Second Homecoming

I’m packing my bags for the last part of my trip when I get a message.  It’s from my ten year old niece Lola.  I tell her I’m about to go to the airport.  “I’ll miss you”, she said.  “But I’ve already been gone for about ten days Lols”.  “Oh, I didn’t know” she texts.  “You need a calendar of when I’m away”, I joke.  “I think I do need a calendar” she writes.  You know you’ve done a fair bit of travelling when people in your family don’t know whether you are at home or not anymore!

And this year has been a bit different, with my feet barely touching the ground before I’m off somewhere else.  I’m calling it my gap year, albeit about twenty years too late.  It’s the year I’ve learnt the most and one that has opened my eyes about travelling, changing the way I do things and what I feel makes a holiday.  One big happy learning experience.

Driving through the streets of Hanoi on the way to the airport, I snap away on my camera, eager to record everything about Hanoi.  Memories to treasure, stories to tell, cultures to explain, food to rave about.  I love travelling.

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It’s no secret that Singapore is like my second home so that of course is where I’m heading next.  I figure that each time I visit there’s a niggling list of things that I want to see and do, that I just never seem to get around to, so my next five days is about just that – crossing of some of those ‘must do’ items before the thought of it drives me crazy.

I’ve even split my time between two hotels to make sure I have no excuses, so first up, I’m at the Bay Hotel across the road from the massive white shopping complex known as Vivocity.  Vivocity is not just a shopping centre though, it’s the gateway to Sentosa and an MRT/bus station, not to mention home to hundreds of shops and loads of restaurants.

A few hours wandering around shopping and some dinner is all I’m up for tonight, but tomorrow – I start crossing things off that list.

The Best Place in the World for a Girl’s Holiday

So, off to Singapore we head again – Jo, Erin and I.  We meet at the airport, me grumpy and tired after a long day at work, a longer flight than I’m used to for a trip to Singapore and a never-ending queue at immigration, the likes of which I’ve never seen before.  The girls have arrived before me and all grumpiness is left behind when I see their smiles and we head out into the warm Singapore after-midnight air.

A different hotel will play host to us this time as we wanted to be nice and close to shopping and dining and on as good a budget as we could get in Singapore.  And with those guidelines in place, we find ourselves at the Hotel Jen Orchard Gateway, conveniently located at the back of the 313 Somerset shopping mall.  There isn’t much time for exploring given the time of night (or should I say morning), but there’ll be plenty of time for that tomorrow – I mean later today.

Priorities are an important thing, and we made sure we were on top of ours by spending our first day in Singapore (after a couple hours sleep of course) at the OPI Salon at The Forum.  I love this shop and visit every time I’m in town because they do such a thorough job and I always feel so refreshed when I walk out the door.  So for the next few hours we sit and have our hands a feet buffed, filed, dipped in wax, lotioned up and painted to perfection.  The hardest thing about this morning, is choosing what nail polish colour to pick!

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Relaxation is hungry work though, which means that next up on the list, its dumpling time!

Small pieces of dough, boiled, steamed or fried to perfection hiding an array of fillings such as vegetables, mutton, prawns and chicken – these little parcels are heaven on a plate and usually appear on our Singapore itinerary somewhere.  History tells us that the story of the dumpling began when a man nicknamed “the Medical Saint”, better known as Zhang Zhongjing, returned to his hometown during winter to find the villagers suffering from frostbite.  He wrapped mutton and medicinal herbs in dough skin and fed them to the sick in the hope of curing the frostbite.  The dumplings were considered a way of warming the skin and promoting blood flow.  But they were also incredibly tasty!

Today we are loading up on them at the world famous Din Tai Fung.  Started by Bingyi Yang in Taiwan, DTF was originally a shop that sold oil.  When tinned oil went on sale in 1972, his sales plummeted and searching for a new direction, Bingyi and his wife started making dumplings.  This new direction paid off and the dumpling store became a word of mouth success story.  DTF is Michelin star rated and ranked one of the world’s Top 10 Best Restaurants by the New York Times.  The word dumplings also includes har gow, siew mai, cha siu bao, lo mai gai, crystal dumplings and wontons.

