Singapore: A Fine City

Updated: 2011-11-27 08:17

By Todd Balazovic and Lee Hannon (China Daily)

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 Singapore: A Fine City

The well-polished skyscrapers that dot the city's skyline are known to the world for its unique designs. Todd Balazovic and Lee Hannon / China Daily

 Singapore: A Fine City

The flawless streets of Singapore contribute to its "The Fine City" image. Provided to China Daily

Todd Balazovic and Lee Hannon sample the shopping, eating, drinking paradise that is one of the world's smallest countries.

There will be no Singapore Slings. Not one. It's not happening. You could blanket the Raffles Hotel's famous Long Bar with one hundred yuan notes and this tourist kitsch would still not be appealing. Known as the little red dot, due to its lack of visible landmass on world maps, Singapore has much more to offer than the literary cliche taken on by travel writers the world over.

But before delving into the city's secrets - it's worth addressing another stereotype Singapore has always held, aside from the Sling.

Yes, it's clean. Impeccably so.

Singapore is known for its militaristic zeal when it comes to the country's policies on litter. When the locals call it "The Fine City" - they're only partially referring to the well-polished skyscrapers that dot the city's skyline. Really, it's a reference to the long list of fees - starting from 800 yuan ($126) for a simple violation - assigned for anyone brazen enough to mar the flawless streets with a piece of trash.

But, at least for the two days we spent, the strict regulations didn't feel noticeable.

Aside from a warning given by a friendly driver as we cruised to our hotel along a palm-lined strip that is reminiscent of something you'd see in Miami or California, the "harshness" often assigned to the city's upkeep was not visible.

What was noticeable was the sheer grandness of one of the world's smallest countries. With just 682.7 square kilometers of land on the main island, the only one of the country's 20 islands that is significantly populated, Singapore has managed to mash together a culturally diverse parade of shopping, dining and drinking.

There's a saying that Singapore is a city where - as long as you have the money - you can get anything you want.

Whether it be the most expensive champagne in the world - a bottle of 170-year-old Veuve Clicquot, which was recently fished off of a sunken French transport ship and sold to Singapore's Buyan Russian Haute Cuisine & Caviar Bar for just over 260,000 yuan ($41,319). Or one of the world's priciest fish dishes - a single 1.8 kg steamed White Sultan Fish from the island's Fen Sui Inn restaurant caught a customer by surprise when a bill for more than 60,000 yuan turned up at his table.

The place oozes opulence.

From the panoramic window in the club lounge on the 32nd floor of Singapore's plush Ritz-Carlton Millenia hotel, the most noticeable show of wealth was the newly christened Vegas-style Marina Bay Sands hotel, which towers over the city's Marina Bay with the flagrant air of something that, had it been built even slightly bigger, would border on tawdriness.

A quick stroll across the street from the Ritz-Carlton is the Helix, an architectural masterpiece shaped after the double-helix DNA model. Built in April 2010, the futuristic looking structure serves as a pedestrian walkway, connecting to the waterfront promenade and allowing foot-friendly visitors to stroll along the bay edge to the lotus-like building housing the Art Science museum.

For those with shopping on their mind (as most people in this city have), the Helix also allows you to check out the world's first floating Louis Vuitton boutique.

Nearby, the fish-fin looking structures that will house the Gardens by the Bay botanical gardens, which is set to finish construction early next year, prove the view of the city from the legendary Singapore Flyer is only getting better and better.

As the city grows, so does its interest from Chinese tourists. As one of the more Mandarin-friendly Asian metropolises, Singapore's sophisticated beauty and vast shopping options caught the attention of more than 1.25 million Chinese tourists in the first eight months of 2011, a 38 percent increase from the year before.

And while the skyline is known the world over for its uniquely designed architecture, the city's beauty is not simply skin deep. The country is a historic focal point for East and West trade.

Singapore's role as an important liaison for Asia and Europe trade began with the country's formation as a British colony in 1819 after Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, whose name is now attached to the colonial-style Raffles Hotel, established the city as a port.

Though it was occupied by the Japanese during World War II and joined with Malaya to form modern Malaysia in the years after, Singapore's independence following a falling out with its cousin to the north allowed the country to refocus once again on becoming the fulcrum of Asian trade it now is.

As a colonial-era hub of international finance and trade, Singapore has played host to international guests for more than 150 years.

The hospitality of the locals toward its 10 million annual foreign visitors and taste for upscale surroundings was prominently displayed during our stay at the Ritz-Carlton.

Adapting to the city's greater call for luxury, the Ritz-Carlton recently renovated its 608 guest rooms, offering guests the latest gadgets from flat-screens to chic furnishings.

Combined with the openly friendly and attentive hotel staff, it's understandable the iconic hotel was recently presented with the Singapore Tourist Board's "Best Hotel Experience" award for the second year in a row.

Outside of the hotel, the city's multicultural population, with 74 percent of the population ethnically Chinese, 13.4 percent Malaysian, and 9.2 Indian, breezing down the city streets makes for an ideal opportunity to people watch.

As we retraced the track of the recent Formula 1 Grand Prix, which took place in late September, it was fascinating to take in the buzz of the island's diverse 5 million strong inhabitants.

For most, that volume of people cramped into one metropolis may evoke images of an overcrowded steel jungle, but the city is surprisingly spacious and green due to large efforts on the part of the Singapore government to transform it into a "garden city".

Every unused inch of the city's downtown area has been infused with greenery, with hundreds of parks and gardens as well as the world's first after-dark zoo, Singapore's Night Safari.

Still, Singapore is an island, and - as appealing as a plant-imbued shopping paradise sounds - no trip to an island is complete without spending some time on the beach.

While it may not hold the same serenity as a Caribbean hideaway, Sentosa Island offers big city businessmen and fresh-off-the-boat tourists an equal chance to lounge in the sands with umbrella-laden drinks.

Wanting to escape the hustle of downtown, we decided to enjoy a casual meal while taking in Singapore's harbor.

Cutting through the resorts and casino surrounding Universal Studios Singapore, we suddenly found ourselves flanked by cotton-candy wielding tour groups.

This part of Sentosa Island may have showed the family-friendly side of Singapore, but for someone seeking refuge from crowds, traversing the grounds proved slightly unnerving.

After a somewhat harrowing experience repetitively listening to an over-jolly Mickey Mouse wannabe reminding beach tram passengers to quell their excitement and keep all limbs in the vehicle - we finally arrived.

Following an easy, but delicious lunch, we sat sipping Long Island iced teas while watching colossal transport ships glide across the harbor with the backdrop of a blazing sunset.

The scene made it easy to forget that one of the world's largest financial hubs was resting at our backs.

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(China Daily 11/27/2011 page16)