Singapore loosens up to become a hedonist hotspot
With fab shops and a leisure complex in the sky, the city is welcoming in visitors
�The former British trading post of Singapore has had a tough time at the hands of some travel writers. One described it as “the world’s only shopping mall with a seat at the United Nations” and another as “Disneyland with the death penalty”. The city state, founded back in 1819 at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, might not be at the top of every traveller’s list of must-see places in Asia, but it has more to offer than just an iconic cocktail and is now home to the most talked about hotel on the continent, – the �4billion Marina Bay Sands Resort.
Asia for beginners
Singapore, with its unique blend of Chinese, Indian and Malay influences, is different from other Asian cities. When ex-pats refer to it as “Asia for beginners”, it does not take long to see why. For a start, you don’t feel like you could be taking your last steps every time you dare to cross a road. Then there is the hygiene issue. Singapore doesn’t seem to have one. Indeed, wandering around the state’s impeccably clean streets, lined with designer stores, fast food outlets and bars, you would be forgiven for thinking you were still in the Western world. Only the sweltering humidity – Singapore lies just 1.5 degrees north of the equator, gives it away that you are far from home. Whereas for us landing in Bangkok from London was like getting a slap in the face, arriving in Singapore would have been like getting a gentle tickle under the chin, unless, of course, it happened to coincide with one of the region’s violent tropical thunderstorms.
There are also the stark differences in prices compared to the rest of Asia. I quickly realised that one of the major worries when visiting Singapore is being able to find a pint for under �6. The city’s array of sports bars and English pubs are not the place to be if you are on a tight travel budget where even the happy hour offers are pretty miserable. But with a little hard work and a little help from discerning locals, it is possible to quench that thirst without spending your entire shopping budget. Our two-hour-long search led us into a food market in the neighbourhood known as Little India, where we washed down a three-dollar curry with a two-dollar bottle of Tiger beer. Although it is within easy walking distance of the city’s high-rise banking district, Little India, offering the sights, sounds and smells of the Indian subcontinent, feels like thousands of miles of miles away.
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Like Paris, London or New York, Singapore is synonymous with shopping. I remember it as the place where my Singaporean school mate would be able to pick me up a cheap Walkman each Christmas – but it seems to have moved on a step or two since then. Orchard Road, the city’s main commercial street, is a shopaholic’s paradise. It is home to fashion megastores with all the big names like Gucci, Dolce and Gabbana and Prada lined up to tempt any travellers to blow their budget. Cheap, fake goods so readily available in other cities are harder to come by here.
In recent years, Singapore, known for its tight laws, which reportedly included only being able to buy chewing gum in a pharmacy, has been undergoing what has been described as a “loosening up” process to boost visitor numbers in the coming years.
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We, like many tourists, were in Singapore on a stopover between Indonesia and Australia so had little more than 24 hours to discover what it had to offer. It was a tough task, especially given that our hotel – the Marina Bay Sands Resort no less – comes complete with a casino, two theatres, a museum, a convention centre and the obligatory shopping mall, plus the eye-watering, roof-top SkyPark. The stunning 340-metre long leisure complex lies some 200 metres above the ground like the hull of a grounded oil tanker, perched on top of three skyscrapers housing hotel rooms. Naturally, this is not the place for those with a fear of heights. But, for everyone else, the park offers a once-in-a-lifetime chance to swim a few lengths in the world’s biggest infinity pool while taking in the striking Singapore skyline every time you come up for air. Of our 24 hours in Singapore, the first two were spent here watching violent electric storms bombarding other parts of the city. I can’t imagine a better place in the world to take a dip. If only I could have spent my 11th birthday party here instead of my local rat-infested swimming baths.
Given the incredible innovation behind the SkyPark and the fact that most Singaporeans can probably see it from their living room, the floating oasis has become a destination in itself for locals. But to avoid it becoming like Hampstead Heath lido on one of those rare hot summer days, only hotel guests are permitted to take a dip. Other visitors can, however, visit the 360-degree observation deck if they stump up the 20 dollar entrance fee.
With no less than 2,561 rooms, checking in feels more like arriving at Stansted Airport for a Ryanair flight rather than the start of a luxury two-day break. This has not gone unnoticed with some irate guests, who have since inundated travel websites with complaints. It’s true the personal touch is lacking, but the sheer scale of the Marina Bay Sands machine is worth admiring and taking breakfast in a football pitch-sized lobby is all part of the experience. In most hotels, you have to remember which floor your room is on, at Marina Bay you have to remember which skyscraper it is in.
The Marina Bay Sands is like a city state within a city state: “Singapore for beginners,” it could be described. The theatres host West End hits like The Lion King, two floating crystal pavilions are home to chic nightlife venues, the restaurants are run by celebrity chefs and the mall has more than 300 shops.
It all might sound a touch overwhelming to some but this slightly watered down Las Vegas is rightly heralded as “Asia’s most spectacular entertainment destination” – and it is only going to get bigger.
n For more information on Marina Bay Sands and to check hotel room rates, visit www.marinabaysands.com.