Having only seen the transit lounge of Changi Airport on previous trips to London, our Singapore itinerary was aimed at everything except collecting shopping bags.
The lure of Orchard Road’s mega malls may beckon loudly to many, but to my travelling companions – two energetic teenage sons – our mission was to discover the hidden gems and lesser known riches of Singapore. And the real magic was seeing it all through my children’s eyes. Forget pounding shopping mall pavements, think endless nature trails, tree top walks across a tropical mountain ravine, hawker-style food stalls, night-time safari, cycling around nature reserves on a tropical island and more.
Cycle around the lush island of Pulau Ubin
Pulau Ubin is a boomerang- shaped island covered in rich foliage including the remnants of rubber plantations and old Malay houses reminiscent of a bygone era that are full of character. It contains the country’s last kampongs where villagers still count on wells for water and generators for electricity. The best way to explore is by bike, which cost $3–$8 to rent.
There are three cycling trails (on paved and dirt roads), which lead you on a scenic trip past mangrove swamps, water-filled quarry pits and old wooden houses. We stopped by Chek Jawa one of Singapore’s richest ecosystems where six major habitats meet and mix.
Treetop obstacle course
Tucked away on the East side of the island and only a short drive from the bustling city centre we discovered a Forest Adventure where you can climb 35 different trees and take part in a variety of obstacle courses as well as fly down a giant zip line over the Bedok Reservoir Park.
There was a mini-course for children but we opted for the Grand Course which takes 2.5 hours to complete and is definitely not for the faint-hearted. For this, children under-18 need to be accompanied by an adult (aged 21 and above) as it’s not a guided tour.
After completing a 30 minute safety briefing and being fitted with a harness and helmet, the climb began but while my energetic sons tackled the course and enjoyed the trapezes, Tarzan swings, I managed only half the course. Instead, I opted to watch them from below as they stepped across the wobbly logs high above the ground and enjoyed the sense of fun and achievement having completed the course.
Hike through the MacRitchie Reservoir TreeTop Walk
Our nature trail included walking across a free-standing suspension bridge which connects the two highest points in MacRitchie and offers a bird’s eye view of the plants and animals that live below the forest canopy. The total length of the walkway is about 250m and its height from the forest floor varies, with the highest point at 25m. Besides providing another avenue for a nature recreation for Singaporeans, the Tree Top Walk plays an important role in forest canopy research work plus it’s a spectacular experience.
Another high octane challenge that I left my boisterous sons to was the Wave House Sentosa. Located near the sandy beaches, this wave ride provides surfer’s the benefit of artificial waves including the 10 foot FlowBarrel wave.
For a beachside cocktail experience with a twist, head down to Singapore’s premier sun-kissed playground haunt. A stunning combination of a restaurant, bar and beach getaway often regarded as Singapore’s best stretch of sand.
Experience the world’s first safari park for nocturnal animals. This is where you can explore the rainforest at dusk, enjoy tribal performances, and ogle at the nocturnal life of Malayan tapirs, clouded leopards, binturong and Babirusas on a night tram safari through an Asian riverine
Dinner at Ulu Ulu
Step back in time and enjoy Singapore’s all-time favourite dishes like chilli crab, chicken rice, briyani rice, ice kachang and more in a charming village setting. Experience the nostalgia of dining within the rustic allure of this wooden-furnished restaurant or opt for an alfresco setting and drink in the symphony of the cicadas, frogs and other night creatures while a herd of Ankole cattle graze nearby.
From here, we took the Singapore River Cruise and enjoyed the impressive city skyline including the iconic Clarke Quay and quaint bridges that speak to the rich former colonial history as a leading trading centre. Viewing the kaleidoscope of colourful traditional shop fronts set against a backdrop of modern skyscrapers on this round-trip journey is the perfect way to see the city.
