A 30-foot-long, red and yellow cloth dragon with daggerlike white teeth blocked our way as my wife, Shirin, and I strolled down Singapore’s famed Orchard Road, a tree-lined boulevard known for its upscale stores and hotels. Drums beat rhythmically as a dozen men maneuvered the undulating dragon along the broad sidewalk. This symbol of strength, power and good luck in Chinese culture was part of the lingering festivities following the Chinese New Year 10 days earlier. As we paused to watch the colorful show, I thought to myself, “You have to expect the unexpected in Singapore.”
Our five days in Singapore were meant to be a warmup for our six-week Southeast Asia tour, but I discovered belatedly that Singapore should have been the grand finale, since it proved to be one of the highlights of our five-country trip. In fact, Singapore has become my favorite major, modern city in the world.
There is much to like about Singapore, but I’ll start by getting out of the way the only two drawbacks I can think of. First, Singapore is consistently ranked among the most expensive cities in the world, along with Paris and Hong Kong. Second, due to its proximity to the equator, Singapore’s average temperature hovers around a daily high of 88 degrees and a low of 75 degrees, with 84% average humidity and rain showers possible on most days. The all-time low temperature is 66.9 degrees.
Modern Singapore was founded by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819 as a trading post for the British East India Co. The island city state (just 279 square miles) blossomed in just six decades from a place of strife and relative poverty to a global powerhouse for entertainment, education, finance, health care, manufacturing, technology, tourism and transportation.
During our visit to the National Museum, we were struck by the magnitude of the country’s accomplishments, displayed in what could be called “the bragging rights room”: Singapore is consistently rated as one of the world’s safest and cleanest countries; it has the world’s top rated airport and airline; its students year after year rank No. 1 in the world for science, reading and math; it is the world’s second busiest container port, third largest global foreign exchange market and third largest oil and refining center; and Singapore ranks as the eighth healthiest country.
As we toured various parts of the city, invariably we found the Singaporeans to be kind and helpful. Fortunately for us, English is their main official language, followed by Malay, Mandarin and Tamil. We never perceived any tension as people from Malaysia, China, Indonesia, Philippines, India and Europe mixed freely everywhere.
“Even though we have a very mixed population,” explained a local man, “we all get along well because from the earliest days our country focused on policies that ensured that people from different countries and cultures could live and work together peacefully. That’s why every year on July 21 we celebrate Racial Harmony Day, to remind ourselves of how important this is for our success.”
My wife and I opted for an unorthodox way to explore the city by staying in hotels in three different areas. Our first hotel, the Six Senses Duxton, placed us near Chinatown, the elaborate Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and across from the Maxwell Hawker Center, one of the city’s best places to try tasty yet inexpensive Singaporean dishes. The boutique hotel is located in a row of carefully restored trading houses, which accounted for rooms named the Opium Room and Shophouse Room.
While much of Singapore has been rebuilt with towering modern buildings, the city now rigorously preserves the remaining historic homes and shops as heritage sites. We made a reservation to see a good example of this protection, the NUS Baba House. As a carefully restored Chinese home built in 1895, it gave us a glimpse into the lives and traditions of a wealthy Chinese family in that era.
Our next lodging, the five-star Capitol Kempinski Hotel, had recently opened after a restoration that combined two historic structures. This location placed us within walking distance of several major museums, the famed Raffles Hotel, St. Andrews Cathedral and the spectacular bayside Merlion Park, all within a 10- to 15-minute walk.
For our initial outing, we headed first thing in the morning to the 160-year-old Singapore Botanic Gardens, only 10 minutes by taxi from our hotel. Being plant lovers, we had looked forward to visiting these gardens, and we weren’t disappointed. We delighted in exploring this UNESCO World Heritage site, whose 203 acres of tropical gardens offered miles of hiking and jogging trails, three lakes and a spectacular orchid garden.
The area surrounding our hotel was attractive during the daytime, but after nightfall the city transformed itself into a nocturnal kaleidoscope of color, especially down by the bay. The horseshoe-shaped bay presented a Las Vegas-like fountain show with sound and lights, while the city’s signature Singapore Lion spouted a massive stream of water from its jaws as hidden lights painted the statue in endlessly changing colors and patterns.
Small tour boats festooned with colored lights twinkled in the water while in the background, the three towers of the iconic Marina Bay Sands Hotel loomed large, topped by an enormous lintel shaped like the bow of a ship. When we visited that lofty perch, the 360-degree view of Singapore was overshadowed by the enormous infinity pool that seemed to float in the air 57 stories above the city. Below, the giant lotus flower-shaped Art & Science Museum added to our sensory overload as constantly changing colors and textures painted the petals of the unique structure.
Behind the Marina Bay, on a 250-acre man-made island, is another of Singapore’s must-see attractions, the Gardens by the Bay. We visited the site in the late afternoon in order to appreciate it during the daylight, especially the glass-enclosed Flower Dome and Cloud Forest, with the world’s tallest enclosed waterfall. As the night sky darkened, a sound and light show began in the Supertree Grove where a stand of hundred-foot-tall, man-made trees changed colors to the rhythm of the music, glowing majestically in hues of lavender, orange, purple and magenta.
Wherever we walked, we appreciated Singapore’s efforts to create a more eco-friendly environment. As a result, large, lovely trees graced most streets, while many buildings had walls and roofs covered with plants. In some areas, pastel-colored, historic shophouse rows stood in stark contrast to the surrounding modern buildings with their stunning architectural designs.
One of our taxi drivers boasted, “Dining is our national pastime,” and it certainly seemed true, based on the number of international restaurants and the 114 hawker centers that offered every kind of food imaginable.
For our final exploration of the city, we decided to splurge and stay at the five-star Capella Singapore on exclusive Sentosa Island, known for its beaches, golf courses and attractions, including Universal Studios Singapore. Inside our hotel’s courtyard, we found a brass plaque embedded in the sidewalk, marking the spot where President Donald Trump first shook hands with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un. Our room overlooked the cargo ship-filled South China Sea and a nearby Indonesian island bristling with oil refinery structures. A path behind the hotel led us down to a sandy beach and a free shuttle that transported visitors around the island. Our sense of contentment with our elegant room was enhanced by an exquisite meal in Cassia, the hotel’s Cantonese restaurant.
As we prepared to leave Singapore and continue our Southeast Asia sojourn, Shirin and I agreed that someday we will return, stay longer and savor even more of the specialness of Singapore — a bold, vibrant, attractive and innovative city-state with pleasant surprises around every corner.