A green and squeaky clean foodie’s paradise

On a visit to Singapore, Simon Wood is blown away by how modern and beautiful the ‘Garden City’ is, not to mention the exceptional – and often Michelin quality – fare on offer in the most unexpected places.

2023-01-22T08:00:00.0000000Z

2023-01-22T08:00:00.0000000Z

Stuff NZ Newspapers

https://fairfaxmedia.pressreader.com/article/281608129556316

STUFF TRAVEL

Singapore is, for many people, effectively an oversized transit lounge – somewhere clean, safe and hot to break up a trip to somewhere else. Singapore is also an intriguing, vibrant and colourful city state. It is a land that is a strikingly new and modern environment, and a celebration of the natural beauty that surrounds and permeates it. We recently returned from an extended short break in Singapore, where we allowed ourselves what we thought would be ample time to really get under its skin, to find the real Singapore. And while we did to a certain extent, it also left us wanting more. It is, without exaggeration, a magnificent place to spend more than a few days. The self-styled Garden City, it is virtually impossible to move more than a few metres in any direction without encountering greenery – tropical-looking trees with screeching birds, climbers and creepers that seem to grow before your eyes, impossibly lush and dense grass, and the flowers. If you are only in Singapore for a short time, one of your first stops must be Singapore Botanic Gardens. It is a huge, sprawling wilderness that is easy and a lot of fun to get lost in, and is home to the glorious National Orchid Garden. I initially balked at the entry fee of S$15 (NZ$18) to the Orchid Garden (the Botanic Gardens itself is free), but once inside I was mesmerised by the riot of colour, shape and fragrance, and I loved seeing the tiny birds, the slightly less tiny snails and the slightly terrifying statue-like lizards. The Botanic Gardens is easy to find on the brilliant MRT underground rail network, which is incredibly cheap, clean, safe and reliable. If you have ever travelled on the underground networks of Paris, London, or Budapest, the MRT is everything that those veritable institutions aren’t. Public transport is one of the last bastions of mask wearing in Singapore, and it is strictly and rigorously enforced. If you plan to travel by MRT or bus, take a mask. If critters, jungle and monkeys are your thing, spend a day getting to, and around, the island of Pulau Ubin. It is only 10 minutes (and $4) by ‘‘bumboat’’ from Changi Point Ferry Terminal, but it might as well be a different country. Still traditional and undeveloped, this wilderness of rainforest and wetlands has a tiny village at the wharf, where you can hire a bicycle or grab a quick and outrageously cheap bite to eat – and not a lot else. We walked rather than cycled, and managed to have a quite close encounter with a two-metre-long monitor lizard, which was swimming quickly, and fortunately, in the opposite direction, as well as some weird little mudskippers, a pair of glorious oriental pied hornbills, a billion butterflies, some wild boars and, most terrifyingly, a pack of wild macaque monkeys that decided my peanuts (probably the worst choice of snacks, if I am honest) should be their peanuts. They won. To get there, we took the MRT to the end of the East-West Line at Pasir Ris, then a No 109 bus, again to the end of the line at Changi Village, then the bumboat, which leaves from the adjacent ferry terminal. If going to the island, take cash as there are no ATMs or eftpos terminals. If the seafood restaurant on the island doesn’t take your fancy (although we have heard great things), Changi Village has excellent hawker stalls where you can get your fill of beautiful, authentic local food and refreshing cold beer for just a few dollars. When eating at any hawker stall in Singapore (which is highly, highly recommended), clear away your tray when finished. This is a new but still rigorously enforced law. It is also a good idea to take a good supply of wipes for your fingers and face, then the table. Singapore is absolute heaven for food lovers. As a truly international city, the diversity of cuisine is astonishing, and the prices and quality are incredible. We joined a walking tour in Chinatown that took in Michelin-starred or Michelinrecommended hawker stalls. It took us into areas we wouldn’t have found otherwise, where we were treated to some of the best dishes we have ever had. Fragrant and juicy (and Michelin-starred) chicken and rice; and a punchy, textural pork dish we christened ‘‘pork everything’’. (The wholeanimal ethos may be new to many of us, but in Asia it has been in action for hundreds of years.) Another tasty ‘‘dry noodle’’ dish, strong and sweet local kopi (coffee with butter and condensed milk – trust me), pandan cake that was like eating a lightly fragrant cloud, a belter of a Chinese take on a Portuguese egg tart, a huge glass of sweetly refreshing sugarcane juice (super fun to watch it in production), and popiah – effectively a spicy vegetarian spring roll before it is deep-fried. The tour took more than three hours and was beautifully led by our cheerful, giggly guide, Angel. We were lucky to have the company’s chief executive along for the ride, as he reacquainted himself with the tour post-Covid. A truly genial and exuberant host, this tour comes highly recommended and, at a snip over $60 each, it was exceptional value. Visit monsterdaytours.com. A huge number of locals live in governmentprovided housing, which has led to the creation of real neighbourhoods everywhere. Those who live in the towers shop, socialise and eat downstairs. As a rule of thumb, if you are hungry, look for a giant housing block – chances are it will also house a market full of cheap clothing and essentials, as well as a hawker market in the basement. Expect to pay less than $5 (and in some cases a lot less) for more food than you can possibly eat, $2 for a fruit drink (made in front of your eyes, and containing nothing but fruit), or maybe push the boat out and buy a cold beer for less than $10. The food and drink will be excellent almost without exception, but it is worth looking out for the A, B or C rated stalls – a government scheme that guarantees cleanliness. Having said that, Singapore is possibly one of the cleanest, tidiest places on the planet, so you can’t really go wrong. Just remember to clear your table and to take your wipes. While Clarke Quay (especially one side of it) is a bit naff (with slightly embarrassing dad clubs and less authentic restaurants), it is still a nice walk along the river. Slightly further on is Boat Quay, which is also touristy but a lot nicer with a huge array of bars and small restaurants (just don’t expect to find $4 main meals there). Boat Quay leads to Merlion Park and its spectacular views of its eponymous hybrid creature and the striking Marina Bay Sands. Keep walking, if you can, around the basin to the shopping mall. Marvel at the likes of the Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Chanel stores, enjoy the indoor waterfall, and be amazed that this is a shopping mall with a river – complete with gondolas – running through it. Another few minutes’ walk takes you into the Gardens by the Bay, a multimillion-dollar installation that champions the natural beauty of Singapore, with spectacular indoor and outdoor gardens. It has to be seen to be believed. Visit gardensbythebay.com.sg. Post-pandemic, Singapore has a real shortage of taxi drivers (apparently many left the industry when the work dried up), so they can be hard to come by. Make friends with the concierge and they will be able to pull a few strings. Taxis are cheap and safe, but the MRT is almost impossible to beat. We stayed at excellent, low-key Riverside Hotel Robertson Quay,which is easy walking distance to Clarke Quay and surrounds, Chinatown and Orchard Rd, and close to the Fort Canning MRT station. There are also excellent small restaurants, cafes and bars close by. It is impossible to do Singapore justice in a few words and photos. You will just have to experience it for yourself.

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