Singapore, not just a stopover

There can’t be another hotel in the world that looks out on three countries. But from the SkyPark, 600ft up on the new Marina Bay Sands hotel in Singapore, you can see not just Singapore, but the skyline of Johor Baharu in Malaysia and across the Strait of Malacca to the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

It’s an arresting sight by any standard, but what really took me by surprise was how green so much of it looked. Not just the 60-odd outlying islands, many of them jungle-clad; nor the extravagant SkyPark itself, which is home to more than 900 species, including 250 types of tree; but also Singapore itself, verdant with public parks and bosky avenues.

And it stands to become yet greener. Next year, for example, the Botanic Gardens, where botanists from Kew first propagated the Brazilian rubber trees that spawned the industry on which much of Singapore’s wealth was based, will open a 250-acre extension on the reclaimed land that forms the eastern edge of Marina Bay, complete with two modern glasshouses.

For the moment, however, the only way to view this work-in-progress is from the SkyPark, itself the newest – and by some distance the strangest – green space to have opened in years. Shaped like a boat that’s run aground on the roofs of three 57-storey tower blocks, like a sort of glass-and-steel Stonehenge, it’s the length of three football pitches and has a swimming pool on its western perimeter that looks across the marina to the Central Business District.

Most of the park is accessible only to hotel guests, though there is a public observation deck, a 19-second elevator ride from the street. A better ruse, though, is to book a table on the terrace of one of the two restaurants up there: Ku dé Ta (pretty ordinary cooking, but the food is hardly the point), or Sky on 57, an about-to-open restaurant run by Singapore’s most celebrated chef, Justin Quek.

Built at a cost of £3.7 billion, the hotel has claims to be a wonder of the world, at least in terms of scale. When it’s finally fully open, there’ll be 10,000 staff, 21 restaurants and 2,561 bedrooms in 18 categories. There are also 10 immense art installations by the likes of Antony Gormley, Sol LeWitt and Ned Kahn, and an arcade featuring just about every major luxury brand (plus a canal along which you can cruise on flat-bottomed sampans). There is also a rather beautiful casino, the decision to permit it being one element of a broad initiative to boost Singapore’s appeal as a leisure destination.

But while Marina Bay Sands is an extraordinary architectural feat, I wouldn’t necessarily choose to stay there. Better to opt for the even newer Fullerton Bay Hotel, which opened just across the water in July. It has marvellous views of the SkyPark, as well as the armadillo-like Theatres on the Bay, but with just 105 very attractive, comfortable rooms, a fine restaurant and its own rooftop swimming pool, which is surrounded by luxuriant foliage and adjoins The Lantern, which is swiftly establishing itself as the most modish lounge bar in the city.

Like its sister hotel, The Fullerton, converted from the imposing neoclassical post office HQ built in 1928, the Fullerton Bay is part of Fullerton Heritage, a development of two hotels, galleries, shops and restaurants in a waterfront area that strives to make use of listed buildings.

The Fullerton Bay may be an unexceptional glass-and-steel newbuild, but it incorporates Clifford Pier, a huge hall spanned by a red corrugated-iron roof supported by fancy ribbon-like trusses, the place where many immigrants first set foot on the island. Now it houses a fashionable Chinese restaurant, One on the Bund.

And it’s flanked by Waterboat House, a marvellous example of nautical Art Deco, and Customs House, a low linear structure from the Sixties which, when it opens this year, will house Cuban, Japanese and Italian restaurants together with an oyster bar.

However, if Singapore is essentially a modern megalopolis, roaring as befits a Lion City (which is what singa pura means in Malay), where the economy is expected to have grown by 13 to 15 per cent in 2010, there are equally pockets that feel very ancient and untouched. The Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, for example, 400 acres of primeval rainforest bang in the centre of the city, remains home to 500 or so species of fauna, fabulous butterflies, pangolins and long-tailed macaques.

You can see monkeys and monitor lizards on Pulau Ubin as well, perhaps the most atmospheric of all the excursions that Singapore has to offer. Bicycling around this island in the Johor Strait (a 10-minute bumboat-ride from Changi Point), it feels as it must have done in colonial times: a place of rubber plantations, shrimp farms and stilt-houses.

Best of all, there are undeveloped sandy beaches lapped by unexpectedly clean water, just as there are on the islands of St John’s and Kusu, south of Marina Bay. In terms of atmosphere and pace, Ubin couldn’t be further from the energy and dynamism of downtown. Proof indeed that Singapore has far more to offer those on holiday than simply a place to change planes.