24 hours in the world's best airport

MICHELLE DUFF
Last updated 08:00 10/08/2014
singapore airport landscape

IMPRESSIVE: The departure entrance of Terminal 3 at Singapore Changi International Airport.

slide
GOING DOWN: The world's largest water slide.

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There's nothing worse than the sinking feeling that you've missed a flight.

Mine came en route to Narita Airport, Japan, when I checked my budget Air Asia ticket to Perth one last time and realised for some reason it left from the domestic terminal, not the international.

With absolutely no chance of making it to Haneda Airport, some two hours on the other side of Tokyo, I kept going towards Narita in the vain hope there would be an Air Asia counter there with someone I could talk to. Of course there wasn't, and attempts to contact the airline by any other method were futile.

At 9pm, with a hangover and a head cold, I began ringing airline after airline. After five hours of negotiations and what felt like half my life savings, by 2am I had a seat on a Malaysian Airlines flight leaving at 9pm the following night. The next 24 hours are an airport-induced blur of artificial light, bad coffee and hard floors. I could not have been happier to board that flight.

But not all airports are made equal. Singapore's Changi has been voted the best airport in the world by Skytrax five years running, with more than 50 million passengers passing through it annually. With five gardens, a rooftop pool, free foot massages and an entertainment deck, perhaps my mission to spend 24 hours here won't be too difficult.

11pm Off the plane, I am greeted by a friendly Crowne Plaza concierge. The airport's three terminals are connected by the skytrain, and it's a quick ride from Terminal 1, where I land, to Terminal 3, where the hotel is. Yes, I realise staying in a hotel is kind of cheating - but as it is within the airport, it technically counts.

If you don't want to splash out for the Crowne (which is actually pretty reasonable, starting from $250 a night) you could stay at one of the Ambassador Transit Hotels, of which there is one in every terminal.

There, you pay in six-hourly blocks - so if you've got a short layover and want to grab some zzz's, a single room ranges from about $45 to $70. They also have a "napping suite", where a small cubicle is yours for around $39 for three hours. If you're light on coin, there are free snooze areas throughout the terminals.

9am The air-conditioning in my room is bordering on arctic, so I'm happy to step outside and be enveloped by the muggy Southeast Asia air. The palm tree-fringed hotel pool is already surrounded by travellers, making the most of sun loungers before catching their next flights.

Breakfast at the hotel is a mash-up of every cuisine you'd imagine possible in Singapore, including many items that seem more suited to dinner. I choose what is explained to me as "Chinese bread", with Sichuan chilli sauce, hash browns and bacon. (Flying is hungry work, OK?)

11am There are 350 shops within Changi, making it a destination for mall-hungry locals too. There's pretty much every high-end brand you can think of, with prices promised to be 40 per cent lower than downtown Singapore.

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I pick up a Hermes handbag before catching a glimpse of the tag and setting it back down. I didn't like that zip anyway. I console myself by stocking up on lipsticks at the MAC counter ($22 each, though not many colours to choose from after being pillaged by other thrifty passengers).

1pm One of the food courts is a 1960s-themed Singapore food street, with makeshift carts built to resemble an earlier era. It's quaint and I'm hungry, but a recommendation leads me to the Peach Garden Noodle House.

I'd be lying if I said I knew exactly what I was eating, suffice to say a spicy soup and egg-battered prawns were involved. I also drink coconut milk out of an actual coconut, which is both healthy and, as per the current craze for anything coconut, on trend.

3pm Garden time. There are five of these throughout the airport, and my first destination is the butterfly garden. I know what you're thinking.

It sounds ridiculous and amazing, of which it is both. Gazillions of butterflies flap prettily around the two-storey garden, nibbling at pineapples and darting in and out of a purpose-built waterfall. Whoever came up with this concept is a slightly deranged genius, and I would like to request one in Auckland, stat.

The sunflower garden is a happy burst of yellow on a grey rooftop, while the orchard garden is a mini version of Singapore's Cloud Dome, complete with tiny walkway.

The enchanted garden is indoors, and supposedly comes alive with magical sounds as you walk through. The magical sound gnome must have today off, which seems fair because it is a Sunday. Fun fact: the airport employs more than 300 gardeners.

4pm There are two movie theatres on the entertainment deck, where you can watch the latest blockbusters for free (or just doze off in the dark.) If the movie is halfway through, you could simply watch the news or a DVD in the TV lounge, or listen to some jazz in a private music booth.

I pay a visit to the Social Tree, a giant digital installation where you can take a photograph of yourself and watch it float past on a massive screen, before going to check out the Kinetic Rain sculpture. Last year, the airport found itself caught in a social media storm as footage of a woman jumping over the railing to grab at the hypnotic hanging balls was uploaded online.

It has since been untangled. Changi also boasts the world's largest airport slide (a hotly contested accolade, I'm sure) which is closed for maintenance today.

5pm Massage o'clock! There are free foot massage chairs throughout the airport but, if you feel like treating yourself, there are also several day spas. The fish reflexology spa is out of order, which is disappointing as I was looking forward to having tiny fish nibble at my toes, but will apparently be back up and running soon. A back massage has to suffice.

7pm I reckon I could while away a good few hours at the rooftop pool, where $12 gets you a drink and use of the pool and jacuzzi, along with showers and toiletries. There's also a gym right next door, for that mid-layover workout. A plane takes off from Changi every 90 seconds, and if you wanted to you could watch them all from here.

8pm A free two-hour city tour leaves the airport regularly, taking in the main sights of Singapore - including the world's tallest observation wheel The Singapore Flyer, waterfront Gardens by the Bay, Marina Bay Sands (the tall boat-shaped building), the city's colonial district and Chinatown.

I've got a bit of time so take a taxi instead, which is still fairly cheap - about $20 into town - and takes around 30 minutes. I head to the Supertree at Gardens by the Bay, a gigantic, you guessed it, tree-shaped building with a rooftop bar. It affords a 360-degree view of the city, all for the price of a $10 glass of wine.

11pm It's bedtime for me, back in the chilly climes of my hotel room. The last 24 hours haven't been as horrendous as I expected, and I even got some makeup out of it. While I wouldn't go so far as to say I'd like to be stranded here, as layovers go it's definitely at the top of my list.

The writer was hosted by Changi Airport.

- Sunday Star Times

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