We’ve had little to complain about with the logistics of our recent travels, and the journey to Singapore didn’t change that at all. We left Toronto on time, 8.40 pm on Thursday evening, and reached London half an hour early; the connection was easy, and on the longer flight to Singapore we had an empty seat next to us and a general feeling of ease and space, by airline standards anyway (the take-off was so graceful that neither Ally nor I even felt the plane leave the ground, which I think is a first, so I guess those 380s really are a better class of flying machine). We both slept maybe seven or eight hours out of the overall 22 hours of traveling time, which wasn’t too bad, and Singapore Airlines had an astounding selection of movies. I watched the Hong Kong film The Grandmaster, which actually opened in Toronto the same day, except that the critics all complained about getting a version with twenty minutes cut out of it, whereas the airline had the full version, so it’s like I was scoring points! The selection was so good that I even watched a second movie, the French In the House. Ally watched Robert Redford’s The Company you Keep and quite a few episodes of The Sopranos.
We arrived in Singapore just after 7 am, and encountered no delays at all either at immigration or in collecting our bags…if only life was always like this. The airport, huge and gleaming, seemed designed to handle about a hundred times more passengers than were actually there (a similar sense of over-capacity would accompany our entire morning). The cab ride to the hotel, which took less than fifteen minutes, was along immaculate straight roads, obviously tended by enormous gardening budgets – every mundane stretch of highway was as striking as the average flower garden. We noticed immediately – and this would also recur all day – how virtually every sign and advertisement was in English, most often exclusively: we’d known English was an official language here, but hadn’t realized it would be quite as dominant. People were jogging and cycling and doing group exercises in the park; the roads were largely empty. It was the kind of arrival that makes you pretty sure you’re not going to have too many adaptation problems.
It was too early to check into our room, but we were at least able to have a shower in the spa area, then we went outside to explore for a while. At that time on Saturday morning it was largely deserted – virtually everything seemed new and gleaming. Actually, most of what we saw that morning is virtually new – we walked round the massive Marina Bay development, which isn’t even mentioned in our 2010 guide book. It’s a 3 or 4 km loop, all with great views of the skyline and the water, and so plainly not concerned with budget constraints that it might seem like a national bragging project – highlights include a science museum that reaches into the sky like overlaid petals, a three-pillared hotel with what looks like a concrete ship resting on top, and a mysterious glass pyramid in the water that turned out to be a Louis Vuitton store. It has any number of water-view eating places, but few of them were open. And it didn’t look like the construction is anywhere near to stopping. There’s a lot of development going on in Toronto too, but this made all that seem merely timid (not that I’m saying development is necessarily virtuous…)
After completing that circle, we walked into another element of the epic vision, the 101-hectare “Gardens by the Bay,” which the website says “enhances the image of Singapore as a garden city,” although given the wondrous artificiality of the whole thing, the key term would have to be “image.” Most striking is a series of enormous “Supertrees,” which might be taken either as a tribute to nature or a parody of it, but they’re certainly hard to look away from. Some of them have bars and restaurants inside and are joined by walkways: they also collect rainwater and generate solar power. We bought tickets to another new structure – the cloud forest – an enormous glass dome built around an artificial waterfall and containing enough plantation to have pillaged a small forest elsewhere. By this time it was already very hot (a feels-like temperature of around 42) and the entrance to the cloud forest provided a gorgeous blast of wet cool air, which I’m sure must be a big piece of the marketing. It also contains some nicely executed although possibly slightly disingenuous displays about the threat of global warming and the like.
By then we were getting tired so we walked back to the hotel, arriving around noon. We’re staying in the famous Raffles hotel, which opened in 1887 and has had such guests as Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward and Michael Jackson. We reach our room by walking out of the lobby and around the west side of the main building, through a private gate, and along a courtyard. The hotel covers a big footprint, a whole block in fact, but a lot of that is restaurants and bars and shops and other spaces: there are only a hundred rooms or so. But ours at least is enormous, skillfully preserving a sense of old-world elegance without showing any signs of wear and tear: we could spend all day here, writing letters on elegant stationery and drinking tea, either inside or outside the door on our veranda! More practically, the room has an enormous bed, and we both fell asleep almost as soon as we made contact with it.
We slept for six hours, and by then it was getting dark, although the heat didn’t subside that much. We walked in the opposite direction from the morning, and had just about the opposite experience – this time we were surrounded by young crowds, often almost suffocatingly. Part of this might have been due to a night festival, anchored from what we saw by mysterious images projected onto buildings and by various musical acts. We walked some of the way down Orchard Road, the main shopping hub, and indeed it’s hard to remember when we’ve seen so much concentrated retail (as well as, echoing an earlier point, such a colossal air-conditioning bill, as the walk was punctuated throughout by ice-cold blasts from various entrances).
Eventually we turned back and went into the hotel’s “Long Bar,” another key component of its classic status, in particular as the home of the Singapore Sling (one of my initial reactions though was that the bar wasn’t actually that long). Indeed, it looks like the most boring barman gig ever – based on what we observed, well over half the drink orders are for that one item. We started with that, which is fine but nothing to write home about on elegant stationery, and then moved on to wine: we weren’t all that hungry, so just had some bar snacks, which worked out very well. A band on the upper floor was covering the likes of Toto and Men at Work and so the time just rolled by. While we were there, many of the tables turned over three or four times – people just coming in, ticking off their Singapore Sling experience and moving on. And eventually, after racking up a truly senseless bill, so did we.