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January 1, 2006

GOING TO
Singapore

by JENNIFER GAMPELL

WHY GO NOW Since declaring its independence from Malaysia in 1965, Singapore has been in a nearly perpetual state of change. Everywhere, signs politely apologizing for any inconvenience caused by construction and restoration projects are as ubiquitous as the new shopping plazas, hotels and nightspots that are cropping up all over the city.

The hypermethodical Singaporean government is working hard to rebrand the city-state's staid image. "We want Singapore to have the X-factor, that buzz that you get in London, Paris or New York," said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong when he announced a controversial plan to build two casino complexes in 2009.

That "x-factor" may already be in play. Soon after licensing hours were extended to 3 a.m. in 2003 (and nonstop in designated areas), eclectic clubs and bars started appearing. Recently, funky plastic podlike seating areas along the waterfront revitalized the once moribund Clarke Quay. Ministry of Sound, the mother of London rave clubs, is scheduled to open on the quay soon (www.ministryofsound.com.sg). It will join a retro Parisian topless revue called Crazy Horse (www.crazyhorseparis.com.sg) that seems bizarrely out of sync with its hipper riverside neighbors.

The changes seem to be luring travelers, particularly those who once went to Bangkok for a party scene. Now that Thai nightlife shuts down at 1 a.m., revelers from Bangkok - and elsewhere - hop over to the Lion City, as Singapore is known, on one of the new regional budget airlines, like Tiger Airways.

Visitors may miss the chaotic vibrancy of Hong Kong or Bangkok, but Singapore's green spaces, clean air and yes, even its trademark functionality, can be a refreshing change from other regional capitals. In desperately seeking its buzz, Singapore has become a surprisingly lively destination.

WHERE TO STAY Just over a year ago, the Oriental, 5 Raffles Avenue, Marina Square; (65) 6338-0066; www.mandarinoriental.com, unveiled its multimillion-dollar refurbishment. All 527 luxurious guest rooms were restyled with pan-Asian Zen touches and the de rigueur glass pane separating bedroom and bath, and new chefs were hired. Fortunately, the circa 1987 towering fan-shaped atrium and the spectacular service weren't touched. In Singapore dollars (used here except where specified), rooms range from $279 to $349 (roughly $171 to $214, at 1.7 local dollars to the U.S. dollar), including a copious multinational breakfast buffet at the stylish Melt restaurant.

The Sentosa Resort and Spa, 2 Bukit Manis; (65) 6257-0331; www.thesentosa.com, is an unexpected low-rise treat just 10 to 15 minutes from the center of a city renowned for tall glass and concrete structures. Set on a lush knoll overlooking the South China Sea on Sentosa Island, the 210 high-ceilinged rooms (undergoing much-needed refurbishment) look out onto tropical gardens complete with strolling peacocks. Romantic couples and families predominate. Internet sites offer big discounts on the published rates of $380 to $600.

The mid-range 630-room Carlton Hotel, 76 Bras Basah; (65) 6338-8333; www.carlton.com.sg, has reliable service, well-maintained rooms and a central location. Within walking distance or a short taxi ride are the Raffles Hotel, the Esplanade, the Suntec City convention center, the Funan IT mall and the Singapore Art Museum. Doubles start at $168.

Low-priced accommodation in Singapore once meant scuzzy backpacker dives. Now $85 buys a superior single room ($125 for a queen double) and an American breakfast at the Royal Peacock, 55 Keong Saik Road; (65) 6223-3522; www.royalpeacockhotel.com. The row of 10 converted shophouses in a former Chinatown red-light district has 79 rooms that are small but, very unusual for Singapore, offer free broadband access.

WHERE TO EAT The Venetian chef Oscar Pasinato prepares only 26 dinners nightly (Tuesday through Saturday) at his unpretentious Buko Nero, 126 Tanjong Pagar Road, (65) 6324-6225. Devoted fans book weeks ahead to enjoy his nuanced amalgams of Italian and Asian cuisine in the small, sparsely decorated white space. The perfectly spiced curried pumpkin and crab meat soup on the five-course set menu ($32) tempts you to scoop the last drop with your finger. The few carefully conceived à la carte items and the wine list are equally affordable. Closed Sunday and Monday.

The new Makansutra Gluttons Bay, (65) 6336-7025, www.makansutra.com, (it runs along the eastern perimeter of the Esplanade theater complex on Raffles Avenue) is a miniversion of the ubiquitous hawker centers without the claustrophobic cacophony. Dine al fresco on affordable street food - fried oyster omelets for $5 to $8, 10 sticks of satay for $6 - while gazing across the river at the spectacular views. Open 5 p.m. to midnight, and to 3 a.m. on weekends.

At the unpretentious Sin Hoi Sai, Block 55, Tiong Bahru Road 01-59; (65) 6223-0810, fresh seafood flown in daily from around the world includes kiwi clams (sautéed in XO cognac for $18 each) and wok-fried prawns smothered in curried crispy cereal. Or try the spareribs coated in thick coffee-flavored sauce. Locals top off their meals with a dessert of aloe vera chunks floating in crushed ice and barely sweetened water ($6).

