The exclusive Seven Palms residential development.

The exclusive Seven Palms residential development.

Robert Upe visits Sentosa Island, the family resort with a luxury appeal that also brings in the wealthy high-flyers.

It's not often a shiny, new, black Mercedes-Benz is upstaged, but that's the case at the One Degree 15 yacht club on Singapore's tiny Sentosa Island.

There's also a Porsche Cayenne conspicuous in the circular driveway, but all the attention from the men in polo shirts and chinos is on an orange Ferrari, its engine purring and its side doors open and up like the extended wings of a butterfly.

There's purring on the water, too, where a chic Gucci speedboat is warming up for a run into the South China Sea. This nautical Italian beauty has a white hull topped by a mahogany fibreglass deck and is sold only on a made-to-order basis. If you need to ask the price, you can't afford one.

As flash as it is, the Gucci Aquariva is overshadowed by more extravagant motor cruisers that bob in the marina at Sentosa Cove, a posh new enclave of apartments and houses, many along Gold Coast-style canals and others fringing a world-class golf course that will host the $US6 million ($5.78 million) Barclays Singapore Open on November 8.

Mining magnate and Fairfax shareholder Gina Rinehart is reported to have bought two units at Sentosa Cove's Seven Palms condominium project for $S57 million ($45 million) this year. The beachfront units, to be completed, are next to the golf course and will be set on sprawling grounds that will include a 44-metre infinity pool and a coconut grove that leads to a beach club with a glass-walled gymnasium and open-air lounge.

Much of the development at the rapidly emerging Sentosa Cove has been fuelled by Indonesian and Chinese investors, because it is the only part of Singapore where foreigners can buy property. Tax advantages are another incentive.

A notable recent addition on this moneyed part of the island is the trendy, urban-style, 240-room W hotel, which opened last month and has beach bars and views over the marina. The hotel has four "wow" suites that include hot tubs and decks with plunge pools. Restaurants and a shopping precinct will open near the hotel before the end of year.

Many of the $S10 million-plus properties at Sentosa Cove are in gated communities, and when I try to get a closer look I am U-turned by guards at the boom gates.

But even if you can't get to the homes of the wealthy, you can rub shoulders with them at Sentosa Golf Club, where an 18-hole weekend round for non-members costs about $S500, including clubs and buggy. Caddies are on standby, but they are extra.

The two courses, Serapong and Tanjong, have rolling hills, near-impenetrable bunkers, heartbreaking water traps and sea views.

There are also war ruins beside the fairways, such as a decaying concrete watchtower that is being reclaimed by vines and vegetation. It is here the British prepared their defence for the approaching Japanese in World War II, but while the Brits looked out to sea, they were taken by surprise as the Japanese rolled over the hills behind them on bicycles.

As I whiz through the Serapong course, nicknamed "the beast", my buggy driver points out a golfer whom he says is the president of one of the world's leading credit card companies. I'm also told membership of the golf club is a who's who of Singapore society.

Among this emerging lustre, the 500-hectare Sentosa Island retains a green edge, with tropical gardens and jungle covering 60 per cent of the landscape. The island has just celebrated its 40th anniversary as a leisure destination aimed mainly at families.

The chief executive officer of Sentosa Development Corporation, Mike Barclay, says the island has 200 commercial enterprises offering dining, entertainment and accommodation, as well as the residential development at Sentosa Cove, which has 5000 residents.

About 19 million visitors are expected on the island this year, which, according to a Sentosa spokesman, is more people than will visit Disneyland in the US. Key among the entertainment providers is Resorts World Sentosa, a so-called integrated resort that includes Singapore's first casino, a Universal Studios movie theme park, the newly opened ESPA spa, restaurants by some of the world's top chefs and six hotels.

The $S7 billion, 49-hectare integrated resort has provided impetus for other family-style developments, particularly along the island's beach area, and a sharp increase in tourism since it started rolling out its inventory of attractions, beginning in 2010 with the casino and theme park. The final piece to be unveiled by Resorts World is the somewhat controversial Marine Life Park, due to open on December 7 with fireworks and a performance by Sarah Brightman. Resorts World says the park, which includes water slides and snorkelling experiences, will be the world's largest oceanarium, with 100,000 marine animals and 60 million litres of water. However, it has drawn criticism from conservationists and animal groups upset by the capture of 27 wild dolphins, some of which have died.

