Friday, 1 May 2009

Flyers & Flowers – The Heights and Horticulture of Singapore

Despite years of travelling to and through Asia, Singapore had been touched by these toes only momentarily and then merely as a transit-passenger at Changi in 1992. Repeated attempts to discover the city had been thwarted by time, itinerary or funds and yet, despite having made numerous attempts, my research and knowledge of the place was limited mostly to Raffles Hotel and, well, actually to Raffles Hotel.

A swift pre-departure trip to Borders, and the acquisition of the latest addition to this traveller’s collection of the glossily-descriptive Insight Guides, had helped to thrash out some ideas of an itinerary and so, once the bathing delights of the St Regis had been sampled and a WiFi connection secured, an online booking for the latest local attraction – the narrowly London Eye-beating Singapore Flyer – was made. The booking being all the more impressive thanks to the lack of the usual tedious ‘online bookings must be made a minimum of 14 days in advance’ kind of guff that seems an all-too-prevalent demand of Sales Prevention Departments the World over. None of that here and the booking is confirmed for 90 minutes hence.

The wheelchair which we have been gifted by the hotel for the duration of our stay (again, full marks for that) is unfurled and readied for perambulation and off we set for the lobby and the summoning of some suitable cabbery.

No Bentleys this time, but a perfectly serviceable Hyundai and we’re heading through the city streets in no time. In fact, so rapid is our progress that we arrive at the big wheel almost an hour before our scheduled departure time. The ticket office has the booking on-screen and we are invited to fly early if we wish. Now, honestly, why can’t the rest of the World work like this? (OK, the wheel broke at New Year, but apart from that, why can’t the World work like this).

From the air-conditioned pods, the view out across the harbour is expansive, and most of the landward sights are easily identifiable. We’re blessed with a relatively clear day as we look across to Merlion Park, the Fullerton Hotel and Boat Quay.

Wheelchair access is, as one might expect of a modern development, very good, although entry to and exit from the pods requires the complicity of a staff member to temporarily arrest the rotation and then assist with the control of the chair up and down the adjacent ramps. They’re well-versed in the procedure though and therefore most helpful.

Another cab ride from the rank outside takes the family CC to Merlion Park for a view back towards the Flyer, and to inspect at close-quarter the statue fountain after which this park of terraced paving is named.

It’s then a pleasant walk along the Singapore Riverside (with one small hiccup in the wheelchair access) to join Boat Quay for a (sanitised) view of Singapore in times past, with the restored ‘Shophouses’ lining the river bank. Trade was clearly far from brisk however as the waterside restaurant patios were largely empty and the touts desperate to fill some seats. The price of Chilli Crab being a useful barometer of catering desperation, declining as it did with every passing step.

Crossing the river by way of Elgin Bridge, the opposite bank of the river from Boat Quay plays host to both the contemporaneous Singapore Parliament building, and also the earlier, colonial, Old Parliament House.

It’s here that the City’s founder, Sir Stamford Raffles came ashore, at the creatively-christened ‘Raffles Landing Site’.

There’s a nice statue to commemorate the man, should you otherwise have missed the almost ubiquitous local application of his name, including to some most unlikely commercial endeavours.

Cavenagh Bridge, whilst incorporating a set of wheelchair-eating grilles at either end, presents a useful means of returning to the Boat Quay side of the waterway and, passing the charming Chong Fah Cheong bronze sculptures of bathing children, rocking up at the portico of the Fullerton Hotel and cheekily enlisting the assistance of a doorman to hail a cab.

Next on the list, after ginger beers at the St Regis and a rest and revive, is Singapore’s Botanic Garden. The hotel proves ideally situated, just a few minutes walk/push from the garden gates for this, the highlight of our attendant Percy Thrower-on-castors’ tour of the tropics.

Our particular target is the World-renowned Orchid Garden, for which GCC has Googled that pensioners can benefit from special concessionary entrance fees. Which, to me, seems a remarkably uncommercial offer, since surely the vast majority of visitors will be, how can I say this: over the hill. Surely it’s the carers and providers of pushing power that should get the discount?

The gardens are, even to this horticultural philistine, quite beautiful and far more interesting than I’d have expected. What a relief that digital photography has been invented though; the cost of developing the billions of snaps GCC was reeling off from his (un)steady cam would have been astronomical.

A grand day out, anyway, but the combination of undulating terrain and high 90s humidity rendered the Casa Verde park café in the distance the most singular of targets, and the sinking of the nectar labelled as ‘Tiger Beer’ a relief not yet achieved by any prescription pain-killer.

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