Another side of Singapore
Singapore has been anointed the most expensive city in the world. The nation’s founder, the recently deceased Lee Kuan Yew, would have undoubtedly found it a fitting tribute for the tiny island at the foot of the Malay Peninsula that he led to independence.
Singapore celebrates the 50th anniversary of statehood this year, utterly transformed from a sleepy tropical backwater into a gleaming metropolis, one of the world’s hubs for finance, shipping and business. Naturally it boasts some of the most luxurious and expensive hotels in the world, but what is surprising is that for a short stay — say a long weekend — there is a new generation of surprisingly affordable designer boutique hotels.
These gems are not concentrated in one particular area, but instead dotted around the different districts that make up central Singapore — Chinatown, Little India and Arab Street, the business district and downtown, the old colonial heart. And it is in these diverse neighbourhoods that you will discover the best of Singapore’s vibrant dining scene, from gourmet chefs cooking up a storm to some of the best street food in Asia.
This small but ambitious island state is also becoming a major player on the international arts scene. Earlier this year, it welcomed the first overseas outpost of the Pinacothèque de Paris. Located in a grandiose colonial building in the cultural hub of Fort Canning, the museum boasts an eclectic permanent collection of rare masterpieces by artists that range from Rembrandt to Monet and Picasso to Pollock. This is alongside a regular calendar of temporary exhibitions that includes The Myth of Cleopatra, on until October 4.
But the Pinacothèque will be overshadowed in November by the long-awaited inauguration of the National Gallery Singapore. This will be the first museum in the world dedicated to South East Asian art and will include a collection of more than 8,000 pieces. The museum will be housed in two of the city’s most iconic monuments: the former City Hall and Supreme Court buildings, linked by futuristic bridges, right in its downtown heart.
The opening will tie in with the celebrations of Singapore’s 50th anniversary of independence with an event entitled Share the Hope. The affair will be staged November 27to 29 on the Padang, right opposite the new National Gallery.
And Singapore also has its sights on challenging Hong Kong as the hub of the lucrative contemporary art world. In January, avant-garde artists, auction houses, collectors and dealers will descend on Marina Bay Sands for the annual Art Stage Singapore, not yet in the league of Art Basel, but already an important marketplace where South East Asia meets India, Australia and the Middle East. There are half a dozen cutting-edge galleries dotted around town, and staying in one of the city’s arty design hotels is the perfect base for checking out the latest exhibitions.
I begin by checking in at the New Majestic Hotel, located right in the middle of buzzing Chinatown. This is the one part of town that has avoided the demolition wrecking ball — a perfectly preserved reminder of the past and one of the hottest addresses to stay at.
This heritage-chic hotel is based in what was formerly a traditional Chinese mansion and has been transformed into a property that now features 30 rooms, each with completely different decor. From the moment you walk into the lobby, the scene is set with retro barber’s chairs, overflowing bookcases, giant movie spotlights and a mix of vintage 70s furniture and contemporary artworks. There is a small pool and gym, and if you forget your laptop, the front desk will loan out a MacBook.
The hotel has its own contemporary Cantonese cafe, though there are too many tempting eateries in Chinatown for me to resist. The top fashion spot is Burnt Ends where Aussie chef Dave Pynt is wowing Singapore with his oven-grilled barbecue — it’s difficult to resist the smoky wafts of roasting lamb, king crab, courgette and aubergine. But my best meal is at Esquina, where chef Andrew Walsh conjures up breathtaking dishes like seared scallops with duck green curry or sea urchin bisque and smoked herring roe. Prices at the New Majestic Hotel start from S$293 (Dh760) per night, including taxes.
It is quite a change as I grab the ultra-efficient subway and get out at Downtown, where modern Singapore collides with its colonial past. I have booked a room in the recently opened Sofitel So Singapore, a boutique hotel promising the best of old and new. A landmark 1920s building with a grandiose, neoclassical facade marked by tall colonnades, the So is a lively contrast of heritage Singapore and ornate French luxury.
