Is Singapore a realistic vacation destination for Americans?
Published: March 1, 2010 at 12:53 PM
Before last week, I would have answered "A" without hesitation. Now, after having made the trip myself, I'm leaning "B".
Let me tell you about my trip to Singapore.
First, getting there. I flew Singapore Airlines from Los Angeles via Tokyo, a round-trip ticket that cost me $1,350, including all taxes and fees. Sure, that's not a cheap ticket, but you should also know that Singapore Airlines is a frequent winner of "world's best airline" awards, and rightfully so.
Economy class on Singapore Airlines feels like first class on a U.S. domestic flight:
- Movies, TV shows, music and video games on demand at your seat, at no extra charge
- Frequent full meal service
- Complimentary drinks, including wine, beer and mixed drinks
- A pillow and blanket for every seat
- For families with babies or toddlers, the airline provides bassinets, as well as baby food, bibs, wipes, diapers and bottle preparation
Here's the dinner I had on the inbound flight between Tokyo and Singapore (clockwise from upper left):
- Chicken meatballs and salad
- Cheesecake for dessert
- Broth for the Japanese cold noodles
- Water (I could have had wine and coffee in these two cups, but I drink as much water as I can on airplanes)
- The noodles (with wasabi)
- Panko-breaded shrimp with vegetables in curry sauce over rice
- A rice cracker
- Roll and butter
That was one of three meals that I had on my trip from LA to Singapore (plus a "snack", which offered a choice among items such as a barbecue chicken bun, vegetarian wrap sandwich, a banana, a large bag of potato chips and a full-size Hershey bar). Same number of meals, but an entirely different selection, on the way back.
Another American, who sat next to me on the flight back, told me (not entirely joking), "I'll never be able to fly on a U.S. airline again after this."
Also on the way back I watched "The Fantastic Mr. Fox," "Up in the Air," "Couples Retreat" and in honor of the one-hour Japanese layover, "You Only Live Twice." Figure $10 a pop for the movies, plus the food, the drinks and lack of nickel-and-dime charging in general and that $1,350 ticket, while expensive, certainly delivers more value for the dollar than any other airline ticket I've ever bought.
A former British colony, Singapore's been called "Asia for Beginners." I'd also call it the Orlando of the Far East - that is, if Orlando were larger, cleaner, with generally friendlier people, overall better service and a convenient public transportation system.
Singapore is an independent city-state located on its own island at the tip of Malaysia, in the southeast corner of Asia. Its essentially layout, as a port based on the Singapore River, will be familiar to any Londoner. (Singapore River = Thames, but with nightlife.) The river itself is the city's social and tourist hub. Walkways run the length of the river on either side, connecting the various quays (wharfs, to an American), which now house not shipping docks, but a variety of restaurants, nightclubs and shopping malls. Think of CityWalk or Downtown Disney, except located along a river that stretches for miles.
In the early evenings, you'll find Singaporeans jogging along the pathways before returning later for dinner. (Located near the equator, Singapore's weather in February is much like Orlando's in summer - hot and humid. If you want to exercise outside, you do it in the evening. I can't imagine visiting in June or July.)
Food, more than anything else, defines Singaporean culture. The cuisine here, a blend of Malaysian, Chinese and Indian food, is simply delicious... and ubiquitous. I had to cry "uncle" and stop eating after a day - I was simply too full from the chicken rice, curries, satays and other temptations I was packing in. Given that it's in Singapore, I suspect that Universal Studios Singapore might challenge Epcot's title as the world's top theme park for foodies. The initial line-up? Dim sum, butter chicken, laksa (a loaded noodle soup), chicken rice, pad thai, yakatori, New York strip steak, oysters Rockefeller, bratwurst, turkey legs, fish and chips... and, yeah, hamburgers and pizza.
To work off that caloric consumption, and to fight jet lag, I suggest a walking tour of the city. I set off from my hotel east along the Singapore River to the harbor. I saw the point where Sir Thomas Raffles first landed in Singapore, establishing the British Colony.
Then I made my way to the harbor, where stands the "Merlion" - the symbol of Singapore, which means "Lion Island." (As far as anyone can tell, there aren't any lions on the island and never have been, but an early settler thought he saw one, so, there's the name.)
After a stop for water and a smoothie, I continued south into Chinatown, where I picked up a few souvenirs for the family.
You'll find decorated trees such as this throughout the city during the Chinese New Year holiday.
From there, I hopped a ride on the city's MRT subway to Vivo City, a massive western-style shopping mall at the southern tip of the island, from which you can catch a S$2 bus ride over to Resorts World Sentosa on Singapore's Sentosa Island.
Universal Studios Singapore isn't the only attraction on Sentosa. (Here's my write-up of my tour of Universal.) In addition to the adjacent casino, you'll find a marine theme park called "Underwater World" (think, well... you know), two golf courses, a nature preserve, a butterfly park, beaches, hotels and spas.
Like I said, the Orlando of the Far East. I must admit that I missed what many friends recommended as the best attraction in Singapore: Night Safari. This is the Singapore Zoo's attraction that some industry insiders say heavily influenced Kilimanjaro Safaris at Disney's Animal Kingdom.
I'm trying to make Singapore sound accessible to Americans who, like me, hadn't visited Asia before and might be put off by the thought. Your biggest expense will be the flight. I found western-style hotel rooms readily available during Chinese New Year (one of the busiest tourist seasons of the year) for S$150-200 a night (US$115-154) - relatively cheap for a major city in the high season. Restaurant prices were 10%-30% percent less than comparable prices in LA, once you figure in the exchange rate. (Western chain prices, though, were about the same as in the U.S. once you figure the exchange rate.) And the one-day ticket prices for Universal Studios will run between S$32-72 (US$25-55), with adults visiting on weekends paying the high end and seniors visiting during the week paying the lowest price.
That said, there certainly travel veterans out there who dismiss Singapore as too western, and too "easy" a location. Asia for Beginners, they sneer.
Well, beginners have to start somewhere, or else they'll never try anything new. Sure, Singapore's filled with western-style amenities. But it's still Singapore, located on the other side of the planet from the United States. You'll get a stamp in your passport, sit with people who speak other languages (in addition to Singapore's official English, mind you), and gain the confidence that you can take and enjoy a trip beyond your native nation's borders.
Would I go again? Heck, yeah. I want to see Night Safari and Universal Studios in full operation. I want to pace myself better with the food, and see some of the rainforest beyond the city center.
Of course, now that I've seen that Asia is an accessible vacation destination (with planning and saving ahead, of course), all those theme parks in Japan seem pretty enticing, too. And I hear there's a bunch of new roller coasters going up in China.... Maybe I'll just have to plan several more trips!