Today a new theme park from Universal Studios joins Singapore's first-ever casino on the list of attractions at Sentosa Island.

An island attached to an island attached to an island: that was where I was heading. What concerned me was that I had control over neither my speed nor my direction and was attached only to a piece of string (well, a steel wire), spinning involuntarily to get a full 360-degree view of the gravity of my situation.

Gravity had grabbed me from a perch in the middle of a patch of rainforest and was refusing to let go. I was being dragged 1,400ft towards what – when I momentarily faced in the direction of travel – appeared to be a delicate desert isle that could probably do without anyone slamming into it at speed.

As I accelerated, it seemed as though the treetops were stretching up to tickle my toes. By the time I reached terminal velocity (on this ride, a thankfully non-fatal 30mph), I was whizzing above palms that stood guard over a vanilla beach. Adrenalin gave way to friction, which kicked in as I began the short flight over the sea. By the time I tumbled into the netting at the far end I was relieved, elated and ready for another spin.

The tiny patch of sand where I landed is connected by a boardwalk to pint-sized isle – Sentosa – which in turn is linked by a causeway to the island of Singapore.

Sentosa, a knuckle of sandstone draped in forest and perforated by respectable beaches, was once one of the most despised postings for British servicemen. At Fort Siloso – a collection of awkward structures at the far west of the island – you learn that those who survived the 10-week sea voyage from Portsmouth became an easy target for all manner of maladies and mosquitoes. But starting today, this island hopes to be on the map of thrill-seekers from across the globe.

MegaZip, the suspense thriller that gives you more of a grin than a Singapore Sling, is a new Australian-run attraction. But it is a mere aperitif for the most exciting theme park in the tropics: Universal Studios, across the far side of the hill, which has its "soft opening" today and opens for business properly on Thursday. Employees and their families will be first to ride a safely terrifying rollercoaster. As in California and Florida, Universal aims to outclass Disney with scarier rides augmented by big-budget spectaculars that make you feel like you have strayed on to a movie set.

But unlike in America, once you have ridden your luck on the attractions, you can test your good fortune (and possibly lose one) in Singapore's first casino. The city-state is betting that the year of the tiger will change its destiny – and reputation. Everything is focused on turning the former military stronghold of Sentosa into a fun factory – with added rainforest.

Singapore, like the Isle of Wight, is a diamond-shaped island dangling from a much larger landmass. But the Isle of Wight does not sweat like a satay on a skewer, since it is more than a cartographer's smudge from the equator. And neither does it carry a Foreign Office warning that "littering, jaywalking, spitting, feeding birds in public places, chewing gum on the local transport system, and failing to flush public lavatories are civic crimes and attract instant fines". It's enough to make you stay in the transit lounge. Indeed, many travellers regard the swimming pool, cactus garden and shops of Changi airport (SIN, as it is abbreviated) as a good enough proxy for the city of Singapore.

Not any more. Singapore is starting to live up to its airport code: this crowded yet ordered land is turning upside-down. Only the phone number for the island's first casino stays the same: it is 8888, which remains intact when inverted. You may not be amazed to learn that Chinese superstition holds 8 to be a lucky number.

As Singapore swerves from dowdy to daring, creating a new, edgier image, the bid to win hearts and minds is centred on Sentosa. For years this appendage just south of the city of Singapore has offered a humdrum assortment of second-division tourist attractions, plus some genuine patches of rainforest such as the one I flew over.

The island served as a low-effort alternative to more exotic excursions into neighbouring Indonesia or Malaysia. But as competition for tourists intensified, the Singapore government decided to extend Sentosa's sensations. As Universal provides teenage kicks, adults are invited to worship at the shrine of the most important deity in Singapore's considerable spiritual pantheon: not Buddha, nor Christ, but money.

If you can create a gambler's paradise amid the Mojave Desert, the thinking goes, you can create a casino amid a straitlaced state. Move over, Vegas; viva Sentosa.

When I arrived in the sultry city last month, I interviewed Rostam Umar, Singapore Tourist Board's executive director for communications, about new developments in the city-state. When I listened back, I realised that at no point did he say the word "casino". Instead, he talked coyly of "integrated resorts". The same applies to the Singapore in Spring magazine, which devotes a page to Resorts World Sentosa without sullying the page by mentioning the possibility of a flutter on the tables.

