How to spend 72 hours in Singapore
Three days is plenty of time to dig below Singapore's shiny exterior and get well acquainted with its stellar food scene.
Nothing breaks the ice quite like sharing a plate of Singaporean chilli crab. My fellow conference attendees and I don the provided big, white bibs and take up our crab crackers as we prepare to dig into the giant crab - armour intact - swimming in a pool of chilli-spiked tomato sauce.
The No Signboard Seafood restaurant in Marina Bay took some finding, but because of GPS issues rather than a lack of signage (the name harks back to its origins as a hawker food stall). I struggle to master the crab cracker and end up with far more sauce than meat but, fortunately it's delicious - just the right balance of spicy and sweet.
By the end of the meal, our corner of the packed restaurant looks a bit like a scene from a B-grade horror flick - we and the tablecloth are spattered in bright red sauce. We're full and happy though; glad the Singaporean food scene is living up to all it's cracked up to be. It's a short walk back to the JW Marriott Hotel South Beach, where a long, hot soak in the marble tub acts as a powerful sedative so I sink into the super-comfy, super-sized bed and pass out.
Still feeling full from the night before doesn't dissuade me from going mad at the breakfast buffet at Beach Road Kitchen, just opposite the hotel, the next morning.
For me, it's an education in breakfast dishes from around the world and it's fair to say I'm a keen learner. I load up a bowl with fresh tropical fruits, berry compote, thick Greek yoghurt and as many nuts and seeds as will fit. I've moved onto a plate of steamed, pork-stuffed Chinese dumplings by the time the waiter comes around with a tray of mini eggs benedict but I can't resist. I'm glad I didn't, the moment the first bite hits my tongue - molten yokes and creamy hollandaise are surely a match made in breakfast heaven.
Fifteen minutes from downtown, Sentosa Island is a public playground of sorts with theme parks, a casino, aquarium, resorts offering spa treatments and some of Singapore's best beaches.
Our tour group catches the cable car from the mainland, which provides prime photo opps of the urban and natural jungle. We head for the Butterfly Park and Insect Kingdom, said to house 1500 butterflies from 50 different species and 3000 insects. Proving nature really is the best designer, the butterflies flit gracefully past as we wander through the Chinese-style garden, stopping to admire jewel-like chrysalises and a flamboyant pair of macaws who can't seem to decide whether they're friends or foes.
The highlight of the tour is the S.E.A Aquarium which, with some 100,000 marine animals from 800 species, is one of the world's largest. Passing through a corridor beneath a tank full of sharks, we come face to face with manta rays, bottlenose dolphins, moray eels and countless schools of tropical and coldwater fish. We even find nemo. The translucent jellyfish are particularly mesmerising, changing from pink to blue as they waft through the water like slow-motion synchronised swimmers.
From the hotel, I walk the 10 hot, humid minutes to Chijmes; a Catholic girls' school and orphanage turned dining, entertainment and shopping complex in the colonial district. The juxtaposition of the white Gothic-style cathedral and neoclassical buildings against the skyscrapers beyond offer a striking contrast between old and new. I take a seat at Coriander Leaf, an Asian fusion restaurant that presents its menu in five flavour verticals: fresh, familiar, spicy, umami and sweet. Still hot and bothered from my stroll under the midday sun, I'm drawn to the fresh flavours and opt for two tasting plates: sweet potato "noodles" with red peppers, Hon Shimeji and edamame; and a salad of marinated prawns, grated mint and Thai basil. I can feel my stomach stretching.
Hot footing it to Kampong Glam - a Muslim neighbourhood now also something of a hipster hangout - I am waylaid by the art deco-style Parkview Square tower which looks like it's straight out of Gotham City. Chiselled "guards" holding crystal balls look down at me as I wander into the plaza and see it's full of weird and wonderful contemporary sculptures and bronze effigies of the likes of Mozart, Picasso, Shakespeare and Einstein. The door to the bar, Atlas, is like a porthole back to the roaring 20s: a 12 metre high gin cabinet takes pride of place in a cavernous space with grand art deco and art nouveau-inspired decor, including a baroque ceiling fresco. I'm told there's also a rose gold champagne room stocked with some 250 labels of bubbly.
The golden domes of the Sultan Mosque guide me to Kampong Glam, where I admire the building's elegant exterior - which combines Indo-Islamic, Gothic and Neoclassical elements - before pulling on one of the provided floor-length dresses and stepping inside. With its high ceilings, white, gold and pale green colour scheme, soft music and silently praying souls, it exudes a sense of serenity, providing a few perfect moments of respite in a full-on day.
