Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Small space, big place

Singapore packs a wallop

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A city-state just 710 square kilometres in size with a population of five million people, Singapore is an increasingly popular destination that has much to offer.

There is world-class shopping on Orchard Road, stunning colonial and 21st-century architecture, and Sentosa, an amusement park with a beautiful 3.2-kilometre beach and the iconic 37-metre-tall Merlion statue. As its name implies, the Merlion is a beast with the head and mane of a lion, and the body of a fish. It symbolically combines the city's original name -- Singapura, which means "lion city" in Malay -- with the fishing industry that once supported the settlement.

Located near the equator, Singapore is a collection of 63 islands located between Malaysia to the north and Indonesia to the south. The climate here is hot and humid and air conditioning is found everywhere, including the highly efficient MRT (mass rapid transit) train/bus system. When you're planning an expedition, take along an umbrella: thunderstorms are frequent.

 

Singapore is a former British colony and features many well-maintained 19th-century buildings. Tourists tend to flock to Raffles Hotel, the 120-year-old bar and hotel named for Singapore founder Sir Stamford Raffles. This is where the Singapore Sling was invented in the 1910s by bartender Ngiam Tong Boon. Raffles is also known for its famous literary guests such as Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham and James Michener.

Today's Singapore is a fascinating mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian cultures. As a result, this city-state has four official languages -- English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil -- and provides efficient service in all of them.

Compact though it is, there is a lot to see in Singapore. The shopping is incredible (be prepared to barter), good restaurants are abundant and the entertainment is top-notch. One destination of choice for many visitors is Sentosa island, the one-time British military base that has been turned over to recreational use.

Sentosa is where industrious Singaporeans go to escape their working lives. This is where you can visit the Butterfly Park and Insect Kingdom, a tropical preserve that is home to more than 50 species of live butterflies. It is located on Mount Imbiah, along with the Merlion statue. You can climb up inside to the Merlion's head for a stunning panoramic view of Singapore. There are golf courses and resorts, and the Universal Studios Singapore amusement park. But Sentosa also has beaches, tropical forests, walking trails and animals. Even in the heart of this island nation, it is possible to retreat into nature.

The Maritime Experiential Museum & Aquarium provides a detailed look at Asia's rich maritime heritage with hundreds of rare artifacts. Inside the 360-degree multimedia Typhoon Theatre, you can sail a ninth-century Chinese junk into a storm, and experience the terrors of a shipwreck without getting your feet wet.

Singapore is also home to the world's largest observation ferris wheel. At 165 metres tall, the Singapore Flyer is the height of a 42-storey building. Thankfully, visitors ride in bus-sized glass-walled capsules, not open seats. The capsules are so large, some even offer fine dining as you whirl through the sky.

Singapore suffered during the Second World War, when it was occupied by Japan. Today, the thousands of residents who died are remembered in the tall, slender memorial in the country's downtown War Memorial Park. Other notable historic sites include the Old Parliament Building (built in 1827), Singapore Cricket Club (1852) the Abdul Gafoor Mosque (1907).

Jurong Bird Park offers a spectacular 20-hectare nature preserve with 5,000 birds from 380 different species. Various areas in the park replicate everything from the African grasslands of Africa to the rainforests of South America. One of the most appealing areas is the 3,000-square-metre nine-storey-tall lory aviary where these small parrots fly freely and let visitors feed them by hand.

If you enjoy tropical flowers, consider visiting the Singapore Botanic Gardens, home to the country's National Orchid Garden. Reputed to be the world's largest orchid display, the Botanic Garden is home to more than 60,000 orchids and plants. Or if you like more adventure, go to the Singapore Crocodile Farm with its 100 or so crocodiles roaming the property.

Every great destination has its quirks, and in Singapore, the quirk of note is the durian. This is a cantaloupe-sized fruit that grows locally. The yellow, fleshy fruit is found within a thorny shell, just like a chestnut within a chestnut burr.

Durians are considered a delicacy in Singapore, and their availability is greeted with tremendous enthusiasm. A tourist devouring a durian with appreciation and relish will earn great "face" among the locals.

Unfortunately, the durian is notoriously foul-smelling -- it is banned in many local restaurants. Says food writer Richard Sterling: "It smells like pig's manure and turpentine whipped in a blender and garnished with a dirty gym sock." As someone who has eaten durian in Singapore, I can vouch for his description and the fact that the more durian you eat, the worse it tastes. Consider yourself warned.

-- Postmedia News

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 19, 2012 D1

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