Singapore of old weaves its spell

High tea at Raffles is a quintessential Singapore experience. Picture: Wendy Barrett

Wendy Barrett indulges in nostalgia and new things back in the Lion City.

The first time I visited Singapore was as a 10-year-old in the 1970s, a time when even a visit to Perth from our farm in the Wheatbelt was exciting. So it was no surprise that the lush, exotic tropical island blew my mind, leaving an indelible and magical impression.

In the intervening years I returned only once — and briefly — on a stopover en route to London in 2000. I’d felt a little bereft on that visit to discover Singapore was now a very different country to that of my childhood memory. While still a beautiful and fascinating place, a great deal of change and development had occurred, which had involved the disappearance of many old buildings and streets. But I was already coming to learn that while we may get the opportunity to revisit a place, we can never revisit a time. And it is in the cracks of time itself where the magic resides.

Now I was visiting Singapore for a third time. On this occasion I was accompanied by my youngest daughter. We were staying seven nights to celebrate her 17th birthday and the end of her school years. Researching accommodation, we’d found it harder than expected to find hotels with lobbies and pool areas awash in tropical ambience. Obviously time had continued to march on even from 2000 and I had forgotten that minimalist style had since conquered the world.

But in the end we found what we were looking for. We decided to split our accommodation and booked the first four nights at the Holiday Inn Orchard City Centre and the remaining three at the Shangri-La on Sentosa Island. Both of these places felt quintessentially Singaporean and ended up surpassing our expectations.

The Holiday Inn was luxurious and well-appointed with friendly, attentive staff and perfectly located within the Orchard Road shopping hub. It was also well placed to access transport to the heritage and natural beauty spots that we were keen to visit.

The nature lover in me was able to find enchantment amid the hectic pre-Christmas shopping crowds on Orchard Road. The street was lined with tall, beautiful trees, full of unseen birds that trilled and chirped so loudly they practically drowned out the traffic. The long street was lit up with the most spectacular Christmas lights and decorations I’ve ever seen and the place hummed with life and atmosphere well into the evenings.

We were closer than we thought to the heritage areas. Hidden right in the midst of the high-rise shopping street was Emerald Hill Terrace and it took merely stepping away from the busy throng of Orchard Road into a narrow thoroughfare to access the heritage precinct. Going from the hectic pace of a modern shopping area into a slice of old Singapore felt a little like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia. The precinct was barely more than just one street, but what a street.

I’d ticked high tea at Raffles Hotel off my bucket list in 2000 but realised it was on the wrong list in the first place — it should have been filed under “indulge at every opportunity”. I’ve always maintained that to take tea at Raffles is reason enough to visit Singapore and after my second experience I stand by that statement.

Here was colonial heritage and tropical opulence at its most magnificent. After our deluxe and delicious high tea (pre-booked from Australia) we roamed the gardens and cool terraces for hours. I was definitely able to find the childhood magic hidden in the cracks here.

More lovely memories flooded in with visits to Chinatown and the Botanic Gardens, where we could have happily spent the entire day. We had another fix of tropical lushness at the zoo, where we breakfasted with the orang-utans as part of a jungle experience.

Singapore in general was a delight for a plant lover like myself. It was common to find concrete overpasses on freeways practically hidden by the foliage of vines and creepers and there were flowering hedges lining the roads. From main roads to side streets, verges and median strips were all beautifully landscaped and rigorously maintained. Canopies of green were to be found even in the busiest parts of the city.

We spent the last few days of our stay on Sentosa Island at the Shangri-La Rasa Resort & Spa. It was the typically exotic tropical resort, with dreamy views and opulent swimming pools in the most picturesque of settings. The resort was within easy access of the theme parks and shops but we felt hidden away in a verdant paradise, right on the ocean, cocooned in a dense green belt. We also enjoyed walks along the palm-fringed beach with its many eateries.

There were regular shuttle buses to the mainland and around the island. Every comfort was catered for at the resort and the food, setting, attentive staff — everything — was faultless.

My daughter and I agreed it was all very grand and opulent but without sacrificing that (essential) human scale.

This visit may have been quite different to my first, but it still felt beautifully Singapore.

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