Travelers often touch down in Singapore merely en route to Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and other countries in Asia (especially Southeast Asia). That’s partly because it’s a hub for (naturally) Singapore Airlines, one of the world’s top-rated carriers. There’s an argument to be made that this singular city-state is intriguing enough to visit for its own sake. At the very least, though, if you’re continuing onward, a stopover here — seven time zones from London and 11 zones on the 15-plus-hour flight from Los Angeles — is a smart idea.
And as long as you’re waiting for your jet-lagged head to catch up with your body, why not have a look around? Once viewed as too bland, business-oriented, and strict to be of much interest to the vacationer, Singapore has taken steps to reinvent itself as an appealing destination by relaxing some of its famously rigid regulations and by preserving authentic old neighborhoods. And today, with its Chinese, Malay, and Indian populations, I find it does nicely serve up an authentic taste of all these cultures on one convenient, compact island.
The first thing you see as your plane approaches Singapore Changi Airport is a glittering spread of skyscrapers blooming from a tropical garden of palm trees and other foliage; some look sexily avant-garde enough to be sets from 1950s sci-fi films.
As many flights, especially from the United States, land around midnight, a good night’s sleep is a luxury you won’t want to miss. For budget-minded travelers who don’t have the time or energy to actually go into town, the airport’s AmbassadorTransit Hotel features many of the bells and whistles of traditional hotels (i.e. a gym, pool, free coffee), but rates start as low as SGD$45 per person ($35 U.S.*) for six hours. There are free roundtrip shuttles between the airport and the city. For a longer night’s rest or a hipper environment, go into town and stay at the quirky-chic, arty Gallery Hotel (right), with rooms from SGD$160.
While here, some people go to the attractions, beaches, shops, restaurants, and nature walks of the elaborate new resort Sentosa Island. Others opt for see the world-famous Singapore Zoo, Underwater World Singapore, orNight Safari (the world’s first nocturnal wildlife park — what could be more perfect for jet-lagged travelers who can’t sleep anyway?). Singapore River Cruises offers tours of the historic Riverside District; with one-way tickets starting at SGD$3, it’s both pleasant and wallet-friendly.
Others stroll around Orchard Road, which is Singapore’s Fifth Avenue, Rodeo Drive, and Michigan Avenue rolled into one. The wares are on the pricey side, but if you’re looking for designer fashion, jewelry, and swank housewares, this is the place. “The Orchard” also offers innovative restaurants such as Wild Honey, with a “Global All-Day Breakfast Menu” that seems custom-made for jet-lagged travelers, and Domani Café, a Spanish-Italian bistro in a Japanese department store (Takashimaya) which among other things serves a nice afternoon tea. Now, that’s internationalism.
On her biannual trips to India, my friend Leyla always does what she calls a “Singapore Swing” that steers clear of Orchard Road, and I recently accompanied her. Of course, it included a stop at the Raffles Hotel (left), after 123 years still one of the top addresses in town. This sprawling Victorian manse is where Joseph Conrad and Noel Coward stayed; its bar was the 1915 birthplace of the Singapore Sling cocktail — and yes, there’s a billiards room.
Leyla and I took a walk through a patchwork of candy-colored neighborhoods that deliver an up-close look at some of the vibrant local cultures. Arab Street is lined with fabric stores, hippie-chic boutiques, and aromatherapy specialty shops. A few dollars buys a savory plate ofmurtabak – a kind of pancake filled with lamb or chicken — at Singapore Zam Zam Halal (699 North Bridge Rd.), a no-frills eatery whose ambiance is defined by busy cooks, the aromas of Malay and Middle Eastern spices, and the Sultan Mosque across the street. The scene on the other side of that mosque could be described as an idealized Middle East: tidy, relaxed, and welcoming to people from all walks of life.
After the Arab Street stroll, we grabbed a local bus that sweeps past the Raffles Hotel into Chinatown. This being Singapore, you will find it one of the cleanest Chinatowns ever, even with all the required elements — dim sum restaurants, tea stands, temples, jewelry shops, souvenir stalls, and street vendors — plus extras like Hindu temples (right).
Even if shopping isn’t on the itinerary, you can still get a taste of Singapore’s trendier side at the SunTec City Mall. This modern shopping center, with its cinemas, Sky Garden, and “Fountain of Wealth,” is a good place to end your layover, because it’s from here that you catch the free shuttle back to the airport. And I daresay you’ll leave satisfied.