Singapore is often tritely dubbed Singabore – a sort of bland ‘Asia lite’ that’s about as interesting as Cliff Richard’s love life. In practice, though, it’s a vibrant, arty, amiable Asian gem with such a distinct, powerful soul that you’ll struggle to leave; it’s definitely one of the most visitable places in Asia.
Founded as a British trading colony in 1819, Singapore is brimming with charisma and history, which it both cherishes and parades. With a population of just under five million, it’s a jam-packed nation (second only to Monaco as the world’s most densely populated), but the crowds only add to its character. Still, don’t expect to walk in a straight line without bumping into one of the smiley locals, who make Lewis Caroll’s Cheshire cat look positively grumpy.
This is particularly evident in the city centre, which roughly consists of Orchard Road (an Asian Oxford Street), the Riverside (a miniature Dubai Marina) and Chinatown (guess what’s there?). A little further south is gimmicky Sentosa Island, a former Japanese torture camp fondly known in Malay as Pulai Blakang Mati (The Island of Death from Behind). Ironically, it is now home to Universal Studios, which in practice is a rather hammy tribute to Madagascar and looks as though it was designed by Tim Burton, although slightly less creepy.
To the quieter north is another form of Madagascar – Singapore Zoo. Just 3km from the Malaysian border, a trip here is as exhilarating as it is informative: it’s the feeling of openness that makes it one of the most captivating wildlife havens. By day, you can interact with the bustling zoo’s 2,500 animals, which include white tigers and hamadryas baboons. Do bring a towel – the giraffes will genuinely pee on timid tourists, while the Splash Safari allows you to snuggle with otters and dolphins, but you’ll get joyously drenched in the process.
Once you’ve dried off, venture over to the Jurong Bird to stalk the penguins. The worryingly anorexic Malay fish owls also love to be fed and, if you’re short of company, be sure to chat to Maggie the great pie hornbill too – not that you’ll get a word in edgeways.
Don’t go thinking the fun ends at sunset, either. A night safari is one of the most invigorating and affordable adventures you can have in Singapore. As dusk falls over this lush tropical rainforest, the animals come alive in the world’s first open nocturnal zoo. As you journey in a bright orange lion-themed tram, guided by a sort of Singaporean David Attenborough (who only speaks in husky, mildly salacious whisper so as not to annoy the Indian rhinos), you’ll witness Malaysian tapirs, South American anteaters and even the odd giant flying squirrel. It’s little wonder Singapore Zoo is the number-one nightspot in town, especially when you can see all three attractions for just S$58 (Dhs165).
The exploring certainly does work up an appetite, and the best place to satisfy your hunger is probably quirky Clarke Quay – a kaleidoscope of eateries housed in five old commerce warehouses set along the stunning waterfront. It’s a delightful mix of past and present, a real microcosm of Singapore, which never seems to abandon its heritage. In particular, The Clinic is not to be missed. Enter this medical-themed bar and you’ll be served by ‘doctors’ in scrubs, eat in wheelchairs and drink from a drip (there are three options available: blood, pus… or Coke). We also recommend the Cuban tapas at Cuba Libre, which should be drowned with the signature mockjito (made with lime-flavoured sparkling water).
A little further down the road is Chinatown, which provides a cacophony of local colour and flavour, along with the odd inflatable buddha or lucky seahorse. No dish costs more than about Dhs10 and there really is something to suit all palates. Do try the spicy chicken curry at Blue Ginger and crispy chilli crabs at Maxwell Centre, then end your night with some shameless haggling at the Chinatown Point mall or visit the soaring Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. For such a small place there’s an awful lot to do and eat here, so don’t be surprised if you fly back exhausted and 10kg heavier.
If we had to sum it up in a single analogy, we’d say Singapore is like a Katy Perry song. You’re convinced it’s going to be samey and annoying, but give it a chance and it will surprise you and prove oddly addictive.
Need to know
Emirates flies direct from Dubai to Changi airport, with prices from Dhs2,380 return (www.emirates.com). Alternatively, Etihad flies direct from Abu Dhabi from Dhs2,645 return (www.etihadairways.com).
Where to stay
Fullerton Bay Hotel: Set in the heart of the Central Business District, this top-end haunt will make you feel like James Bond, with rooms from Dhs1,100 per night.
www.fullertonbayhotel.com (+65 6386 8388)
Hotel Michael: This Disneyfied boutique hotel, next to Universal Studios, is themed like Alice in Wonderland. Rooms start at Dhs850 a night.
www.rwsentosa.com (+65 6577 8899)
The Sentosa Resort & Spa: This has the best spa in Singapore and serves world-famous frogs porridge for breakfast. Victoria Beckham has previously stayed here. Rooms from Dhs760 a night. www.thesentosa.com (+65 6275 0331)
What to see
Universal Studios: This exhilarating world of movie magic is littered with several Dreamworks attractions as well as a shrine to Ancient Egypt. www.rwsentosa.com (+65 6577 8899)
Botanic Gardens: Peaceful and picturesque by day, brimming with live music and theatre at night. www.sbg.org.sg (+65 6471 7361)
Clarke Quay: A former hotbed of commerce – now five warehouses full of restaurants and retail outlets. www.clarkequay.com.sg (+65 6337 3292)
1819 Sir Stamford Raffles of British East India Company establishes a trading post in Singapore.
1826 Singapore becomes a British colony.
1869 The Suez Canal opens and trade booms.
1941 World War II. Japan bombs Singapore.
1942 Singapore falls to Japan, which renames it Syonan (Light of the South).
1945 Japan defeated. Singapore placed under British military administration.
1946 Singapore becomes a separate crown colony.
1965 The city declares independence.
2002 Japan and Singapore sign a free trade agreement.