Of course the best way to eat off dumplings is to shop and being on Orchard Road there is not shortage of places to do that!  From Sephora to Zara, Mango to Royce and my favourites – Charles and Keith and Kinokuniya.  Kinokinuya has the most incredible range of books as I’ve mentioned before, but Charles and Keith is incredible.  Charles and Keith is a Singapore shoe company founded by brothers – you guessed it – Charles and Keith (Wong) and there’s hardly a mall in Singapore where you won’t find one of their stores.  The first store was located in the Amara Shopping Centre in Tanjong Pagar in 1996 and today you can find them throughout the Phillipines, Malaysia and the Middle East.  They stock some incredible shoes, or as Erin once called them “art for your feet”.  And the most incredible thing about them is the price.  I have to pop into at least two stores on each visit.

Despite plans for a big night, after a few glasses of sparkling wine and with our 2am arrival and long day of pampering starting to hit hard, we end up deciding on a nice dinner at Chijmes.  Pronounced “chimes”, this history building complex began life as Caldwell House in 1840, having been built for Magistrate Clerk, H C Caldwell.  From 1852 through to 1892, Father Jean-Marie Beurel bought the parcels of land surrounding Caldwell House and created a Convent, Orphanage, Charitable Institution, Chapel, primary and secondary schools and a boarding house.  The boarding house was close din 1963 due to dwindling demand created by the changing times.  The primary and secondary schools were demolished to make way for the MRT headquarters, but the remaining buildings were given back to the government in 1989, before being renamed Chijmes in 1990.  For the next six years, Chijmes underwent extensive renovation works to convert it into a major commercial complex.  Further works to turn the space into a ‘unique lifestyle venue’ commenced in 2011 and were only recently completed.

It’s a beautiful space – stunning buildings filled with restaurants and bars with swathes of green grass – a calming atmosphere hidden within the walls of the complex.  You’d almost be forgiven for not going inside to explore the hidden gem.  But once you do, you’ll keep coming back.

Passing of an Era

A few months ago I got the idea that with a long weekend coming up for Easter in April, it would be a good time to plan a little getaway with my girlfriends in Perth.  We thought about a few places, but we had limited time and with me being on the East Coast now, there were a limited number of places in which we could maximise our time.  It was pretty soon clear that there was only one place that was going to fit the bill, and as much as I hated to admit it (and only because of my penchant for checking out new places) – Singapore was it.

Again?  Seriously?  I hear you.  I mean what is it now?  Trip 14?  15?  I’m not sure myself to be honest.

But what is it that you want when you are heading away with the girls?  It’s going to be all about shopping, cocktails, relaxing and pampering.  Easy pleasure, with the option of exploring something new if the whim takes us.  And that’s what you get with Singapore.  It’s a girl’s holiday paradise – safe, clean and with everything that a girl’s holiday requires.

And in my opinion, it’s thanks to one man that we have this paradise to return to time and time again.

Love him or not, Lee Kuan Yew was the man who shaped Singapore into what she is today.  Singapore’s first Prime Minister after gaining independence in 1965, his reign saw average incomes rise 100 times, with investments across the globe, a widely respected civil service and world-class infrastructure.

He was widely criticised for his iron-fisted rule (a benevolent dictatorship or form of government in which an authoritarian leader exercises absolute political power over the state but is seen to do so for the benefit of the population as a whole) and for creating a nanny state where there was no chewing gum allowed, no littering, no graffiti, no jaywalking, no spitting, no expelling mucous from the nose and no urinating anywhere but in a toilet. What a terrible place to live huh!  Imagine that – a society where we respect each other enough to behave with dignity!

I recently read an old article that decried how Singaporeans were bombarded by official campaigns such as ‘Speak Good English!’, ‘Speak Mandarin’, ‘Be More Considerate!, ‘Be Spontaneous!’, ‘Be More Careful!’, and ‘Drive Courteously!’, and I had to wonder what was actually wrong with that?  Why shouldn’t you be proud to speak your native tongue?  Why shouldn’t we be more considerate?  One only has to stand on any peak hour street corner in the Melbourne CBD and listen to the furious honking of impatient drivers, taking stupid risks to save themselves 10 seconds of time to wonder whether we also should be driving a little more courteously!

