Think Singapore and undoubtedly images flash to mind of monolithic malls, epicurean extravaganzas, perhaps a frothy pink Singapore sling cocktail at landmark Raffles Hotel. But think again, for since the turn of the century, this tiny can-do nation has spent a decade in recasting its image from a major entrepot of business and banking, to a creative global capital with commanding cultural appeal and a strong conservation conscience.
Step off a plane nowadays at Changi, for example, and you’ll be standing in one of the most awarded airports in the world. And recent citations have to do with “going green.” In the transit lounges, the Changi Airport’s horticulture team has created five amazing gardens, including a rooftop cactus garden at Terminal 1; a garden each for ferns, orchids and sunflowers in Terminal 2; and the only airport butterfly garden in the world at Terminal 3. Changi further takes the stress out of travel with horticultural displays found throughout the airport.
Most recently, the airport is focused on sustainability. “Singapore is committed to sustainable development in buildings,” says Eugene Wong of the Changi Airport Group (CAG), “and we have worked hard to substantially upgrade our facility in five areas: emissions, energy efficiency, waste, noise and water management. For those efforts, our green features and design elements won Green Mark Gold status for Terminals 3 and 2, and we expect to complete upgrading of Terminal 1 this year.”
Beyond the airport, National Parks Singapore (a.k.a. NParks) oversees the green spaces that make up 47 percent of the approximately 284-sq.-mile nation, with about 10 percent of the land allocated to parks and nature reserves. Essential to every visitor is time in the Singapore Botanical Gardens, a 116-acre park of perfectly manicured gardens and home to the world’s largest orchid display (1, 000 species, 2,000 hybrids). For a more tropical forest experience, complete with monkeys in the trees, follow the trails through the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, which shelters some 40 percent of the nation’s biodiversity.
This year, NParks will unveil a mammoth new eco project, Gardens by the Bay, a 130-acre necklace of parks, with gardens featuring environmentally friendly technology. Coming up in the first phase are three distinctive waterfront gardens, including Bay South, a huge 10-acre garden showcasing tropical horticulture and garden artistry, located next to the new $5.7 billion Marina Bay Sands Resort.
Located where the Indian Ocean meets the China Sea, Singapore is quite naturally a major port of call for cruise lines such as Costa Cruises (costacruise.com) and Royal Caribbean (royalcaribbean.com), which cruise in and out of Singapore regularly. Shore excursion favorites include a Night Safari, which spotlights the world’s first wildlife park designed to be explored at night by tram and on foot along illuminated trails; over 1,200 roam this vast “open zoo.”
Cruise passengers, who contributed to Singapore’s 12 percent increase in visitors from the Americas in 2010, have an even wider choice of shore-exs that concentrate on culture. Costa Classica, for instance, offers an all-day Heritage Tour of Singapore, with a visit to the Thian Hock Keng Temple, built in 1821—of wood with no nails—by Chinese seamen grateful for safe passage. The morning is spent in Chinatown, where first-time visitors are surprised to find a Hindu temple standing next to a Mosque—a signature example of the melange of cultures in the melting pot that is Singapore. After dropping into the new shophouses of the Chinatown Heritage Center and sampling Chinese culinary delicacies, it’s off to the colorful bustling street life of Little India, whose main artery is Serangoon Road, the place where everyone buys spices, flower garlands, Bollywood DVDs and saris. The final cultural stop is Arab Street, a short street indeed, lined with shops selling Malaysian and Indonesian batik cloth, home decor items, baskets, carved wood, and just off Arab Street is the towering, onion-domed Sultan Mosque.
Where To Hang
Non-cruise visitors, of course, stay longer in Singapore—four days is the average for American travelers. Some may now be looking into a stay at one of the new batch of boutique hotels that have converted old Chinatown shophouses to 21st century modernism such as the New Majestic Hotel (newmajestichotel.com), whose 30 rooms were decorated by emerging and established artists. Another hotel with a history is the Goodwood Park (goodwoodparkhotel.com), a Victorian-era castle. Built as a social club for German expatriates and used as the war crimes court after the Japanese surrender, this grande dame landmark still looks good. The original wing retains all the Old World ambiance while the new wing is handsome but spartan.