Singapore: An island built on trade and tradition

As an exotic stopover, this city has it all ­ malls and markets, skyscrapers and temples, writes Matthew Brace

Boring? Antiseptic? Don't listen to the clichés. Merchants from around the world have been docking at the harbour jetties of Singapore for centuries. The city today may be clean and modern but it is at the same time one of the most exotic, aromatic and fascinating of places. With its massive shopping potential ­ from the gleaming department stores of Orchard Road to the spice stalls and carpet shops of little India and the Muslim quarter ­ it is also a perfect stopover destination between Europe and Australia.

Boring? Antiseptic? Don't listen to the clichés. Merchants from around the world have been docking at the harbour jetties of Singapore for centuries. The city today may be clean and modern but it is at the same time one of the most exotic, aromatic and fascinating of places. With its massive shopping potential ­ from the gleaming department stores of Orchard Road to the spice stalls and carpet shops of little India and the Muslim quarter ­ it is also a perfect stopover destination between Europe and Australia.

When to go

Singapore is almost on the Equator, which means it is hot and humid all year. There is more rain from November to January, with July being the driest month. To catch colourful parades and traditional Chinese extravaganzas, visit during the Chinese New Year (16-18 February) or at the beginning of September for the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts and the Lantern Festival. Travel before New Year will prove difficult because of millennium-seekers trekking east.

Getting there

Singapore Airlines (tel: 0181-747 0007; websites: www.singaporeair.com.uk, and www.singaporeair.com.sg) flies direct from London and is a popular choice since introducing complimentary champagne in economy class. Trailfinders (tel: 0171-938 3366) currently offers return flights, valid until 9 December, of £541 (including taxes but not transfers), and from January-June of £549. All other European and South-east Asian airlines fly there too. Travelbag (tel: 0171-287 5558) offers direct flights with BA for around £600, and with Qantas from £650-£700 before New Year. Travel agents specialising in Europe-Australia deals offer fares that include a few days stopover with hotel, airport transfers and sometimes a city tour.

Getting around

From the airport, a seven-seater shuttle bus is S$7 (£2.50) and drops off at most major hotels. The public bus costs S$1.50 and is also air-conditioned. Part of the MRT light-rail system is operational but most of it will not be finished until 2001 when it will offer a fast link from the airport. For Singapore Airlines ticket-holders, a free Singapore Tour can be booked from the airport information counters. Taxis are reasonable, with a standard fare across town ranging from S$10-S$17 .The airport run is more like S$25-S$30.

Where to stay

The Grand Plaza Parkroyal, 10 Coleman Street (tel: 0065 336 3456; UK: 0345 581666; website: www.parkroyal.com.au) is in an excellent downtown position with great views and a spa complex for soothing jet-lag. Double room from S$300. For great value try the Damenlou Hotel, 12 Ann Siang Road (tel: 0065 221 1900). Double room from S$100-S$150. For colonial splendour try the Regalis Court Hotel, 64 Lloyd Road (tel: 0065 734 7117; website: www.liangcourt.com.sg/regalisin.htm). Double rooms are from S$145.

For those on a tight schedule, a quiet room at the Transit Hotel (tel: 00 65 542 8122, website: www.airporthotel.com.sg) at Terminal 2 of the award-winning Changi Airport is a good idea. Superior double rooms from S$120.

If money is no object, it's got to be the world-famous Raffles Hotel, 1 Beach Road (tel: 0065 337 1886; website: asia-online.com/raffles/) where double rooms start at S$550.

What to see and do

It pays to time your visit. Chinese New Year (16-18 February) is always good fun, with fireworks, dancing dragons and clashing cymbals. As colourful but less hectic are the few days around 10 September, at the end of the Festival of Hungry Ghosts (a kind of month-long Halloween during which dead ancestors are said to walk the streets and must be appeased with burnt offerings) and the start of the mid-autumn Lantern Festival, when the city is decked out in vast, intricate lanterns.

Singapore's beautiful temples are open all year. Visit the Sri Mariamman on South Bridge Road (tel: 223 4064), the oldest Hindu national monument in Singapore, with a fabulously decorated rajagopuram that stands 40ft above the main entrance. Also, drop in to see the Fuk Tak Chi temple in Telok Ayer Street (tel: 532 7868). It was one of the first Chinese temples here and is now a museum, open 10am-10pm daily.

The National Orchid Garden (at the Botanic Gardens) is a treasure. An acre or so of the most exquisite beds of orchids of every colour, a profusion of heliconia, and glades of red and white frangipani that flourish in the soupy humidity. Go early morning or in the evening to avoid the worst of the heat. The free Singapore Airlines bus tour stops here. Open 8.30am-7pm daily, last ticket 6pm.

