While Singapore may not seem the most likely place to spend a long weekend, think again. Because it’s a popular stopover for many trans-Pacific travelers, it’s a great way to break up one of those cramped long-haul flights. In fact, its airport, Changi, with its pools, gardens, and array of dining, is one of the best hubs for a long layover, but we’re suggesting a much longer layover in this spice-lover’s paradise.
A historically highly trafficked port, the island-nation has always had a unique vantage point within Southeast Asia, both culturally and geographically. Like Hong Kong, it retains remnants of its British colonial history in that the “national” language is English — in quotes because travelers will notice that nearly every public sign is in four languages: English, Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil.
In that vein, Singaporeans are very consciously inclusive of their multi-ethnic citizenry, and despite the austere image that many Americans may have of the country’s legal system (the perennial pre-arrival joke being, “just don’t spit…”), the people are friendly and casual, and while urban life is fast-paced, the vibe is more laidback than you’d expect. Think: Tokyo’s modern face with Honolulu’s smile. A wonderful contrast to the Blade Runner-esque cityscape is the newly renovated Fort Canning Hotel, atop a lush hillside park. Amongst the treetops, the boutique hotel feels like a total respite and private club, which until recently it was.
This can be said of people the world over, but Singaporeans truly love to eat, in a similar way that Italians and French take pleasure in their food, and omnivorously of the various ethnic cuisines. Taking a cue from that intersection of nationalities, a visit to Singapore should be approached as a journey through the Malay, Indian, and Chinese cultural intersections. Jumble up all of the great street food with some of the upscale homegrown dining that has lately emerged for a remarkable gastronomic experience.
Upon arrival, why not set the stage by feasting on one of Singapore’s national dishes? You'll find that every Singaporean is very opinionated about who serves the best whatever, so here are some suggestions... Chili crab (pictured, left) has become famous worldwide but less well-known, at least outside Singapore, is the black pepper crab, the intense seasoning of which I felt went best with meat of the regional mud crabs. No place does it better than Long Beach Seafood, and though it has several outlets, the seaside one at UDMC has sunset viewing opportunities and gives a rare glimpse of Singapore’s less urban terrain.
Say jetlag has gotten its hooks into you, and you’re hankering for some casual comfort food. The chicken rice at Boong Tong Kee is noteworthy... so take notes. The chicken is boiled and then quickly chilled for serving so that the skin has an unctuous, confit-like consistency and the meat ultra-moist and tender. If you can stand it, have your first taste of sambal, the ubiquitous spicy chili-lemongrass sauce, along with some stewed pork belly with pickled vegetables and deep fried bean curd. Where to go if it’s late night? After the club (or marathon mahjong games), Singaporeans head to places like Ya Hua Bak Kut Teh for steaming bowls of pork ribs in a peppery broth to be mixed with rice, fried bread, watercress, and of course, sambal.
Day 1: Start the day like old-school Singaporeans do at Ya Kun for kaya toast and coffee. There are several locations of this popular breakfast spot, serving kaya, the dulce de leche of Singapore, a sweet coconut and vanilla spread as well as coffee with condensed milk and soft poached eggs to be eaten with a dash of soy sauce and white pepper. (pictured, left)