Author: Carolyn Boyle
Date of Trip: April 2015
This review describes a 4-day/3-night stay in Singapore geared to people who like to walk and DIY. It is primarily a journal of how we spent each day, including web links to tourist information web sites and maps.
Although our visit was the prelude to a cruise, we thought that Singapore is a highly interesting destination in its own right. It is also an excellent cruise embarkation city or port call because of the excellent public transportation system. We felt sorry for those passengers who boarded the ship shortly before it departed and were unable to experience any of the numerous attractions in this city.
Fort Canning Park, Mount Faber, HortPark and Southern Ridges, Labrador Nature Reserve, Singapore Botanical Gardens, Gardens by the Bay, Marina Bay Sands Skypark, Little India, Glam Kapour (Little Arabia), Chinatown, Night Safari, Merlion Park, Civic District
John and I (Carolyn) are retired Mississippi State University professors in our mid-sixties, who currently reside in central North Carolina. Both of us are natives of New Orleans and, as such, are interested in good food (and wine!) and good times.
We have traveled extensively worldwide and enjoy both land tours and cruises; often our trips combine the two. On cruises, we prefer DIY port tours, private tours with other CruiseCritic.com roll call members or shared public tours. We favor nature and wildlife tours that involve snorkeling, SCUBA diving or hiking. In particular, we will hike for miles to see waterfalls, volcanoes, caves or other interesting geologic features. We also enjoy lighthouses, forts, castles and anything else we can legally climb up on for a good view.
REVIEW OF THE TRIP
TRAVEL DAY 1: SUN, 04/29/15 RALEIGH/DURHAM, NC, USA (RDU) TO AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS (AMS) VIA DETROIT, MI, USA (DTW)
Our neighbors, Suzy and Dick, drove us out to RDU this afternoon. When we checked in, we could not get the boarding passes for the AMS to SIN flight because it was too early. There were no problems on the flight to DTW.
We had a large lunch before leaving home, so we passed on the airline dinner and tried to go to sleep as quickly as possible on the flight to AMS. Surprisingly, the flight had 100 empty seats so John and I each got to occupy two. We both slept pretty well but not for very long as the flight had strong tail winds and reached AMS an hour early.
TRAVEL DAY 2: MON, 03/30/15 AMSTERDAM (AMS) TO SINGAPORE (SIN)
After landing at AMS at around 10:30 a. m. local time, we were 6 hours ahead of EDT. Our flight to Singapore did not depart until 9:00 p. m. local time, so we had time to visit Amsterdam during the layover. Fortunately, were able to get the boarding passes to SIN at a self-service kiosk because the line to speak with a live agent was horrendous. We found a locker to stash our hand luggage (7 euro) and went through a quick immigration and customs inspection. Then we headed out to the street to catch the bus to the Museumplein.
John had purchased e-tickets online for the Airport Express bus (www.bus197.nl). We did this more for convenience than for the small discount (4.5 euro pp vs. 5 euro pp). There are uniformed helpers at the bus stop to answer questions about the bus system. The buses are very easy to use; there is a display inside that shows the next several stops so you know exactly when to exit.
We caught an earlier bus than we had originally anticipated and were at the Van Gogh Museum (www.vangoghmuseum.nl) around noon. The ticket line was huge! Prudently, John had ordered e-tickets online (15 euros pp) that would let us skip that line. The downside was that our timed entry was at 2:00 p. m. and we could not enter the museum before 1:30 p. m. We spent the intervening time walking around Amsterdam using a route suggested by our neighbor, Hans, who is Dutch. It was warmer in Amsterdam, about 50 F (15 C) degrees, than Sunday in NC.
When we returned to the museum for our visit, the line to buy tickets was just as long as before. However, we simply showed the e-tickets and walked right in. The museum has changed a lot in the 38 years since we were there last. It now includes works from artists who influenced or were influenced by Van Gogh, as well as period photographs, letters and other artifacts. It was nice to see Van Gogh’s work put into context but the galleries were very crowded. We toured in reverse order, starting at the top and working down; that helped a little with the crowds. At the end we walked through the exhibits again to revisit our favorite works and check out ones that had been too crowded to see before.
Then we got back on the bus (5 euro pp), rode out to the airport, bought some take-away sandwiches, went through passport control, reclaimed the hand luggage, found the gate, ate the sandwiches and moved to a new gate in another concourse. That part of the airport must double as a meat locker because it was freezing there.