The area around Orchard Road and Emerald Hill is Millionaires Alley, with handsome three-storey houses and lush gardens, and is good for a pleasant stroll. It is also a shopping Mecca for tourists.

Where to eat

Qhue, 242 Pasir Panjang Road (tel: 471 6501) is a short cab-ride west of the city centre, but worth it to dine under a beautiful ficus tree on rillettes of duck in wan-ton skin with mango, green lentils and spring onions, snails in a black-pepper brioche, or a half-dozen oysters. Its speciality is the lamb shank in a sweet potato, butter bean and beetroot casserole. There is also a tapas-type menu with dishes for around S$9 each.

Try Blue Ginger, 97 Tanjong Pagar Road (tel: 222 3928) for tapas-like portions of a mix of South-east Asian cuisines. This is part of the old paranaka style of cooking, which is now dying out because it takes so much effort. Dishes include Otak Otak (home-made fish cake), Udang Kuah Pedas Nanas (tiger prawns simmered in a tasty pineapple gravy), Kueh Pie Tree (shredded bamboo shoots in patty cases), and Ngo heang (rolls of pork and prawns deep-fried).

Have breakfast from 8am at Tiong Bahru Market (MRT to Tiong Bahru, walk down Tiong Bahru Road, right on Seng Poh Road, or ask a friendly local). Try Chai Tao ­ carrot cake ­ with puréed radishes fried with oil, soy sauce and egg; or Chwee Kueh ­ steamed rice cakes with a delicious salty pickle of preserved vegetables. To drink, go for a fresh green coconut. Find a numbered table and choose food from any of the many stalls ­ just give them the table number and your food will appear.

Komala's, Upper Dickson Road, off Serangoon Road in Little India (tel: 294 3547) is fast vegetarian food Indian-style with main meals from S$5-$10.

The Banana Leaf restaurant, 54-58 Race Course Road (tel: 293 8682) serves classy curries. Sample portions of tandoori chicken, prawn massala, fish- head curry and chicken tikka on a banana leaf for S$18. With drinks, expect to spend about S$20-S$25 per person.

Nightlife

Singapore is not known for a frantic after-dark scene, although Mohamed Sultan Road buzzes most nights of the week and is packed at weekends. Nightclubs such as Madam Wong's, 28 Mohamed Sultan Road, have queues a hundred people long.

More relaxed and less hyped is Sugar, 13 Mohamed Sultan Road, which draws a good-natured crowd. There is no door-charge but you may be asked on entry to buy your first drink, which is then delivered to your table.

If nightclubs are not your scene, take an evening bum-boat ride from Clarke Quay or Boat Quay. On Wednesday and Friday nights they are open from 8pm to 8.30pm. The charge is S$10 for half an hour. Or take a trip through the jungle on the Night Safari, when a tram takes visitors to see nocturnal creatures on the prowl, or just stroll through the cramped and scented streets around Serangoon Road in Little India.

Shopping

For computers and accessories, the Funan Centre, 109 North Bridge Road, is a must. It is not nicknamed the IT Mall for nothing. The Sim Lim Tower (corner of Bencoolen Street and Rochor Road) is the place for electronics, and Ngee Ann City on Orchard Road for western clothes. On duty-free goods you will be charged a 3 per cent goods and services tax (GST) but you will also get a certificate that you must show to Customs on your departure to get that tax refunded (in the currency of your choice).

Musthafa's department store on Syed Alwi Road, off Serangoon Road in Little India, is arguably the best all-round shopping in town. Whether it is knock-down socks from Leicester or a Japanese Walkman at half the price, Musthafa will stock it. Around Arab Street there are numerous shops selling carpets, rugs, medicines and saris. They are run by the descendants of Muslim traders from Malaysia and Java.

Deals and packages

Airline Network (tel: 01772 727757) is offering return flights with British Airways or Qantas (via Frankfurt or Rome) and five nights' accommodation at a four-star hotel from £439, based on two sharing, if you travel up to 30 November 1999. This includes airport taxes but not transfers. It offers the same deal with Singapore Airlines between January and June 2000 for £529.

Travelmood (tel: 08705 001002) is offering return flights up to the end of November with Malaysian Airways and five nights at a three-star hotel for £499, based on two sharing, including taxes, transfers and a half-day city tour. It offers the same deal but with British Airways between 16 January and 30 June 2000 for £519.

Further information

Contact Singapore Tourist Board (tel: 08080 656565; website: www.newasia-singapore.com).

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