Love you, Singapore

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A tourist’s arrival in some countries – into Japan’s Tokyo gateway, or London Heathrow, for example – is often dulled by a soulless airport and a grey nondescript journey into the centre, the city’s pleasures revealed only at length.

On landing in some places, though, the excitement’s immediate: the arresting yet sensuous sights, sounds and smells of Beirut for instance. And, notably, the intangible but irresistible feeling in the atmosphere, its own signature “scent” perhaps? … of Singapore.

Much is made of the attractions of shopping and dining in the Lion City but its special allure lies in its remarkable harmony. A heterogeneous population that manages to be remarkably homogeneous: so many ethnicities and religions merged into one happy whole. If there’s friction or faults, they’re invisible to the visitor, who perceives only Singapore’s fascinating overall multiracial identity.

Take Christmas time: as mealy-mouthed Aussie shopping centres, schools and others descend into “Happy Holidays/Festive Season” equivocations to avoid “offending” Jewish, Islamist or other populations, Singapore’s main street, Orchard Road, explodes in a glorious, bold, unapologetic Christmas lights display appreciated equally by Christians and their confreres of other faiths. Tiny tots, youngsters of many physiognomies, universally gaze up open-mouthed in the eternal wonderment of childhood at the magnificent, dazzling extravaganza of galloping reindeer, smiling snowmen, twinkling stars, Santa Claus. Women in hijab mingle with Westerners wandering the mighty sparkling 2km-long avenue, snapping up Christmas toys for their kids. Faces that betray a half dozen or more different heritages – languages too – jostle, bump, apologise with a nod, and smile broadly at each other in the spirit and excitement of the feast. Even the city’s renowned ethnic quarters like Little India and Chinatown seem more notable these days as informal cultural museums rather than tribal congregations.

But first, moments after touchdown, breathe in Singapore, inhale its magic as your handily-located awaiting taxi efficiently loads your bags at “the world’s best airport”, Changi, and plunges you onto the glorious multi-lane boulevard, the East Coast Parkway, that sweeps in an imperceptible curve around the island’s south-east coast and speeds you comfortably over 20km from airport to city in, usually, some 15 minutes. You’ll want that quarter hour to marvel at the outstanding, overwhelming towering palms and other tropical trees that line the expressway like a saluting guard of honour, and the abundance – excess, even – of green and fluoro-hued floral exotica that blooms in the wide central reserve between the eight east-west laneways, tumbles from flyovers and down the sides of overhead bridge supports: a visually cool, welcoming, wonderland. And indeed that’s as it was planned by Singapore’s latter-day father, Lee Kuan Yew. It’s the most relaxing, beautiful entryway to any city in the world.

Interestingly, in one section of the wide central median the flowers and shrubs grow in movable tubs, able to whisked away to create an emergency runway in case of defence requirements. This, too, is a Singapore signifier: the city-state’s pure inventiveness, its fundamental go-get can-do ethic, its hip avant-garde atmosphere and excitement in the new, the forward-thinking, the challenging … and the pleasure to be had in its pursuit, achievement and indulgence.

Hello Changi!

I’m flying into the world’s best airport, Singapore Changi, at the conclusion of the best flight I’ve ever enjoyed.

I’ve accepted British Airways’ promotional “experience First Class” offer (now closed, but see special fares below): to book a Business Class return fare – and choose to travel either the forward or return leg upgraded to the airline’s premium cabin. Lah di da! It’s not only the comfy sink-into-silk armchair or other cool appointments of my elite, private First Class cocoon … but most of all the ultra-friendly and gracious service of the cabin’s dedicated crew.

For my sixth visit to the Lion City I’m reinventing the “Kangaroo Route”: the once-traditional flight itinerary of Aussies travelling to London: that is, via Singapore. When Qantas partnered with Emirates four years ago (reportedly an initial five-year partnership) it abandoned its long-time Oz-to-London via Asia routing in favour of schedules via the Emirates hub, Dubai. Many business travellers seem to like the change. But for those of us who prefer to enjoy the luxury of a stopover en route to Europe (or, in my case, the Maldives) I found experiencing Dubai just once was enough. Sure, I was diverted by its soaring surrealistic skyscrapers, exotic souks, belly dancers, hookah cafes, and dune-bashing in the desert … but they were one-off experiences, whereas I never tire of the many diversions Singapore has to offer. Whether as a stopover en route to Asia or elsewhere – a dual destination – or as your final port of arrival, the Lion City is a must – and flying “up” the map means jetlag’s non-existent.

