I am a planner. Always have been, always will be (thanks Mom!). I believe in being prepared and following a schedule. I love to make lists: grocery lists, to do lists. I even make lists of books I want to read or TV shows to find on Hulu. My handwritten planner rules my life, because there’s nothing like the feeling of physically crossing something off as finished!
This obsessive nature is present in every aspect of my life, including vacations. Hell, our honeymoon in Paris was organized down to the half-hour. (Not to worry, I’m not obsessive. I always make sure to schedule in “spontaneity!”)
So I was as surprised as anyone when I jumped on a flight for Singapore with only a few days’ notice. No plans, no tours, no schedules.
One of the wonderful benefits of being stationed abroad is traveling Space A, or “space available.” For those unfamiliar with this concept, military flights traveling around the world routinely have empty seats and active duty, spouses, and retirees may use the extra space for free. From Japan we can fly nearly anywhere.
Luckily, I have made fabulous friends here who have a similar yearning for adventure. So off we went, while the poor boys stayed at home! Just the five of us: three adventurous women, one adorable toddler, and the happiest baby you’ve ever met. With only a hotel booked, and no precise notion of when, exactly, we’d return, we let go the reigns and enjoyed the ride.
After an easy and very empty seven-hour flight, we landed at Paya Lebar Airport. Exhilarated by the ease and cost of our so-far-free voyage, out we walked, into the sunlight, ready for warm tropical breezes. Not thirty seconds later, as if on cue, we all said, “damn it’s hot!” Ninety-seven degrees sounds wonderful when you’re living without central heat in a non-insulated house, but it’s less pleasant in practice, especially when you’re wearing clothes appropriate for Japanese winter, carting heavy suitcases and small, sticky children, desperately waving your arms in the air in hopes of catching an elusive cab.
But, we were undeterred. (We would like to take this opportunity to thank the many kind strangers who helped us with our bags! As you can imagine, five girls means LOTS of luggage, no matter how last minute!) While catching a cab wasn’t exactly effortless and required a bit of harmless flirting, we eventually squeezed into one with kiddos and suitcases balanced on our laps in a true make-it-work moment.
Because the flight was free, we splurged on the hotel: the Marina Bay Sands. A world-famous resort, it’s a Singapore landmark. Ideally situated in the heart of an exclusive (expensive) shopping center, the hotel offers endless culinary delights (also expensive). Additionally, it sits atop its own MRT (mono-rail transit) station and offered absolutely stunning views of the harbor. Our room boasted a complete panorama of the waterfront, the iconic Merlion (head of a lion, body of a fish) directly across from us.
But what to do first?
Without a guidebook to consult – there just hadn’t been time to buy one – we found a substitute: TripAdvisor. And what did we discover? The number one thing to do in Singapore was literally located in our hotel: the Marina Bay Sands Skypark. “Check!” exclaimed the little voice inside my head. (I just couldn’t help myself!)
We took the elevator to the 57th floor and walked into heaven. The infinity pool appears to extend across the water suspended in thin air, thousands of feet above the ground. It offers fabulous tanning possibilities during the day and breathtaking views at night when Singapore truly comes alive. While the pool overlooks the harbor, the hot tubs on the other side offer glorious views of the ocean, crystal clear water dotted with red and yellow fishing boats. Tropical flora surrounds the sleek modern design – sheer perfection. If I were cooler, I might even say “off the chain.”
The pool and spa are highly exclusive, which sounds fabulous. You must have a hotel keycard even to enter. But, frankly, this made the entire process a bit too exclusive. Sadly, their zealous diligence made us feel almost as though we were trespassing, lessening the experience.
The Skypark includes an observation deck and swanky bar, where – for a mere $40 a glass – you can sip champagne and gaze into the distance. Or you can order a burger poolside and never leave your half-submerged chaise lounge. But that’ll be another $50 (fries not included), plus tax, tip, and service fee. Yes. We quickly discovered that at the Marina Bay Sands, the world is your oyster. You can have anything you want – with a pearl on top, should you wish. But it all comes with a hefty price tag and frankly, pretty wretched service. We were very disappointed and wouldn’t stay there again. Oh well! Live and learn!
We enjoyed our afternoon in the sun, looking and feeling like a million bucks, likely chump change to most of the guests! And that evening we dined at a fabulous French bistro, enjoying vastly overpriced bottles of wine. But the following morning, we ventured into the real Singapore to discover what this intriguing city actually had to offer.
Gardens. This city offers gardens. Not one, not five, not twenty. But hundreds of gardens! All of them stunning and none of them free (a common theme here!).
The most famous and, I must admit, the most fabulous, is Gardens by the Bay. Just a few hundred feet from the hotel, this nature park spans more than 250 acres. A total immersion, the wildlife encompasses you, a man-made rainforest in the heart of this metropolis. For only $4 (finally a bargain!), you can climb nearly 100 feet to the Skytree Grove, providing a breathtaking view of this oasis. Brilliantly colorful, the skytrees are wound metal structures towering above the gardens. Their enormous, alien-esque branches shadow the world below, providing much-needed shade from the glaring Singapore sun, and weave together to form a bridge. Walking amongst the trees, overgrown with exotic flowers and brilliantly green flora, the view is staggering.
But so is the heat. Reluctantly, we returned to the ground level, seeking shade and soon after – cover, as the thunderstorms set in. Disappointed in the weather, we soon learned that Singapore enjoys lovely afternoon thunderstorms. For 10 minutes to 3 hours a day, the steamy heat is subdued by daily rains, bringing life to its numerous gardens and providing a convenient naptime for tourists!