We were starting to wear down and just sat there reading and listening to the MANY announcements threatening to off-load so-and-so’s luggage if they didn’t board their flight RIGHT NOW. Where were all these people? Did they go into town and forget to come back?
Finally, it was time to board our flight to SIN. We did not have to pass through a security checkpoint to reach the gates. Instead, there was a security check right at the gate and we were conducted into a secure area to await boarding. Renovations to convert the airport to central screening will supposedly be completed later in 2015.
This flight was not full either but there were not as many empty seats as on the flight to AMS. John and I had three seats to share between us. Because we had eaten the sandwiches and the flight departed at 9:00 p. m., we intended to skip the airline dinner and go straight to sleep. The rattle of food carts awakened me enough to hear the flight attendants saying they would wake up passengers to eat because it was such a long flight. I managed to rouse myself in time to keep them from waking John and asked them not to disturb us if we were sleeping.
SINGAPORE DAY 1: TUE, 03/31/15
Our flight arrived in Singapore (www.yoursingapore.com) at around 3:30 p. m. local time, over 36 hours since we left RDU. We made it there in one piece but with stiff muscles from contorted sleeping on the plane. Despite the fact that we both got a good amount of rest, it was going to be an effort for us to overcome the jet lag; Singapore is 12 hours ahead of EDT.
Getting to the hotel from the Changi Airport (www.changiairport.com) was easy. We bought tickets for the Airport Shuttle Bus (S$9 pp, cash or credit card) at the Ground Transport Desk, near the rental car counters. The wait was only about 15 minutes and the shuttle was not crowded. We were the second couple dropped off downtown.
We had booked three nights at the Strand Hotel (www.strandhotel.com.sg) and prepaid on agoda.com. The Strand is a budget hotel near the corner of Bencoolen Street and Bras Basah Road. It is nothing fancy but the location is fantastic. There is a lot of construction in front of the hotel for a new subway (MRT) station, so guests for the Strand and the other hotels on that part of Bencoolen Street have to be dropped off behind the hotels. However, there was an elderly bellhop waiting for us who insisted on taking our bags around the corner to the entrance and up the stairs to the lobby, where check-in went smoothly. Then the bellhop took our bags to our room, showed us how the lights work and left quickly, obviously not expecting a tip.
Our room was small (although bigger than a cruise ship cabin), high (8th floor) and on the side of the hotel away from the construction; we did not have any problem with noise from that but occasionally could hear other guests talking in the hallway outside our room. There was a TV, refrigerator and safe in the room. It seemed clean, with no stains on the carpet, furniture or linens and no cigarette smell. There was a shower with a decent flow rate and lots of hot water. The air conditioning worked well. The only amenities are slippers, toothbrush and paste, and a kettle with instant tea and coffee; there was gel soap in the shower/tub and by the sink. We had not expected to have washcloths but were surprised that there was no hand towel. However, I asked for an extra towel and pillow (there were only three in the room) before we went out for a walk; both were in our room when we returned. After that, we received three clean towels every day without having to ask again.
We planned to take a leisurely walk in nearby Fort Canning Park to help reset our circadian rhythms. First we stopped at the Bras Basah MRT station (about a block from the hotel) to buy EZ-Link cards (ezlink.com.sg) at the Passenger Service Counter. These stored-value cards can be used on buses as well as the MRT (www.mytransport.sg) and are much more convenient than buying tickets for individual trips. The card initially costs S$12, which includes a S$5 nonrefundable charge for the card and S$7 fare value. A quirk of this card is that you cannot begin a journey with lower than S$3 fare value on the card; additional value must be added (minimum of S$10). However, any remaining fare value can be refunded at any time. I had hoped to buy our EZ-Link cards (plus S$10 extra fare value) using a credit card; however, only cash is accepted. There was a CitiBank ATM where I could withdraw local currency near the Passenger Service Counter.
After buying the cards, we continued along an underground concourse of the Singapore Management University to the Stamford Green, where there is an escalator to Fort Canning Park. The National Parks web site has guides for a number of DIY walking tours (www.nparks.gov.sg/gardens-parks-and-nature/walks-and-tours/going-on-a-diy-walk) throughout Singapore. We did the Fort Canning Park – Colonial History Trail.
On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a 7Eleven for a 6-pack of Tiger Beer (S$20.20). After some beer and wonderful showers, we tried to stay awake but only made it to 8:30 p. m. before we started falling asleep and dropping the Kindles. John commented that we should just burn our dirty clothes—we had been wearing them since Sunday afternoon.
