Singapore has a reputation for being strait-laced and worthy of little more than a stopover. But its futuristic skyscrapers, colonial history and street foods make it unmissable in its own right
Turns out greedy bankers may not be to blame for the global recession after all. Last year, Singapore’s feng shui experts warned that the anti-clockwise direction of the island's 165-metre observation wheel was unwittingly sending the city's vast wealth out to sea.
The owners hastily reinvented the wheel to make it turn clockwise, giving views of the ocean before the business district to keep prosperity safely on dry land. Those green shoots of recovery should sprout any day now.
Traditional Chinese values still hold sway in Singapore, as do stern laws banning innocuous activities like gum-chewing, public dancing and forgetting to flush. But the metropolitan vista out of the window of a Singapore Airlines Airbus A380 as it touches down at Changi Airport proves this 21st-century state loves modernity as much as mythology, with its futuristic steel and glass skyscrapers, gleaming shopping malls and soaring apartment blocks.
The super-modern skyline sprouting up around Marina Bay is best viewed on board a bum boat. With no natural resources, the island once relied on these wooden vessels to shuttle goods to shore, and the river was so crowded they would bump into each other, hence the name. Today, with the 'p' dropped, they provide a cheap and traditional introduction to the city. The river also offers relief from the humid streets.
Singaporeans insist their city has eight seasons: hot and hotter, wet and wetter, dry and dryer, windy and windier. The weather often turns from cloudless sunshine to chucking it down in minutes. If there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow it is bound to be found in Singapore.
You may need a gold ingot or two to book a room at the swankiest pad in town. The Raffles Hotel is named after Singapore's founder, Sir Stamford Raffles, who turned a humble fishing village into a jewel of the British Empire. Putting the extra into extravagant, this 19th-century palace is the perfect place to add some luxury to your long haul.
In his crisp white and gold uniform, doorman and local celebrity Swaran Singh flashes a welcoming grin at guests as they enter the ornate Victorian reception hall with period furniture, oriental carpets and chandeliers. Legend states that the last wild tiger in Singapore was shot dead while hiding from hunters beneath the billiard table.
Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward and Queen Elizabeth have all booked in, but the hotel's most famous resident is a cocktail, not a celebrity. The Singapore Sling, a tangy mix of gin, cherry brandy, Benedictine and soda water, was shaken up for the first time in the hotel's Long Bar in 1910. Tradition dictates that Slings should be sipped between mouthfuls of complimentary monkey nuts and the shells thrown on the floor, creating a satisfying crunch underfoot when the time comes to collect the next round. At £12 a glass, it could be worth keeping a round or two in reserve for your next Singapore Airlines flight, where the national tipple is free.
Seeing the sights
After whetting your whistle, head for the spice-scented streets of Little India, where noodle stalls jostle for space with street traders, fortune-tellers, snake-charmers and countless religious shrines and temples. There is also a place where curry lovers' prayers are answered. The Banana Leaf Apolo restaurant dishes up world-class curries on giant banana leaves rather than plates, which the chef claims enhances the sublime flavours in his chilli beef, peshwari kebabs and tandoori chicken.
The island's rainforest climate is ideal for the world's most beautiful flowers, on display virtually 24 hours a day at the Singapore Botanical Garden.The National Orchid Garden is home to ten thousand variations on Singapore’s national flower, including the Dendrobium Memoria named after Princess Diana. Another is named after Margaret Thatcher - not a praying mantis, but a luminous purple orchid called Dendrobium Concham.
Singapore's vast Night Zoo, also open late, is the world's largest man-made eco-system. It is all very Jurassic Park, but instead of velociraptors, visitors see lions, tigers, rhinos, giraffes, elephants and 900 other animals, from their seats on board a zebra-painted tram that winds through eight world zones including the Asian rainforest, African savanna and Burmese jungle.
Singapore's human nightlife has a reputation for being strait-laced, but a recent relaxing of licensing laws means the pubs, clubs and ever-popular karaoke bars along the waterfront promenade are packed out most nights. Away from the cheesy Celine wannabes, the coolest bars and clubs are often found in skyscrapers, so deciphering addresses can be a chore.
Two landmark attractions opening next year (2010) will be easier to find. Universal Studios is poised to unveil South East Asia's first movie theme park, with 14 rides based on blockbusters like Jurassic Park and Madagascar. And Singapore's first mega casino will open for business on Marina Bay, located inside three 55-storey silver towers connected by a sky terrace - making the shimmering structure look like a set of giant cricket stumps.
Tycoons and tourists alike will hope this Las Vegas-scale casino will bring them untold fortune. Just as long as the roulette wheels keep spinning in the right direction.