There’s a saying in West Texas, a region most notable for its capricious and volatile climate, that goes something like this: “If you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute.” In Singapore, the sparkling and vibrant city-state hanging precariously like a single pearl from the pendant that’s the Malay Peninsula—half a world but a galaxy removed from Texas—that old cowboy witticism can easily be changed to, “If you don’t like the skyline, just wait a while.”
Singapore seems to alter its appearance overnight, and the first salient impression for anyone landing here after an absence of, say, more than a couple of years, is that it is unrecognizable. A sense of newness overwhelms. Its pristine streets glow and although its once booming economy has taken a hit from the on-going global recession, you’d never know it from the hectic, bustling building boom that’s the city’s trademark. Here, the construction crane should be the national bird.
There’s activity everywhere, and once you put aside the oft-repeated allegory that Singapore is a repressive city-state ruled by draconian laws (remember the American teenager who was caned and deported for tagging cars?) it doesn’t take long to get the drift that this is a terrific, unpolluted metropolis that, at least outwardly, seems to run with the precision of a Swiss watch and should serve as model to cities everywhere.
Yet, most come to Asia’s fabled Lion City half expecting a stifling, squeaky urban sprawl of tidiness while peopled by automatons following a rigid order. Volumes have been written about the ill-placed wad of gum or the carelessly tossed cigarette butt. This distorting prism veils the reality behind Singapore: it has the weather of New Orleans, the vibrancy of Hong Kong, a skyline to die for and a mishmash of ethnicities that flavor it with unrivaled originality and flair.
In less than a decade it has gone from a “cliche-ish” model of efficiency to a thriving hive of post-modernism where the good life peeks from every nook and cranny in hygienic streets and alleyways.
Its modernism is best appreciated from The Esplanade, a performing arts center that looks like half a giant durian, the tropical fruit maligned because of its evil smell. Still, relics from its British past are evident in a large number of colonial buildings and whitewashed mansions lying next to mosques, Hindu temples and sparkling Victorian churches.
This is the place to visit if you’re seeking luxury, comfort, pampering and a taste of opulence. Singapore offers them all in spades at a cost that won’t dent most budgets.
Singapore has an abundance of white linen, exclusive restaurants where eating has been elevated to an art form. Yet, within its 263 sq. miles, there’s also what easily could be the most sumptuous street food in the world. Hawker centers—certified by the ever-watchful Ministry of the Environment, of course—routinely dish out delicacies like laksa, grilled sambal stingray, chicken rice, chili crab, black pepper crab, fish head curry and other delights that routinely induce visitors to eat themselves into a coma.
The most extraordinary of the Hawker Centers is Lau Pau Sat, a huge Victorian-era railroad station where delights such as mee rebus (yellow wheat noodles swimming in a sweet and spicy gravy topped with onions, chili and hard boiled eggs) are de rigueur.
At the other end of the luxury scale one finds My Humble House, a post-modern restaurant on The Esplanade with nothing humble about it. Its design is that of an elegant contemporary home where traditional Chinese touches blend with 21st century elements; it is all rosewood and teak, with couches that look like giant flowers covered in suede.
The menu reads like a Chinese poetry book: “The Passion that Knows No Bounds” is hot and sour broth with crab meat and ginger flowers; “A Duet, for Love, for Life” is crispy, seared foie gras marinated with seven spices and caramelized watermelon—and the list goes on and on.
The city’s reputation as Asia’s gastronomical capital is mirrored in July during the Singapore Food Festival, which just celebrated its 15th year, a food fest organized by the Singapore Tourism Board, when the city goes on a week-long eating binge as the best chefs in the area flaunt their artistry.