Singapore - For months we planned our family trip to Singapore, sketching out what we would do, and how we would mark the euphoric moment of arriving in the Far East.
Somehow, on our first evening there, we find ourselves in a subterranean Japanese supermarket, ordering crepes from a takeaway stall.
They're good: the “VIP crepe” we order for our middle child, Thomas, is served with a thick wedge of chocolate brownie. The key to a successful family holiday is the same, whether you're in Cornwall or have travelled more than 6 000 miles to end up in Liang Court shopping centre: do what keeps your children happy.
In truth, we don't linger there. Liang Court is adjacent to Clarke Quay, a strip of riverside bars and openair restaurants and, the children fed, we settle there with cold beers and juices, gawking at the eyecatching cityscape of the high-rise financial district. It's a euphoric way to round off our first day in Singapore, the first of nine we spend there.
Nine? Surprise is the reaction of most tourists we encounter in Singapore. Everyone else is on the move, to Cambodia, or Australia. They're not hanging around. Yet I can't think of any place better than Singapore as a first family trip outside Europe. For one thing, you are never more than five minutes' walk from the semi-frozen smoothie of your child's dreams.
Singapore has been memorably caricatured as Disneyland with the death penalty. Let's take the Disneyland bit first. This begins upon arrival at Changi airport, where the long flight is diluted by koi carp ponds, a stained-glass enchanted garden and a huge artificial varnished peanut masquerading as art.
Downtown, a lengthy list of fairground-style attractions awaits, including the Singapore Flyer, the giant wheel spinning 165m above a Gotham City skyline; quaint vessels known as “bumboats” that nudge along the Singapore river as if they were coin-operated toys; and Gardens by the Bay, a super-sized Asian Eden Project of graceful tropical domes and giant, artificial “supertrees”. These, perhaps epitomising Singapore, manage to be impressive rather than vulgar.
As dusk falls, a laser show beams out from the remarkable three-pronged Marina Bay Sands complex (“It looks like a surfboard,” observes our oldest, Hannah).
There is just so much to interest the whole family, from signature sights to world-class museums, all set among parsley sprigs of heritage that bump up against futuristic cut-glass architecture. Singapore is the place to introduce your children to Asia's smells, colour, light, heat, culture and food.
Now the death penalty bit. Singapore allows you to have lots of fun, so long as you conform to certain norms. How this applies to young families is that Singaporean children don't appear to have meltdowns, at least not in public. They don't run around like a misdirected firework in parks, or wrestle one another to the pavement for no obvious reason. For a Western family, this can be quite intimidating and daunting.
Singapore is swelteringly hot, but every building is air-conditioned to the temperature of Canada in January, and so the heat-related tantrums is simply not to overdo things. One morning excursion each day is enough. One by one we tick off Singapore's varied quarters: Chinatown, Arab Street, Little India, the Singapore river and Marina Bay. Typically, we walk for 15 minutes, stop for a fruit juice, and repeat, until we decide it's time to go back to the hotel.
Choosing the right hotel matters a good deal too. We stay first at the Novotel in Clarke Quay. Despite being an international brand, it's not a homogenous experience: it's positioned above Clark Quay and reached via a glass elevator with the obvious echoes of Road Dahl and Charlie Bucket. The staff ooze charm, there's a good pool and stunning views of the river and Marina Bay from our room.
We later relocate to the Shangri-La, to the west of the city centre. It dovetails perfectly with the daily routine of morning excursion, afternoon retreat. For an upmarket hotel it is remarkably unstuffy, the staff welcome children and the leafy grounds and slopes allow them to go exploring. The huge pool is perfect for all and has a slush machine to which our children would love to be connected by intravenous drip.
When we venture out, Western food is everywhere but the children slowly dip their taste buds into stir fries and sticky deserts such as jaja lapis, stuffed with tapioca and mashed pandan leaves that shine a luminous green. We visit Lau Pa Sat hawker centre, whose elegance and servings of fish-head porridge and pig organ soup prove of less interest than the mango ice kacang, a pyramid of shaved ice smothered with juice and jelly beans. At Makansutra hawker centre, by the Esplanade, we munch on murtabak, a kind of Indian-style wrap, while the children stuff banana fritters into their mouths like famished hamsters.
We explore the Sri Mariamman Indian temple with its colourful, blue-pigmented cow statues and amble through the markets of Pagoda Street. It's great fun, from the batik blouse-dresses, or kebaya, to the metronomic waving plastic cats.
We also spend a good deal of time amid Singapore's greenery: in the Botanic Gardens Thomas is captivated by monitor lizards and the vast aerial roots of trees that dangle like octopus legs. At Fort Canning Park we explore a spice garden heavy with the scents of frangipani, vanilla and lemon, where we spot flame-backed woodpeckers.
The underground, or MRT, becomes an unlikely attraction, and we hop off into subway cafés to buy mouth-watering pastries with names such as “Crouching Tiger Hidden Bacon”, a miniature calzone.
We round off our trip with a night-time bumboat cruise, drifting past an eclectic jumble of financial buildings, colonial-era museums and hotels. The Disneyland comparison is valid: while everything has a price attached, you cannot help but suspend your cynicism; things are sometimes a little earnest, but hey, it's also fun, and while the city may be micro-managed your children's spontaneity will know no bounds.
We look at Oscar, aged seven, craning his neck to look at the laser show, then scouring the Singapore water for turtles. He will barely sleep that night, his head spinning with so much to take in. It's a feeling we all share.
Mark Rowe and family stayed at the Novotel Clarke Quay (novotel.com) which has bay view rooms from £180 (about R3 400), including breakfast, for two adults and two children, and the Shangri-La Singapore (shangri-la.com), which has garden wing rooms from £250 for a family of four, including breakfast.