only have to take a boat ride along the Singapore River to see that old Singapore is still very much alive. Authentic bumboats, which were once used to ferry cargo to and from the historic trading port, leave from various points throughout the day. You’ll pass beneath the towering skyscrapers of the central business district, but you’ll also see the charmingly restored 19th-century warehouses along the quaysides and get a glimpse of the civic district’s colonial-style splendour.
For a bird’s eye view of the city, take a taxi up to Mount Faber and then catch the cable car out to the island of Sentosa. Although redevelopment work was underway when we visited, and won’t be complete until 2010, there is still plenty to see and do on Sentosa itself. Billed as an ‘island resort’, I'd say it’s more like a theme park, but it boasts some of the best beaches in Singapore. We spent a lazy afternoon sipping cocktails on Siloso beach, where a young and stylish crowd gathers, particularly at weekends. The new monorail system transports visitors to Sentosa back to the city and, like so many of Singapore’s top attractions, comes complete with its own huge shopping mall. Shopping is a favourite pastime of Singaporeans. Huge malls are literally everywhere and many elegant boutiques can be found on Orchard Road, whilst the street markets of Chinatown and Little India are the place to buy mementoes of your trip and pick up a few bargains.
Even the hotels that we stayed at during our recent visit seemed to typify the way that Singapore marries old with new. We spent a few nights at the ultra-sleek and modern Mandarin Oriental at 5 Raffles Avenue before moving on to Raffles, the last word in old-world glamour and elegance, at 1 Beach Road. I would heartily recommend both, but for different reasons. The Mandarin Oriental is well placed for the bars and restaurants of the marina, plus our room had fantastic views of the Singapore Flyer and out to sea. It also has a chic bar where you can relax and watch the sun go down after a day of sightseeing. As for Raffles – what’s not to love about staying in a huge, glamorous suite overlooking lush courtyards, with 24-hour butler service? The buffet breakfast in the famous Tiffin Room was an experience in itself and, though it's a little clichéd, a Singapore Sling in the famous Long Bar is a must all the same. Raffles’ rooftop pool area is a relaxing sanctuary out of view of the bustling streets below, and the hotel’s museum gives a fascinating insight into its history, as well as that of the city itself.
Although both hotels have a great choice of restaurants, we ate most of our meals at the city’s hawker centres and quayside restaurants. Hawker centres house a variety of food stalls where you can sample the city’s multi-ethnic cuisine, which includes Chinese, Malay, Indian and Peranakan (a hybrid of Chinese and Malay cuisine) dishes. My favourite is Makansutra Gluttons Bay outside the Esplanade Mall on Raffles Avenue, which brings together 12 of the best hawker stalls in Singapore in a lively waterfront setting. You can eat amazingly well for a fraction of what you’d pay in a restaurant. Satay, chilli crab and laksa (rice noodles in curried coconut milk) were particular favourites of mine, but, as with pretty much everything else in Singapore, the variety is endless.