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Supertree Grove, Singapore’s spectacular sci-fi forest of solar-powered trees that simulate the real thing, is just one of the futuristic plant-inspired sights awaiting at Gardens by the Bay, the city-state’s $1 billion, 249-acre horticultural mega park adjacent to Marina Reservoir. Opened in 2012, these three vast waterfront gardens brim with pulse-quickening, 21st Century super-sights like a gigantic crystal dome housing the world’s largest indoor waterfall, a companion dome touted as the world’s largest column-free greenhouse, a pavilion boasting 1,000 desert plants and a quartet of gardens saluting Singapore’s diverse cultural heritage. And the literal crowning glory? The OCBC Skyway, an aerial walkway suspended between two Supertrees 73 feet above ground. Walk it for pulse-quickening views of the marina and gardens.
Besides exotic blooms, the Singapore Botanic Gardens breeds superlatives, from its 182-acre size and contents (it’s home to the world’s largest orchid garden) to its opening hours (daily from 5 a.m. to midnight). Designed in 1859 as an English-style leisure and ornamental park, today’s vast gardens encompass a tropical rainforest (one of only two in a city), three lakes (look for weekend concerts at Symphony Lake), a Ginger Garden, a Fragrant Garden, a Healing Garden, a horticultural research center and the spectacular National Orchid Garden, abloom with 60,000 flamboyant plants. Lawrence Niven’s original layout flourishes in the thoughtfully redeveloped Taglin Core area, with its dignified white pillars at the gate. And to cultivate future generations’ knowledge of plants and their importance, the Jacob Ballas Children’s Garden boasts smart educational exhibitions as well as treehouse slides and a water play area.
Home to more than 2,500 residents, Singapore Zoo is a lush 69-acre tropical playground where four-legged creatures roam free in natural settings, separated by moats or glass from their two-legged observers. As befits a world-class zoo and wildlife preserve, exotics and imports abound — red river hogs, white tigers, asian elephants, pygmy hippos, sun bears, koalas, komodo dragons, rhino iguanas and aldabra giant tortoises, known as “walking hills” and able to live more than 150 years. But primates rule. Have breakfast with the orangutans — a zoo highlight — then check out the big communities of gibbons, chimpanzees and proboscis monkeys. The lively Kidzworld boasts farm animals, a rainforest and a whiz bang water playland (bathing suits are for sale if you forget to bring one for your kid).
On a clear day you just might see Malaysia from one of the 28 enclosed capsules on Singapore Flyer, the 541-foot-tall Ferris wheel towering 42 stories over Marina Bay. More likely, the world’s second tallest observation wheel will afford you and your fellow riders (each capsule holds 28 passengers) breathtaking birds-eye views of Singapore landmarks like the Central Business District, Colonial District and Supertrees as you press your nose to the window or stroll the air-conditioned capsule during the wheel’s leisurely 30-minute spin. To ramp up the experience, consider ordering up a ride accompanied by cocktails or a four-course dinner complete with white tablecloths (and two rotations).
Few cities, let alone city-states, have the opportunity to build from the ground up, but that’s precisely what happened with Marina Bay, Singapore’s 890-acre planned city-within-a-city built atop reclaimed land and home to ultra-modern attractions like Gardens by the Bay, the Float at Marina Bay and Marina Bay Sands Skypark. The body of water that gives the district its name and beauty is actually Marina Reservoir, transformed in 2008 from a saline estuary of the Singapore River into a freshwater cistern that doubles as a reflecting pool for the forest of high-rise office buildings, apartments and leisure attractions bordering it. With a plethora of restaurants and public performance spaces, a public park, promenades for running or strolling and Singapore’s ritziest mall, entertainments abound.
In a city-state where the orchid is the national flower, it’s no surprise that Singapore’s most popular visitor attraction is the world’s largest orchid garden — a 7-acre feast of 60,000 velvety plants encompassing 1,000 species and a jaw-dropping 2,000 hybrids, a garden specialty. Blanketing the highest hill in the Singapore Botanic Gardens, the National Orchid Garden engulfs you in exotic blooms, color coded to evoke the seasons — yellows, creams and golds (spring), reds and pinks (summer), muted shades (autumn) and whites and ice blues (winter). Look for gardens within the garden — the Tan Hoon Siang Misthouse sheltering rare and scented orchids, the Cool House mimicking a tropical cloud forest and the VIP Garden showcasing home-bred orchids named for celebrated visitors, like William and Kate. And watch for displays of carnivorous plants (apparently the orchids don’t mind good-looking, bug-eating interlopers).
