Travel

Finding Singapore’s Past in Its Present

Well-known as one of the region’s – and indeed the world’s – most modern and advanced cities, Singapore also offers visitors a well-curated look at its rich, if not terribly long-reaching, history. Editor Chad Merchant takes a series of strolls around the Lion City and finds the past comfortably intertwined with the present.

Singapore is – perhaps surprisingly to some – long on history and heritage. As with most modern cities, a fairly significant portion of that heritage has been bulldozed to make room for a more contemporary version of things, but of course, plenty has still been retained, too.

One of the best places to visit to get a sense of the new being wonderfully layered over the old is the heritage area of the Fullerton District. Though this area is certainly among Singapore’s most inviting and dynamic precincts – with soaring glass-clad skyscrapers, throngs of people visiting the famous Merlion Park, a beautiful harbour fronted by the iconic Marina Bay Sands, and some of the city’s most historic waterfront architecture – the fascinating heritage that underpins it all is still easy to see and experience. The flagship of the area is certainly the beautiful neo-classic Fullerton Hotel, which transformed the iconic 1928 Fullerton Building into a beguiling hotel of understated luxury. Similarly, Clifford Pier, which was built in 1933 as the primary landing point for immigrants and seafaring passengers arriving in Singapore, has been refurbished into a gorgeous restaurant that is the premier dining venue for The Fullerton Bay Hotel, the modern luxury sister property to The Fullerton.

The heritage precinct surrounding The Fullerton Bay Hotel beautifully pays tribute to its maritime roots, with many of the original waterfront structures preserved and modernised to breathe new life into a part of Singapore that has contributed mightily to its present-day success. The Customs House, for example, was home to the Harbour Division of the Singapore Customs Police, along with its 23-metre-high control tower. Today, it has been restored as part of The Fullerton Heritage and houses a number of unique dining outlets.

The Fullerton Heritage, which comprises the two namesake hotels, along with the Customs House, Clifford Pier, Fullerton Pavilion, One Fullerton, and the art deco Fullerton Waterboat House, conducts complimentary guided walking tours of both the various Fullerton heritage monuments and the area’s maritime elements. The Fullerton Monuments Tour is provided on Mondays, Thursday, and Saturdays, departing from The Fullerton Hotel, whilst the Maritime Journey Tour is held on Fridays and Sundays, departing from The Fullerton Bay Hotel.

As for the hotel itself, The Fullerton Bay is without equal in Singapore, as the striking building is built entirely on water. Boasting just 98 luxury rooms and outstanding, award-winning service, this is a superb hotel in which to stay if you’re in this part of Singapore. The property was designed by acclaimed Asian interior designer Andre Fu, and pays homage with its jewel-like shape to the flanking Clifford Pier and Customs House buildings. The hotel connects directly to Clifford Pier and the linkway masterfully transitions from past to present as you walk towards the Fullerton Bay Hotel’s beautiful lobby. The hotel’s rooftop pool is a particularly appealing place to spend a lazy, sunny afternoon, with sweeping views over Marina Bay and Singapore’s magnificent Central Business District. At night, The Fullerton Bay is the place to be for the thrice-nightly light-and-music shows across the bay, featuring dramatic music, colourful lighting and lasers, and a synchronised water fountain display. The impressive performance is ‘staged’ on the hour from 8 to 10pm each evening.

Neighbourhood Strolls

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Further east on the island, perhaps one of the most charming neighbourhoods in Singapore is made so by its unapologetic throwbacks to the island’s Straits Settlements history. The Katong area, certainly a lesser-known gem of the city, is in some ways comparable to Bangsar in KL in that it’s an upscale residential area that’s become something of a fashionable expat enclave. In showcasing its roots, Katong oozes charm and history. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Katong was the chosen domain of the Singapore elite, many of whom made their fortunes and built manors and retreats along the seafront east of the city. A melange of Portuguese, English, French, and Chinese settlers developed parcels of land here, and this rich, blended cultural heritage is what colours Katong’s considerable appeal today. Walking along the streets, replete with a wonderful mix of Peranakan, Western, and Malay restaurants and shoplots, it almost felt like a more orderly version of Melaka. (In fact, a particularly spicy and renowned version of laksa is found here, known as Katong laksa, and is well worth seeking out.)

