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In its own way, Singapore is an oasis in Southeast Asia. It enjoys a low crime rate, and its infrastructure -- from road and mass-transit systems to a state-of-the-art airport at Changi -- is highly sophisticated. The city also is clean -- so much so that, for years, people were forbidden by law to chew gum in its streets, and eating on the subway can result in a heavy fine. This modern and dynamic destination -- which ranks either as a pro or a con, depending on your sensibilities -- is to cities what Disney is to theme parks.
Technically a city-state, Singapore, connected with manmade bridges to Malaysia, is made up of a main island and more than 60 surrounding islets. The mainland spans 42 kilometers east to west and 23 kilometers north to south. In the north, it shares a border with Malaysia; in the south, islands belonging to Indonesia can be visited via a short ferry ride. Singapore is located just north of the equator and is sultry, tropical and humid year-round.
Singapore is one of the world's biggest banking and transportation hubs. It's one of the most popular stopovers for folks traveling between Europe and Australia. Yet, Singapore is among the 20 smallest nations in the world -- though with 4 million people (6,430 per square kilometer), it's also the second most densely populated country. Despite busy streets, shopping areas and public transportation, it normally does not feel as crowded as large U.S. city centers. Its modern design helps eliminate any feeling of congestion.
Like Hong Kong, Singapore is a city with great cultural diversity, well-developed infrastructure and a very cosmopolitan feeling. Popular with cruise lines for day-long port calls, as well as embarkation, Singapore is easily navigable, with most tourist attractions concentrated in three areas: Orchard Road, the colonial district and Sentosa.
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While Singapore is undoubtedly a shopping mecca with the most famous labels and brands from around the world, you can find more local buys at the Singapore Handicraft Center in Chinatown. Merchants sell jade carvings, bronze statues and other crafts in the five-floor complex. Less serious shoppers can find items like Merlion (a fictitious creature with a lion's head and a fish's body -- a symbol of Singapore) keychains, statues or Tiger balm in all souvenir shops.
With a large amount of expats from all over the world, it's no wonder the country has four official languages: English, Tamil, Chinese and Malay. English is the language of business and administration. Most Singaporeans, from taxi drivers to hotel staff, speak English.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Local currency is the Singapore dollar; check for the most updated rates at Oando and XE, Major credit cards and traveler's checks are widely accepted. ATM's can be found easily, both in the airport and the Singapore Cruise Centre, which also houses a shopping centre. There are surcharges for using ATM's. Banks are normally open from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on Saturday.
Where You're Docked
Since 2012, Singapore has had two separate cruise terminals. Previously, most ships docked at the Singapore Cruise Centre, which is part of the large Harbourfront Centre and VivoCity, about a 10- to 15-minute taxi drive from downtown. With the arrival of the larger mega-ships to Asia, Singapore has also constructed a new facility, Marina Bay Cruise Centre, which is located at the southernmost tip of the country.
Star Cruises uses Singapore Cruise Centre, as does Holland America and some other lines operating smaller ships. Cruise lines with mega-ships, such as Celebrity, Cunard, Princess and Royal Caribbean, have moved their port calls and occasional turnarounds to the new Marina Bay facility.
The dramatic new Marina Bay Cruise Centre -- an iconic facility itself -- is large enough to accommodate two mega-ships at the same time. It is located next to Singapore's new downtown district (which is still in the planning and construction stages), but there are currently no large shopping facilities in walking distance. The terminal itself features one convenience store.
The closest attraction is the massive new Marina Bay Sands -- an integrated resort with a hotel, shopping center and casino. The new terminal is near a Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) station. Cruise lines provide shuttle service to the station.
If your ship is docked at the Singapore Cruise Centre, you're right in the heart of the VivoCity shopping mall. Though it's not as glitzy as downtown malls (though it's said to be the largest in Singapore), you'll find all the necessities and then some, including McDonald's and Costa Coffee, ATM's and sporting goods stores.
Downtown is a 10-minute cab trip (or an easy ride on the ultra-clean MRT), though visitors wanting to head over to Sentosa Island and Mount Faber can hop on the cable car or a train, which is adjacent to the center.
The MRT offers a fast and efficient way to travel around Singapore. The system is clean, safe and air-conditioned; it features three separate rail lines, one of which stops at the Singapore Cruise Centre. Signage is in English.
More than 15,000 taxi cabs are available in Singapore, so getting one is pretty easy. Two kinds of taxis are available: Comfort City Cabs, which are mainly cheaper and older (but air-conditioned) Toyotas, and SMRT taxis, which are Mercedes-Benzes that come with higher fares.
