Tropical punch

Tropical punch

The island state of Singapore is a sultry clash of green spaces, skyscrapers and tradition, Tess Paterson discovers

There is an intriguing dichotomy to the tiny island state of Singapore. To begin with, it’s steamy and hot, with humidity levels far exceeding the hottest December you’ve ever spent on the KwaZulu-Natal coast. Leaving Changi Airport, our taxi driver declares that the sizzling temperature is ‘cooling to 34°C.’ Minutes later, jet-lagged and dishevelled, we’re in the soaring double-volume lobby of the Shangri-La Hotel. All is cool, serene, unruffled. It’s air-con heaven, fresh to the point of icy, and any discomfort evaporates.

City of contrasts

It has been a profitable half century since Singapore declared its independence from Malaysia. From modest beginnings, it now ranks as the third largest financial centre in the world. As personas go, the city state is law-abiding, multicultural, ambitious and highly skilled, with a good reputation for being one of the world’s easiest places to do business in. The upshot is a lot of disposable income, manifested in its spotless, affluent verticality.

The skyline is mind-blowing – a 3D bar graph of soaring, high-tech architecture best seen after dark. One of the coolest (if touristy) places to be is the observation deck on top of Moshe Safdie’s Marina Bay Sands. For about R230, you can marvel at views that stretch from the durian-esque Esplanade Theatre to the now legendary Gardens by the Bay. In the glow of dusk, hundreds of ships’ lights twinkle in the Singapore Strait, a gentle reminder that this is the biggest trans-shipment hub in the world.

In contrast to the sanitised gloss of the financial district, historic areas such as Chinatown and Little India are testaments to the city’s roots. To explore the latter, we took a taxi to Serangoon Road, starting at the Sri Veeramakaliamman Hindu temple. A complete onslaught of vibrant colour, the entrance has a fantastic multi-friezed tower rising above candy-striped walls. Hustled through the doors, we were given an impromptu walkabout by a priest. In awe, I took in the garlanded statue of the goddess Kali, the intricate carved cornices and the platters of edible offerings. The air was like soup; the temple crowded, visually chaotic and welcoming.

Collecting our shoes at the door, we headed out for Buffalo Road, with its pavement stalls of fruit and vegetables. Knobbly bitter melons and daikon radishes were piled high in-between big bunches of lotus flowers. Golden statues of deities looked on.

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Eat, drink, love

With a rich heritage that includes Chinese, Indian and Malay influences, Singaporeans are, quite understandably, fanatical about food. Restaurant awards are numerous and stringently judged, nudging up the standards (and the costs) to outrageously high levels. For around R3 500 per person, you could dine at the impossibly trendy Restaurant André – placed third in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants for 2016. Or, you could join the straight-from-work crowd as they gather en masse in hawker centres across the city.

We fell for Lau Pa Sat straight away, a hawker stalwart of the financial hub, which has a stunning cast-iron colonial construction. It’s a playground for food-lovers, with each stall more enticing than the last. I couldn’t decide between the succulent satays with peanut sauce or the Fuzhou oyster cakes. Then I spied lamb rogan josh and a huddle of steamed buns (called pau) filled with barbecued pork. Bee hoon soup beckoned, adding to the confusion. Utterly torn, we pondered the options over a couple of icy Tiger beers.

Singapore’s skyline is just made for refreshing sundowners, and rooftops have long been the place to hang with the cool set. ‘Free-flow’ alcohol was a totally new concept to us – the idea of paying a set amount (anything from R400–R600) for an unlimited selection of wines and spirits. At 282m, One Raffles Place has the tallest rooftop bar with simply staggering vistas. We had an equally enjoyable evening on the 10th-storey pool deck of the Naumi Hotel, a chilled, intimate space where a gin and tonic tasted like heaven on earth.

Breakfasts in Singapore are in a league of their own, ranging from Cantonese-style wonton noodles to dim sum and white carrot cake (actually an omelette or white radish combo with hints of pickled veg). Trying to nurse my jet lag in a startlingly overlit restaurant in the Suntec City Mall, I inadvertently ordered a cup of kopi. This Singaporean coffee is truly exquisite – a slightly sweet, aromatic treat that’s brewed in tall, long-spouted pots using a cotton-sack infuser.

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Out and about

Despite its mall-based culture, Singapore has no shortage of outdoor activities, from hiring a yacht and swimming off Lazarus Island, to a night-time bicycle tour or taking in a light show at the giant supertrees. The Singapore Botanic Gardens was first on my list, and I arrived at this tropical nirvana just before a violent storm. Thunder boomed and echoed in stereo, sending the joggers scattering and the expat wives with prams scurrying for shelter. Seconds later, sheets of rain turned the world opaque. If a young Mel Gibson had only walked past, it could have been the monsoon scene from The Year of Living Dangerously. Then, just as suddenly, the deluge ceased. Dripping tourists headed to the coffee shop, a t’ai chi class re-grouped serenely, and I set out on an unforgettable garden meander.

Founded a century and a half ago, the gardens are a serene counterpoint to the frenetic city rhythms. Against a bower of yellow orchids, you can watch weekday brides sporting Nikes and posing for their official wedding photos. Delicate blooms aside (the garden has more than 1 000 orchid species) there are some incredible heritage trees, including impossibly vast kapok trees and a Malayan terminalia that’s a staggering 47m tall. And don’t miss the ginger garden, with its plastic-looking Heliconia flowers. In short, this lush green lung is invaluable, a humid marvel perfect for concerts and weekend picnics, and quiet reflection.

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I heart shopping

Singapore is a shrine to all things retail, with a seemingly unending number of malls, both above and below ground. Orchard Road is their version of the
UK’s Bond Street, with ION Orchard and Takashimaya just two of the stand-out centres. From agnès b to Ermenegildo Zegna, all is outrageously droolworthy and luxe, putting me in a mild panic. Am I really tempted by the Kate Spade resin clutch that resembles an adorable cartoon steamboat? Or the peony-print silk dress from Shanghai Tang?

The counterpoint to the global brands is a thriving local fashion scene. In Good Company and Collate offer everything from classic capsule wardrobes to edgy streetwear. Haji Lane in Kampong Glam is a good spot for homegrown boutiques, including Zhai. I made my sole purchase of the trip here: a bamboo-fibre blouse that’s perfect for a Joburg heatwave.

Photography: Gallo/GettyImages, National Geographic Stock, Courtesy Images
October/November 2016

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