I am not blind enough to think there is no crime at all in Singapore (on one December visit, there were three bodies that washed up in the Singapore River), but I certainly do consider it one of the safest cities I have visited and, although I take the same caution to personal safety wherever I am, I have always felt safe in Singapore and I know my girlfriends will agree, because this is part of what keeps us coming back.  As a female in a Australian society where we (often the victims) are warned not to walk through parks by ourselves to avoid vicious attacks, it’s nice to know there’s somewhere in the world we can go to not have to worry so much, and to at least know that if a crime is perpetrated, there will be consequences – for the perpetrator.

After his retirement, LKY remained a revered figure by many but he also became the target of social media attacks as some Singaporeans began to muster the courage to speak out against him and his political and social model.  Despite his retirement, he still oversaw and directed policy in his role as Minister Mentor.

Lee Kuan Yew died last month, aged 91 and was buried on March 29.  Thousands turned out to pay their respects to the leader.

How are we unfree?

I tell you what freedom is.

Freedom is being able to walk on the streets unmolested in the wee hours in the morning, to be able to leave one’s door open and not fear that one would be burgled. Freedom is the woman who can ride buses and trains alone; freedom is not having to avoid certain subway stations after night falls. Freedom is knowing our children can go to school without fear of drugs, or being mowed down by some insane person with a gun. Freedom is knowing that we are not bound by our class, our race, our religion, and we can excel for the individuals that we are – the freedom to accomplish. Freedom is living in one of the least corrupt societies in the world, knowing that our ability to get things done is not going to be limited by our ability to pay someone. Freedom is fresh air and clean streets, because nothing is more inimical to our liberty of movement than being trapped at home because of suffocating smog.

These are the freedoms that Singaporeans have, freedoms that were built on the vision and hard work of Lee Kuan Yew, our first Prime Minister. And we have all of these, these liberties, whilst also being one of the richest countries in the world.

There was no trade-off.

Calvin Cheng, Journalist

Memorium

It will remain to be seen where Singapore’s future lays and how, if at all, she will change.  Though Lee once said ‘even if you are going to lower me into the ground and I feel that something is wrong, I’ll get up’, so I doubt there’ll be anything to worry about!

Home?

Our flight is at 9.30 and we are so close to the airport, it literally takes us 10 minutes to get to the check in counter.  And we didn’t even have to get up at some stupid hour to get here.

I can’t believe this trip is over.  At times it’s felt like flying by the seat of my pants – new day, new city, what can I fit in?  And I know there’s a few places I need to come back to so I can see and do everything I want to.  It’s a brain drain at times, constantly on alert for things that are second nature to you when you are at home, but the experience, as always is invaluable.  And I am so glad that I am able to travel and have all these experiences, good and bad, because I’m sure that these can only make me a better person.

Munich – you were great – it was especially great to see my surname all over the place, but there’s only so much beer I can take (especially of the large, face consuming mug type) and I really need some vegetables.

Prague – such an interesting city.  Would have loved a day on a boat along the river, to go and listen to some music, eat Prague ham and the opportunity to photograph a sunset.

Cesky Krumlov – a small place I know, but I still think one more day would have been good here because I enjoyed the outdoors aspect and didn’t get a chance to photograph the massive dinosaur outside the museum for Lola.

Vienna – palaces and gardens.  I know there’s more to you and you are a classy city, but I’m not sure you were my city.  The fancy shoes an strudel making were definitely a highlight, but I will always thank you for Dialogue in the Dark.

Budapest – well all you showed me was rain, but even then I could see that you had so much more to offer.  For you – I’d love a whole week to explore.  I will be back, and although the plain mushroom and cheese langos was divine, I’ll load it up next time.