But when you take the escalator down through a dazzle of red and gold to the heart of the Resorts World Sentosa complex, the purpose is plain in any language. Foreigners bearing passports are ushered in for free. But Singaporeans start their battle with the bank from a position of being S$100 (£45) down: the government imposes a daily charge to try to deter residents from reckless gambling.

The casino is not intended as a local amenity. It is aimed squarely at you and me – and, more particularly, millions of Asian visitors. Malaysians are already taking overnight buses from their capital, Kuala Lumpur, to Sentosa. They spend the daylight hours at the casino, then return by night, having lost only one day – and, despite the casino signs promising "the winning never stops", probably some cash.

Talking of daylight, I found some. I spent about an hour in the casino, and came out a few dollars down. Not because I gambled (a maths degree may be of limited use to a writer, but it makes you wary of games of chance when the house has an in-built edge) but because I discovered the cheapest food and drink in Singapore, all in a little corner that is splashed with sunshine.

In this trade, it is incumbent upon me to suggest that the chicken V Cfeet dim sum were more appetising than their name suggests, and indeed tasted a little of chicken, but I do so without enthusiasm. Handily, the complex panoply of Singapore cuisine is on offer, so I can strongly recommend the vegetarian curry with roti. Even with a hot, sweet tea, lunch will set back those of us unfortunate enough to be burdened with Sterling by only a couple of pounds. Then you can wander through the cacophony of slot machines, their assonance giving Arnold Schoenberg a run for his Singapore dollars, with unwholesome aurul punctuation every time bulk coinage is regurgitated. Decorum prevailed at the tables of blackjack and Progressive Texas Hold 'Em, while dozens of gamblers were quietly transfixed by the roulette wheel. Then I made my way back to real life. Or, at least, Hollywood.

Those who prefer to risk cash in search of an emotional return on investment will be happy with the two-dozen rides packed into a tight site just east of the casino. When Universal comes to Singapore, it has to be cannily crammed into a space about the size of one of the overflow car parks at an American theme park. Which has the happy result of concentrating excitement, and concentrating the minds of the designers to extract the maximum thrills from a minimal area.

I had a sneak preview last month. Plenty of extras were on duty: escapees from Madagascar and Jurassic Park, augmented by some very tall members of the Army of Anubis. Overhead, the park's signature ride was being put through its paces. Universal's adrenalin addicts have created a twin-track rollercoaster, Battlestar Galactica, whose intestinal tracks are as knotted as the average rider's stomach.

After all that excitement, you need a lie down. The Rasa Sentosa, part of the Shangri-La family, matches any upmarket Mediterranean resort hotel, with the added advantage of no risk, ever, that you will feel a chill. The property is theatrical in design, with balconies forming an arc to allow their guests to admire the finely apportioned grounds, the silver ribbon of beach and the endless ocean. Except that the endless ocean happens to be about the busiest stretch of water on the planet.

You know how, at airports, railway stations and hotels, you sometimes see an incredibly long line of taxis? The cargo ship business in Singapore is like that. Hundreds of ships lie at anchor a few miles offshore while they wait for the dice of international haulage to roll in their direction before the next voyage, west into the Indian Ocean or east into the Pacific. Oh, and there is also the largest oil refinery on earth, taking up the islands of Sebarok, Bukum and Ayer Chawan and adding an artificial glow to the naturally impressive sunsets.

In the grounds of the Rasa Sentosa, a plaque reads "This is the Most Southern Point of SE Asia". An important place in the world, then – and about to get a lot more attention. From high finance to high excitement: Singapore has kicked off her shoes, and the world is invited to the coming-of-age party.

Travel essentials: Singapore

Getting there

* Simon Calder flew from Heathrow on Singapore Airlines (020-8750 2708; ), which also flies from Manchester. The fare he paid – £411 return – was a short-term special and current fares are significantly higher. You can also fly from Heathrow on British Airways (0844 493 0787; ) and Qantas (0845 774 7767; ), and from UK airports via the Gulf on carriers such as Etihad (0800 731 9384; ) and Emirates (0870 243 2222; ).

Staying there

* The writer stayed at the Rasa Sentosa Resort (00 65 6275 0100; ) but it closes on Monday for refurbishment; it is due to open early next year. An alternative is the Costa Sands Resort (00 65 6275 1034; ), which offers favourable rates to members of Hostelling International. The full peak-time rate for a "superior" hut for four is S$150 (£70) per night, excluding breakfast.