I look forward to flying BA again; its check-in was smooth and flight attendants sincere in their welcome aboard, notably relaxed and efficient, and genuinely engaged with passengers. My First Class steward was as attentive as (well, nearly) a husband on honeymoon: a flute of Laurent-Perrier champagne, stowing my jacket and handbag in my personal seat-side wardrobe, serving char-grilled king prawns with fennel, topping up the Bordeaux, laying out my pyjamas, and dissolving my seat into a soft lie-flat bed with the flourish of a feather-light duvet and soft pillows. Even the Captain came to wish me goodnight.

Equally, my Business Class sector was a closely-matching pleasure: polite, willing and helpful crew and a very comfy lie-flat cubicle with all the essential appointments to make you forget you’re basically being freighted from A to B – and induce a perfect sleep for close to the ideal eight-hour duration of the journey.

Naturally, flying Business and beyond makes travel enjoyable, and I’m a great believer that a good break begins well before arrival at your destination. Starting out in a relaxed manner, flying in comfort with an agreeable crew, ensures you’re fresh and ready to set out to make the most of your time from Day One, maximising holiday pleasure. Snap up current offers, on sale only until Monday February 20 for travel before 30 November 2017: Sydney-Singapore Business Class return from $3088 and First Class $4588. All inclusive of taxes, fees. Business fares offered 7-day advance purchase; First Class 3-day advance.

Swissotel Merchant Court

A terrific hotel! So good, I don’t want to check out at the end of my stay.

I’m like a child, stamping my foot and dragging at dad’s hand: “No, no; I – don’t – want – to – go!” Swissotel Merchant Court – part of the highly respected international Accor group of 4000 hotels and resorts – and its staff have won my heart.

Singapore, with four million people, hosted 16 million visitors last year. There are more than 400 eclectically-styled hotels to choose from; many are exciting experiences in themselves. The city-state’s renowned for the quality of its accommodation: the hotels’ architecture, service, elan … and novelty.

There’s iconic Raffles of course, also in the Accor group. This month a program of special events and promotions to celebrate its 130th anniversary begins, among them a Walk of Fame history tour tracing the hotel’s heritage and its many famous guests. The S$20 fee is redeemable at Raffles gift shop, restaurants and bars – perhaps towards a round of famous Singapore Slings?  At the end of the year the hotel will close for a comprehensive restoration program. Anticipate a grand reopening in mid-2018.

Meanwhile, I was captivated by one terrific innovation offered at the two Accor hotels featured on this page: their provision of Handy Phones in every room. These complimentary smart phones come loaded with unlimited 4G internet, wifi sharing, travel/city guides in multiple languages and unlimited – free! – calls to both local numbers and ten international destinations, including Australia.

Swissotel Merchant Court is located next to the Singapore River and Clarke Quay MRT station, a swish urban resort close to major places of interest such as Chinatown, the civic district and Orchard Road, with a magnificent huge elevated swimming pool overlooking the city sights, a 24/7 gym and Swiss Alpine health spa. I recommend booking a room on an exclusive Swiss Executive floor, thanks to the wonderful Executive Lounge privileges offered. Among its facilities are a sensational daily complimentary breakfast, evening drinks, cocktails and canapés, and all-day snacks, fresh fruit, refreshments and personalised service all with scenic views. High-speed internet access, of course, a separate data port, international plugs at the writing desk … and mini Swiss Toblerone chocolates on your pillow. Lobby, bar and room design and appointments are just beautiful. For guests with kids, Swissôtel Kids Rooms are decorated with toys, books and entertainment options including Xbox, Wii games, DVDs and cable TV kids’ channels, fitted with adorable themed bedding and colourful clothes hangers, and cute writing desks for working on crafts. Bathrooms feature child-friendly amenities such as a step-stool, flavoured toothpaste and vibrant plastic tumblers. For toddlers, a baby bathtub and bath toys are provided. Outdoors, kids enjoy waterslides and a wading pool.

