Called the Lion City after a legend in which an eleventh-century prince spotted a big cat on this island in the South China Sea, Singapore has become an urban jungle that roars these days as Southeast Asia's global business center and thrives as a cultural melting pot. Oh and yes, Singapore is hot! The trading outpost that Sir Stamford Raffles founded back in 1819 is certainly not taking a cat nap: it matured during the twentieth century under its visionary leader Lee Kuan Yew from a British naval base-cum-trading post into a metropolitan city. And today it's consistently ranked among the world's best places to live and do business through the sheer hard work of its populace, Singapore's main natural resource. Singapore is home to the world's busiest port and the world's number one ranked airline, Singapore Airlines. It also boasts one of the highest GDP per capita in Asia.Straight-laced Singapore raised eyebrows when it announced its decision to legalize casino gambling in 2005, a surprising move for a country that famously outlaws public gum chewing. In just five years despite global economic woes, Singapore opened Marina Bay Sands in early 2011 with 500 tables and 1,600 slot machines. Designed by Israeli 'starchitect' Moshe Safdie, the twenty-hectare integrated development encompasses a 2,561-room hotel, 1,300,000-square-foot convention center, 800,000 square feet of luxury retail and restaurant space, an art museum, two theatres, two floating nightclubs Avalon and Pangaea, and an ice skating rink, all topped by the world's largest public cantilevered platform that confers panoramic views of this burgeoning metropolis and out to the South China Sea.
Despite the changes, traditional Singapore still thrives. In the shadows of such mega-developments and soaring skyscrapers, you will find ornate churches, busy mosques, photogenic colonial architecture and traditional Chinese shop houses (a vernacular architectural building type that is both native and unique to urban Southeast Asia). Singapore's history of migration has left a cultural and architectural legacy that makes wandering the streets an absolute delight. Where else in the world can you soak in Chinese, Malay, Arab and Indian cultures all in a day? Even their dialect "Singlish" is a baffling brew of English peppered with Malay and Hokkien, a Chinese dialect.
In fact, there really is no standard Singaporean. The tiny island nation has been a true melting pot since ancient times when it played a strategic role in the spice route between Asia and the Middle East. Singapore is home to Chinatown, Little India and Arab Street, each reflecting that culture's unique architectural, gastronomic and religious heritage. Perhaps their unifying characteristic is their passion for food. Discover the local cuisines that have made the Lion City one of the world's most food-obsessed nations.
Accommodation options abound despite Singapore's small size of only 247 square miles. From the back-packer friendly Hangout Hotel perched atop Mount Emily hill to the ultra-luxurious options, including Capella Singapore, an 1880s British military hall revitalized by Sir Norman Foster with elegant guestrooms overlooking white sand beaches, and The St. Regis Singapore located close to the swanky malls of Orchard Road, you will find lodgings in various price categories to match your needs. The Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore confers instant access to live arts performances at the Esplanade, the Singapore Flyer ferris wheel and F1 track are within a short walking distance. For a heritage hotel experience, consider Raffles Hotel Singapore for its grandeur and old-world charm. It's also a short walk away from the Asian Civilization Museum. Those with a moderate budget and a keen taste for design may consider the New Majestic Hotel. Located near the Chinatown area, this boutique hotel has only 30 rooms, each featuring unique designs by emerging Singapore artists.
Whatever brings you to this one time pirate's outpost, be it business, pleasure or simply a stopover between home and your onward destinations, from the time you step into the Changi Airport, the orderliness and cleanliness of this fine city, a word play commonly snickered by local to mock its strictly controlled lifestyle, will beguile you.
Though it's a business metropolis and shopping extravaganza, Singapore makes its finest first impressions in shades of green at the Singapore Botanic Garden. Catch a taxi here and alight at the visitor center. With its proximity to the shopping district of Orchard Road, the sprawling 183-acre Botanic Garden is a refuge for city dwellers seeking an organic escape. Come around sunrise as many residents do if you fancy a morning jog, or join one of the tai qi exercise classes conducted here every morning. After exploring these landscaped gardens and admiring the swans, colorful fish and turtles in the palm fringed ponds, drop by Casa Verde for breakfast, the casual outpost of Les Amis, one of Singapore's top dining establishments. If spicy mee Siam (thin rice noodles with spicy, sweet and sour light gravy) or curried laksa are not your idea of breakfast, authentically French croissants and flaky Danish pastries are available too.
Admission is free to all the Garden's verdant attractions like the lakes, ginger and bonsai gardens, except for the 1,000 species and 2,000 hybrids inside the National Orchid Garden. These 20,000 plants amount to the world's largest display of orchids. Before the day's sweltering heat hits, jump into a taxi for a quick ride to Singapore's famous shopping along Orchard Road. Travelers in need of any pharmaceuticals or groceries from home should head to the basement level of Tanglin Mall (163 Tanglin Road; 65 6736 4922; Open daily 10 am to 10 pm) for its American style food market and well-stocked drug store. If you've been caught in the rain or just need a refreshing pick-me-up, nip into Exquisite by Salon 916 in Orchard Parade Hotel for a hair wash that feels more like massage plus Singapore's speediest blow dry. Next stop is Wisma Atria mall where local boutiques like Southaven (#01-12/13) offer well-priced, stylish women's cotton frocks suitable for this Equatorial ambience.
Continue down the road to the newest Ion Mall, a dizzying assortment of high and mid-priced fashion and lifestyle brands. Next you'll be at Ngee Ann City. Spread out over seven floors, Ngee Ann City has numerous restaurants, a post office, banks, Takashimaya departmental store and more than 120 shops including Cartier, Tiffany's and Louis Vuitton. If you are a book lover, you will want to drop by Kinokuniya, the largest bookstore in Southeast Asia, which also retails an excellent selection of Asian literature and even Japanese manga for kids of all ages.
Singapore Botanic Garden
If you are famished, it is time to check-in to the glamorous Crystal Jade Golden Palace on the fifth level for a lovely dim sum (a variety of light Chinese dishes served alongside Chinese tea) lunch. For dessert, cross the street to Paragon, another vast and ultra luxurious shopping mall with five floors of branded fashion and apparel, gift and lifestyle stores. On the third floor, settle in to review your purchases over lattes and the banana mango crumble at Project Café, an Australian style casual café poised to allow diners 360-degrees of people watching.
Fully recharged, head back up Orchard Road to collect anything you might have missed earlier as you make your way to Tanglin Shopping Centre, your day's final shopping stop. Tucked at the far end of Orchard Road closer to the Botanic Gardens, this worn-down mall does not look like much outside but its is a top haunt for antique lovers. You can browse through the treasure coves of old maps, bric-a-brac, second hand books, furniture, Persian rugs, tapestries, curios, carpets and art; check out Apsara for a good collection of Chinese and Burmese antiques. Dinner tonight is just up the road at Singapore's hottest dining destination, the former British Army barracks revitalized as Tanglin Village, a congregation of dining outlets along Dempsey Road. For a taste of Singapore-style seafood, be sure to make a reservation at the Long Beach @ Dempsey and experience its black peppered crab or chili crab with "man tou" (Chinese steamed bun) and "drunken" prawns; go for the gigantic Alaskan King Crab if you have a party of four or more, otherwise a Sri Lankan crab will suffice.
Still up for more of Singapore? The island's perennially hip Zouk stays awake until 3am in three former warehouses along the Singapore River, and promises not one party but three among the hip hop dance floor at Phuture, chill lounge tunes at Velvet Underground and Zouk's Moorish disco.
to Day 2