Getting around

* Invest in an EZ-Link card, a stored-value "smartcard" primarily intended for use on buses and MRT trains; S$5 (£2.25) is a non-refundable deposit, while S$10 (£4.50) is the minimum initial balance. Most journeys cost between S$1 (£0.45) and S$3 (£1.40). The card also works to pay the S$5 (£2.25) fee for admission to Sentosa, in the form of the monorail that runs from Harbourfront MRT station to three stations on the island. Taxis are cheap and reliable, but you have to pay a S$5 (£2.25) surcharge for access to Sentosa or when calling a cab to take you from the island. Free shuttle buses run on Sentosa.

More information

* Resorts World Sentosa, which runs the casino and Universal Studios: 00 65 6577 8888;

* MegaZip: 00 65 6274 1213; ; S$29 (£13) per ride


From safari to bumboat: Top 10 family treats

1. Night Safari

The jet-lagged traveller's dream. Singapore has a perfectly respectable zoo, but right next door is the chance of an after-dark encounter with creatures who are more active at night than during a sweltering equatorial day. The Night Safari (00 65 6269 3411; ) is a well-organised and fun adventure that offers toy trains and walking trails to take you through the jungle, plus entertainment such as fire-eating – and good eating opportunities into the bargain (for you, not the animals). To reach it, take the MRT to Ang Mo Kio, then bus 138. Adults S$22 (£10), children S$15 (£7).

2. River adventure

Wooden "bumboats" used to transport cargo from ships in the harbour, but now carry tourists gently along the Singapore River (00 65 6336 6111; ). A trip starting at Clarke Quay, and going past the shop houses of Boat Quay, the Colonial District and into the Marina costs S$15 (£7); 9am-11pm daily.

3. Tiptoe through the treetops

The patches of nature that remain are most miraculously observed from the elevated walkways that start on either side of Alexandra Road. On one side, "HortPark" is a series of gardens that, if you follow it far enough, leads west to a canopy walkway. Good fun – but even better is to head east on a jungle adventure that includes spectacular engineering as well as verdant views.

4. Eye on Singapore

The world's highest observation wheel, the Singapore Flyer (pictured), spins slowly at 30 Raffles Avenue (00 65 6333 3311; ) – and rises an impressive 30 metres taller than the London Eye. The 28 capsules offer bird's-eye views of the Singapore River, Marina Bay, Raffles Place and the armadillo-like concert halls of the Esplanades Theatres. On a clear day you can see as far as Indonesia's Riau Archipelago to the south, and peninsular Malaysia to the north. Open 8.30am-10.30pm daily, tickets from S$29.50 (£14).

5. Civilised defence

Fort Canning ( ) was an early British military creation, topping the hill just north of the river very close to the city centre. The main feature now is a large reservoir, but memorials to the British era are dotted about – most poignantly in the "Battle Box" (open 10am-6pm daily), the underground bunker where officers capitulated to Japanese forces in 1942.

6. Country escape

Kranji is an association of farms and agricultural ventures that now has its own "farmstay" experience (00 65 6862 9717; ). If you only make an afternoon trip here, visit Bollywood Veggies (00 65 6898 5001; ; 9am-6pm daily, S$2/90p) – a delightful organic farm and café. Take the MRT to Kranji, from where there's an hourly farm shuttle.

7. Coastal cycle

In East Coast Park, close to McDonald's (the landmark for taxi drivers), track down Cycland – a bike hire outlet where you can rent a rusty pair of wheels for a reasonable S$5 (£2.20) for two hours, or a tandem for twice as much, and make the most of well-kept cycle trails along the shore, with patches of beach.

8. Dental diversion

The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple at 288 South Bridge Road (00 65 6220 0220; ) occupies an entire block of Chinatown. The pagoda-style temple houses what is believed to be one of the Buddha's teeth, kept in a decorative series of locked caskets. The riotous red and gold décor is elaborated by trinket-peddling stalls. Open daily 7am-7pm, admission free.

9. Malaysian excursion

Assess your children's readiness for exposure to "real" Asia with a day trip to the Malaysian border city of Johor Bahru. Take the train from Singapore's little-used railway station (once the majestic terminus for South-east Asia) and, after a bit of border bureaucracy, sample the street-life, spirituality and shopping of a much bigger but less wealthy country.

10. Airport swim

Before you move on or fly home, take the plunge in a swimming pool that is simultaneously airside (above Terminal 1) and open air. Carry your costume in your hand luggage, and you can splash around in a decent-sized pool before that 14-hour long haul (00 65 6546 5357; . The price of S$13.91 (£6) includes a soft drink.

Simon Calder and Sophie Lam