Before taking off from the marina located alongside the Merlion statue – the half lion, half fish shaped sculpture – we played the tourist and were photographed as if we were holding the fountain water in clasped hands. The Merlion represents Singapore’s humble roots as a fishing village and the lion head is a nod to the city’s original name, Singapura or ‘lion city’ in Malay.
Singapore’s food highlights
Rather than sip on elegant fine china at the famed and majestic Raffles Hotel, we kicked off our seven-day trip at a local café trying the delights of a traditional Singaporean breakfast – Kaya Toast at Killiney Kopitiam.
Located along the bustling street of Killiney Road, we ventured into a humble café famous for its bread toast and freshly brewed Columbian Arabica coffee roasted with Robusta coffee beans from Indonesia using a traditional Hainanese recipe.
You drink the coffee with bread toast freshly made with kaya, a coconut jam produced daily, and the local way is to dip the crunchy bread into a bowl of soft boiled eggs with soy sauce.
Another food favourite was Boon Tat Street known as ‘Satay Street’ which is a unique dining experience under the stars. Here, you can eat like the locals and try the popular dishes such as the Mi Goring and chicken BBQ skewers. The meals are inexpensive and in a friendly outdoor setting.
Enjoy an authentic lunch at Chinatown Food Street
Chinatown Food Street is a pedestrian only street featuring 24 hawker stalls, six shop house restaurants and numerous street kiosks offering a variety of delectable Chinese dishes. Following a revamp in February, it now has a seating capacity of about 650, as well as a high ceiling glass canopy shelter and a built in cooling system to cater for all types of weather.
The Peranakan Museum in Armenian Street celebrates the mixed heritage blend of the Peranakan people who descend from Singapore, Malacca, Penang and Southeast Asia. One of the many highlights among an array of arts and crafts and fascinating photographic portraits was the ornamental Wedding Bed, which once belonged to a woman called Quah Hong Chiam originally from Penang. On this bed, she miraculously gave birth to the first seven of her 11 children.
Housed in the old Tao Nan School, the Peranakan Museum gives you an insight into the life of a Peranakan including the often extravagant lifestyle of the affluent Nonyas and Babas. Exploring the area of Tiong Bahru was more my style.
Built in the 1930s, Tiong Bahru is Singapore’s first housing estate which is now a charming conservation area with art deco buildings that provide a colourful snapshot of local life, including a trendy locale for new cafes such as the Plain Vanilla Bakery, galleries and quirky shops such as Books Actually too.
Books Actually is well worth a visit if you love books, and apart from wanting to buy up the store, it’s free.
Without doubt one of our family highlights was Gardens by the Bay where we visited at night to take in the the incredible OCBC Garden Rhapsody Light & Sound Show.
Spanning 101 hectares, Gardens by the Bay is a showcase of horticulture and garden artistry, capturing the essence of Singapore as the premier tropical “City in a Garden”.
The spectacular show runs nightly and there is a stunning display of magical lights and music amid the 16-storey, solar energy harvesting Supertrees. Other features include the Cloud Forest, a mountain environment set in a cool-moist conservatory, the Flower Dome where spring never ends, Dragonfly & Kingfisher Lakes and the Heritage Gardens.
Little India and enjoy a visit to the India Heritage Centre
Little India is a cacophony of car horns, bicycle bells and the vibrant chatter of its residents. Tekka Market, only a short walk from Little India MRT Station, is one of the highlights and boasts a plethora of stalls selling Indian, Malay and Chinese food that regularly draws crowds from all over Singapore. There you can also stock up on souvenirs such as brass oil lamps and pots or go to the Mustafa Centre to get gold jewellery, electronics and more at bargain prices.
With so many sights to take in during our Singapore stay, we didn’t have the time nor the desire to go shopping apart from our bargain purchases in Little India and Chinatown. For us, the key benefits of visiting Singapore as a family is that we got to enjoy the rich and diverse cultures, experienced a wealth of activities and fabulous food.
For more details about Singapore, visit www.yoursingapore.com.
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Robyn Foyster was a guest of the Singapore Tourism Board