“Well, this looks interesting!” said my husband as we were driven from the cruise terminal in Singapore to the airport for the flight home.
Jim and I had just disembarked from a cruise and were heading straight back to the UK. We were both struck by the lush greenery and exotic flowers along the route to the airport, a sharp contrast to the dismal trek along the M4 from central London to Heathrow. And the Singapore skyline was dominated by fascinating pieces of modern architecture.
It seemed such a shame to see so little of this small island on the southern tip of Malaysia. All too often, Singapore is viewed as somewhere you pass through on the way to the Far East or Australia. So we resolved to return and explore.
And that’s how, two years later, we ended up in the lap of luxury at the Shangri-La Hotel in central Singapore. After the long flight from London, we were greeted in the steamy, pre-dawn heat of a March morning, by a doorman dressed as a Tibetan warrior.
It was slightly surreal, but then the Valley Wing of the Shangri La offers its guests a rather extraordinary experience all round. Even in all my travels with the Royal Family I’ve never come across a hotel offering complimentary champagne, fine wine, cocktails, afternoon tea, dainty sandwiches and canapés throughout your stay.
It’s a place where wine lovers and foodies need to exercise a good deal of self-control! (We failed!)
The rooms are spacious, cool and elegant and the hotel is set in 15 acres of tropical gardens with a huge swimming pool and tennis courts. I am not a fan of city life, so, even though we were within walking distance of Singapore’s swish shops on Orchard Road, this tranquil environment was right up my street.
“Whatever you do,” our friends in the UK had advised us, “you mustn’t miss the Botanical Gardens”.
And so, after a lazy day, a good night’s sleep and a delicious breakfast of Nasi Lemak (coconut rice, with hot chilli sauce, fried anchovies, peanuts, cucumber and a hard-boiled egg) we set off to see the gardens which are the crowning jewel of Singapore.
The Botanical Gardens date back 150 years and have recently been recognised as an UNESCO world heritage site, and it’s easy to see why. First of all, they are enormous: more than 180 acres.
“Don’t even think about seeing them all in one day,” said our wonderful guide, Naseem. “Unless you have your hiking shoes on and are feeling really energetic”. In the heat and humidity, we certainly weren’t.
It soon became apparent that these gardens are much more than a tourist attraction. They are loved and well used by Singaporeans, the majority of whom live in high rise housing.
This open space is theirs and, as we witnessed, from dawn onwards they head to the Gardens to practise Tai Chi and yoga or to walk their dogs. You’re not allowed to walk your pooches on the main roads of Singapore, so this is dog heaven.
With limited time, silly shoes and only pensioner- level energy, we focussed our attention on one specific area: the Orchid Garden. And it’s stunning.
Jim is quite a dab hand at cultivating orchids. We still have one that was given to me 14 years ago after I was in “I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here.” But the Singapore gardens take orchid displays to quite another level. And we were treading in the footsteps of the many famous people who have been there — as the orchids named after them proved: The Queen, the Princess of Wales, Charles and Camilla and Barack Obama, to mention but a few.
Flowers and trees are an integral part of Singaporean culture. New buildings have, by law, to incorporate some greenery — which is why you see plants of all sizes half way up the skyscrapers. But they’re nothing like the Supertrees you can find in another extraordinary park, the Gardens by the Bay.
At night they burst into spectacular colour in a dramatic music and light show….well worth seeing.
There are also two gigantic domes in this park. One is rather like a fantastic indoor Chelsea Flower Show, housed in the world’s largest greenhouse. The other creates the impression that you are walking high up in a cloud – and you are, indeed, extremely high on a cleverly designed skywalk which wends its way back down, giving you a bird’s eye view of the exhibits. However, if you have an aversion to heights, like my husband, this particular attraction is probably best avoided.
Safer perhaps, to stay closer to the ground and visit Singapore’s National Museum. I must admit I’ve had a bit of an aversion to museums ever since those tedious school trips standing looking at bits of rock in glass cases.
But, as I soon discovered, things have changed a great deal in this new world of clever technology. Singapore’s Museum is thoroughly absorbing. The nation’s history is graphically relayed through image and film.
And the Glass Rotunda houses an inspired reproduction of the wildlife pictures of William Farquhar, Sir Stamford Raffles’ right hand man, who became the first British Resident and Commandant of Singapore. As you walk in semi-darkness along a digitally animated mural, birds and antelopes, porcupines and tapirs come to life and seem to follow you.
From that enchanting experience we moved on to a most eerie one: a park dedicated to Chinese mythology. Haw Par Villa is rather a tranquil oasis built for Singaporeans by two brothers who created the famous Tiger Balm herbal remedy. It’s a cross between Disney and the horror chamber at Madame Tussaud’s. Blood-thirsty statues depict the appalling mythological punishments meted out to robbers, villains and petty thieves.
The park seems a pretty eccentric concept as a gift to the nation, but the afternoon certainly stuck in our memories.
Throughout our stay, one theme dominated every day: what to eat next. Singaporeans are a nation of food lovers and standards are extremely high . Even at the many hawker stalls selling satays, noodles and other street food, the hygiene ratings are clearly displayed. And it’s fun to walk past their smoking barbecues in the warm night air and choose which offerings to sample.
We also tried a couple of traditional Peranakan restaurants. It’s a fusion of Malay and Chinese cuisine: spicy and very tasty.
But our most memorable meal was at Red House, a seafood restaurant established more than 40 years ago. There we shared a set menu for one, including Singapore’s famous chilli crab, and found we had more than enough food for us both. It was delicious.
So, if you find yourself en route to somewhere that takes you via Singapore, don’t just pass through, take a few days to explore. Or simply make it your destination, because there really is a lot to see— and we barely scratched the surface of all it has to offer.
For more information about Singapore visit www.visitsingapore.com