Troy Hightower

Three Days in Singapore

Eighteen hours in the air from San Francisco to the Far East....arriving in Singapore as ground zero....with three days to explore the high rise, high density lifestyle embodied in a recently read novel titled  Crazy Rich Asians.

Home base is a modern wood, glass and steel one bedroom apartment in the Pan Pacific Suites  on Beach Road in the Kampong Glam or Arab Quarter with a view east to the Marina Bay Area, financial district, and the almost alien Gardens by the Bay. Here are some personal best recommendations from three days on this tropical isle.

Walk Haji Lane, which is unaccountably packed with hip fashion boutiques and Arab Street with its colorful two-story Colonial era houses chock a block with textile shops stuffed with bales of silk and batik, bright dress boutiques and carpet emporia. Tiny restaurants and cafés filled with hookah smoking men abound. Visit the Sultan Mosque, built originally in 1824 with funds from the East India Company. Bussorah Street which leads off the mosque was in colonial times the heart of the Arab Quarter. Now a refurbished pedestrian way, its brightly colored two story houses contain dozens of shops, cafés, restaurants and bars.

Head up past Raffles Hotel and the Fullerton -- the 19th century classical post office building converted to a luxury hotel -- to the modern Fullerton Bay Hotel. The top floor Lantern Bar offers an array of cocktails and appetizers to go with the 240-degree view of the glowing high rises of the financial center, the towers of Marina Bay, and the pretty amazing spectacle of the Marina Bay Sands--an engineering feat of what appears to be a curved, 900 foot long ship, clad in metal and topped by a forest--the Sands Skypark--riding atop three high rise towers.

Head to the Lighthouse Bar atop the Fullerton Hotel (which functioned as an 19th century warning light for ships above the post office) for an after dinner beverage and a similar view, but one including the slowly turning blue lights of the Singapore Flyer--an enormous Ferris wheel larger than the London Eye--the twinkling Helix footbridge across the marina opening, and the spectacular computer controlled light-show of dancing colored spotlight beams and powerful green lasers emanating from the Sands Skypark that play over the surface of the harbor.

Take a car and guide for a three hour overview of Singapore—we hire Mr Singh and his Chrysler 300. Through the Arab Quarter for some glimpses of Little India (the pea long festival had started, so many streets  blocked off.) Through the Colonial area and into Chinatown--already fully garlanded in orange equestrian splendor for the Year of the Horse. Pass Pagoda Street and then circle back up River Valley and Grange Roads to hit the top of the main economic thoroughfare of Singapore, Orchard Road. A mass of high-end high-rise condominiums, hotels, shopping arcades and shops and restaurants, Orchard is the Champs Elysées of Singapore. Cruise slowly past the vast acreage of the Presidential Palace compound and historic Fort Canning and on south to the resort and rich residential island of Sentosa for a tour of the housing of the rich and famous.

Spend several hours in Gardens By the Bay, a most ambitious garden park built by the government at a cost in excess of one billion, on 200 acres of reclaimed land just seaward of the Marina Bay Sands towers. This attraction has won numerous awards, including the 2014 Thea Award. The focal points are two enormous, 6 story high-tech domes: the Cloud Forest houses an artificial mountain of bromeliads and other tropical high altitude plants in an atmosphere of chill mists and a crashing waterfall. The Dome of Flowers is the largest column free greenhouse in the world. Then there are the Supertree groves--vertical gardens as high as 160 ft that look like immense alien vegetation straight out of the film Avatar. These groves of flat-topped acacia-tree looking structures of twisted tubes and concrete are covered in living walls of plants. They provide shade, ventilation and energy through solar arrays on their tops. A canopy walkway snakes between supertrees, providing treetop view of the gardens. Four heritage gardens-- Chinese, Malay, Indian and Colonial celebrate the major founding groups of Singapore. Several themed gardens--Palms, Understory, Succulents, Fruits & Flowers complete the circuit.  The garden contains over 250,000 trees, shrubs, plants and flowers, and is solar energy self contained. Soil and mulch are composted from the tons of tree pruning all over Singapore. Rainwater cachement provides all necessary water for park use and irrigation.

Satay by the Bay is a Hawker Center in the gardens. Have a quick Hawker lunch of
popiah...a fresh spring roll (Malay, Singapore, Fujian) -- thin flour crepes spread with chili-peanut sauce, filled with cooked jicama, carrot, green bean, tofu, shredded egg, and bean sprouts. Satay, cooked over smoking charcoal, of beef--a bit tough, pork belly--incredibly sumptuous, and very fresh chili prawn, served with chopped red onion, cucumber and peanut sauce is as traditional as it gets. A cold draft Tiger, and what could be better.

