“Well, this looks interesting!” said my
husband as we were driven from the cruise terminal in Singapore to the airport
for the flight home.
Jim and I had just disembarked from a
Cunard voyage and were heading straight back to the UK. We were both struck by
the lush greenery and exotic flowers along the route to the airport, a sharp
contrast to the dismal trek along the M4 from central London to Heathrow. And
the Singapore skyline was dominated by fascinating pieces of modern
It seemed such a shame to see so little
of this small island on the southern tip of Malaysia. All too often, Singapore
is viewed as somewhere you pass through on the way to the Far East or
Australia. So we resolved to return and explore.
And that’s how, two years later, we
ended up in the lap of luxury at the Shangri-La Hotel in central Singapore.
After the long flight from London, we were greeted in the steamy, pre-dawn heat
of a March morning, by a doorman dressed as a Tibetan warrior.
It was slightly surreal, but then the
Valley Wing of the Shangri La offers its guests a rather extraordinary
experience all round. Even in all my travels with the Royal Family I’ve never
come across a hotel offering complimentary champagne, fine wine, cocktails,
afternoon tea, dainty sandwiches and canapés throughout your stay.
It’s a place where wine lovers and
foodies need to exercise a good deal of self-control! (We failed!)
The rooms are spacious, cool and elegant
and the hotel is set in 15 acres of tropical gardens with a huge swimming pool
and tennis courts. I am not a fan of city life, so, even though we were within
walking distance of Singapore’s swish shops on Orchard Road, this tranquil
environment was right up my street.
“Whatever you do,” our friends in the UK
had advised us, “you mustn’t miss the Botanical Gardens”.
And so, after a lazy day, a good night’s
sleep and a delicious breakfast of Nasi Lemak (coconut rice, with hot chilli
sauce, fried anchovies, peanuts, cucumber and a hard-boiled egg) we set off to
see the gardens which are the crowning jewel of Singapore.
The Botanical Gardens date back 150
years and have recently been recognised as an UNESCO world heritage site, and
it’s easy to see why. First of all, they are enormous: more than 180 acres.
“Don’t even think about seeing them all
in one day,” said our wonderful guide, Naseem. “Unless you have your hiking
shoes on and are feeling really energetic”. In the heat and humidity, we certainly
It soon became apparent that these
gardens are much more than a tourist attraction. They are loved and well used
by Singaporeans, the majority of whom live in high rise housing.
This open space is theirs and, as we
witnessed, from dawn onwards they head to the Gardens to practise Tai Chi and
yoga or to walk their dogs. You’re not allowed to walk your pooches on the main
roads of Singapore, so this is dog heaven.
With limited time, silly shoes and only
pensioner- level energy, we focussed our attention on one specific area: the
Orchid Garden. And it’s stunning.
Jim is quite a dab hand at cultivating
orchids. We still have one that was given to me 14 years ago after I was in
“I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here.” But the Singapore gardens take orchid
displays to quite another level. And we were treading in the footsteps of the
many famous people who have been there — as the orchids named after them
proved: The Queen, the Princess of Wales, Charles and Camilla and Barack Obama,
to mention but a few.
Flowers and trees are an integral part of Singaporean culture. New buildings have, by law, to incorporate some greenery — which is why you see plants of all sizes half way up the skyscrapers. But they’re nothing like the Supertrees you can find in another extraordinary park, the Gardens by the Bay.
At night they burst into spectacular
colour in a dramatic music and light show....well worth seeing.
There are also two gigantic domes in
this park. One is rather like a fantastic indoor Chelsea Flower Show, housed in
the world’s largest greenhouse. The other creates the impression that you are
walking high up in a cloud - and you are, indeed, extremely high on a cleverly
designed skywalk which wends its way back down, giving you a bird’s eye view of
the exhibits. However, if you have an aversion to heights, like my husband,
this particular attraction is probably best avoided.
Safer perhaps, to stay closer to the
ground and visit Singapore’s National Museum. I must admit I’ve had a bit of an
aversion to museums ever since those tedious school trips standing looking at
bits of rock in glass cases.
But, as I soon discovered, things have
changed a great deal in this new world of clever technology. Singapore’s Museum
is thoroughly absorbing. The nation’s history is graphically relayed through
image and film.
And the Glass Rotunda houses an inspired
reproduction of the wildlife pictures of William Farquhar, Sir Stamford
Raffles’ right hand man, who became the first British Resident and Commandant
of Singapore. As you walk in semi-darkness along a digitally animated mural,
birds and antelopes, porcupines and tapirs come to life and seem to follow you.
From that enchanting experience we moved
on to a most eerie one: a park dedicated to Chinese mythology. Haw Par Villa is
rather a tranquil oasis built for Singaporeans by two brothers who created the
famous Tiger Balm herbal remedy. It’s a cross between Disney and the horror
chamber at Madame Tussaud’s. Blood-thirsty statues depict the appalling mythological
punishments meted out to robbers, villains and petty thieves.
The park seems a pretty eccentric
concept as a gift to the nation, but the afternoon certainly stuck in our
Throughout our stay, one theme dominated
every day: what to eat next. Singaporeans are a nation of food lovers and
standards are extremely high . Even at the many hawker stalls selling satays,
noodles and other street food, the hygiene ratings are clearly displayed. And
it’s fun to walk past their smoking barbecues in the warm night air and choose
which offerings to sample.
We also tried a couple of traditional
Peranakan restaurants. It’s a fusion of Malay and Chinese cuisine: spicy and
But our most memorable meal was at Red
House, a seafood restaurant established more than 40 years ago. There we shared
a set menu for one, including Singapore’s famous chilli crab, and found we had
more than enough food for us both. It was delicious.
So, if you find yourself en route to
somewhere that takes you via Singapore, don’t just pass through, take a few
days to explore. Or simply make it your destination, because there really is a
lot to see— and we barely scratched the surface of all it has to offer.
For more information about Singapore visit www.visitsingapore.com
A 5-night stay at the Shangri-La
Singapore in a Garden Wing deluxe room including breakfast, private airport
transfers and return flights from Heathrow with Singapore Airlines starts at £1,499
per person based on two sharing. www.fcholidays.com
0161 888 5606.