Blanketing 49 acres at Sentosa Island’s Resorts World Sentosa, the Southeast Asian link in this growing international chain of high-octane, movie-inspired theme parks dazzles with 21 rides, six roller coasters and two water rides. Surrounding a lagoon, seven themed zones, including New York, Hollywood, Sci-Fi City and Ancient Egypt, serve up Broadway-style shows, themed restaurants and shops, and uber-rides like Battleship Galactica, featuring the world’s largest pair of dueling roller coasters, and Transformers: The Ride, which engulfs you in 3-D wrap-around screen imagery and 4-D special effects. You can visit Shrek’s castle, too.
Designed to thrill, inform and muscle its way into the record books, Cloud Forest is an enormous glass bio-dome housing the world’s tallest indoor waterfall splashing from a height of nearly 100 feet in front of a plant-covered (man-made) mountain. A showpiece at Gardens by the Bay, Cloud Forest replicates the cool, moist rainforest conditions found on tropical mountaintops, complete with the accompanying plant life, rarities included. Zoom to the top in an elevator, then wend your way down a series of skyways that offer postcard-ready views of the city and marina and bring you face to face with mountain orchids, begonias and pitcher plants, the carnivorous beauties that devour bugs and small animals.
With sheltered beaches, PGA-class golf courses and megawatt attractions like Skyline Luge, Sentosa Island is proof positive that an island resort is a welcome accoutrement for any big city, even when the city is itself an island. Just four minutes from Singapore by Sentosa Express light rail (or a 15 minute drive over the causeway bridge), this once humble fishing village bustles with entertainments, restaurants and hotels. Gaze at Singapore from the 360-foot-tall Tiger Sky Tower, commune with over 15,000 live butterflies at Butterfly Park and Insect Kingdom, or immerse yourself in Singapore’s largest collection of World War II memorabilia at historic Fort Siloso, built by the British in the 1880s. Or visit Resorts World Sentosa, a resort within a resort embracing S.E.A. Aquarium (over 100,000 marine animals), Adventure Cove Waterpark (water rides galore) and ultra-theme park Universal Studios Singapore. As for nature lovers, 70 percent of the island is a rainforest, home to monkeys, parrots and peacocks.
As befits a waterfront city-state of skyscrapers and landmarks designed to be seen from on high, Skypark is a vast cantilevered observation deck crowning the three curvy towers of the 55-story Marina Bay Sands hotel, 656 feet above ground. Hotel guests can take in the heart-pounding views from every inch of its 133,472 square foot expanse, including the cool blue waters of the infinity pool, a surreal beauty (and the world’s largest at this height) designed by architect Moshe Safdie. Not staying in one of the hotel’s 2,500-plus rooms? Views are sweet from the public observation area (the sun blazes, so bring sunscreen or a hat). Or drink in the vistas with a pricey cocktail at hip Ku Dé Ta, the hotel’s al fresco Modern Asian restaurant, or over serious Franco Asian eats at silky Sky on 57.
Even if you’ve never been to Singapore you’ve probably seen the merlion, the imposing white sculpture of the city-state’s mascot, a mythical creature, part lion, part fish spewing water into Marina Bay from his perch in Merlion Park. Created in 1972 by Singapore sculptor Lim Nang Sen, the towering 28-foot-tall, 70-ton merlion embodies Singapore’s unique yin/yang, with a nod to its origins as a humble fishing village and its current status as a financial powerhouse with the world’s third highest GDP. Take a selfie with the merlion, then get comfy on the nearby viewing decks to enjoy incomparable views of the water, the Marina Bay Sands and other iconic Singapore sights.
Macaque monkeys, monith lizards and colugos (aka flying lemurs) are a few of the exotic creatures you may encounter on MacRitchie Nature Trail, a superb 7-mile walk through the lush tropical rainforest and nature reserve at MacRitchie Reservoir Park. Well-marked offshoot trails abound, leading deep into the forest or round the reservoir where kayaking and canoeing are available. But set your sights on Treetops Walk, an 820-foot-long pedestrian bridge suspended 82 feet in the air with heart-thumping views of the surrounding wildlife (try spotting the 80 species of birds and18 rare trees). Start out early to beat the worst heat, and load up with water and insect repellant.