WHAT TO DO DURING THE DAY Confronted with so many shopping opportunities, visitors often ignore Singapore's cultural offerings. Southeast Asian culture and history are highlighted at the Asian Civilizations Museum, 1 Empress Place; (65) 6332-7798; www.nhb.gov.sg/acm. Visiting exhibitions complement the state-of-the-art permanent displays of Chinese, South Indian and Islamic heritage. General admission, $8.

The small collection of works by contemporary Southeast Asian artists at the Singapore Art Museum, 71 Bras Basah; www.singart.com; (65) 6332-3222, is more comprehensive than anywhere else in the region and worth a brief visit. Admission, $3.

Shermay Lee quit her day job as an investment banker to carry on her grandmother's traditions at Shermay's Cooking School, Chip Bee Gardens, Block 43, Jalan Merah Saga 03-64; (65) 6479-8442; www.shermay.com. She teaches the basics of Peranakan cuisine, the food of the early Chinese immigrants, and invites top chefs to lead other classes. Classes start at $50.

Along with tips on shopping, eating and nightlife, the Singapore City Scoops, www.cityscoops.com, highlights zany escapes from the city. It is $25 at bookstores.

WHAT TO DO AT NIGHT In concept-conscious Singapore, architectural novelty really counts. Opium den meets exposed concrete and Chinese antiques at the upmarket pool parlor Baize, Block 3E, River Valley Road Clarke Quay; (65) 6339-0280; www.baize.com.sg. Separating the two glass-enclosed pool spaces on either end of this 7,500-square-foot former warehouse is the atmospheric China One bar, where a hip crowd grooves to the D.J.'s eclectic mix spanning the last 30 years. Pool is $12 an hour and drinks are $12 to $18.

Alley Bar, 2 Emerald Hill, (65) 6738-8818, is another trendy conversion, this time of an L-shaped space between two heritage buildings. Set under a high opaque roof, the place has a long terrazzo bar leading to a large gilt-edged mirror.

The very see-and-be-seen Post Bar, (65) 6877-8135, a swanky watering hole at the Fullerton Hotel, 1 Fullerton Square, www.fullertonhotel.com, was the mail room of the former general post office. The original 1928 lofty ceiling remains but cream-colored couches and comfy chairs have replaced the mailbags.

WHERE TO SHOP Mustafa Center, 145 Syed Alwi Road; (65) 6295-5855; www.mustafa.com.sg, stands out among the overcrowded field of Singapore malls for more than being open 24/7. Crammed on six floors of this huge 1970's-style emporium in Little India is an eclectic array of competitively priced 21st-century products, including jewelry, cosmetics, clothing, electronics and housewares. The second-floor supermarket is fascinating for its range of western and Indian food items.

Savvy residents advise researching your electronics needs at the aggressive downtown sales outlets, then taking a 10-minute taxi ride to Holland Village and make your purchase at Parisilk, No 15A Lorong Liput; (65) 6466-6002; www.parisilk.com. Prices are fixed but low, and this long-running family business stands behind its products.

HOW TO STAY WIRED Most major hotels, cafes and fast-food outlets offer wireless Internet. Connectivity comes at a price in mercantile-minded Singapore though. Look for red Wireless Surf Zone signs, where you can buy prepaid cards for around $30 for 100 minutes.

YES, FREE Singapore's passion for redevelopment is on display at the Urban Redevelopment Authority's fascinating URA Gallery, 45 Maxwell Road; (65) 6321-8321; www.ura.gov.sg/gallery. Even nonarchitectural types will appreciate the before and after shots of projects along with the futuristic model of the city in 2020. Closed Sunday.

But if city planning is really not your subject, relax at the marvelous Singapore Botanic Gardens, 1 Cluny Road; (65) 6471-7361; www.sbg.org.sg/index.asp, where every day from 5 a.m. to midnight, you can stroll among lush tropical gardens and a simulated rain forest. (There is a $5 charge to enter the National Orchid Garden.)

YOUR FIRST VISIT OR YOUR 10TH Compared to the Disneyland quality of parts of Chinatown, century-old Kampong Glam, a k a the Arab Quarter, retains its authenticity even while veering toward trendiness. Bussorah Street is dotted with a growing number of clothing and souvenir shops as well as unpretentious Muslim cafes. At night, the area springs to life, albeit sans alcohol, with an ever-expanding crop of cute restaurants serving sidewalk sheesha (tobacco water pipe) along with delicious Lebanese, Egyptian or Turkish fare. Everything stays open late - at least 3 or 4 a.m.

HOW TO GET THERE Many airlines fly from New York to Singapore, but only Singapore Airlines goes nonstop. A recent Web search for late-January flights found cheaper one-stop fares, beginning at $993 U.S. Inter-Asian budget carriers like Air Asia (www.airasia.com), Tiger Airways (www.tigerairways.com) and Value Air (www.valuair.com.sg) are vying for the mantle of cheapest and most cheerful. Internet rates vary and the hefty fuel surcharges aren't included in the advertised fares. Recently, round trips between Bangkok and Singapore for the last weekend in January were the equivalent of $118 to $189 U.S.

GETTING AROUND Except for its sticky humidity, Singapore would be an ideal walking city. But there are extensive bus and mass transit systems, and the more convenient and inexpensive taxis from the airport to downtown rarely exceed $16.



Copyright 2006 New York Times/Jennifer Gampell