SINGAPORE DAY 2: WED, 04/01/15
We managed to sleep most of the night; I had more success than John (natural talent). Our room rate included an “American” breakfast in the hotel’s Blabbers Cafe. Each day the breakfast included two fried eggs served with either two chicken sausages and a hash brown potato patty (twice) or bacon and baked beans (once). In addition, there was a buffet with two hot dishes: noodles with vegetables and pancakes/French toast. There were cold cereals, juice and fruit and a toaster for bread. While not very exciting, the breakfast was adequate and filling; the noodle dishes were especially good.
After breakfast we walked about three blocks to the Dhoby Ghaut MRT and took the NE (Purple) line to the Harbourfront MRT. The EZ-Link cards are very easy to use: you merely tap them on a pad when you enter and exit through the turnstiles; the remaining value is displayed on a screen. We were planning to explore some of Singapore’s natural areas before the day got too hot and humid.
Leaving the Harbourfront MRT by Exit D is the most convenient way to reach the trail head for the Marang Trail. That trail leads up Mount Faber and through a rain forest via several parks, trails, elevated walkways and bridges. This is the HortPark and Southern Ridges walking tour on the National Parks web site (www.nparks.gov.sg/gardens-parks-and-nature/walks-and-tours/going-on-a-diy-walk). We took the A Route as far as the Canopy Walk, then retraced our steps to the Alexandra Arch and took the B Route along the Alexandra Garden Trail to the Labrador MRT. From the pavilion adjacent to the station there is a path along Berlayer Creek, which is home to some of the island’s few remaining mangroves. We walked to the Bukit Chermin Boardwalk at Keppel Harbour. In the distance we could see the replica of the Dragon’s Teeth Gate that once stood off the shores of the Labrador Nature Preserve.
Next it was back to the Labrador MRT for an air-conditioned ride on the CC (Gold) line to the Botanic Gardens MRT. Exit A leads to the Bukit Timah Gate at one end of the Singapore Botanic Gardens (www.sbg.org.sg). We strolled through the gardens until we reached the National Orchid Collection (S$1 pp, senior rate). This is an impressive display of orchids from all over the world. We were glad that we had brought umbrellas because it rained briefly, which made it hotter and more humid. After strolling through more of the gardens, we exited by the Taglin Gate onto Napier Road.
We walked about a block to the Singapore Botanic Gardens (13019) bus stop. Several bus lines run down Orchard Road to the Rendezvous Hotel (08069) bus stop, which is only a half-block from the Strand Hotel. To use the EZ-Link cards on buses, you tap in when you board at the front of the bus and tap out when you exit from the rear. Once at the hotel, we rested awhile and drank beer. The sky was very black and it was thundering. We decided to take a short nap and venture out again when it was a bit cooler.
After a nice nap, we headed out to find some typical Singaporean food. Reviews of the Strand Hotel noted that there was a hawker center (food court) right across the street in the Manulife Center. Unfortunately, that is now closed but the Manulife Center security guard suggested one around the corner on Waterloo Street. It only had a few stalls, but we could get the famous Hainanese chicken rice, sort of the national dish. It is a mound of rice cooked in chicken broth plus slices of roasted (black) or boiled (white) chicken. This was the roasted chicken version and also included a bowl of chicken broth and some leafy green vegetable, probably water spinach (kangkong).This was all tasty, very filling, and amazingly inexpensive (S$6.60 total for two meals).
After dinner we walked to the Bras Basah MRT and took the CC (Gold) line to the Promenade MRT, then transferred to the CE (Gold) line to the Bayfront MRT. That station is right next to the Marina Bay Sands Hotel (www.marinabaysands.com), three tall towers connected at the top. There is a pedestrian underpass to the Gardens by the Bay (www.gardensbythebay.com.sg). This is a very pretty collection of gardens with different themes. We strolled through the Outdoor Gardens but did not tour the huge Conservatories (S$28 pp). However, we took the OCBC Skyway (S$5 pp) for a walk 22 m (72 ft) above the ground in the Supertrees Grove. The Supertrees are towers that serve as vertical gardens, generate solar power, act as air venting chimneys for the Conservatories and collect rainwater. In the evenings, there is a sound and light show, Garden Rhapsody, in the Grove.