Looking like a futuristic cruiseliner atop three tall towers, Marina Bay Sands is a standout example of Singapore's sci-fi-like architecture. Rooms at the hotel start from S$419 (NZ$418) a night but for S$23 you can take an ear-popping elevator up the 57 floors to the SkyPark: an observation deck with 360 degree views. Sipping on a Singapore Sling that matches the pink and orange hues of the sunset is a priceless experience, but at S$40 a drink, I can't afford to stick around.
Fortunately our tour guide's eager to whisk us off to the next stop: the widely hyped Gardens by the Bay. The sense of Singapore being part of some shiny parallel dimension intensifies as we enter the Flower Dome, the world's largest glass greenhouse. A land of perpetual springtime, the dome blooms with floral beauties from France, Spain, Italy, California, South Africa and Australia. The arrangements are works of art in themselves but the gardeners took things to another level this spring, using multi-hued tulips to recreate paintings by Van Gogh.
Stepping into the nearby Cloud Forest, we are confronted with the world's largest indoor waterfall streaming from a 35m high man-made mountain. We ride the elevator to the top and wind our way down through distinct high-altitude microclimates, the play of lights on the orchids, ferns, begonias and carnivorous pitcher plants creating a surreal atmosphere. The hallucinatory sense continues at the grove of "supertrees". Up to 50m high, the artificial trees - covered in orchids, ferns and flowering climbers - act as vertical gardens, generating solar power and collecting rainwater. We arrive just in time to see them turn red and green for the nightly light and sound show.
Breakfast this morning is with a family of orangutans at Singapore Zoo. We load our plates with bacon and eggs from the buffet and wait for the queue to have our photos taken with the furry VIPs to die down. This was the first zoo in the world to include a "free-ranging" area for orangutans, without walls, and it's fascinating to see three of them up close as they munch away at their own breakfasts. Nestled within the Mandai rainforest, the 26-hectare wildlife park is home to more than 2500 wild creatures, most in open settings allowing them to roam freely.
Other must-sees include the 10-foot long Komodo dragons from Indonesia, the white tigers and the Fragile Forest biodome, where can you spy ring-tailed lemurs, two-toed sloths, flying foxes and shy mouse deer as you make your way through the trees. At the neighbouring River Safari - Asia's only river-themed wildlife park - the resident Giant Pandas are the undisputed stars. It's amazing how long a panda sitting on its behind and munching bamboo can keep you occupied.
Hot and sweaty again, I take a dip in the infinity pool on the hotel's "sky deck". Sipping on a fresh juice from the bar as I gaze out at the city skyline, it really does feel like I'm part way between heaven and earth. Dinner is at Akira Back, right by the hotel, which specialises in modern Japanese cuisine with Korean accents. I enjoy melt-in-your mouth sashimi and the restaurant's signature tuna pizza: thinly sliced fresh tuna, ponzu mayonnaise, truffle oil and micro shiso atop a crisp crust.
After checking out the 8.7m-tall statue of the mythical merlion - part fish, part lion - that symbolises Singapore we make our way through Chinatown to Thian Hock Keng, the country's oldest Hokkien temple. Passing beneath a ceiling of red lanterns, we enter the smoky interior courtyard and I see that it lives up to its translated name of Temple of Heavenly Bliss. The level of detail is exquisite, from the painted phoenixes and peonies in the central hall to symbolise peace and good tidings to the brackets and beams carved with war heroes, animals, flowers and saints.
We find beauty of a different kind at the National Orchid Garden in the Singapore Botanic Gardens. I feel my pulse slow as I wander the not-so-secret garden blooming with more than 3000 sweet-smelling orchid species and hybrids. Our next stop is Little India, where we have just 20 minutes to do a loop walk before returning to the bus. Passing buildings almost as colourful as the orchids, a Hindu temple - its roof piled high with statues of gods and goddesses - and restaurants with smells that get me salivating again, I only wish I had more time here.
Back at Beach Road Kitchen, I treat the last supper of the trip with the reverence it deserves: taking time to savour each and every mouthful of the best laksa I've ever had in my life. For once I don't care if the food on the plane back is terrible. I feel like I've sampled more new foods over the past few days than I have over the past few months, perhaps years. And I know I've only scratched the surface. Singapore, I hope we can get better acquainted very soon.
MORE INFORMATION All tours mentioned can be booked with Expedia. See expedia.co.nz
Singapore Airlines flies direct from Auckland and Christchurch and via Canberra from Wellington. Qantas flies from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch via Sydney or Melbourne. Visit singaporeaire.com and qantas.com.
The five-star JW Marriott Hotel Singapore South Beach is in the heart of downtown. See marriott.com
The Marriott owns several restaurants in the South Beach dining complex: Beach Road Kitchen, Akira and Media Bar. The Chijmes dining complex is within walking distance. For something more laid-back try one of the acclaimed open-air hawker food centres such as Lau Pau Sat or Newton Food Centre.
The writer travelled to Singapore courtesy of Expedia.