Krakow – you are as lovely as everyone says you are.  I would love to be on your doorstep again.  Special thanks to Cornellia from Crazy Guides, your command of the English language thanks to ‘Friends’ was amazing, as was your tour of Nowa Huta.  We would love to see you in Australia, but I’m not sure I can find a vehicle for you that would top driving a trabant.

Warsaw – what can I say – I read recently that you have a face that only a mother can love.  And it’s true.  I know you want to open up, but I don’t think you can just yet.  I’ll give you time and see how you go, but you are brave and you are a fighter and you have a fantabulous history that the world is waiting to hear about.  Thanks to Adam from Adventure Warsaw for his view of the city – you really made our trip.

And Singapore – you know how I feel about you.  We are best friends and I’ll always be back to visit.

Our Intrepid guide, Matt Starr, did a brilliant job of keeping the pieces of an age/expectation varied group together.  Your patience knows no bounds.  You say you aren’t a tour guide, but your knowledge frequently floored those of us on the tour and you have a real knack for choosing restaurants dude!  There was just about always something with some kind of vegetable in it and in central Europe, where meat and potatoes are king (thought that was just in Aus), that is a major challenge.  It was also a thrill to be able to film your ice bucket challenge for you in Prague.

It was great to meet family that I have never known for the first time, although most of us couldn’t communicate.  Your hospitality said it all.  And it was the best feeling to see and feel the place my Polish roots were planted.  It would be interesting to return to Warsaw in another 10 years and see if she has opened her arms any wider.  In the meantime, we look forward to welcoming our Warsaw cousins to Australia next year.

We are returning to Perth (me after three and a half weeks, Mum and Dad after about six weeks) and this is where the fun will begin for me.  But of course, you’re going to have to stay tuned for that.  The world always seems so much bigger and wider after travelling.

On the Corner of Dorsett & Duxton

This trip to Singapore was literally included as a grounder on the way home – there’ll hardly be time to explore. Dad hasn’t been here for quite a few years so he’s bound to notice a lot of changes – I think they had only started clearing the land for Gardens by the Bay back then. And Marina Bay Sands certainly wasn’t fanning the skyline with her deck of cards. For me it will just be a couple of days to get back into my own time zone before I get back to the grind.

Arriving in Singapore at around 4.20pm, we are feeling fine thanks to our JetEase tablets.

We’ve checked into a recently opened hotel named the Dorsett which sits between Chinatown and Tiong Bahru, nearby to Duxton Hill. Loads of funky little restaurants have breathed new life into renovated shophouses in this area, their five footways filled with excited diners, lively additions to the narrow windy streets of old.

My room is pretty small, but you only need a bed right!.  The hotel is quite wonderfully decorated – winged, coloured Chinese buddahs adorn one window, bling bordered panelling on the walls, huge chandeliers and a piano that plays itself.  And it’s a 10 minute walk to Chinatown, which is exactly where we are heading for dinner.

Chinatown Food Street Chinatown Meal

Given our location, there’s any number of places we could try for dinner. Russian caviar bar, Peranakan delights, Fusion fantasies…but it’s raining, and Chinatown is one MRT stop away from our hotel and it’s cheap.  My awesome meal cost me about SG$12 (king brown beer included!).

Chinatown’s food street has recently been revamped.  It’s now undercover and all sanitized, but I think it’s still a good place to go for a meal.  Currently, it’s time for the Mid-Autumn festival and the main streets on each side of Chinatown are adorned with large colourful silk flowers.  There’s also a lantern display, which lights up the entrance of the Chinatown MRT station.

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Stomachs full though, it’s now time to rest our weary heads before we storm our way through tomorrow.

Heading Towards Home

Today its time to head home.

Now when I say heading home, well, we will be home in a few days and I didn’t want to tell you that we also have a few days in Singapore as well, because I always seem to be in Singapore and I didn’t want to bore you before I started. But I always try to do new things when I get here for my own interest anyway and its one of those places in the world where I feel at home so I want to know everything about it. Someday I’ll be able to say I’ve seen and done it all – surely?