While beautiful, this man-made Singapore was slightly disappointing. So much of it was created for tourists, like the Gardens by the Bay and indeed, the overwhelming splendor of our own hotel. It seemed overthought, and … fake. Even the Merlion, the unmistakable symbol of Singapore featured on every coffee mug, shot glass, and postcard, isn’t authentically Singaporean. Created and embraced by the government, it’s meant to attract tourism. In fact, while the Merlion does appear in some mythologies worldwide, it does not have any connection to Singapore or its traditional cultures.
In search of something “real,” we ventured further upstream to the local boroughs. Singapore might be slightly plastic around the Bay, but the city offers many cultural enclaves, such as Chinatown and Little India, which are frankly much more exciting.
We decided to give the MRT a try. It was the nicest metro I’ve ever experienced, almost exactly like the monorail at Disney World. I kept waiting for Minnie Mouse to board the train! Spotless, it was a) all in English b) easy to navigate and c) cheap! I highly recommend it. We easily took the Downtown Line from the Bay Area to Little India in search of culture, curiosities, and Indian cuisine!
Buzzing with colorful fruit stands, flower markets, and fabric stores, Little India was exactly as it sounds: little – very – and Indian! Spicy curry overwhelmed the senses, while the crush of people was slightly claustrophobic. Exactly what one expects, and a pleasant change from the simulated sanctuary of the hotel. After authentic local fare, a bit of market shopping, and some impromptu henna, we finally found the true Singapore: a melting pot that practically boils over with fiery food, vibrant vegetation, and sizzling heat. No guidebooks needed.
The following day we girls were feeling a bit lonely without our husbands. Traveling together was wonderful, but sometimes you just need a bit of male attention. So we decided to dine with orangutans – a pretty equivalent substitute! After a beautiful stroll through the zoo, we arrived at the restaurant and enjoyed an international brunch before meeting our fabulous furry friends. The great apes were frisky and friendly, audaciously teasing my hair while I posed for a photo. And the babies were absolutely adorable, swinging from the trees above, footloose and fancy-free!
The Singapore Zoo is laid out like a jungle. Surrounded by wildflowers and hundred-year-old trees, you don’t know where you are until, suddenly, you come across the giraffes playing in the fields or rhinoceros bathing in the mud. We spent the afternoon roaming the grounds, enjoying the beautiful sunshine and magnificent creatures. But after a while our feet began to hurt and our sweat stains began to show, and we returned for another decadent swim before dinner. Trying something new, we ventured to The Quay, known for its hipster restaurants and posh nightlife. We weren’t disappointed. From Asian fusion to American barbeque, the Quay was a cornucopia of choice.
But upon our return to the hotel, we learned our flight situation had changed, one of the many “fun” things about Space A. When there isn’t anything A-vailable, you can’t fly! (This was tough for someone Type-A, like myself, but as the French have it, c’est la vie). Suffice to say, our vacation was suddenly a bit longer than expected, leaving us with a costly decision: pay top dollar and extend at the Marina Bay Sands or deal with the hassle of moving. Our husbands and checkbooks were quite grateful when we decided to switch hotels! We’d had our fill of the famous pool and snooty service. So we situated ourselves further from the Bay and closer to the Quay.
Our second hotel was lovely and in the perfect location. (Not to mention a one-block commute to Starbucks!) However, our delay could have been much longer and, therefore, much more troublesome, a known drawback to military flights and a caution for future travelers.
Our final day in Singapore was spent in Chinatown, another easy ride on the MRT. With row after row of markets selling everything from cheap souvenirs to pricey antiques, it was a feast for the eyes. Everything and everywhere smelled of steamed buns and fried meat, oppressive in the heavy heat. And the color red was inescapable. Hanging lanterns, towering walls, and shop doors were all drenched in crimson, dominating the landscape and clearly defining the district. We cheerfully ambled through the crowded stalls and toured lavish Buddhist temples while the brilliant sun painted our cheeks pink to match the established décor. Leaving with the smell of incense and chili paste still on our clothes, we walked through the old town – sans map – clutching bags of prized souvenirs.
Regrettably, time came to say goodbye to this dazzling city and – more importantly – to its warm weather. (Actually, we felt ready to brave the cold again; that is until we arrived home, where our noses froze the moment we alighted from the plane.) Singapore was exactly what we needed. It was relaxing, picturesque, and full of good drink! I…uh, I mean food 😉 Next time, I might even bring the husband! After all, gardens, beaches, and a raucous nightlife are pretty romantic!
Our return flight was only five hours late – so much for the military and its schedules! We had plenty of room, just as before. But this time, we traveled home in style on a C-17 cargo plane, America’s largest military aircraft. Strapped into folding jumper seats and surrounded by mysterious cargo (hmm…?), we received barracks’ blankets and pillows to make little nests on the steel floor, surprisingly more comfortable than you would expect! Grateful for a latrine (many of these planes only provide a bucket…), we arrived home none the worse for wear and filled with amazing stories to tell the poor guys left behind!
The trip was a complete success. Despite a lack of guidebooks and no PODs (“plans of the day”), we made the most of our time in sizzling Singapore. In fact, I’m loath to admit it, but the freedom of no schedule made it even better, and certainly more relaxing. For the first time, I wasn’t fretting about being late or “seeing it all.” We took our time and embraced what we found. And the very next day we were already looking up flights, discussing our next girls’ getaway. We are thinking maybe South Korea, Malaysia, or the Philippines. Suggestions are welcome!