Recent openings at Resorts World include the Equarius Hotel and luxurious beach villas with private plunge pools and butlers. I'm bedded down at Capella Singapore Resort, which considers itself a rival to Raffles in Singapore city.

Capella is a tasteful fusion of whitewashed British colonial-era buildings and modern accommodation blended into 12 hectares of jungle-like gardens with views over the South China Sea. It has frangipani-fringed infinity pools, big ceiling fans, polished timber floors, the Cuban-style Bob's Bar and fine Cantonese dining at the Cassia restaurant.

The service is attentive, with doormen and wait staff pouncing upon you in quick time. The rooms are high-tech, including free wi-fi and remote-controlled curtains and blinds. Accommodation styles range from oversized rooms (77 square metres) to secluded manor houses, where Lady Gaga stayed a few months ago.

Access from the Capella grounds to the Tanjong, Siloso and Palawan beaches is along a path through tropical gardens. The beach strip is packed with family attractions such as luge rides, a wave-riding pool, indoor skydiving and an islet, with two lookout towers, that is the southern-most part of continental Asia.

A sturdy but wobbly swing bridge connects from Palawan beach to the islet that looks like a perfect-world Gilligan's Island, with clusters of palms and neat pathways. However, when I get there, at 7am, I find only two lovers. Nearby are piles of discarded Red Bull cans and Jaegermeister bottles, evidence that Sentosa Island also draws a youth crowd.

That the multifaceted island has an identity crisis is an understatement.

Footnote: I ask about the cost of the Gucci Aquariva and discover only 10 have been made in the world. They are $980,000, which would be small change to Gina.

FAST FACTS

Getting there Singapore Airlines has a fare to Singapore for about $920 low season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax. It is a non-stop flight taking 7hr 35min from Melbourne and 8hr 5min from Sydney.

- Sentosa Island is between 25 minutes and 45 minutes by road from Changi Airport (depending on traffic) and about $S30 ($24) for a taxi fare. The island is connected to Singapore city by a 700-metre bridge, or you can travel via a footbridge, cable car or monorail.

Staying there Capella Singapore is one of 14 hotels on Sentosa Island, ranging from five-star to family-style. Capella has garden rooms from $S770 a night. See capellasingapore.com.

8 reasons to go to Sentosa

1. Tanjong Beach Club has a restaurant, outdoor bar, swimming pool, shaded cabanas, beach umbrellas and deck chairs among the palm trees opposite a  lagoon. Tranquil by day, a happening fleshpot scene at night, including events like fire shows, Samba dancers and full moon parties. 1960’s retro-style luxe. See tanjongbeachclub.com.

2. Dine at the restaurants of celebrity chefs: Susur Lee’s Chinois, the Joel Robuchon Restaurant, Sam Leong’s Forest and Australian Scott Webster’s Osier. Rumors are rife that Michelin Guide judges have been combing Singapore, if so they will be taking a close look at this lot.

3. Sentosa Golf Club is open to non members (limited tee times available) and is listed among Asia’s top 10 elite courses by Forbes Travel Guide. See sentosagolf.com.

4. Universal Studios movie theme park has rides, shows and parades. Many of the rides are unique to Singapore. See rwsentosa.com.

5. The iFly attraction has indoor skydiving in a five-storey wind tunnel. Spread-eagled like a parachutist, you are pushed up into the air by the wind. Sentosa Island also has zip lines and luge rides for thrill seekers See iflysingapore.com.

6. Chill out at ESPA, a spa oasis that opened in July and is set among tropical gardens and ponds. Includes sleep rooms, hot onsen pools, luxury spa villas and a range of facial and massage treatments as well as Singapore’s first Turkish hammam bathhouse complete with a domed ceiling. See rwsentosa.com.

7. Surf the curl in two pools, choosing between smooth waves or barrels. See wavehousesentosa.com.

8. Party for 12 hours on Siloso Beach on New Year’s Eve at what is billed as Asia’s largest beach party with live music and foam pools from 6pm to 6am. See silosobeachparty.com.

Robert Upe travelled courtesy of Singapore Airlines and the Singapore Tourism Board