x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Singapore: a one-stop wonder

The glamorous city state has all the ingredients for a fast-paced family holiday.

A view of Singapore sparkling by night from the giant Singapore Flyer at Marina Bay. At 165 metres high, it is the world’s tallest observation wheel.
A view of Singapore sparkling by night from the giant Singapore Flyer at Marina Bay. At 165 metres high, it is the world’s tallest observation wheel.

"What would happen if the power failed?" my eight-year-old son asked as our capsule on the observational wheel slowly ascended to the top. "Would we have to rappel down? Or jump into the harbour?"

Hanging out at the Flyer - that great big eye that seems to follow you no matter where in Singapore you are - is always a thrill, especially if you're on a holiday accompanied by a small boy with a questionable sense of adventure.

We were suspended 165 metres above ground, faces squished against the glass walls of our futuristic steel cage, gazing down at the city - a forest of green marked with snaking highways, silver skyscrapers and patches of bright blue sea.

"Wow," shouted Calvin, as the capsule suddenly glowed orange. We had slid right into the middle of a sunset, and the entire city looked as if it was on fire. On cue, our tour guide, Hamed, a hearty Singaporean of Algerian descent, opened his mouth, possibly to reel off the Flyer's statistics. Singaporeans like to remind visitors - over and over again - that their Ferris wheel stands 30m taller than the London Eye, was built at a cost of 240 million Singapore dollars (Dh674m), and that no holiday here is complete without a ride on it. They love it so much, some of them even get married on it - complete with gourmet dinner and bubbly - according to the brochure that was pushed into my hand as we alighted after the "flight".

Well, we scored really well with the Singaporeans. We ended up riding the Flyer twice on the first day of our four-day trip, and were already making plans to return.

But first to Sentosa Island, that playground of fun and in-your-face excitement that is a 20-minute drive from Marina Bay. Roughly divided into four zones - Imbiah Lookout, the Beaches, Siloso Point and Resorts World - Sentosa is an indispensable part of any self-respecting family holiday here. So the next morning, we duly checked ourselves into the Hard Rock Hotel at Resorts World, were shown into a modern room with a minimalist, open layout ("look, mum, the toilet's beside the bed") and headed to Imbiah Lookout, where it began to pour with rain.

"You'll get to experience all the seasons in one day," Hamed had said when he picked us up from the airport the previous morning under blue skies and a gentle wind. "But the wet season is the only one you can count on - it rains at least once a day on average."

We weren't going to let a little water bother us because we were about to try the famous Luge - a part go-Kart, part-toboggan ride down two 650m and 688m slopes in a small canoe-like contraption with no gears or brakes. Wait a minute - how on earth do you control the thing?

"Pull the handlebars towards you to stop," sniggered the 18-year-old employee who was handing out helmets. "And don't let go or you'll end up, uh, flying."

Calvin, already strapped in, was making impatient revving noises. I got into my black boat, put on my helmet and gulped.

After that everything happened fast. One second Calvin was there, the next he wasn't. Shaking in fright and rage, I took off after him, yelling through the downpour, whacking into the thick foliage on either side of the track and going at what I presumed was at least 180km per hour. I finally skidded to the end of the track and slammed hard into a row of parked luges. Limping towards the exit, I found my son waiting there, sharing a laugh with Hamed. By then, the rain had stopped falling, as abruptly as it had started.

"You win a prize for the slowest time on the track," said Hamed, shaking my dripping hand. "But your son's quite the F1 racer, isn't he?"

Annoyed, I joined them in the queue for the next round of excitement: the Skyride - open-air, cable-driven chairs (a lot like ski lifts but much faster) that take you soaring over the city. "The chairs won't wait for you to get on," warned Hamed, getting us into our places over the large red marks on the ramp; the lifts were already thundering towards us. "Face the front, and when you feel the metal against the back of your knees, sit."

Something hit our legs, we fell backwards heavily and an attendant quickly pushed down the safety bar. In seconds we were in the sky, climbing higher and higher, our feet skimming the tops of trees, the ground slanting away at a bizarre angle.

"I like this better than the Flyer. And I'm drying off already," I shouted in exhilaration as the wind whipped my hair. Calvin didn't agree.

"It's not high enough," he said, and leapt off with disdain as soon as we got to the end of the ride.

We walked back to Resorts World to spend the afternoon at Universal Studios, south-east Asia's first movie theme park which opened in March this year. Built at a cost of US$1.4 billion (Dh5.14bn), it's quickly become one of Singapore's most popular attractions: when we went, there were huge crowds of people excitedly darting about. But Calvin wasn't impressed. "It's a lot like Disneyland, except that the characters are different," he said.