We had planned to stay in the Gardens until the light show but decided to visit the Marina Bay Sands Skypark (S$23 pp) instead. The Skypark is an observation deck on the 56th floor, where we had great views of the Gardens and the Singapore skyline as the sun went down. We could even get a glimpse of the infinity pool, which is only open to hotel guests. We stayed up there to watch the Garden Rhapsody light show followed by the Wonder Full light show on the other side of the hotel. Then we took the MRT back to the hotel.
SINGAPORE DAY 3: THUR, 04/02/15
We both slept better last night but were still feeling the effects of jet lag and the heat/humidity. Maybe the adjustment would have been a bit easier if it hadn’t been 22 F (-5 C) degrees when we got up Sunday morning in NC, while it was around 86 F (30 C) in Singapore. Anyway, it is a little cooler in the mornings and evenings.
This morning we took a DIY walking tour. We started in the Arts Corridor on Waterloo Street (www.the-inncrowd.com/waterloo.htm), about a block from the hotel. That street leads from the Singapore Art Museum to a pedestrianized area, Albert Mall. Here the Hindu Sri Krishnan Temple and the Buddhist Kuan Im (Goddess of Mercy) Tong Hood Che Temple stand practically side by side. In testimony to Singapore’s religious diversity, some worshipers hedge their bets by praying or making offerings at both sites. Although it was still early in the day, there were a number of stalls selling flowers and other offerings for the gods.
From here we walked to Serangoon Road to start our exploration of the Little India and Glam Kapour (aka Little Arabia) sections of town (www.the-inncrowd.com/littleindiawalk.htm). It was still too early in the morning to experience the bustle of the many stores and markets; we would need to return later in the morning for that. However, we could enjoy window shopping for gorgeous sari fabrics and jewelry. Also, the entire area was heavy with the scent of spices and smelled wonderful. We even got a peek at one of the few remaining spice grinding machines in operation. Further along was the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, dedicated to Kali, the Hindu goddess of power.
Near the edge of Little India is the Abdul Gaffoor Mosque, with its unique Arab and Victorian architecture. From here, we headed to Arab Street and turned onto Muscat Street to view the Sultan Mosque. Finally we walked past the Bugis Village bazaar and back to the hotel to rest and cool down before our walking and food tour of Chinatown this afternoon.
We took the NE (Purple) line from Dhoby Ghaut MRT to Otram Park MRT, then transferred to the EW (Green) line to the Tanjong Pagar MRT, where our guide, Leo, met us at the Passenger Service Counter. We were the only two people on this day’s tour so it was more personalized. It was also more than a food tour. Leo cares about his city/country and wanted to share his enthusiasm so he gave us a brief walking tour along with our many food stops. We got an in-depth look at Singapore, its history, development, infrastructure, future plans and goals at the Singapore City Gallery (www.ura.gov.sg/uol/citygallery). Then of course we moved along to fabulous food in off the beaten path places. Along the way our immersion in Singapore continued as we learned about the fusion cuisine and the various markets that we toured with their interesting food stuffs and traditions.
We started at the Maxwell Road Food Centre, where our tour was interrupted by thunderous rain. After digesting a bit (and eating a little more), Leo found a somewhat sheltered path and altered our food plans. He didn’t want us to get drenched so we waited until we jointly decided we had to move on to the Chinatown Complex Food Centre and later the Hong Lim Food Centre.
There was lots of food. Great food! Coming hungry is not enough; you need to learn to pace yourself until dessert at the very end. We had to carry ours back to our hotel! We tried the following foods: sugar cane juice, coconut milk, Hainanese chicken rice (boiled chicken with rice cooked in chicken broth) and bok choy, curry puffs (half-moon shaped fried pastry stuffed with curried potatoes), pisang rajah (banana fritter), Fuzhou oyster cake (round fried pastry stuffed with oysters, shrimp and vegetables), rojak (salad of beansprouts, cucumber, greens, tau pok (fried bean curd), you tiao (fried dough strips), and peanuts tossed with a prawn paste and topped with crispy cuttlefish), popiah (thin pancake wrapped around sweet, thinly sliced vegetables), kueh pie tee (sweet, thinly sliced vegetables in a fluted pastry shell), curry chicken bee hoon mee (chicken, tau pok, fish cakes, potatoes and noodles), and pandan cake (chiffon cake flavored with pandan leaves). I’m sure we would have tasted more if we hadn’t had to cut the tour short to meet our bus to the Night Safari.
