The south-east Asia city state of Singapore is, by some, considered a little bland, perhaps oppressive, good only as a stopover on the way further afield. But nothing could be further from the truth.
It’s true that the city centre is wonderfully clean, but who needs chewing gum stuck to their shoe? The freedom to tread care-free, walk with your head held high – looking at the city’s sights, its mesmerising architecture and vibrant shop fronts – and know that the MRT subway system just works, is something to be treasured. Meanwhile, away from the malls of Orchard Road and the business district around Raffles Place, you’ll find a greater mix of people and cultures in one small area than almost anywhere else on Earth.
I based myself at the Mandarin Oriental Singapore in the new Marina Bay area for five nights, and only wish I had longer. The land here was reclaimed in a process that began in the 1970s, but was only developed in the last few years with the arrival of the Singapore Grand Prix. So while the Merlion once featured as a gateway to Singapore and the river, it now stands proud over Marina Bay, still drawing crowds, but dwarfed by the Marina Bay Sands opposite – three Vegas-style glass towers housing a hotel, shops and a casino, and topped by a banana-shaped platform with an infinity pool and bar looking out over the city.
But while that all sounds very impressive, the Mandarin Oriental has the view. Looking from left to right from my Premier Harbour View room, I scanned the dazzling displays of the Marina Bay Sands, the business district’s skyscrapers, the Merlion and the Fullerton Hotel (in the old Post Office building), Clarke Quay and beyond to Chinatown, and the Esplanade Theatres on the Bay. It’s a view unequalled anywhere else in the city, though there are plenty that try.
With five restaurants, an outdoor pool on the fifth floor, and all the modern appliances you’d expect of a premium hotel, it doesn’t disappoint inside either. No wonder it’s the winner of numerous awards, from Condé Nast Traveler USA, Tripadvisor, Forbes and Travel + Leisure to name a few.
Taxis are cheap – especially in the daytime – and with its central location it’s only a matter of minutes to the next attraction, but the hotel is also well placed for walking. Strolling along the esplanade takes you to the mouth of the Singapore river. Cross over to reach Raffles Place and Clarke Quay and then wander on a short way to reach Chinatown, or stay on the east bank to visit the splendid Asian Civilisations Museum. Alternatively – and this is good in a downpour – duck into the mall behind the hotel and walk undercover from mall to mall up to Orchard Road, a mecca for followers of fashion. On the way, you’ll pass the Singapore Art Museum, which is also well worth taking a look around.
My favourite area, though, had to be in and around Chinatown. In the space of 200 metres walking along South Bridge Road, you’ll pass by the Masjid Jamae, one of the oldest mosques in Singapore; the Sri Mariamman Temple, the city’s oldest Hindu temple; and the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, only opened in 2007. You’re welcome to pop in to explore all three, and the latter two prove very popular attractions. The contrast between the Hindu temple’s rooftop decorations against the backdrop of the city’s skyscrapers in the near distance is something to behold, while, in the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, you’re free to wander around and can even head to the roof garden to spin the prayer wheel.
And what makes all three all the more special is their close location to the little Tong Heng cafe and its exquisite custard tarts. Which brings me on to Singapore’s food … but, on second thoughts, perhaps it’s better to end it there; else I might never stop writing about the city’s countless culinary charms.