Green peace in Singapore
In quest of botanic gardens, blooming orchids and futuristic flower domes
IN the hilarious and gripping book Orchid Fever by Eric Hansen, the author opens by describing the distinctive sight and sound of a plant hunter plunging from the Borneo rainforest canopy after being bitten by a viper during a hazardous search for rare blooms.
There are few discomforts, Hansen soon discovers, an orchid obsessive won’t endure in the quest for a new or rare plant. But intrepid green thumbs can leave their climbing gear at home when visiting the verdant Singapore Botanic Gardens. Locating rare orchids here is a doddle.
The humidity may be as cloying as that of the Borneo jungle (in retrospect, towelling underwear would have been handy on my visit) and specimens must of course be left in situ and not stuffed into pockets, but that’s a small price to pay for enjoying the world’s largest and most ravishing display of tropical orchids.
More than the lion or the chilli crab, the orchid is the symbol many of us most readily associate with Singapore ( the national flower Vanda Miss Joaquim being a rather splendid example).
From Changi airport and shopping malls to hotel lobbies and the lavatories at upscale restaurants, the city-state is festooned with the delicate flowers, so it is hardly surprising that late last year Singapore hosted the World Orchid Conference.
To say this event
riot of colour is to say George Clooney is not bad looking. The event coincided with my visit and there were colours I have never imagined and blooms arrayed in such extravagant profusion that surely orchid enthusiasts wouldn’t have known what to climb first.
Conference visitors were also treated to a sneak peek at Singapore’s newest drawcard, Gardens by the Bay. The green-themed attraction is opening in phases, with Bay South, its layout inspired by the structure of an orchid, scheduled to open in June.
The soaring Flower Dome, an enormous cooled conservatory housing plants from South Africa, central Chile, southwest Australia and the Mediterranean basin (together with a smaller conservatory that will contain a cloud forest) forms just one part of the 101ha waterfront development next to the striking Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino complex.
Most arresting are the energygenerating living towers or ‘‘supertrees’’, soaring up to 50m, fitted with photovoltaic cells and festooned with vertical plantings of bromeliads and epiphytes ( aerial walkways and a treetop bistro are in the offing).
Clever and fun, these futuristic structures are emblematic of a resurgent Singapore where recent casino development is luring tourists in huge numbers.
The long- established 74ha botanic gardens, by contrast, hark back to a cosier colonial era and remain a place of repose and contemplation for work-obsessed Singaporeans, who can be found picnicking on the baize- green lawns or snoozing beneath the trees on weekends. Green is the unifying colour here, as it is else- where in the city — restive, stippled, variegated. Dense stands of bamboo, towering trees and tumbling waterfalls provide a cooling note, with only the occasional flutter of a tiny crimson honeyeater to animate the sea-green shade.
There’s a very good restaurant (serving lunch and dinner) tucked away in the Ginger Garden and the nearby dangling heliconias and tiny anthuriums serve as curtain- raisers for the show- stopping 3ha National Orchid Garden, which contains more than 1000 species and 2000 hybrids, some named for VIPS, including Hong Kong actor Jackie Chan and Bollywood heart-throb Shah Rukh Khan. The latter, according to The Straits Times, caused quite a stir when he turned up to be presented with his fiery red-orange orchid. Fans were told to behave themselves.
Back in the cool of the elegant Fullerton Bay Hotel on Collyer Quay, butter-yellow orchids, displayed in small vases, strike a more restrained note, in keeping with this elegant waterfront property’s glam decor. Sister property to the nearby Fullerton Hotel but smaller (with just 100 guestrooms), the Fullerton Bay Hotel is cantilevered over the water and the ground-floor guestrooms, with their large balconies, give the feel of being aboard a great liner setting sail for the surreal towers of Marina Bay Sands.
Soaring proportions and art deco detailing capture the elegance of the golden age of travel, a theme carried through to the Andre Fu-designed guestrooms, where rosewood, leather and chrome are augmented by 21stcentury accoutrements such as a Nespresso machine and a telly above the tub in the limestone and marble bathroom.
The hotel is linked to Clifford Pier by a long bar where afternoon tea is so popular on weekends, you’ll need to book. In the impressive Clifford restaurant, with its 10m-tall floor-to-ceiling windows, voluptuous drapes and oak floors, the mood is French chateau and the food, under Aussie chef Tal Surmon, is classic brasserie. Think lobster carpaccio, whole roasted chicken with truffled frites and an excellent tarte tatin.