Facilities include 24-hour in-room dining and 24-hour self-service launderette.

Premier (lead-in) Room from S$250pn low season. Executive Room (as described above) from S$340. Email reservations.merchantcourt@swissotel.com or call +65 6337 9993.

Mercure Singapore Bugis

What a switched-on place to stay! Located in the once-naughty now trendy heart of the Bugis Street shopping, cultural, dining and business district, this is a hip, brand new hotel a five-minute walk from Bugis MRT station.

It features compact, beautifully-equipped guest rooms, good dining, infinity lap swimming pool, fitness lounge, Jacuzzi and notably fantastic young staff. Free usage in and outside the hotel of smart Handy Phones; book a Privilege Room for extended services such as in-room Nespresso machine and access to the Privilege Lounge and al fresco terrace, complimentary breakfast, all-day coffee and tea and pre-dinner cocktails at sunset, 6-8pm, on the Sky Deck.

Guests have access on demand to more than 2000 newspapers and magazines via a complimentary digital newsstand; restaurant features salads, wok-charred salmon, braised lamb shank, oven-baked spring chicken, and herb-infused wagyu beef, tenderloin and Angus sirloin.

To celebrate its first year of opening, Mercure Singapore Bugis is offering a budget-busting introductory rate from $168 per room a night valid until September 30 2017, or see the website for best rates: www.mercure.com/A0D7. Tel: +65 6521 6088.

Playtime in paradise

  • So easy to get around! At Changi, airport taxis marshalled ready to go at the doorstep (not at a far-flung distance, Sydney Airport!) The cabs are compact cars, clean, regulated and metered, drivers ever keen to chat and offer advice.
  • Uber is so … uber-cheap. I’m reluctant to compete with the excellent taxi service but an Uber ride to the zoo cost around S$15. Returning, by taxi, cost double, S$32.80
  • Get to know the MRT. Another marker of Singapore’s startling efficiency, the public mass rapid transport system’s cheap, quick, clean and safe. Runs underground in the inner city, multiple easily-accessible entry points, simple to use.
  • Cars in Singapore are overwhelmingly under 10 years old due to government disincentives to limit the number of vehicles on the roads. Driving is on the left, but it’s recommended visitors don’t self-drive.
  • Government policy is also responsible for the number of city buildings draped in greenery, topped by trees, graced with scarlet bougainvillea tumbling from balconies. When you build on an area of land, the green space absorbed must be compensated for with new plantings.
  • English is the nation’s main language, but not necessarily as you know it. One suspects native tongues are widely spoken at home and English/Singlish suffers in the translation. Even though it might seem so, make sure your request is clearly understood.
  • There’s hawker food and shopping, plenty of quality brands not found here. (Be sure to reclaim the tax on departure at Changi, easily done.) But set out first for the magnificent attractions at Gardens by the Bay, a 100ha $1 billion awe-inspiring adult wonderland. Allow a full day and, for the magnificent illuminations, a few hours at night too.
  • Also recommended: National Museum of Singapore, another outstanding experience; sensational Singapore Botanic Gardens; a cocktail beside the infinity pool in the clouds atop Marina Bay Sands. Organised tours can be a good introduction, to get your bearings. Older travellers: ask for seniors discounts, often available but not always volunteered.
  • A personal guide can be cost-effective, must be licensed by STB and can steer you to the best eating places, avoiding traps. For contacts, consult STB_infosingapore@stb.gov.au A glimpse of top attractions is at www.yoursingapore.com EG: for clubs, parties and sky-high rooftop bars go to
    www.yoursingapore.com/editorials/nightlife-in-the-city.
  • Singapore has so much to offer you’ll surely be pressed for time and choice. Order a slim print copy of Lonely Planet’s Singapore Guide, written with invaluable insights and suggestions. Study it early, carry it, and refer to it often.

 

Travel Editor, Susie Boswell.

Susie flew First and Business Class to Singapore courtesy of British Airways. She was hosted by Accor Hotels at Swissotel Merchant Court, Mercure Bugis, and Sofitel Sentosa Resort & Spa. Photos: Susie Boswell, Accor Hotels, British Airways.

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