Singapore — hot, high-tech and perfect for kids
Long-haul travel with kids is madness. That, at least, is the verdict of most parents. Cornwall is popular for a reason: it is near. Singapore, at almost 7,000 miles from the UK, is perhaps one of the last places most young families would consider spending a week’s holiday. But with friends who live there insisting it was a perfect family holiday destination, I set off with my five-year-old and a spirit of defiance.
My resolve was tested early, however. Isobel’s first “are we there yet” came on the Piccadilly line to Heathrow. “Not quite,” I replied optimistically, while contemplating the 12-hour flight ahead and desperately hoping that I’d remembered to charge the iPad. As it turned out, the overnight flight, while affording us precious little sleep, made us sufficiently tired the next day to help reset our body clocks for the seven-hour time difference.
We arrived in Singapore in good spirits and ready to see if Singapore was anything more than a transit hub. I would need convincing. I’d imagined the city-state to be a cross between Terminal 5 at Heathrow and Canary Wharf — shiny, new and full of shops, but ultimately soulless.
First impressions were limited by what would become a recurring theme of the holiday: the haze. As we flew in to land we could barely see the city, such was the fog-like soup clinging to the buildings. Locals talk of little else. Over the previous three months, the haze had blighted life in Singapore, and it appears there is little that can be done about it. The clouds of smoke are not of Singaporean origin but come from huge forest fires in Indonesia, used to clear land for palm oil plantations. An area the equivalent of 7,200 football pitches is being burnt every day in Indonesia, according to Rainforest Rescue. Winds drive the vast plumes of smoke northwards towards the base of the Malaysian peninsula where Singapore sits.
Every day locals check the intensity of the smog to establish whether it is safe to go outside. A Pollutants Standards Index rating below 100 is acceptable, a rating between 100 and 200 is considered unsafe for strenuous exercise outside. A rating of more than 200 means it is dangerous to do much at all outside, so public events are postponed and workers sent indoors. Outside life and the economy have been cruelly curtailed. The day we landed the haze measured a worryingly high 178, and plenty of locals were wearing masks.
However, mad dogs and Englishmen do not let a mere poisonous cloud of smog ruin their holiday, so we set off for the zoo: we had a breakfast date with some orangutans.
We were delighted we braved the haze because Singapore Zoo has to be one of the best in the world. It makes London Zoo look like an awful 1970s planning error. This is a zoo that has been thought about properly and designed with both the animals and visitors in mind.
Built around a big looping track over a generous 69 acres — an appreciable proportion of the entire Singaporean landmass — it has quick and easy transport between the main attractions on a child-friendly zebra train. The space means the animals have plenty of room to roam in enclosures that look like genuine replicas of their natural habitats. It is so cleverly designed in fact that much of the zoo feels as if it’s open, with animals seemingly free to roam — even if that is not actually the case. The experience feels more safari than zoo.
The most popular animals have amphitheatres around their enclosures, so viewing is never a problem. The sea lion show was incredible; he had better ball control skills than most professional footballers.
Breakfast with the orangutans was also amazing, and not just because of the unlimited helpings of pain au chocolate. Four adult orangutans and two young ones sit casually with their keepers as about 40 or so people mingle around a buffet breakfast. In between freshly squeezed juices and a choice of pastries you can wander up to have your photo taken. The grown-up orangutans nonchalantly chew bananas (mostly with better table manners than the assembled crowd) as you stand among them, while the little ones muck simply about looking incredibly cute. Isobel stood in awe of these most human-like creatures, only stopping to remark that one of the babies reminded her of her little brother, Felix.
Perhaps the most incredible thing about the zoo though, was that it did not feel busy. There was no queue to get in; no waiting to see an animal; and no straining among a crowd to get a glimpse of the most popular beasts. That is a brilliant feature of Singapore generally. Unlike London, where anything even half decent is busy, and escaping a crowd is almost impossible, this city does not feel overrun.
A case in point is the Flyer, Singapore’s version of the London Eye, only bigger. This 165m-tall ferris wheel affords an incredible view of the city’s skyline, and we did not even have to queue to get on. We also had an entire capsule to ourselves, allowing Isobel to run around until she was worn out enough to appreciate the view.
That view is spectacular as well, albeit clouded by the haze. Singapore has the sort of futuristic skyline a 1970s sci-fi novel might have imagined. Despite the country’s staid reputation, the architecture is ambitious in scale and impressive in sight. The Marina Bay Sands development, for example, is three huge skyscrapers with what can only be described as a large cruise ship plonked across the top. The hotel’s (uncrowded) infinity pool at the top is impressive, and gives an amazing view of the nightly laser show in the bay.