The Changi Museum commemorates the thousands of World War II POWs, including nearly 5,000 civilians, interned at Changi Prison, the infamous camp operated by the Japanese during their occupation of Singapore from 1942 to 1945. Barbed wire, a wall block and a cell door harvested from the prison bring this harrowing period to life as does a life-size floor plan for the minuscule cells that held as many as four prisoners. Letters, drawings, photographs, murals and other personal artifacts display the resourcefulness and survival instincts of the captives, like the rice cloth quilts made for men in the military hospital by women internees, embroidered with coded messages and stitched with loved ones’ names. Note the cross in the life-size replica of the original chapel built by inmates: it’s made from ammunition casings. An interesting footnote: the museum, founded in 1988 as Old Changi Prison Chapel and Museum, was originally on the grounds of Changi Prison. It moved into its current home in 2001 so the prison, still in use, could expand.
Outside it’s the tropics, but step inside Flower Dome, a vast, 21st Century crystal palace at Gardens by the Bay, and you’re transported to the cool, dry air of Italy, Spain and California, ideal growing conditions for the thousands of Mediterranean plants, trees and flowers flourishing in the largest column-free greenhouse in the world. Stroll the seasonally changing Flower Fields, popping with color and heady with scent, gaze upon rarities like the 1,000 year-old olive trees transplanted from Spain, and admire the jaw-drop views of the Marina skyline. And offer a round of applause to the bio-dome itself: fit from 3,332 glass pieces, it’s like a gigantic, walk-in puzzle.
Settled in the last 200 years, Singapore may qualify as a new city, but the cultures it embraces are ancient, as underscored at the Asian Civilisations Museum. The Museum is a superb repository of art and artifacts from China, Southeast Asia, India, Sri Lanka, and Turkey. Tao and Buddhist statuary, Chinese export porcelain, calligraphy, Chola bronzes and ethnological holdings are a sampling of what awaits inside the 1864 Empress Place Building, a magnificent colonial era structure built to house government buildings and named for an icon of yet another culture, Queen Victoria.
Talk about twitter: home to more than 5,000 birds including endangered rarities like the Bali mynah, blue-throated macaw and great Indian hornbill, Jurong Bird Park is the world’s largest bird zoo. Four free-flight aviaries recreating natural habitats blanket 50 acres on a western slope of Jurong Hill, housing a Pelican Cove, a Penguin Coast, a Lory Loft, a Swan Lake, a Flamingo Pool and a huge colony of flightless dinosaur descendants like ostriches, emus and the double-wattled cassowary. Get chatted up by an Amazon parrot over an Asian buffet (lunch with the parrots is a highlight). And if you don’t mind getting wet, cool off in the simulated thunderstorm that douses crowds at the Southeastern Asian birds aviary daily at noon.
On the immaculate grounds of a World War II cemetery in northern Singapore, the Kranji War Memorial is an elegant hilltop structure commemorating the men and women of the British Commonwealth who died in the line of duty. Designed to salute the three branches of the armed forces, the memorial boasts a covering shaped like the wing of a plane acknowledging the Air Force, a tower shaped like a sail in recognition of the Navy and honors the Army with walled columns inscribed with the names of the more than 24,000 men and women killed in action. Rows of crisp white tombstones mark the graves of thousands of Allied troops on the cemetery’s grass-covered slope, including Plot 44, a mass grave for the 69 Chinese servicemen killed when Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942.
Yet another freshly minted Singapore landmark, Helix Bridge is a spectacular, LED-lit pedestrian bridge flaunting the shapes and undulations of its inspiration — the DNA double helix. Connecting Marina Bay to Marina Centre, the 2010 bridge, the first in the world that curves, combines two helix structures, one gobbling up the other, creating a visually arresting, tropically savvy structure that provides shelter from downpours and shade. Doubling as a 918-foot-long observation deck, the bridge is a terrific place to take in the Singapore skyline, particularly from the five viewing platforms outfitted with shades and seating that sprout from the side like giant soap dishes.
