Singapore’s motto is “onward” — but it could just as easily be “upward”. Gleaming new towers spear the skyline, boats zip across the harbour, giant man-made trees pop up on the horizon.
It’s brilliantly modern and as lush as a tropical garden. Greenery creeps all over the place — beneath concrete viaducts, over roof terraces and in the parks where you can see the fruits of this equatorial climate on the Malay Peninsula flourishing.
Left untended, Singapore would be a jungle. But everything is under rigid control, including the locals. Laws are famously stringent. No littering, no dropping gum, no spitting. It’s clean, neat and ordered. Even the MRT (their underground) is spick and span. You are not allowed to eat or drink onboard.
But let’s not dwell on the don’ts; more exciting are the dos. There are plenty of them. On a three-day stop-over — the city is a gateway to Australia, Asia and Indonesia — deciding what to explore next leaves me in a sweat.
Outside of the soothing air conditioning, the humidity is sapping and rain thunders down in heady bursts. The weather can be extreme — though the haze of smog which shrouded Sing this summer and was caused by fires in Indonesia has long lifted.
It’s a thoroughly international metropolis. Of the 5.3 million-strong population, only 3.3 million are Singaporean citizens and it’s rammed full with over 7 400 people per square kilometre.
The central business and cultural districts are easy to navigate by MRT, bus or taxi. Little India offers stalls filled with bangles, gold, jasmine garlands, the tang of curry leaf in the sun. There’s a Chinese quarter with temples and exotic flavours — try Blue Ginger, on Tanjong Pagar Road, which serves Paranakan cuisine, a fiery local speciality.
And in Kampong Glam, the scruffy Arabic quarter once home to Malay royalty, you will find attractive streets and curry dinners for under £10 (about R150).
The harbour front is the preserve of (wealthy) expats drinking after a day at the office. In the Fullerton Bay Hotel Lantern bar, there is noisy chat of meetings and mergers, but it doesn’t distract from the twinkly scenery and laser show put on by the all-new Marina Bay Sands.
This extraordinary casino, hotel and shop complex looks like a mathmatical pi sign on the horizon. You can lose a lot of money in the rooftop bar, Ku De Ta, simply buying a round of drinks.
Though the view of the city steaming away below, the new Bay Gardens (more of those later) and the South China Sea with its vast container ships hovering in wait, is worth it.
It was this supremely well-placed harbour that attracted such attention and helped make Singapore one of the four Asian Tigers. Sir Stamford Raffles arrived in 1819 and it became an official British possession in 1824.
At the exhaustive National Museum at the foot of Fort Canning Hill, the history of this city state is well laid out. Exhibitions on early life, colonial style and the Japanese occupation during World War II are displayed in detail.
Sing has been a sovereign state since 1963, though ties with Britain remain, particularly of the architectural kind. Fort Canning Hill, where I am staying in its smart and central hotel, was home to Raffles.
Singapore was a key hub of Britain’s Asian empire and it has an older history as the ruling site of the Malay Kings in the 14th century. There’s a British cemetery in the graveyard of the Armenian Church, a coolly reflective place, and, built 175 years ago, the oldest church in Singapore.
There is still a thriving expat community. Friends who moved from London tell me it’s an easier life, that jumpers are a distant memory and they can pop to Bali for the weekend.
Little wonder, then, that the city is expanding, reclaiming land from the sea, most recently for Gardens By The Bay.
This feels like Jurassic Park. You hop on a land train to view the heritage garden, enormous bio domes and man-made super trees, while a pre-recorded voice tells you what’s what.
While you can wander the grounds for free, there aren’t many shady spots to loaf about in and everything else costs, from the tree-top walkway to the Cloud Forest.
It is an answer to a city lacking private gardens and space, but not as generous a civic offering as the lovely Botanic Gardens, which the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited last year. It’s near retail haven Orchard Road and is more welcoming. Conceived in the early 19th century by Raffles, a keen botanist, it offers acres of lushest shade, old trees and rich landscape. It is a romantic spot and if you have a love of orchids, the national flower, this is the place to indulge it.
Countless varieties of these delicate creatures abound, with a selection dedicated to special visitors: Lauren Bush, Prince Edward, Princess Diana, Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela among them.
There’s off-shore entertainment on Sentosa island, accessible via road bridge or cable car, passing the city’s creaking port. Here you’ll find Disneyland, Sentosa golf course and the wonderful Capella hotel.
Designed by Norman Foster, around what was the British officer’s mess, Capella is an elegant bolthole with pools and rooms overlooking the South China Sea and an airy outdoor cocktail bar.
It’s a playground offering both tranquility and thrills to city dwellers. Singapore should add an addendum to its motto — the sky’s the limit.
Bridge and Wickers, 020 3411 0711, bridgeandwickers.com, offers a three-night stay with two nights in Fort Canning in a deluxe king room and one night in The Capella, in a premium garden room, for £495 pp, including airport transfers, breakfast and transfer between hotels. - Daily Mail