More than just a stopover
Mass appeal ... Singapore's Universal Studios. Photo: Getty Images
It may not be on every one's radar as a family-friendly destination, but it should be, writes Alana House.
When I ask families about their holiday plans, they list the usual suspects: Bali, Fiji, Queensland, New Zealand ... Singapore rarely rates a mention, except as a brief stopover on the way to Europe. I don't get it - Singapore is kid heaven. A stopover barely scratches the surface. Even a week means you'll miss stuff. Good stuff.
Even a week means you'll miss stuff. Good stuff.
This tiny island, comprising less than 700 square kilometres, has worked hard to maximise its tourist appeal. There's a zoo, an aquarium, a bird park, a theme park, a mammoth Ferris wheel, heaps of multicultural experiences, cheap markets and delicious food at every price point.
A shopkeeper in Little India. Photo: Alamy
But I reckon the average Australian just thinks "Singapore equals shopping". Well, guess what? You can stay a whole week and not darken a single shop's door (OK, maybe a few gift shops, which are unavoidable with kids).
With a five-year-old and seven-year-old, we took a two-pronged approach to our stay: two nights at a budget hotel and five nights of luxury on the resort island of Sentosa.
We were drawn to the budget hotel - the Ibis on Bencoolen Street - by its location, near colourful Little India, steps from Bugis Junction with its lively markets and convenient train station (car hire isn't recommended for tourists, due to complex toll requirements in Singapore). Best of all, it was next to the apartment complex my husband and I lived in during an expat stint before kids.
Flamingos at Jurong Bird Park. Photo: Alamy
Back on our old stamping ground, we headed straight across the road to our favourite local restaurant, Fatty's, for beef kway teow, Indonesian prawns and roast chicken. Just as delicious and cheap as we remembered.
Next morning, we walked in the cool morning air to Little India, where we'd promised the kids a lunch of bread puffed up like footballs - called bhatura. But first, a little culture, wandering through the colourful stalls selling everything from flower garlands to bedazzled boxes, past shops filled with so much yellow-gold jewellery it made our eyes hurt, on our way to the Sri Veeramakaliamman temple. The impressive facade of the temple is completely covered with colourful carved figures, including Ganesh and other Hindu deities. Inside, families settle on the floor to pray, talk or even eat meals together, which they kindly offered to share with us. But the kids had football bread on the brain, so we backtracked to Komala Vilas Restaurant, on Serangoon Road, for bhatura with chickpea curry, and potato-filled dosai.
After lunch we jumped in a cab to the Peranakan Museum, in Armenian Street, for a different taste of Singaporean culture. The Peranakan culture was born from intermarriage between local women and Chinese traders who settled in Singapore. The Peranakans are great cooks, so keep an eye on local menus for dishes such as otak-otak (spicy fish paste in banana leaves) and Nonya chicken curry. The museum gives kids a coloured paper wheel to take with them as they tour the exhibits, with metal presses along the way to punch onto their wheel. There's also a crafty room, where our kids made their own Chinese lanterns, an unexpected 90-minute detour but a huge hit (though tricky to pack).
The next morning we grabbed another cab, this time to Singapore Zoo, which is guaranteed to blow tiny minds with its lack of obvious fencing between much of the wildlife and visitors. The orang-utans lounging above your head as you exit the zoo are a particular highlight. Take cossies so the kids can cool off in the water-play area, with its giant, raised bucket that slowly fills then dumps its contents over the squealing hordes.
No visit to Singapore would be complete without a hawker centre dinner. These large, covered areas are filled with food stalls cooking everything from barbecued prawns to stir-fried noodles and curries. We made our way to Newton Circus one evening to feast on a pile of tasty barbecued chicken wings. The kids are roti fanatics, so we grabbed them a pile with a bowl of curry sauce for dipping.
Part two of our Singapore holiday takes place in a vastly different setting. Resorts World Sentosa is all marble and expansive swimming pools, surrounded by a Vegas-style casino, fountains and restaurants. We stay at the Festive Hotel, in a room with a ladder and bunk bed that becomes the kids' instant home. Guests have access to all three hotel pools in the complex, with the kids' favourite being at the Hard Rock Hotel. The main pool has a beach, created with white sand that's been shipped from Western Australia. It's surrounded by a series of bridges and rock pools that delight them for hours. Any desire to do more sightseeing evaporates. But we hustle them out of the pool to visit the Jurong Bird Park. It's filled with elegant, tangerine-tinged flamingoes on impossibly thin legs, rainbow-hued macaws and dramatic hawks. There's a lorikeet enclosure where the kids can feed the birds for hours, and a monorail to ferry you between attractions (worth considering as the humidity is intense). Make sure to take in a few of the daily shows, for an entertaining look at some of the birds' talents, such as a parrot that sings: "Happy birthday to you!"
A final attraction that entices our kids out of the pool is the Universal Studios theme park. It helps that it's only 200 metres from our hotel. The five-year-old loves the Shrek 4D show so much she watches it twice. The seven-year-old is so hooked on the terrifying Battlestar Galactica roller coaster that she braves it eight times in a row. After dark, the kid-pleaser at Resorts World is a Cirque du Soleil-style show called La Vie en Voyage, crammed with amazing magic tricks and acrobatics that completely captivate them (and us).
There's also amazing food to be had within the hotel complex if your budget allows. One night we dine on exquisite Indian food at Rang Mahal at the Hard Rock Hotel (about $25 for a main). But if you're looking to conserve your cash, hop on the nearby monorail and head to the Food Republic food court, only two minutes away at the Vivo City shopping centre. The most expensive dishes are only about $6.
Vivo City also hits the spot if you just can't leave Singapore without a poke around the shops. It has Zara, Gap, Warehouse and Topshop, plus curious little stores where people hire glass display cabinets to sell their eclectic goods.
If we'd had a little more time, I'd have loved to lose myself in the maze of stores on Orchard Road. A wander around the streets and markets of Chinatown would have been fun, too. And a visit to East Coast Seafood Centre for chilli crab and sweet buns. But seven days just wasn't enough. Maybe next time.
The writer was a guest of Festive Hotel and Universal Studios.
IBIS Hotel has standard queen rooms from about $125 a night. 170 Bencoolen Street, Singapore. 65 6593 2888, ibishotel.com.
Festive Hotel has deluxe family rooms from about $460 a night. 39 Artillery Avenue, Sentosa Island, 65 6577 8899, rwsentosa.com.
See + do
Universal Studios, on Sentosa Island, offers non-peak day passes from $S68 adults ($54) and $S50 children. rwsentosa.com.
Singapore Zoo, 80 Mandai Lake Road, Singapore. Admission from $S20 adults, $S13 children. 65 6269 3411, zoo.com.sg.
Jurong Bird Park, 2 Jurong Hill, Singapore. Entry $S18/$S12. birdpark.sg.
Peranakan Museum, 39 Armenian Street, Singapore. Entry $S6/$S3.