Theme park fun for old and young
SINGAPORE is sometimes dismissed by seasoned travellers as rather sterile and tame when contrasted with the rest of Asia.
It's true that most of Singapore is unlikely to assault the senses in the way that some other Asian cities do. There's no rubbish or unpleasant smells, few touts or beggars, the plumbing works and sightseeing is a breeze.
The result can be a little bland compared with the urban maelstrom that is Delhi or the slightly more earthy delights of Bangkok or Hong Kong. However, for travellers returning home after demanding journeys in more exotic locations, it can be the perfect place to pause before that final flight home to work and the realities of day-to-day life.
If you feel you've "done" Singapore in the past, it might be worth considering a return visit because it continues to expand its list of attractions. Inevitably for a city state where shopping is a national pastime, the array of retail therapy possibilities is also booming.
So, what's new in Singapore?
Quite a lot on Sentosa, Singapore's resort island which intrepid travellers love to hate for its synthetic atmosphere.
A few years ago there wasn't much to do on Sentosa other than swim on its beaches of imported sand, visit Fort Sentosa and the aquarium or check out the albeit excellent Images of Singapore museum.
You can still do all three of course but Sentosa is undergoing a billion-dollar upgrade.
Already open is a Universal Studios theme park and the Maritime Experiential Museum and Aquarium. In the latter visitors can experience what it is like to be aboard a traditional junk during a typhoon but there is also a genuine collection of marine artefacts, including finds from shipwrecks in the region.
Universal Studios is a full-on theme park complete with a hair-raising double rollercoaster and live shows. As with any theme park it pays to abandon one's dignity at the entrance and embrace all things kitsch instead. This way you'll enjoy yourself thoroughly and as everyone else is doing the same thing what does it matter? What happens in the theme park, stays in the theme park.
While some attractions are clearly aimed at children (ie. the Madagascar boat ride, which was tame even for ride wusses like my husband and me) there are other rides that should get the pulses racing.
I can't vouch for this myself as I was too scared to go on Battlestar Galactica: Human vs. Cylon, the world's tallest duelling rollercoasters. One of the rides is a seated coaster, the other is suspended and both operate at the same time - both looked equally terrifying.
In the interests of research we did venture on the park's outdoor rollercoaster which is part of the Far Far Away (Shrek's kingdom for those not familiar with the big green ogre). It's graded as a family rollercoaster which supposedly means that in theory those over about 12 should not emerge with their knees knocking. We may have just proved the exception to the rule.
I would have given the Rapids Adventure water ride a go but this was unfinished when we were there. It has since opened but rather oddly been closed again for "enhancement work".
There are two shows that are worth fitting into your escape from reality day. The first is the short special effects show which has an introduction by Steven Spielberg and features a simulated hurricane hitting New York. The second is the WaterWorld live water show which features stuntwomen and men, explosions, fireballs and jetskis.
It was slickly done and fun. The kids around us loved it, mind you so too did most of the adults. You can even pick your seating on the basis of how wet you want to get - there's the dry zone, the splash zone and the soak zone.
In Singapore's sultry climate even the soaked among the audience dried out rapidly.
I was happy to discover that among the usually offerings of hamburgers and hotdogs that one would expect in a theme park there was a Chinese restaurant that served dim sum made on the premises. My selection was delicious and not too outrageously expensive.
Travellers' tips for Sentosa
1. Go early to avoid the crowds and the heat.
2. Do take the cable car at least one way unless you are seriously afraid of heights. The ride only takes about 12 minutes but for much of the journey you are suspended 120 metres above the sea. Once I had prised my hands off the edge of the seat and forced myself to look around I had to admit, the view was spectacular.
In front was Singapore's playground, Sentosa with its multi-hued hotels, exhibition halls and rollercoasters set among the trees.
To my left, the skyscrapers of the central city rose behind a vast container port. To the right, more high-rise apartments were perched on the hillsides.
Close by, the pastel-coloured monorail trains were gilding over the bridge that also links Sentosa with the mainland. (Along with ferries, there are trains, buses and taxis if you really can't face being dangled over the sea).
3. The easiest way to reach the cable car station is to take Singapore's MRT (subway) to HarbourFront Station. Once you emerge from the subway just follow the signs to the station which is across the carpark adjacent to the HarbourFront shopping centre.
The station looks from the outside like an ordinary office-apartment block. If you want a longer cable car ride you can begin at the top of Mt Faber, the hill behind HarbourFront. There's a complimentary bus shuttle from the carpark.
4. There are free buses to take you around the island... or you can even walk! For a great view of the ships waiting to dock in one of the world's busiest ports, walk across the bridge to the small island at Siloso Beach. About 130,000 ships dock here every year.
Stay in style
While never cheap, Singapore's Mandarin Oriental is undoubtedly the place for a hotel splurge. The hotel is right on the waterfront and each room has floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the harbour, the ocean or the city.
Breakfasts, which featured everything from waffles to Indian and Chinese specialities, were superb and the rooftop swimming pool is beautiful. The latter stays open in the evening too so you can simultaneously swim and admire the illuminated Singapore skyline.
As you'd expect in a five-star hotel in the Mandarin stable the service is superb. After ploughing up and down the pool doing laps I was presented with a warm face cloth and a glass of icy cold water.
You can also loll on a full-size bed after your swim (or even in lieu of getting wet), white drapes wafting in the evening breeze and sip a gin sling.