By the time I left my life in Scotland behind to emigrate to New Zealand back in early 2012, I’d spent more time than I would have liked transiting through American airports. They’re not the friendliest of places and with a real dislike for Los Angeles airport (LAX) I was keen for an alternative transit point between my new home and old home. My original booking that took me to New Zealand had been a return ticket, so I’d used the return leg with its LAX transit to go home and visit my family for Christmas at the end of 2012, but I was keen to avoid the same route back, and booked a ticket home via Singapore. I had a few hours layover at Singapore’s Changi airport and was blown away by the country’s national carrier that took me there and also the airport itself. I transited Changi twice more on my next visit to Scotland in 2016 and again revelled in the marvel that is now my favourite airport. With a multitude of gardens, entertainment zones and shops and eateries that stretch far through the concourse, it almost feels like the airport is a destination in itself. It also whetted my appetite to see the country who’s borders it sat within, and so when a work-related conference was announced in Singapore, there was no doubt in my mind that I would be attending. So last September, after a couple of weeks spent in Scotland, I left Amsterdam behind and flew to Asia.
I arrived in the early morning, and after obtaining a travel card for the public transport system, I caught the train into the city and went in search of my hotel. It was far too early to check in, so I simply dumped my bags and sat in the lobby perusing a guidebook, wondering what to do with the day. This was one of those trips that I’d left totally unplanned, making it up as I went along, and after a bit of reading and studying the transit map, I decided to take the train to Harbourfront, the gateway to Sentosa Island. Attached to the mainland via a bridge, there are a multitude of ways to get onto the island: a cable car, a train, boardwalk and road all link the island to Harbourfront. Looking to save money, and naive to the heat that would hit me that day, I decided to walk over, coming out of the Harbourfront mall and taking the boardwalk. Despite the early hour, the temperature was on the rise and a slight hazy smog coloured the sky, and before long I was sweating. In fact the humidity kept fogging my camera lens as I tried to take photos and I found myself torn between admiring the view and seeking out shade.
On arrival to Sentosa, I was greeted by a large resort but I was so early that nothing was open and there was hardly anyone around. It made for a pleasant walk in relative solitude as I cut along the promenade, admiring the cityscape across the waterway. At the main building complex, I cut up through what would no doubt be a bustling shopping and eating mall during opening hours and past several water features which led me up and out the other side at a raised area where I was faced with the giant structure of a Merlion. The official mascot of Singapore, represented by a lion’s head with the body of a fish, it is an iconic symbol of this island nation. There are several Merlion statues in the country, but this one on Sentosa is the largest and it is possible to climb up inside it for a fee. Here, I was thankful for the early arrival as the crowds had yet to appear and there was only a handful of people milling around, making it relatively easy to get an uncrowded photograph.
I skirted round the base of the Merlion and down Merlion walk, a paved route with a funky water feature running down the middle. At the far end, stairs took me down to the back of the beach amphitheatre, but rather than head straight to the coast, I double backed past a funky sculpture and a scented garden to head up into the higher points of the island where the cable car comes in. Up in the canopy, the insect noise was epic, and a boardwalk led away from the cable car complex towards a trail through a forested area. A few more people were about now and I regularly passed others as I meandered through the tree-lined path up, round and over the hill here. The path eventually cut back down to the north coast and once more I could see back across to the mainland.
By now I was grateful for every piece of shade I could find. The heat combined with the high humidity was intense. But the view across the water made up for that, and I soaked it in as I became more and more saturated in my own sweat. At the western end of the island I found myself at Fort Siloso, a gun battery utilised in WWII. Free to walk around, it is a cluster of buildings, tunnels and guns, and although I wasn’t really interested in the history of the place, I still took my time to wander around it. I was especially glad of the air conditioning that was on in some of the buildings which now represent a museum. At the back of the complex, I found myself at the Siloso skywalk, an elevated walkway that gave a stunning view across to both the mainland and the nearby beach of the south coast. For the first time I could see the reams of ships berthed just offshore and I realised how important Singapore must be as a shipping port. Now quite high above the main level of Sentosa, I had planned on getting the elevator down off the platform but it wasn’t working, and so I retraced my steps back to Fort Siloso and cut down the hill at the side of the walkway. Only when I got near the bottom did I realise that a high fence blocked my path, and frustratingly in the heat, I had to climb back up the hillside and cut back through the fort to get out.
