We are drawn into the lobby of the Hotel Fort Canning by this waft of fragrance.
The hotel adds the scent to the air conditioning and, combined with the gleaming marble foyer, burbling water feature and plump leather furniture, the overall effect is one of absolute, relaxed luxury.
Singapore is lush, manicured and implausibly clean for a tiny island country with a population of over five million. There is an incredibly high premium placed on hygiene and safety. The country’s National Environment Agency maintains exacting standards for the city centre, and there are heavy fines for anyone caught littering.
The city’s concrete jungle, with gleaming spires of metal and glass that punctuate the dramatic skyline, is countered by actual jungle. Vibrant pockets of foliage run alongside busy streets; soaring tropical trees create leafy tunnels over busy highways; palms, frangipani trees, ferns and vines jostle for space next to shimmering modern architecture.
To get our bearings, we begin our weekend with a ride on the Singapore Flyer. A giant Ferris wheel structure, like the London Eye, the Flyer soars 165 metres over the Singapore waterfront and provides arresting views of the city during its sedate half-hour rotation.
Then we become tourist attractions ourselves, sitting in the window of Kenko Spa to experience fish reflexology. This involves allowing schools of small fish to nibble the dead skin from our feet and legs. Despite feeling slightly squeamish about putting my legs into a tank of, literally, flesh-eating fish, I take the plunge for one of the more surreal experiences of my life. The creatures swarm around my legs with such enthusiasm that it appears I’m wearing calf-length boots made of writhing fish.
Chinatown, as expected, is a throbbing epicentre of bold colours, traditional food, cheerful hawkers, and tailors spinning cheesy lines to tourists – “Long pants, short price!” We snack on crumbly, sweet egg tarts, as we meander through the markets. In the sticky midday heat, the experience is a vibrant assault on our senses. In the basement of the Chinatown Centre, we visit the wet markets. Bustling stalls sell all imaginable kinds of produce – much of it still alive. Frogs stare forlornly out of wire crates, waiting to be bought for a mere $10 for three. Buckets of writhing eels virtually tie themselves in knots, and we have to avert our eyes as one fishmonger matter-of-factly clubs a giant, flapping catfish on the wet concrete floor.
In a stark contrast to this visceral encounter, our next stop is the Marina Bay Sands – the extravagant new addition to Singapore’s skyline. Opened in June 2010, the complex is a mind-boggling combination of architecture and excess. The three, 57-storey towers house over 2,500 hotel rooms, and atop is the 340-metre-long Sky Park – an astonishing, cantilevered observation deck and awe-inspiring infinity pool, which stretches the length of the building. We are shown through one of the hotel suites on the 52nd level. With a floor area twice the size of my three-bedroom house in New Zealand, a gym, salon, massage room and private karaoke suite, it is almost comically excessive.
Marina Bay Sands is also home to a sprawling multi-level shopping complex, filled with luxury fashion brands, an indoor river, a host of celebrity chef restaurants, two theatres, a huge glistening casino, an indoor skating rink and the freshly opened Art-Science museum in the striking lotus-shaped building protruding from the water’s edge.
The early evening humidity builds ominously into one of Singapore’s regular thunderstorms. We cower in the hotel lobby as rain falls monsoon-like in warm sheets, booming claps of thunder rattle the windows, and lightning crackles across the charcoal sky. Then, suddenly, it’s all over and our evening begins.
At the mouth of the Singapore River, Clarke Quay comes alive as the sun goes down. Bars, clubs and restaurants fill the colourful buildings that were used as warehouses during the 19th century. Cuisine from all parts of the world is on offer, and most places spill out onto the covered footpaths, adding to the vibrant atmosphere. The crowds swell as the night progresses, but there is no drunken disorderliness; Singapore nightlife is marked by a distinct sense of courteous restraint.
We finish our night at the remarkable 1-Altitude – notable for being the highest open-air bar in the world. We ascend the lift, ears popping, and step into a heady mix of pulsating dance music and swaying palms against a backdrop of glittering city lights on a velvety warm evening. The 360-degree expanse of Singapore is spectacular. I sip my obligatory Singapore Sling, perched on a bar stool next to the glass edge of the building and drink in the magical views. Laser lights bounce from the top of the Marina Bay Sands, the Singapore Flyer floats like a crooked halo against the darkness, giant projections flicker over buildings, and the streets stream like rivers of silver and gold. It is magnificent.
I am delighted by the city. The streets throng with people ambling languidly in the comfortable heat, amidst exotic smells and fragrances emanating from either food stalls or glossy department stores, depending on which part we move through. A general sense of decadence and luxury permeates the central city, though it’s not necessary to spend money in order to feel part of it.
Reported by Jo Percival for our AA Directions Autumn 2019 issue