The piece de resistance, however, is the hotel’s rooftop pool and bar. During the day I head up early to nab a comfy deckchair with its feet planted in the water on the pool’s edge (out pops a steward from behind a potted frangipani bearing chilled drinks and towels); after dark the fashionable Lantern Bar is the perfect spot for a mojito while watching the nightly laser
show play over Marina Bay Sands.
Although open for less than two years, Fullerton Bay Hotel’s elegant residential vibe (the excellent staff not only remember your name but everyone seems to have a handle on your schedule) has made this a popular bolthole for business travellers and holidaymakers alike. And it makes the perfect base for exploring the new Gardens by the Bay precinct.
That Singapore is a green city is no accident; it’s been government policy for five decades, with the aim, Singapore statesman Lee Kuan Yew has said, ‘ ‘ not of a garden city but a city in a garden’’.
The new Gardens by the Bay project underscores this forwardthinking urban planning, yet Singapore’s existing gardens, parks and tree- lined streets already contribute to an overall geniality that makes this desti- nation, only six to eight hours by air from most Australian ports, perfect for a long weekend or a stopover.
It is easy to get around (taxis are cheap and drivers unfailingly polite), there are as many designer shops as trees, the arts scene is vibrant (don’t miss the Singapore Art Museum located in a 19thcentury former mission school) and the food is, well, just fantastic.
Strict hygiene laws mean you need not fear tucking into hawker fare, which is cheap as chips. Lau Pa Sat, at the junction of Robinson Road and Boon Tat Street, is within walking distance of the Fullerton Bay Hotel and is the most picturesque of the food halls, sheltered beneath a cast- iron Victorian canopy.
At the other end of the spectrum you’ll find celeb chef salons, including our own Tetsuya Wakuda gracing the Marina Bay Sands complex.
Delectable dim sum: Head to One on the Bund, next door to Fullerton Bay Hotel, where Hong Kong restaurateurs have transformed the historic Clifford Pier into an open-plan restaurant kitted out with antique furniture and an apple wood-fired Peking duck oven. It’s a popular party pad ( Louis Vuitton celebrated the launch of its new maison here) and the dim sum is very good.
Authentic Peranakan: Look for edible orchids at this Singapore favourite, True Blue Cuisine, which does seem an oddly Aussie name for a Peranakan restaurant in an old house on a quiet street that is also home to Singapore’s Peranakan Museum.
But there can be no doubt about its authenticity. The ground floor of the Armenian Street premises has a chim chae, or airwell, typical of Peranakan homes and is decorated liberally with birdcages, tiny orchids and old fam- ily portraits. Service is swift (last orders 9pm) and I recommend the banana flower salad, prawns doused in fried curry leaves, a delicious beef rendang and the speciality of the house, ayam buah keluak (chicken stewed with black nuts). This curious-looking nut, which grows wild in Indonesia and Malaysia, is ambrosia to the Peranakans but it’s a hard-won delicacy. Buried in layers of ash, banana leaves and earth for 40 days to remove any poisons, the kernels must then be dug out, soaked overnight and pounded with secret spices.
The trick is to scoop the flesh out of the nut, mix it with rice and then eat it with the very tender chicken.
Peerless Peking duck: If your taxi driver can find it on Rochester Park (off Dover Close), Min Jiang @One-north, housed in an old black and white bungalow in a leafy residential area, is the ideal place for Peking duck. Nab a table on the deck with views into the garden and tuck into one of chef Goh’s farm-fresh local ducks at $S45 ($34) a half or $S90 whole, stuffed with herbs and spices and roasted over apple wood in a custom-made oven.
The bird is expertly carved and served at the table, starting with slivers of the crispest skin (served with sugar), then pancakes with sliced leeks, cucumbers and sweet sauce or a garlic paste with radish and tientsin cabbage. The remainder of the duck returns as ‘‘second serving’’, shredded and stir-fried, or minced with spices and served in a lettuce wrap, or diced with fried rice or noodles, or popped into a soup with home-made tofu.
Perfect pepper crab: I far prefer pepper to chilli crab and one of the best places to tuck in is Jumbo at the East Coast Seafood Centre (on the East Coast Parkway midway between the city and airport). Grab an al fresco table at the front of the vast and bustling forecourt and get stuck in, while admiring the twinkling lights of container ships anchored in the Straits of Singapore. Christine Mccabe was a guest of the Fullerton Bay Hotel.
Clockwise from main picture, the verdant Singapore Botanic Gardens, orchids in bloom, the inviting rooftop jacuzzi at Fullerton Bay Hotel, and ‘supertrees’ at Gardens by the Bay