Today, the Joo Chiat area, which is the heart and historical centre of Katong and features a fascinating blend of Singaporean, Chinese, Peranakan, and colonial English architecture, has been designated as a National Heritage Conservation area by the Singaporean government. No MRT station currently reaches Katong, but a handful come close, and in the mornings or relative cool of early evenings, walking is the best way to enjoy this area, anyway. Jump off the MRT Circle Line at the Dakota station and head east along Dunman Road for a little over a kilometre, which will take you across the Geylang River and right into the Katong area. From Dunman, you can go right on Joo Chiat Road and it’s about 400 metres to the East Coast Road (and a welcome Brotzeit German Bier Bar, among several other pubs and cafés).

Garden Pursuits

Of course, if it’s ultra-modern and chic you want, Singapore has this in excess. The entire south-central part of the island is a magnet for gleaming skyscrapers, contemporary dining, shopping on a dizzying scale, and all the comforts and pleasures of 21st-century living. But it’s not all concrete and steel. Singapore embraces its tropical location, and though virtually all the gardens and parks are managed and landscaped, there’s still sufficient green space for the city’s residents to cool their heels from time to time.

One such modern marvel that almost defies description is the impressive Gardens by the Bay, a lush 101-hectare park built on reclaimed land and opened in 2012. It’s located just across Marina Bay from The Fullerton heritage precinct, adjacent to the soaring Marina Bay Sands hotel complex. In the Gardens, two sizeable conservatories – Flower Dome and Cloud Forest – are complemented by a sprawling open-air park dotted with various gardens and dominated by the Supertree Grove, a collection of 18 tree-like structures that are both visually arresting and environmentally useful. The supertrees range in height from 25 to 50 metres, comprising a concrete core and steel frame, planting panels, and a wide-arcing “canopy” topping the structure. The supertrees overlook the entire park and along with the vast domed conservatories are its most iconic elements. The planting panels on the trunks of the supertrees serve as prolific vertical gardens, and these panels are planted with nearly 163,000 plants representing more than 200 species from around the world. Bromeliads, orchids, ferns, creepers, climbers, and tropical flowers are all in attendance here. Of the 18 supertrees, 11 have canopies fitted with sustainable and environmentally thoughtful functions, including banks of photovoltaic cells for solar energy harvest, and rainwater collectors for use in irrigation and park fountains. Some of the supertrees further act as air exchangers and cooling aids for the conservatories.

Strolling the magnificently landscaped gardens is free of charge, and Gardens by the Bay is accessed by the nearby Bayfront MRT station. Complimentary attractions and gardens here, enough to easily spend a day exploring, include the Bay East Gardens, the multisensory World of Plants, Dragonfly and Kingfisher Lakes (the former boasting a 440-metre boardwalk), Heritage Gardens with its four themed gardens corresponding to Singapore’s three main ethnic groups and its colonial history, a Children’s Garden with water play features, and the new Sun Pavilion, comprising a collection of over 1,000 desert- and dryland-dwelling plants representing some 100 different species. As Singapore’s showcase park development, a paradoxical manmade wonder of nature, Gardens by the Bay offers plenty of free enjoyment for adults and children alike.

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Though not free, the OCBC Skyway, a curving 128-metre aerial walkway that connects two of the supertrees a breathtaking 22 metres above the ground, affords scenic vistas of the Gardens and the awe-inspiring Marina Bay skyline, just next to the park and dominated, of course, by the dramatic triple towers of the US$5.5 billion Marina Bay Sands. The Skyway is open from 9am to 9pm, and admission is S$8 for adults and S$5 for children, a rather steep increase from the previous pricing of $5/$3. For those wishing to visit the conservatories (S$28), tickets may be purchased online. Anyone planning to visit several times a year can consider an unlimited-entry “Friends of the Gardens” membership, as these plans become more cost-effective than single entries with the third visit, whether for individuals or families. Alternately, if you have friends in Singapore, get them to buy the tickets for you, as Singapore residents enjoy significantly lower rates.

Travel Tips

Less than an hour’s flight south, Singapore is well-served from KL and Subang airports by Firefly, Malindo, Malaysia Airlines, and AirAsia, among others. The KL-Singapore pairing is, in fact, the busiest international air route in the world! For ground-based travel, standard and luxury coaches such as Odyssey, Aeroline, and First Coach ply the North-South Highway, usually making the trip in about five hours. Self-driving is also an option.

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