Leo was a knowledgeable and fun guide. All the food purveyors knew him and enjoyed working with him. If you want a really good street view of Singapore and some of its customs, we highly recommend Food Tour Singapore (foodtoursingapore.com) and especially Leo. Our tour ended near the Chinatown MRT, so we took the NE (Purple) line to Dhoby Ghaut and walked back to hotel for a quick freshening up.
We had toured the excellent Singapore Zoo on a previous visit to Singapore and had eaten breakfast with the orangutans. This evening we went to the Night Safari (www.nightsafari.com.sg), which is part of the Singapore Zoo but completely separate from the area open during the daytime. The Night Safari is quite a distance from the city, it is not convenient to reach by public transportation and taxis are hard to find for the return trip to the city. For those reasons, I pre-purchased an admission and round-trip transportation package from SAEx (www.saex.com.sg). This worked out OK but not as smoothly as I had hoped.
We were supposed to catch the SAEx bus at bus stop B01 (08079) around the corner from the hotel outside the School of the Arts (SOTA) and opposite the Rendezvous Hotel. The pickup time was 6:20 p. m. and we were supposed to reach the Night Safari at 7:00 p. m., a half-hour before it opened. A bus from SAEx’s parent company, Bus Hub, finally showed up 15 minutes late but it had the requisite sign for the Night Safari and SAEx logo in the window. It appeared that the bus was doing double duty: following its regular route and also delivering tourists to the Night Safari, so there was no SAEx staff on the bus as we had been told to expect. We did not stop at any more of the tourist pick-up points but dropped people off here and there. The trip to the Night Safari took much longer than the promised 25 minutes because of the incredible traffic jams. We did not arrive at the Night Safari until 7:40 p. m. Someone from SAEx got on the bus and we exchanged our tour confirmation and PayPal receipt emails for Night Safari tickets and vouchers for the return trip.
Even though we were late, we only had to wait about 15 minutes in line to board the tram for the 40-minute narrated tour. This was a great experience; it was surprising how close we were to the animals and how active they were. The tram tour covers all seven habitats represented at the zoo. After the tram tour, we still had the energy to walk three of the four trails, which allow you to see the animals from a different perspective than from the tram. The trails connect to form one long trail around the entire park.
We had hoped to stay at the Night Safari until 11:00 p. m., but we decided to leave at 10:00 p. m. SAEx has departures to the city every half hour, so we checked in at their booth and were assigned to a minibus, which left shortly thereafter. It took 40 minutes to return to our starting point. We collapsed into bed before 11:00 p. m.
SINGAPORE DAY 4: FRI, 04/03/15
This morning we did a DIY waking tour of the Civic District before checking out of the hotel and heading over to the ship. We walked to the Dhoby Ghaut MRT and took the NS (Red) line to Raffles Place MRT. Taking Exit H is most convenient for visiting the symbol of Singapore, the Merlion. As this was a pubic holiday (Good Friday), there were many tourists at the Merlion and tour buses parked on Fullerton Road.
From the Merlion, it is possible to walk along the Singapore River under Fullerton Road and across the Anderson Bridge to the Cavenagh Bridge, the start of the Empress Place, Esplanade Park & War Memorial Park – Monument Trail (www.nparks.gov.sg/gardens-parks-and-nature/walks-and-tours/going-on-a-diy-walk). This trail passes many historical landmarks that tell the story of Singapore’s history, growth and development. However, this area is currently being renovated and much of the view of the buildings and monuments is blocked.
The walking tour ended at the War Memorial Park. From here, we walked along Bras Basah Road to the corner with Beach Road and the famous Raffles Hotel. The hotel’s public spaces, with their palm-filled courtyards, transport you back in time to the British colonial period; there is even a white-coated doorman wearing a turban. We passed on visiting the replica Long Bar, where the sweet Singapore Sling (S$ 28) was invented. Before returning to the hotel, we stopped at the Bras Basah MRT to cash in our EZ-Link cards at the Passenger Service Counter.
We checked out of the hotel and asked the desk to call a taxi for us. The fare (S$13) to the Marina Bay Cruise Centre (mbccs.com.sg) was more expensive than usual because it was a public holiday. Although it is possible to take public transportation to the cruise terminal, it currently requires taking the MRT, transferring to a bus and then making a relatively short walk; all of that is awkward with luggage, which is why we opted for the convenience of a taxi.
Overall, we wish that we had been able to spend more time exploring Singapore. I hope we have the opportunity to revisit this fascinating city in the future.