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In its own way, Singapore is an oasis in Southeast Asia. It's crime free, and its infrastructure -- from road and mass-transit systems to a state-of-the-art airport at Changi -- is outstandingly sophisticated. The city itself 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! As well, Singapore is modern and dynamic. This could be a pro or con, depending on individual sensibilities: Singapore is more sterile than any city in the world. Singapore is to cities like Disney is to theme parks.
Technically a city-state, Singapore, connected with manmade bridges to Malaysia, is actually an island -- and not just one. It includes a main island and more than 60 surrounding islets. The mainland is 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 biggest banking and transportation hubs, not only in the region, but also in the world. 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 four million people (6,430 per square kilometer), it's also the second most densely populated country in the world. There are a lot of people in the streets and shopping areas and on public transportation, but it normally does not feel as crowded as large city centers in the United States. As a matter of fact, the modern design of the city has helped to 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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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
On our recent visit, the Singapore dollar was valued at $1 U.S. to S$1.44 and 2.40 GBP; check for the most updated rates at www.xe.com. 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 center. 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
Cruise shops dock at two different facilities.
Most ships dock at Singapore Cruise Centre (SCC), which is part of the Harbourfront Centre, about a 10- to 15-minute taxi drive from downtown. A second cruise facility -- Marina Bay Cruise Centre, which opened in 2012 -- offers spots for larger ships to dock.
If your ship is docked at the Singapore Cruise Centre, you're right in the heart of the Harbourfront Centre's shopping mall. Though it's not as glitzy as downtown malls, 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 Mass Rapid Transit) away, though visitors wanting to head over to Sentosa Island and Mount Faber can hop on the cable car, which is adjacent to the center.
Those whose ships are docked at the container port have no facilities and must take a taxi or shuttle to downtown. Cruise lines do provide shuttles, though some charge a fee. The ride from the container pier to the heart of Orchard Road's shopping district, where passengers are dropped off, takes about 25 minutes.
The Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) is a fast and efficient way to travel around Singapore. MRT is clean, safe and air-conditioned, and it has three separate lines, one of which stops at the Singapore Cruise Centre. Signage is in English.
There are more than 15,000 taxi cabs available in Singapore, so getting one is pretty easy. There are two kinds of taxis 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!)
Orchard Road, particularly at its junction with Scotts Road, is the place to start -- and possibly finish. It offers a vast array of retailers, such as the C.K. Tangs Department Store and the fantastic Kinokuniya, a vast bookstore that's the most comprehensive in Singapore. Popular shopping centers also include the Wisma Atria and Ngee Ann City. The latter 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 on the Boat Quay, which is a mixed development of old wharf houses (converted to commercial use -- mainly as restaurants) and then modern skyscrapers of international corporations. During the night, Boat Quay is a bustling place of ethnic restaurants serving every type of Asian meals the locals -- or tourists -- may be craving.
Close to the Boat Quay is one of Singapore's newest attractions: Nicknamed "Durian" by the locals, it resembles the round, spiky and notoriously pungent Southeast Asian fruit, Esplanade. Theatres on the Bay is undoubtedly the largest and most comprehensive performance arts venue in Singapore. Located under the complex's distinctive dome-shaped floors are a concert hall, a theatre, several recital rooms and an arts library, as well as an array of shops and food outlets.
As Singapore is flat, you can get a great view of the city from the City Space bar on the 70th floor of the Fairmont Singapore. Literally 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 S $55. 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 the 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 Church and the Singapore Critic Club. Shoppers can also duck into the vast Raffles City mall for retail recreation.
Nowhere in Singapore are gardens more lush than at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, a 120-plus-acre playground for nature lovers. There's a rainforest, a lake and all manner of gardens -- some showcasing things like medicinal herbs, while others feature 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.
The Singapore Zoo, one of many animal parks in Singapore, offers a chance to feast with an orangutan. Singapore Zoo has more than 3,200 mammals, birds, reptiles and fish in this 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 bills or smaller. A good taster 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 the Boat Quay, offers dramatic views for just a few bucks. It takes you, among other places, to The Merlion, which is a symbol of modern Singapore. The 70-ton statue 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 for the emblem of the Singapore Tourist Board.
Go to the beach. The only spits of sand in Singapore are located on Sentosa Island (which also features a variety of tired and worn family-oriented attractions like Underwater World, Dolphin Lagoon, Butterfly Park and Insect Kingdom). But we'll warn you: Most locals don't actually swim there. The popular beaches are Siloso, Palawan and Tanjong. (Silosa 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, there are gorgeous views of the city and of cruise ships docked underneath.
Singapore has great variety when it comes to dining, whether you're craving local Asian tastes or gourmet dining. Simply want to visit on an international food chain? They are well-represented in Singapore and range from McDonald's, KFC and Starbucks to Coffee Bean, Hard Rock Cafe and Delifrance.
There are various "dining districts" 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 Garden, Au Jardin, with both inside and alfresco seating, is a lovely spot for lunch. It's no surprise that it spotlights cuisine using 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.
The most basic Singapore city tour takes participants to Chinatown's old streets and alleys, which are preserved in the middle of 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 129-acre Botanical Gardens gives a chance to see part of the garden's 12,000 orchids. Photo opportunities along the way include Orchard Road, Raffles Hotel, Parliament House and Mount Faber.
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 park is open from 7:30 p.m. until midnight. (The last ticket sale is at 11 p.m.) The animals are presented in their natural environments for the purpose of conservation, education and recreation.
Best for Families: The Regent Singapore is located within walking distance of the Orchard Road, and it's a block away from the Hard Rock Cafe. This 439-room hotel has two restaurants and two bars, baby-sitting service, complimentary children's amenities and services, a fitness center and an outdoor pool.
For a Peaceful Splurge: 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. (In addition to your room, meals, airport transportation and Internet connectivity are included.)
Staying in Touch
At the Singapore Cruise Centre, a departure-level restaurant offers free Internet surfing to all of its patrons.
For More Information
On the Web: www.visitsingapore.com
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--By Teijo Niemela. Helsinki-based Niemela is publisher of industry trade magazine Cruise Business Review. Updated by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief
--Photos appear courtesy of Singapore Tourism Board.