The network of city buses is also extensive and affordable, though there are differences in fares between air-conditioned and non-air-conditioned buses.
Watch Out For
Singapore's tropical climate is hot, soupy and tiring, so don't plan too ambitious of a day, and balance outdoor activities with time inside.
Every day is a shopping day in Singapore, as the city is a well-established retail Mecca. Most malls and department stores are open daily from 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. (The Mustafa Center in Little India operates round-the-clock, and it has an awesome selection of cheap goods -- but no alcohol or books.)
Orchard Road, particularly at its junction with Scotts Road, is the place to start -- and possibly finish. (Take the MRT to the Orchard Road station.) The area offers a vast array of retailers, such as Tangs department store and the fantastic Kinokuniya, a vast bookstore that ranks as the most comprehensive in Singapore. Popular shopping centers also include the ION Orchard, Wisma Atria and Ngee Ann City. The last of which houses the Japanese department store Takashimaya (which even has a department of London's famed Harrods); the food court on the basement level is a great place for lunch and people-watching.
Take time to stroll at Boat Quay, which is a mixed development of old wharf houses (converted to commercial use -- mainly as restaurants) and modern skyscrapers of international corporations. During the night, the Boat Quay is a bustling spot, with ethnic restaurants serving every type of Asian meals.
Close to Boat Quay, Esplanade -- Theatres on the Bay is undoubtedly the largest and most comprehensive performance arts venue in Singapore. Nicknamed the "Durian" by the locals, the complex resembles the round, spiky and notoriously pungent Southeast Asian fruit in its design. Located under the distinctive dome-shaped floors are a concert hall, theater, several recital rooms and an arts library, as well as an array of shops and food outlets. Esplanade also features an outdoor bar on the roof terrace, Orgo, which offers great views overlooking the bay.
Singapore is flat, so you can get a great view of the city from the City Space bar on the 70th floor of the Swissotel Singapore. Across the street is a more famous spot for libations: the Singapore Sling was invented at Raffles hotel's Long Bar. The Long Bar is, perhaps, the most touristy spot in town. Prepare to pay for the pleasure; on our trip, a pair of cocktails cost about $45. And, by the way, it's not the "real" Long Bar; this one is, according to Raffles' Web site, "inspired by the Malayan plantations of the 1920's."
Singapore's colonial district, which lies roughly between Boat Quay and the vast Raffles City shopping and hotel complex, is full of charm. Among the sites that hearken back to the city's English past are the Old Parliament House, the gorgeous Fullerton Hotel (which used to be the General Post Office), the Anglican St. Andrew's Cathedral and the Singapore Cricket Club.
Put your camera to work at the lush Singapore Botanic Gardens, a 120-plus-acre playground for nature lovers. The site features a rain forest, lake and all manner of gardens -- some showcasing medicinal herbs, others different types of ginger. The National Orchid Garden is there, as well. (There's no fee to visit the Botanic Gardens, but there is an admission charge for the orchid garden.)
One of Singapore's newest attractions -- conveniently located close to the Marina Bay Cruise Centre -- is Gardens by the Bay. It opened at the end of 2011, and visitors can stroll through several domed gardens, such as the Cloud Forest and Flower Dome. Its “vertical gardens,” called Supertree Grove, are gaining acclaim.
The Singapore Zoo, one of many animal parks in the country, offers a chance for visitors to have breakfast with an orangutan. The zoo features more than 3,200 mammals, birds, reptiles and fish in its 70-acre park.
Singapore's Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system -- in essence, a subway -- is a tourist attraction in its own right. It's the cleanest you'll ever see -- no trash and no graffiti. You buy tickets from an automated machine, so make sure you get cash from an ATM beforehand. You'll need to use S$5 (Singapore) bills or smaller. A good sample ride is the two-stop trip between Orchard Road and City Hall (for the colonial district).
Been There, Done That
A Singapore River cruise, starting from Boat Quay, offers dramatic views for just a few bucks. It takes you, among other places, to the Merlion statue, which is a symbol of modern Singapore. The 70-ton icon towers more than 28 feet (8.6 meters) and has a lion's head and a fish's body, resting on a crest of waves. The Merlion was originally designed in 1964 as the emblem of the Singapore Tourist Board.