Consecrated in 2008, Chinatown’s imposing Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum gets its curious name from the modest-looking object housed in a solid gold stupa on the fourth floor: a tooth said to be that of the Buddha, discovered in 1980 at a collapsed stupa in Myanmar. The relic can be seen twice daily from a public viewing gallery (only monks can enter the inner chamber where it resides). But more accessible relics await on the third floor, and exquisite artifacts and sculptures fill this dazzling sanctuary. Despite the crowds, BTRM is an excellent place for meditation and reflection. Don’t miss the roof, home to the Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas (and the large prayer wheel inside) and a garden abloom with the temple’s signature flower, the Dendrobium Buddha Tooth orchid.
Singapore’s most popular nightspot isn’t a bar or club — it’s Night Safari, an 86-acre tropical forest zoo that’s home to more than 2,500 nocturnal creatures and is open only at night. Illuminated by lights that evoke moonlight, animals roam cage-free in natural habitats divvied into seven geographical zones including equatorial Africa (zebras, giraffes and hyenas) and the Burmese hillside (gaurs, bantengs and Malayan tigers). Hop on the chipper open-air tram for a 40-minute tour of all the zones, then set off on a walking trail to hunt down the animals you missed, like small-toothed civets and big-toothed cats like leopards and Gir lions.
Forget musty: opened in 2005, the pristine 16-story National Library of Singapore is a futuristic haven for bibliophiles, locals and visitors alike, stocked with the nation’s largest repository of fiction, international periodicals, an extensive children’s library and titles in Chinese, Malay and Tamil as well as English. The work of Malay architect and ecologist Ken Yeang, the building boasts a brainy bioclimatic design suited to the tropics and two gracious public gardens, ideal for whiling away an hour with a book. Housed within are a lending library, reference library and drama center as well as a splendid display of historic maps of Asia.
Call it Ultimate Park Hopping: Southern Ridges is a glorious six-mile stretch of green open spaces spanning the hills of some of Singapore’s best-loved parks and gardens (pulse-quickening views of the city, harbor and southern islands go with the territory). The bonus is how you get from one park to the next: you’ll traverse a treetop boardwalk as you go from quiet Kent Ridge Park to HortPark (loaded with flora and fauna), cross the poetic Alexander Arch Bridge and reach the wonderfully undulating Henderson Waves, Singapore’s highest pedestrian bridge, en route to Teloch Blangah Hill Park, a popular site for wedding photos. The trail ends (or begins) at Mount Faber Park, one of Singapore’s oldest.
A vibrant fusion of Chinese, Malay and Indian elements, Peranakan culture is everywhere you look in this handsome museum housed in a National Monument, a classical, columned structure built in 1912 to house Singapore’s first modern Chinese school. Opened in 2008, the Peranakan Museum immerses you in a rich culture that doesn’t skimp on celebration (a traditional wedding lasted 12 days) or accoutrements (check out the carved wedding bed, curtained and gilded). Ten galleries devoted to food and feasting, religion, arts and crafts (the beading and embroidery is exquisite), the culture today and more add up to the finest and most comprehensive collection of Peranakan artifacts in the world.
Shaped like a gigantic lotus flower perched atop a glass box, architect Moshe Safdie’s impossible-to-miss ArtScience Museum of Marina Bay Sands bills itself as the world’s first art/science mash-up and is a 21st Century museum in every way imaginable. Dubbed “the welcoming hand of Singapore,” ultramodern skylit galleries inhabit each of the ten “fingers” emanating from the structure’s round base. Traveling exhibitions curated by other museums provide the lion’s share of the visual content. But a high-tech, permanent exhibition exploring the creative process fills three galleries, focusing on curiosity, inspiration and expression. Bonus: the museum chills from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. one Thursday a month with performances, bar offerings and late-night gallery viewings.
With more than 25 shopping malls, six monster department stores, dozens of restaurants and more than 20 hotels, Orchard Road, Singapore’s buzzy high-end shopping enclave, is a far cry from its 19th-century origins as a path to the nutmeg, pepper and fruit orchards that gave it its name. It’s hard to imagine an internationally known brand that isn’t here (choose from fashion, fashion accessories, electronics, books, gourmet food, sports, art, beauty, eyeglasses and more), but for a glimpse of old Singapore check out the Orchard Road outposts of two veteran department stores: Robinsons at The Centrepoint (in business for 150 years) and TANG Orchard (founded in 1934). This buzzy commercial whirlwind extends just over a mile, sandwiched between Orange Grove Road and Handy Road.