Looking around, I could see what he meant: there were the usual roller-coaster rides, a carousel, one large turreted castle, lots of memorabilia shops - and frequent encounters with colourful movie characters (Shrek and the penguins of Madagascar), which Calvin liked best.

"What's next?" he asked, after a ride on the roller coaster.

"A show," said the well-organised Hamed, referring to plans for that evening. "It's all about magic, and we've got terrific seats."

Voyage de la Vie turned out to be a flamboyant, theatrical rock circus full of spectacular special effects, and daredevil, heavily made-up acrobats and eerie-looking magicians performing to a fabulous soundtrack with fire rings, loud bangs and clouds of smoke. It was also the most interactive circus I have ever attended: the audience - from the locals to the tourists - spent the entire two-and-a-half hours gasping, screaming, fainting and, sometimes, clapping. At the end of the show, everybody walked out pretty much spent.

"I need to lie down," I croaked pathetically, so we called it a night, promising to meet Hamed after breakfast for a tour of the city and, later, wildlife spotting at Night Safari, Singapore Zoo's sister park and the world's first dedicated night zoo.

The next morning, we stepped out of the hotel into a Singaporean summer - hot and oppressively humid.

The bus tour of the city didn't take very long. With an area of about 695 sq km, Singapore is Asia's second smallest country after the Maldives. "You can get from one end of the city to the other in about 30 minutes," said Hamed. He was right. Before we knew it, we had visited the Merlion, wandered through Little India and China Town, photographed the European-style minaret of Hajjah Fatimah mosque in Kampong Glam and, after lunch, headed to the SkyPark at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore's newest integrated resort that sits across from the Flyer.

Escaping the long queues waiting at the bottom of each building - Hamed had bought tickets the day before - we rode a crowded high-speed lift right up to the 57th floor and tumbled out onto the SkyPark with popping ears and wobbly legs.

Despite the scores of people walking about, our stroll around the SkyPark turned out to be a fabulous experience - 12,400 metres of lush, landscaped gardens with an infinity pool at one end and a wooden observation deck at the other, all wrapped by fabulous panoramas. Peering over the fibreglass walls, we looked down at the highway from our vantage point 200 metres in the sky. All we could see was a black strip crawling with what looked like colourful bugs.

"Now this is what I call high," said Calvin with satisfaction, trying to climb over for a better look.

Hamed got hold of the back of his shirt. "Get down. We don't want people to think flying squirrels are dropping from the tower, do we?"

A couple of rain showers and a 40-minute drive later, we arrived at the Night Safari on Mandai Lake Road to the sound of drums and fire-eaters stuffing their mouths with burning torches. "I want to be a fire-eater when I grow up," said Calvin at once, as Hamed began to gallop towards the tram that would take us through 40 hectares of dense rainforest.

We made it to the last carriage just in time, and the tram trundled off into the jungle, a disembodied voice hovering over it: "Do not get off the train. Do not extend your arms and legs outside. No flash photography. "

The 45-minute ride felt like a surreal dream as we silently passed through eight specially created environments - from the Himalayan foothills to the South American Pampas - home to more than 900 animals.

As we drove deeper and deeper into the darkness, the night got progressively colder ("It's winter now," remarked Hamed). We found ourselves within touching distance of a herd of free-ranging deer, a ponderous anteater and wild buffalo. In the background, the constant wild cackle of unseen hyenas filled the air, and Calvin and I instinctively huddled closer. We brushed past a family of elephants dozing under bamboo, while on the other side, a massive rhinoceros slowly lumbered up to the edge of its enclosure, armour twitching, and glared at us. Then the tram slowly turned a corner; we had entered the big cats' enclave. A large lion draped on a rock raised his shaggy head as we went by. Farther down, a tiger prowled stealthily in the thick undergrowth. Calvin clutched at me (in excitement, he said afterwards) while the guide on board assured us that a "natural" moat kept the animals at a safe distance. It took a couple of long minutes to snap back to the real world when the tram finally rolled to a stop.

"That was awesome," said Calvin, for once sober. "I wish we had rainforests in Abu Dhabi."

After a brief stop at the souvenir shop, we headed back to the city to spend a couple of hours knocking about the Marina Bay in a bumboat, traditional barges that once used to ferry cargo), and had a leisurely dinner of noodles, crab curry and chicken satay at Clark Quay, resplendent in neon and lined with waterside restaurants and bars playing pop music.

The next day, we woke up to our final morning in Singapore without a clue how to spend it.

"Shopping?" inquired Hamed, as we tucked into breakfast at the hotel.

"Or an hour at the spa," I said, inspecting my tired feet.

But Calvin was already making for the door. "We're going to the Singapore Flyer," he announced. "This will be our third time. If we're lucky, there might be a power failure today. Hamed, got any rope?"