Just Say Go, June 17, 2009
I have to admit that the only things I knew about Singapore were that they take their shopping seriously and the infamous case of Michael Peter Fay, the American who was caned in Singapore in 1994, for theft and vandalism. So, when we were planning a trip to Vietnam and wanted to make the most out of our frequent flyer miles and add on a side trip, we chose Singapore, knowing that it was probably not somewhere that we would travel to on its own.
No, we did not get caned, but we did partake in the serious shopping that Singaporeans do every day, and discovered along the way that there is much more to do in Singapore than just shop.
We arrived after a lengthy, two-day flight from Baltimore fairly rested, thanks to the reclining seats in business class that allowed for some sleep. One of our larger suitcases did not arrive (we had four checked bags, so three out of four is not bad), but the helpful people at Singapore Air’s luggage claim service could not have been nicer. Not only did they give us $85 cash to help with essentials, but also the bag arrived the next day. The experience was a glimpse into the friendly, customer service oriented attitude of Singaporeans we’d experience over three days.
We chose the Goodwood Park Hotel (www.goodwoodparkhotel.com) for its ideal location, historic nature and affordability (many hotels in Singapore top the $500/night price point). Built in 1900 as the Teutonia Club, an exclusive enclave for the expatriate German community in Singapore, the Goodwood Park was converted to a hotel in 1929, and while centrally located near Orchard Road, its location high upon a hill provided a serene escape from the excitement below. Again, we experienced the efficient and welcoming service of Singaporeans as we were gently whisked up to our room overlooking the pool by the concierge, who volunteered to follow up with Singapore Air on the missing bag so that we could enjoy the day.
Orchard Road is the hub of activity in Singapore, and we were surprised to see locals shopping as late as 9 p.m. We opted to rest up and had a quick meal and beer at the Marriott’s outside bar – one of the few places we could find to sit outside and people watch – and learned quickly what the guide books had informed us – food and drink in Singapore is quite expensive … try $12 for a draft beer!
Getting an early start is key in Singapore due to the afternoon heat and humidity. After a delightful breakfast at a sidewalk coffee shop, we hit the shops, most of which are located in air-conditioned malls, one after another. As soon as the shops opened – usually between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. – the stores were hopping, everything from high-end boutiques like Tiffany and Louis Vuitton to more traditional department stores. We were taken aback by the high prices in the stores – Levi jeans for $70 – so we needed a Plan B to avoid breaking the budget on Day 2.
Luckily, while strolling down Orchard Road, we ran into an old retail friend – Bossini, the Hong Kong-based retailer that we went wild in while in Hong Kong four years ago. Bossini is now in 30 countries, including – thankfully – Singapore. The Gap-style retailer has great basic shorts, trendy graphic T-shirts, dress shirts and great deals on kids’ clothes. I picked up six Polo-style shirts for less than $50 and grabbed some fun shirts for my 3-year-old niece. Unfortunately, like most stores in Asia, pants and shorts were a tougher find as most only carry men’s waist sizes up to a size 30 (I’m a 33).
Buoyed by our great finds at Bossini, we headed next to Chinatown. Singapore is an amazing diverse mix of cultures, religions and ethnic groups, so going to Chinatown is like visiting a different country. Here, we wandered around small streets packed with souvenir shops, T-shirt hawkers and home décor stores. I picked up some shirts for family members, all at very affordable prices. Feeling weak after all our shopping, we grabbed some lunch in Chinatown and had wonderful noodle dishes and cold Tiger beer, which is everywhere since it’s a Singaporean beer, all for about $5 each, much more in line with our budget.
While in Chinatown, be sure to visit the beautiful Sri Mariamman Temple, Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple. Like many religious venues, you must remove your shoes before entering, and if you want to take photos, a small donation is requested. The temple is a peaceful, gorgeous structure with colorful figurines throughout. There is also a nice courtyard to wander around and a great opportunity to observe Hindus who come to visit and pray.
That night, we visited the iconic Raffles Hotel’s Long Bar, birthplace of the Singapore Sling. Nearby, be sure to visit the Swiss Hotel where in less than six seconds, a fast-speed elevator takes you to the 70th floor, which offers amazing views of the city. There is a restaurant on this level, too, as well as Asia Bar with great photo opportunities of the sights (but with high-priced cocktails).
The next morning, we awoke early to head to Arab Street, the heart of the Muslim community in Singapore, since long pants are required to visit the mosque. Unfortunately, the guide book neglected to inform us that the striking circa 1826 Masjid Sultan mosque is closed to visitors on Fridays until 2:30 p.m., due to Friday prayers, so we were unable to go inside. However, there is a bohemian-style market behind the mosque for Oriental rugs, beautiful silk fabrics for custom suits and dresses, as well as affordable Pashmina scarves. The shopping is peaceful, and the shopkeepers helpful and sweet.
For nightlife, head to Clarke Quay – think Jacksonville’s Landing, the Riverwalk in San Antonio and Baltimore’s Inner Harbor all rolled up in one. There’s over a mile of restaurants and bars, all of which are hopping, offering anything from an Irish pub to a Cuban bar to a romantic, waterfront restaurant.