French interior designer Isabelle Miaja has recreated a mythical Parisian feel, with plush velvet armchairs and sofas, while above each bed you stare up at a trompe-l’oeil of an art nouveau cupola. And the designer cherry atop the proverbial cake is the subtle touch of Chanel maestro Karl Lagerfeld who, in a nod to the city's symbol, has devised a red and white Merlion logo that pops up everywhere, from the fluffy bathrobes to the staff’s stylish outfits. There is an irresistible infinity pool and bar on the rooftop, and the chic Xperience restaurant is overseen by Singapore’s first female gourmet chef, Anne-Cecile Degenne. But as I sit down for dinner, her inventive, modern cuisine is overshadowed by our table, which is actually a large blue bed. Guests are advised to book ahead of time as the eatery has already become a favourite spot for Singaporeans.
To get back to the real world of Singapore, just walk out of the lobby and right opposite is the newly reopened 120-year-old Telok Ayer Market, today a bustling, 24-hour food court. There are over 50 cheap and cheerful stalls to choose from, hawking dishes including char kway teow and claypot chicken. One standout is a wonderful Hakka stand selling "Thunder Tea Rice" soaked in green herbal tea. More cosmopolitan offerings are also available such as Turkish kebabs, Costa Rican barbecue chicken and Japanese yakitori. Rooms at the So Singapore start from S$420 (Dh1,090) per night, including taxes.
Multicultural Singapore is never far away. My next check-in is right on the boundary between Little India and Kampong Glam, the Malay neighbourhood around Arab Street. The Wanderlust is a paradise for anyone interested in interior architecture, with four design and architecture agencies each given a completely free hand on one of the hotel’s floors.
They have transformed what was once a staid 1920s school into a fun, futuristic vision of travel. All budgets are cleverly catered to here. The first-floor Pantone rooms are bright neon-lit, pod-like spaces, perfect for young flashpackers. I’m tempted by the minimalist, all-white Mono room, with its glass-encased bathrooms. In the end, however, I opt to pay a little extra for one of the top-floor, Whimsical duplex suites, where furnishings range from a surreal typewriter sofa to a bright red spaceship.
Most of the lobby is taken up by a canteen-like French restaurant, Cocotte, with big wooden communal tables, often booked by locals who can’t resist moules marinières and steak frites. Like most hotel guests, though, I’m more tempted by the cuisine in the surrounding streets. The place to start in Little India is the colourful Tekka Market, which has scores of food stalls alongside a noisy wet market. Begin with fresh coconut juice then head over to the South Indian counters that display over twenty different spicy vegetarian dishes.
For a proper dinner, there are dozens of air-conditioned Indian restaurants around the market. My favourite, however, is The Banana Leaf Apolo (thebananaleafapolo.com), where delicious curries like lamb marsala, sour assam prawns and their signature fish head curry are still served on a traditional banana leaf plate — though these days, most diners use a fork and spoon rather than their hand. Over in Kampong Glam, along Haji Lane and Arab Street, there are shisha bars, Egyptian and Moroccan halal diners, and a little-known foodie spot called Sabar Menanti. Diners can expect Nasi Padang, a fabulous Indonesian dish that – in this case – includes beef rending, jackfruit curry and sambal spinach.
Singapore’s Business District is unsurprisingly crammed with towering skyscrapers, housing office spaces and big international hotels.
But my final stop-off is very much the exception, as the ultra-modern Klapsons offers travellers the choice of a mere 17 rooms and an al fresco, rooftop bar. Walking into the futuristic lobby takes my breath away, with the reception housed in a metallic bubble straight out of a sci-fi film, while guests chill out on Italian sofas and armchairs. The rooms are big, all differently designed and each boasts a unique bathroom, including one with a Ferrari-red glass shower. My favourite has an outdoor rainshower on the room’s balcony.
Breakfast at Klapsons is actually a copious brunch, so you can pass on lunch, though there are a number of eateries near the hotel. The neighbourhood is, surprisingly, also lively at night.
Although its cuisine is essentially modern European, the spot not to miss is the funky Bar-Roque, which was opened a year ago by French chef, Stephane Istel. His meals resemble a medieval feast with huge seafood platters, organic chicken, succulent lamb slow-roasted on the rotisserie and the biggest T-bone steaks I have ever seen. A perfectly satisfying end to a Singapore stopover.
Updated: October 1, 2015 04:00 AM