Eat at the sushi bar at Miyuni--Tokyo-like aesthetic; nines-dressed CRA (Crazy Rich Asians) pair next to us as we take seats at the sushi bar. The fresh-made tofu is already sold out, but our looks of disappointment result in a chef's compliment of an oyster shell filled with Hokkaido uni, a bit of the barrel scrapings of the cold fresh tofu topped with caviar..spectacular.  Ama ebi, shiro aji, tai, and kanpachi comprise some of the finest sushi we've had. Vegetable tempura is feather light and crisp. The CRA's are plowing through chef’s omikase, two bottles of $200 sake, and then order champagne for themselves and the staff.. The sushi master presents us with a complimentary nigiri of uni on seaweed wrapped rice as "dessert" to cap our meal.

Singapore's metro, the MRT is great. Very modern, fast and efficient, the trains and stations are graffiti-free, gum-less and spotless--another result of the fight against filth. The ride from our nearest station at the edge of Kampong Glam right around to the Botanic Garden takes under a half hour.

Singapore Botanic Gardens comprise 150 acres of tropical beauty fashioned over more than a hundred and fifty years out of a jungle hillside. It would take days to see it all properly. A lush curving walkway wends through the foliage garden, emphasizing form and color of foliage rather than flowers.  The bamboo groves contain enormous stands of black, timber, striped and other jumbo members of this branch of the grass family. Huge and century old trees--Saga, Tembusu, Kapok--provide mature context and structure, as well as welcome shade. The National Orchid Collection is a stunning garden of vivid color for orchid lovers--the largest display of tropical orchids in the world. The Ginger Garden features hundreds of species of ginger, heliconia and related plants. Au Jardin and Halia provide spots for a mid visit lunch. This is a don't miss Singapore spot.

Bring the Hawker Center home--A restaurant respite comes when we find the Market in the lower level of Tang's department store. Outposts of some of Singapore's best food vendors have been installed here, and for our in-suite dinner we pick up Pang Susie--sweet potato buns filled with spiced pork, popiah, Amy Yip’s giant bao, shrimp and noodle char kway teow, and crispy suckling pig. The suite is fragrant, the meal abundant and delicious, and all for the cost of two cocktails at Raffles.

Singapore is an architectural playground. High rise towers of 10 years and older are mostly pretty prosaic. But designs in recent years are pretty eye-popping: in addition to things already mentioned, the twisting facade of the Ion shopping center on Orchard; the "Durian" domes of the Esplanade theaters; the vertical forest woven into the Park Royal Hotel at the edge of Chinatown; the opening-flower shaped Art Science museum; the Helix footbridge; the highly geometric Collonade Condominiums near Orchard; the six twisting, bending, exoskeleton-topped residential tower dubbed Reflections on Keppel Bay; and Norman Foster's Expo MRT station at Changi Airport.

Zoos are not for everyone, but Singapore's is very good if you approve of them. There's a great variety of animal, which seem well cared for, and the lush, mature tropical foliage and well-executed artificial cliffs, hillsides, streams and islands give it a very natural feel. The Asian elephant show is great fun and on par with those we saw in the elephant camps in northern Thailand.

The park Royal Hotel on Pickering at the edge of Chinatown is well worth a visit to marvel at the swirling multi- hued sandstone cliff like concrete walls, and the multiple terraces of mature gardens that climb the facade. The top floor is restricted to guests, but the fifth floor pool terrace offers a great view up into the gardens, and a nice view of the city too. Lime restaurant in the lobby is a fine place for a refreshing drink and lunch.

Eu Tong Sen is Chinatown's main drag, and fully festooned for the Lunar New Year with orange lanterns, bunting, and enormous running and rearing colorful horses of paper to ring in the Year of the Horse. Pagoda and Temple streets are the crowded, equally decorated pedestrian ways at the heart of Chinatown, lined with vendors of all stripes. Spice shops, Chinese butchers, bakeries, tailors, jewelers, cafés and restaurants, as well as dozens of souvenir shops fill the lower floors of the three story colonial houses, whose upper levels have been nicely restored. The Chinatown Heritage Center presents exhibitions of daily life in the late 1800's through early 1900's in three restored colonial shophouses. At the end of Pagoda Street is the Sri Mariamman Temple. A very colorful multi-level facade tops the entrance to the city's oldest place of Hindu worship.

We seek out architecturally interesting footbridges in our travels, such as Calatrava's Zubizuri in Bilbao, and the Millennium over the Thames. The Helix in Singapore was built to link the developments on the waterfront and was the result of a competition by thirty-five architects. It's a curving double helix executed in brushed metal struts with a segmented glass panel canopy. Lit at night with blue LED lights, it has a very futuristic Star Trek sort of look-- very cool!

Ku De' Ta is a lounge/bar/restaurant at the "prow of they ship" that is the Skypark atop Marina Bay Sands. An oval open air bar serves high octane cocktails to the hip kids grooving to the thumping beat from the  DJ. The wind at the 57th floor whips around the umbrellas and crackles the awnings. The eagle's eyrie view over the Marina and all of downtown Singapore is just mesmerizing—a must-see, and fitting end to our three days in the island republic of glam and wealth.