Singapore: A Long Weekend Break with a Difference

Not many would think of Singapore as a weekend break. But thanks to Air Miles, contributor Guy Warner found it an unforgettable experience

Singapore may seem rather a distance to travel from Belfast for a long weekend but from our recent experience, it is well worth the effort.

I booked our flights with Air Miles (just before the changeover to Avios), so apart from spending 17,000 Air Miles, our flights to Heathrow and then onwards to Singapore were free!

After a lot of research on the internet and also acting on advice from a friend who had stayed there, I booked a room for five nights in the Swissôtel Merchant Court via the hotel’s own website, the price for a room for two being £581. Again acting on a tip, this time in The Times Travel Magazine, I asked at the Heathrow BA Customer Services Desk if any upgrades were available for purchase that evening. The reply was that for £189 each, we could convert from World Traveller to World Traveller Plus. This proved to be a real bargain and a boon – Fast Track Security, wider, much more comfortable two-abreast seats in a sectioned off cabin, a better video/audio seat back package with noise reducing headsets, Club Class food and beverages and a better amenities pack. So we arrived at Singapore Changi after a 12 hour flight and about 18 hours after leaving Belfast, feeling that our holiday had already begun.

Changi has the reputation of being one of the world’s best airports and our first impressions were totally positive as we disembarked, sailed through Passport Control and the Baggage Hall and within 20 minutes were sitting in a taxi on our way to the city centre. This was a half-hour journey and cost less than 30 Singapore Dollars (SD – divide by two for the cost in sterling). On arrival at the Merchant Court, which is situated in the heart of the city on the bank of the Singapore River at Clarke Quay and opened in 1997, we were in for another pleasant, unexpected bonus.

As a reward for booking direct on-line, we had been upgraded to a Business Class room and also were offered, at a reduced rate of 300SD, the cost of five breakfasts. Business Class rooms are on the top three floors and are very well equipped. We were on the top floor and our package also featured free wi-fi, late check-out, plenty of nice extras in the room (eg. morning newspaper, bottled water every day, pillow sweets, filter coffee.

Best of all was access to the Business Lounge one floor below which had panoramic views and very comfy club seating. Soft drinks, hot beverages and biscuits were available all day but from six o’clock to eight o’clock every evening, Happy Hour provided complimentary beer, wine or spirits plus a super selection of finger food, offering something new every night and which was a meal in itself, all served by really pleasant and attentive staff.

Breakfast the next morning more than lived up to our expectations, the range and quality of the food was excellent and our room was made up while we were eating it. We had decided that as we had five full days in Singapore that we would pace ourselves and see one major sight a day. So the first morning we strolled across the bridge and down Read Street to Fort Canning Park and climbed the gentle hill through the gardens.

When Sir Stamford Raffles arrived in Singapore in 1819, he cleared part of the jungle covering the hill and had uncovered the remains of a Malay civilisation dating from 500 years before. The British constructed a fort on this commanding height and a military presence had been maintained right up until February 1942, when Singapore fell to the Japanese invaders. The underground British command bunker the Battle Box had thereafter remained hidden and neglected for many years before being reopened as a museum in 1997. A guided tour of this is absolutely fascinating, our guide was very well informed and the atmosphere in 1942 is excellently recreated by video and audio effects and specially crafted wax figures. The entrance fee was a more than reasonable 8SD. We decided to stroll down the hill into the city centre and have a light lunch in one of the many shopping malls. Eating and drinking opportunities are available in abundance to suit all price brackets and tastes and all those stories you have heard about Singapore being clean, safe and very well organised are completely accurate. We ended up at the famous Raffles Hotel (which opened in 1887) and decided to book afternoon tea for a couple of days later and also took the opportunity to have a look around the hotel’s museum which is free and provides a very interesting glimpse of Singapore’s colonial past.

That evening we took the first of several nightly strolls beside the Singapore River along Clarke Quay, people watching and absorbing the sights, sounds and balmy atmosphere. The highlight the following day was our visit to the Botanic Gardens which was very easy to reach by MRT, Singapore’s efficient, scrupulously clean and very inexpensive metro system.
Once more an idea of the redoubtable Raffles, the first Botanic Garden was founded in 1822. Its modern day successor, which was established 150 years ago, is set on 182 acres of open space and is a delightful place to wander peacefully, examining the abundant plant species or watching the turtles in one of the lakes or the birds hopping around the lawns and bushes.