The south coast was the gem of this place for me. An expansive series of stunning sandy beaches, turquoise water and off-shore islands welcomed me and the now increasing crowd of people. The remnants of a sand-art exhibition was being dismantled as I first hit the beach and I was quick to take my shoes off and paddle in the water as I wandered. I’m not one for relaxing on holidays, instead I have a constant urge to explore when I’m abroad, so although I was sorely tempted to get in the water and swim, I hadn’t actually brought by bathers and as such, I had to be content with just dipping my toes in the water. I was by now pretty hungry, and thankfully there were some eateries here, so I found myself a shady spot in one, ordered a nice cold drink and got myself some food to fill me up for the rest of the day’s walking.
Of the offshore islands, a couple have a bridge over to them, so at Palawan beach, I crossed the swing bridge to reach the largest of them. Immediately at the far side, a sign declared it to be the Southernmost Point of Continental Asia. Looking at the location of it on a map I highly doubt the accuracy of it but that didn’t stop me and everyone else getting a photograph at the sign. Two towers behind here took me up above the canopy for a view back onto Sentosa Island and in the opposite direction, seaward where once more I was astonished by the shear quantity of ships hanging around offshore. Back down in the undergrowth, I found a spot to lie down in the shade and promptly dozed off, overwhelmed by the heat and humidity following my inability to sleep on the plane ride there. I awoke a little while later when the shade had moved and the sun reached me. I returned to wandering around this islet before cutting back across the bridge to Sentosa.
I briefly considered continuing along the coast to Tanjong beach but as beyond that the island is pretty much consumed by a golf course and resort, I decided that I’d had enough of the heat, and instead retraced my steps back to the Merlion walk. Cutting across the island here, I headed to the S.E.A. Aquarium and decided to head inside. I’m not a big fan of aquariums and zoos, and discovered after buying my ticket that this aquarium had captive dolphins which I really don’t agree with, but I was desperate for some air conditioned indoor time so headed on in anyway. What I discovered inside blew me away. After going downstairs and into the complex, I came through the entrance to a floor to ceiling glass wall that was the end of a huge exhibit, complete with shipwreck and a collection of sharks and large shoals of fish. It was exceptionally crowded, but I didn’t mind that I couldn’t get right up to the glass, because even from a few steps back, it was so high that there was plenty to take in. I stood here at this first exhibit for quite some time before moving on. Nearby there was a skeleton of a Great White Shark, which due to its nose, was rather amusing.
Through a tunnel below sharks and past eels I came out at a coral garden, and wandered past a really cool tubular aquarium. At the far end of the complex was the extensive Open Ocean Exhibit, another exceedingly large floor to ceiling glass panel wall that looked into one of the largest aquarium exhibits I’ve ever seen. Containing 40,000 fish within it, it was mesmerising and it was no wonder there were so many people draped across the various levels of the viewing area just staring at it. I too parked up in different areas to just watch the creatures swim by, and was torn between the happiness of seeing manta rays and the sadness that they were in captivity. I’ve seen manta rays in the wild off two different continents and they are an awesome sight to see. When I finally pulled myself away from the place, I found some jellyfish appearing to dance. Then there were octopus and more coral exhibits and I was glad to see that I could skip the dolphin section without visiting it, as I really didn’t want to see them in there. Finally, the route takes you back through the other side of the shipwreck exhibit and I left the building utterly impressed with what the place had achieved. It is definitely the best aquarium I have ever visited in my life.
The sun was dropping low as I returned to Harbourfront mall to catch the train back to my hotel. The mall was a total rabbit warren and I went round in circles looking for the station within it. I ended up among the rush hour crowds so I was happy to finally reach my hotel although I felt rather self conscious appearing in my sweaty and disheveled state. I’d booked my accommodation some time in advance and I can only assume I got some kind of deal because what I had noticed when I’d dumped my bags that morning was that it seemed rather posh, and this was confirmed on checking in as I discovered that my hotel was 5-star. As someone who regularly stays in hostels, and had in fact just been staying in a shared dorm in Amsterdam prior to arriving, this was a slightly shocking change of scene. Nonetheless, I was certainly going to make the most of it and had a huge grin on my face as I wandered round my large and fancy looking room. This would be just the ticket to come back to each day whilst in the city, and I soon felt at home.