On the tiny unspoilt island of Palau Ubin, the skyline of Singapore looks deceptively distant. Maybe, I muse as I pause in my cycling exploration of this oasis, it’s just because Palau Ubin is not what we expect from Singapore.
Overhead, aircraft are heading for the international hub of Changi Airport and just a few days before I’d been aboard a Scoot Dreamliner from the Gold Coast, one of more than a million travellers from Australia who visit Singapore each year.
For those – like me – who’ve always thought of Singapore as “just a stopover”, spending time in this city-state is a revelation. On my first trip to Singapore in nearly a decade, I find myself with several days in which to explore.
Staying in the Balestier district, I find a neighbourhood vibe that offers plenty to do beyond the bustle and shopping of Orchard Road.
I hotel-hop a bit, staying first at the three-star Days Hotel Singapore at Zhongshan Park, a great location with easy access to the nearby Novena MRT station (and a free shuttle if you don’t want to walk; I recommend taking it). While taxis are incredibly cheap by Australian standards, the MRT is easy to use and offers discounted daily and monthly tickets.
My room at the Days Hotel is smart, bright and comfortable, but quite small. Later I move next door to the Ramada Singapore, which offers a higher level of luxury and more spacious rooms. Both hotels are operated by Wyndham Hotels and offer similar services, including free Wi-Fi and shuttles.
They are also on the Balestier Heritage Trail, one of several trails curated by the National Heritage Board of Singapore. I grab a trail map from the hotel reception and head out for a few hours to explore the neighbourhood, my wanderings taking me to a small temple (dating back to 1847), past traditional and art deco shop houses, to a Malay coffee house, bakeries, a herbal shop and into the bustling Balestier Market for a lunch of chicken rice, the local delicacy. Other highlights, just behind the hotels, are an elaborate Burmese Buddhist temple, and the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, once the headquarters of the Chinese Revolutionary Alliance and now a museum.
It seems fitting, as Singapore celebrates 50 years of independence, to find out more about its past and future, so I head to the Singapore City Gallery. This amazing gallery tells the story of Singapore’s physical transformation over the years, with scale models of the entire city, images, sight and sound shows and more.
The gallery is on Maxwell Road, just cross from the Maxwell Hawker Centre, another great place to pick up a street food meal.
In Chinatown, walk down South Bridge Road from the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum (don’t miss going upstairs to the rooftop garden) to the Hindu Sri Mariamman Temple and further to the Jamae Mosque.
But the biggest surprise Singapore has for me is its green spaces, and nowhere demonstrates this more than the island of Palau Ubin. A SG$16 taxi ride takes me from my hotel to the Changi jetty, where I wait until the required 12 passengers turn up for the ferry. From there, it’s a SG$2.50 five-minute boat ride to the island. Bicycle hire shops are waiting and for another SG$2 I’ve soon got a set of wheels.
Another green place is the lush Singapore Botanic Gardens, established in 1857. These traditional gardens are worth a look, especially if you are an orchid-fancier.
Don’t miss the Gardens by the Bay, built on more than 100ha of reclaimed land. This is a public garden like no other and the best time to go is at night, when the Supertrees – festooned with vertical gardens and reaching between nine and 16 storeys – come alive with a stunning light and sound show. The show happens twice each evening, at 7.45pm and 8.45pm. Get there early enough to take the lift to the Skyway (entry is $5) for one of the best views in Singapore from 22-metres high.
To cap off the night, walk across to Marina Bay Sands – just head towards the distinctive outlines of this architectural marvel – and have a drink at the rooftop bar overlooking the city.
Visiting Singapore as it prepared to celebrate the 50th anniversary of independence in August meant there were plenty of special SG50 events to choose from, but after a few days exploring, I’m willing to bet that Singapore is this lively almost all the time.
And I’m also aware that my four days only just skimmed the surface; there’s plenty more to see and do in Singapore, so the only option is to plan a return visit.