Entrance is free apart from the beautiful National Orchid Garden, which is a mere 5SD. While we were there, we experienced a tropical downpour and spectacular thunderstorm, which did not last very long and was in any case rather fun to watch. On returning to the hotel the pool was the ideal place to relax and have a bit more gentle exercise.

The following day contained our only less than perfect experiences of the entire holiday. In the morning we visited Orchard Road which is famous for its array of shopping malls, Robinsons Department Store was probably the best of what we saw but to be honest neither of us are the world’s keenest shoppers. That afternoon we had booked tea at Raffles and this was the real disappointment.

We were expecting a really memorable experience, which it was but for none of the right reasons. We had not realised just how segregated visitors were from hotel residents and did not appreciate being told to queue up outside, despite having booked in advance. The high tea (or Tiffen) itself was perfectly acceptable and the staff were courteous but there was no wow factor.

Dealing with 150 customers for tea every day has to be managed efficiently but it all felt very perfunctory and for a total price of 136SD, we felt that it should have been made more special. My advice would be go and have a look at Raffles, go around the museum but have your tea elsewhere and as for the famous Singapore Sling in the Long Bar – well we were told that the cocktail was not individually mixed but came out of a vat – at 35SD a shot! Much better value was the taxi we took from our hotel to Raffles – only 4SD.

In complete contrast, our visit to the Changi Museum was very worthwhile and moving. This is dedicated to “all those who suffered during the dark years of WW2”, service and civilian, POWs, internees and the local population, British, Chinese, Malay and Indian. It is not a large museum and the entrance is free but it is well worth hiring the excellent audio guide (8SD) and spending an hour or two slowly walking around, listening to the very informative commentary and pondering over inhumanity, heroism and suffering. The replica of a prison chapel, the pictures drawn and painted by the prisoners and the heartfelt messages left by visitors with family connections all gave much food for thought.

Barks Café just beside the museum is very good and was packed with local clientèle, always a good sign. It is about an hour’s journey by MRT and bus, which in itself is well worth the trip as it gives the visitor a chance to see Singapore outside the enclosed world of a hotel, tour bus or taxi. We caught the No2 bus the whole way back to Clarke Quay.
Our final day really brought the Wow factor we had been anticipating – we had surveyed the striking Singapore skyline by day and night from the Business Lounge and one building which had really caught the eye was the triple towers of the Marina Bay Sands complex with a huge boat-shaped structure across the top, which has rapidly achieved iconic status since it opened in 2010.

We travelled over by MRT and took the very fast lift 56 floors up to the Skypark for which the entrance fee was 20SD. The viewing platform 650 feet high and gave absolutely magnificent views of the harbour, river, city and beyond. We did not have time for the tour of the hotel pool area, which is the world’s largest and highest outdoor infinity pool.

Back at ground level we wandered around the stunning shopping mall (which I believe may have been slightly outside our price bracket but was perfect for window shopping) and took in the fantastic architecture of the pavilions, theatres, museum and galleries. Once more we were highly impressed by the pleasant and helpful nature of the hotel’s concierge staff. We caught a water taxi (12SD) for a very enjoyable trip back to Clarke Quay, which featured a very informative commentary.

There was time for a last visit to the Business Lounge and then we caught a taxi to Changi (20SD). The driver was very willing to talk and gave us a very interesting insight into Singaporean politics, once more we had plenty to ponder. We had a few hours to spend at Changi and we enjoyed it thoroughly, it has a great range of reasonably priced shops and cafes, free internet access, many comfortable places to sit and is undoubtedly the most civilised major international airport we have ever visited.

The city-state of Singapore is located off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, is 85 miles north of the equator and is seven hours ahead of the time in the UK. It has a population of over five million and welcomes in excess of 11 million visitors a year, within an area of 274 square miles (about a quarter of the size of Co Antrim and six times the area of Belfast). Yet it did not feel crowded, simply busy and exciting, with plenty of tranquil parks to visit and universal air-conditioning in which to take a break form the very pleasant heat.

Did we enjoy our visit to Singapore? We certainly did. Would we go back? Absolutely. Would we recommend it for a long weekend from Belfast (or anywhere else in Ireland) or, of course, for a stopover? Undoubtedly!