Port in focus: Singapore

Trading ships from as far back as the 12th century have plied Oriental waters but today cruise ships are appearing with increasing regularity on the eastern horizon. Revelling in their cultural diversity, Far East nations share a history of commerce, due to their geographical proximity. Herein lies the magic – for the seas that separate these islands and archipelagos are not only vital links in a rich mosaic, they are perfect for a seaborne odyssey.

Modern architecture rising up to the Singapore skyline

Small but perfectly formed, Singapore is crammed with superlatives. For an island just under twice the size of the Isle of Wight, it packs a lot in. Hovering under peninsular Malaysia, the city-state is a place of soaring skylines, hi-tech engineering and colonial charm.

The birth of Lion City

An ornate traditional temple in SingaporeIn 1299, Sang Nila Utama, a ruling prince from Palembang, was sailing through the Malacca Straits when he saw an animal that resembled a lion roaming through the jungle so he renamed the outpost Singa Pura – Lion City.

The British provided the next notable chapter in the Singapore story. During the 18th century they needed a resting place to victual and protect the fleet of their growing empire. In 1819 an official of the East India Company, Stamford Raffles, landed on the island’s shores to establish a trading station. By 1824, 11,000 immigrants had settled in the ‘Queen of the further East’ and trade was booming in Chinese tea and silk, ebony and ivory, opium and spices. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 further increased the importance of this strategic port.

Modern magic

The Marina Bay Sands hotel lit up at night

Today it seems that nothing can halt Singapore’s momentum. This tiny country of 277 square miles is a city-state that encompasses the main island and city of Singapore as well as 63 smaller islands. The population might be only 5.6 million, but it is the world’s busiest transshipment port. This reflects the socioeconomic miracle that has happened here since Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965 to become an independent republic.

Skyscrapers, a ferris wheel and the Marina Bay Sands hotel at night

Singapore boasts a harmonious mélange of Malay, Chinese, Indian, and European influences; indeed its intrinsic beauty lies in this confluence of culture and cuisine, traditions and innovations. For a supreme overview of this tantalising city the Singapore Flyer – the world’s tallest observation wheel – is unrivalled. This 492-ft high Ferris wheel has 28 large capsules, each accommodating 28 people. During the 30 minute revolution there is a 360 degree visual feast of iconic and historical landmarks with views across the Singapore River to Marina Bay, Merlion Park, and Padang, not to mention the Straits of Johor.

Another popular primer in this eclectic city is a cruise along the Singapore River from Marina Bay to Clarke Quay. Having got your orientation it’s time to get an understanding of the two most popular pursuits in Singapore: eating and shopping.

Iconic cuisine

Beef and tofu dishes in a restaurant in Singapore

Singapore showcases an infinite range of cuisines. To experience local food like a Singaporean, try hawker food where a bewildering variety of dishes from a noisy, convivial group of food-stall proprietors is great fun. It’s inexpensive and completely safe to eat on the street as purveyors of food are subject to government inspection. Most visitors head to Satay Street, behind the Lau Pa Sat hawker market; the newly renovated Newton Food Centre; or the Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle – which has a Michelin star!

In Robertson Quay, the Red House offers the chance to delve into a crustaceous banquet where fresh mud crabs peep out from their burnt red chilli, garlic and ginger sauce. A panoply of other spicy seafood keeps appearing on the ‘party susan’ and the protective bibs allow for a convivial, family-style meal. After dark the nearby Clarke Quay transforms into a hip epicentre of bars and clubs.

The breathtaking Marina Bay Sands Hotel has a variety of restaurants on the 57th floor overlooking the pulsating skyline. You can choose on-trend cuisine at Spago or Sky on 57 amongst other achingly cool choices. Traditionalists might prefer the delightful Tiffin Room at Raffles Hotel where Indian-inspired cuisine such as Mulligatawny soup and spicy curries are without equal.

Unrivalled shopping

Street art and lanterns in Chinatown in Singapore

Food may be the Singapore nation’s passion, but shopping is the national pastime. As a haven of capricious consumerism, Singapore is unsurpassed. Shopaholics usually head for Orchard Road where vast, air-conditioned malls include the prestigious ION Orchard and Paragon, brim-full with designer boutiques; as well as Sim Lim Square for all things electronic. You’ll find the luxury quotient continues unabated at Shoppes at MBS and Suntec City air-conditioned malls.

Many of the city’s ethnic quarters have sadly been redeveloped but a few still remain. Vibrant fabrics can be snapped up in Kampong Glam (the Malay Quarter), while there’s a bewildering array of saris and spices in Little India. In the super-cool art deco neighbourhood of Tiong Bahru petite boutiques are run by local designers with a savvy eye on ethnic fashion trends; while night shopping in Bugis Village is a rite of passage to Oriental life. Don’t miss the rich heritage of the Peranakans – descendants of Chinese immigrants who married local Malay women – with a visit to the Intan private museum where shophouse resident and collector Alvin Yapp plays host.

Explore with the Singapore Pass

Colourful supertrees at Gardens by the Bay in SingaporeThe Singapore Pass offers discounts to attractions such as the Gardens By The Bay – an urban oasis characterised by the 165-ft tall Supertree Grove and two iconic domes – the Cloud Forest and Flower Dome, both housing over 200,000 plants. Other sights not to be missed include the Singapore Botanic & Orchid Garden with over 60,000 plants, including the world’s largest orchid display. There is also the Singapore Zoo and the adjacent Night Safari – the world’s first wildlife night park where you can climb aboard a tram for close encounters with the endangered Asian elephant, Malayan tapir and Malayan tiger.

Cruise passengers embarking or leaving their ship in Singapore have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to hotels. From the boutique to the mind-blowing, the vast array of hotels set the quicksilver standard by offering levels of service and appointments that are reminiscent of the finest ships afloat. Indeed with its passion for cuisine and shopping, the vibrant port of Singapore has more than a soupçon of synergy for cruise passengers.

Gary Buchanan
Gary Buchanan has been an influential cruise writer for almost 30 years. Based in Scotland, he writes for Britain’s leading national newspapers and respected consumer magazines on a variety of cruise topics. Recipient of several awards for his creative writing, he has also written five books about cruising. His other skills include being an expert lecturer on maritime history aboard Cunard ships during transatlantic voyages. His favourite cruise destinations include the Greek Isles, Thailand and the Norwegian fjords. When it comes to river cruises he rates the Irrawaddy, Mekong and Seine as real gems.

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