Go to the beach. The only spits of sand in Singapore are located on Sentosa Island, but we'll warn you: Most locals don't actually swim there. Siloso, Palawan and Tanjong represent the popular beaches. (Siloso overlooks oil refineries on the opposite shore.) If you are looking for history, 1880-built Fort Siloso is the place to go. The ride over to the island on the cable car from the Harbourfront Centre is the best part of the outing! On the way, you'll see gorgeous views of the city and cruise ships docked underneath.
Visit Universal Studios -- Asian style. Sentosa Island has received a major facelift, with new hotels and attractions, including Universal Studios. Singapore's second casino and a Hard Rock Hotel also are located next to the studios.
Another exciting outdoor experience is the canopy walk in the Southern Ridges. The six-mile walk can be started from Mount Faber Park (conveniently close to the Singapore Cruise Centre). On the walk, you'll see the rich vegetation of Singapore and wild monkeys.
Singapore offers great variety when it comes to its food, whether you're craving local Asian tastes or gourmet dining. Simply want to visit an international food chain? They are well represented and range from McDonald's, KFC and Starbucks to Coffee Bean, Hard Rock Cafe and Delifrance.
Various "dining districts" also are filled with restaurant choices.
Near Boat Quay is Clarke Quay, a waterfront strip of pubs, wine bars and restaurants. Cuisines represented include French, Turkish, Italian, Spanish (tapas), Japanese and Vietnamese.
In Little India, you'll find all manner of Indian eateries.
The hottest restaurant in the area around the Esplanade/Raffles City is My Humble House, known for its contemporary take on Chinese cuisine. Advance reservations are strongly recommended -- we weren't able to get a seat on our trip. Adjacent is a more casual (still chic, still popular) spin-off called Space@My Humble House; we couldn't get in there, either!
On Orchard Road, there's a huge variety of eating places. One of our favorites was the food hall in the basement of Takashimaya, a Japanese department store.
The Singapore Botanic Gardens' Au Jardin, with both inside and alfresco seating, is a lovely spot for lunch. It's no surprise that it spotlights cuisine prepared with locally sourced ingredients, but the menu's originality is delightful. Try the black-pepper soft-shell crabs and vanilla-scented chicken in a ginger nougat parfait.
Best for Families: Though quite a splurge, the Marina Bay Sands offers a lot for families. With one of the most breathtaking infinity pools in the world, this 2,561-room integrated resort provides formal and casual dining options, easy access to the shopping center, a pathway to Gardens by the Bay and even a skating rink.
For a Peaceful Retreat: The Capella Singapore, a blend of historic and contemporary architecture, is located on a lush and sprawling 30-acre spot on Sentosa Island.
For an In-town Splurge: Cruise Critic members rave about the St. Regis Singapore. (One reported that she enjoyed brunch at its restaurant while the King of Thailand's family was dining there.) It's just off of Orchard Road.
For the Hipster: The ultra-contemporary Quincy is a 108-room boutique hotel that, interestingly, operates on an all-inclusive basis. (Meals, airport transportation and Internet connectivity are included in the cost of your room.)
Staying in Touch
At the Singapore Cruise Centre, a departure-level restaurant offers free Internet surfing to all of its patrons.
Best for First-Timers: The most basic Singapore city tour takes participants to Chinatown's old streets and alleys, which are preserved amid modern skyscrapers. One must-see stop is the Sri Mariamman Temple, built in 1827. It's the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore. An exploration of the Botanic Gardens allows you to view some of the park's 12,000 orchids. Photo opportunities along the way include Orchard Road, Raffles Hotel, Parliament House and Mount Faber.
Best for City Scenes: After a short bus ride from Marina Bay Cruise Centre to the Raffles landing site, tour participants board a bumboat, which sails along the Singapore River. These low-slung boats once were used for commercial trading, but today, they are used for leisure purposes and to give tourists a chance to experience a taste of traditional Singapore mingling with its ultra-modern skyscrapers. After the boat tour, you'll typically visit the more-than-180-year-old Fu Tak Chi Museum and the Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple in Chinatown.
Best for Overnight Visitors: If you're staying overnight, visit Singapore's Night Safari -- the first wildlife park in the world built for after-hours visits. Night Safari offers a chance to get acquainted with the nightlife of some 1,200 animals of 110 different species. The animals are presented in their natural environments for the purpose of conservation, education and recreation. On this four-hour tour, you can choose to ride an open-air tram through the park or stroll along the walking trails.
For More Information
On the Web: Singapore Tourism
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Asia
IndependentTraveler.com: Asia Travel Guide
-- By Teijo Niemela, Cruise Critic contributor