Green peace in Sin­ga­pore

In quest of botanic gar­dens, bloom­ing orchids and fu­tur­is­tic flower domes

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - CHRIS­TINE MCCABE

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

is a

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.

PIC­TURES: SIN­GA­PORE TOURISM BOARD (ABOVE AND BE­LOW RIGHT); AFP (BE­LOW LEFT)

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

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