The only exception to the city’s uncrowded rule appears to be the roads. Travel at the wrong time and you can be stuck in slow-moving traffic for what seems like hours. Singapore’s mildly autocratic overlords try to manage the problem by curbing the number of cars on the roads through a licensing scheme. It hasn’t worked. At last count, a licence for a small car cost about £33,000, but still they sell out every time. A lesson, perhaps, for road pricing zealots in Britain. You can rack up the charges but people will still pay insane amounts of money to sit, unperturbed by the squalor of others, in the privacy of their own car, even if they are not going anywhere fast.
Mercifully, escape from a sweaty car journey is never far away. Singapore is awash with water parks. Ask Isobel the highlight of her holiday and she will answer simply “water fun”. There are kids’ water parks at the zoo, in the bird park, at the Marina Bay Gardens and almost everywhere else. There are also larger, stand-alone water parks, the biggest of which is the incredible Adventure Cove. I would not call this exclusively a kids’ water park because the adults in attendance seemed to be having just as much fun – even those who couldn’t swim. (An alarming number of adults were wearing life jackets.)
We both loved the place so much we stayed for a toe-crinkling five-and-a-half hours, leaving us late for dinner at the nearby Ocean restaurant. This upmarket eatery (no flip-flops allowed) allows you to dine on exquisite sushi in front of a water tank so big it seemed to contain half the Indian Ocean. For those unperturbed by seeing a distant cousin of their dinner swim by, the lobster dumplings are divine.
Both Ocean and Adventure Cove are on Sentosa island, which is part of Singapore’s seemingly never-ending expansion into the sea. The man-made island, which can be reached and toured by a dizzyingly high cable-car ride, is dedicated to family tourism.
One of the main attractions is the Universal Studios theme park, which offers a day of Hollywood-inspired fun with zones and rides dedicated to kids’ films including Shrek and Madagascar. Think Alton Towers but without the rain and half-term queues.
There’s also nature on Sentosa, which — as with many places in Singapore — has been supremely manicured. Bays of picture-perfect Thai-style beaches have been created along the southern coast, complete with overhanging palm trees. The beaches were mostly deserted and families could easily decamp here with a bucket and spade for a few days of relaxing. But as you sit on the sand imported from Indonesia don’t count on getting a tan. The other less-welcome import from that part of the world sees to that; the haze acts as a very effective factor-50 sunscreen in the sky.
There is a natural beach at Changi Park on the east of the island, but its nearness to the airport (basically at the end of the runway) somewhat lessens the tropical getaway experience.
So we stuck with the man-made stretches of sand. At Singapore’s other main stretch of beach along the southeastern coast, we found, alongside skate parks and watersports, the buzzy East Coast Lagoon Food village. An evening visit is a must for any foodie, with scores of stalls selling every manner of Asian cuisine. The local favourite is chilli crab, at least judging by the queues, and it certainly does not disappoint. It so delicious even Isobel devoured it. Her favourite Spider-Man t-shirt is unlikely to recover from the experience.
If you hadn’t realised that Singapore did beaches, you may be even more surprised to hear it also does jungle — and not only of the concrete variety. Bukit Timah Nature Reserve is one of only two urban rainforests in the world, with the other in Rio de Janeiro. This being Singapore, a concrete path has been laid, but there are plenty of side trails plunging deep into the forest, giving scope for amateur explorers. My advice is to watch out for the flying lemurs; these bat-like creatures can glide with menace.
We enjoyed a more orderly botanical experience at the Gardens by the Bay, Singapore’s answer to the Eden Project. The two massive domes are spectacular inside and out. One is a cloudy rainforest experience, the other dedicated to flowers. Low-flying selfie sticks are the only menace here. We ended our trip by walking the short distance to the barrage at the end of the peninsula to join local families flying kites in front of the spectacular backdrop of the city.
Sitting here, enjoying the cooling sea breeze, I contemplated the end of our holiday (and 12-hour flight home) and realised how wrong I was to dismiss Singapore as an oversized airport terminal. Yes, there are more shopping malls here than any city can conceivably need, but there is so much more besides. In fact, Singapore has all the qualities — aside from its distance from Britain — that you might look for in a family holiday. Provided you don’t mind inhaling a bit of Indonesian smoke in the process.