So first up, we are staying in a different location, booking four nights at the Grand Park Orchard on Orchard Road. I’ve never stayed on Orchard Road before. I’m expecting, nay hoping, that it will have an electric buzz, that continues long after the shoppers have hauled their treasures home.

I was hoping to get to a few places that have been ‘on my list’ for some time now, plus showing Mum a couple of the new places I’ve found on the last few trips, but given we aren’t well, we’ll just see how we go.

Anyway, our hotel room is not quite ready so we pop out for some shopping and a bite to eat.  The first shop we come across is The Soup Spoon, and its menu board shows a chunky mushroom soup that looks purpose made for people with bad colds.  Its so thick and full of mushrooms and good for the soul.

Afterwards, I spy a Ya Kun Kaya Toast stall.  Here goes the first of one of those ‘on the list’ things.   Kaya toast is a popular breakfast item in Singapore. It consists of toast spread with a kind of jam made of coconut and eggs, called kaya, and either peanut spread or thick slabs of butter. I know it ain’t breakfast time, but if I don’t grab some now, I fear I’ll never try it. So here goes.

Full of peanutty goodness
Full of peanutty goodness

I’ve gone for the peanut spread and its actually really tasty – very sweet, but definitely tasty.  Don’t know why I waited so long to try it.

With still more time to fill in, the next stop is across the road at Japanese department store, Takashimaya – more specifically – Kinokuniya, my favourite bookshop.  I was introduced to Kinokuniya by my friend Emma when I visited her in KL last year, and now I am hooked.  Upon entering I feel giddy with the prospect of so much choice.  I don’t know where the start and I can’t seem to focus, my eyes darting from book to book as each cover catches my eyes.  It’s a wonderland of words.  I leave with five books, spying another on the way out – which I’ll just have to come back for tomorrow.  The thing about Kinokuniya is there is so much range and the prices are better than what you can buy books for at home.  The other thing, is that the topics of a lot of the books interest me far more – tales of Malaya past and modern day Japan and gritty KL.  Book subjects we don’t get at home.  Mum is wondering how the heck I’m going to get all these books in my luggage – she doesn’t know that I pack an extra bag for the way home – just for such bounties!

I like books - just a little bit!
I like books – just a little bit!

Now it’s time to check in.  The hotel is fairly new and our rooms looks out over the shopping metropolis of Orchard Road, lights blinking with the promise of new and exciting purchases.  We are feeling quite revived after our mushroom soup.  Or am I still high from my book shopping? I’m not sure.  So we get dressed and head on out into the evening.

Our room high above Orchard Road
Our room high above Orchard Road

So we head down to the Esplanade to see a small, but free, exhibition called Rotations – The Art of Tim Yip.  Tim (Timmy) Yip is foremost a renowned costume designer. Winning the Oscar for Best Art Direction and Costume Design in 2001 for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, he has also collaborated with other prominent film directors such as John Woo (Red Cliff), Feng Xiangang (The Banquet) and Chen Kaige (Farewell, My Concubine).

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Outside of film, he has also created stage and costume designs for dance and theatre. This exhibition pays tribute to his works of art with photographs, prints and a collage of videos, showcasing his visually arresting costume and set designs and his other works in fashion and theatre.

After the exhibition, we stop by Makansutra Glutton’s Bay for dinner – yet another place I haven’t made it to yet.  Funnily enough, Makansutra was on tv in Langkawi last night and we watched him eat his way through the backstreets of Penang.  I guess it made me more determined to try this place, this time around.  People jostle each other and shuffle from signboard to signboard selecting their fare for the night.  I decided on Roti John, a dish I have never had before, washed down with a big Tiger beer.  It was kind of a like a big bun filled with a fried egg and accompanied with a spicy chili sauce.  Pretty good!

Roti John
Roti John

Whilst I was lucky enough to see the Gardens by the Bay light show on my last trip, Mum hasn’t been to Singapore since the new garden was up and running, so that’s where we are heading. Plus, given I was on a tour last time, I didn’t get to wander around as freely as I would have liked. Given the youth of the gardens, the night air provides perfect cover to explore, safe from the burning sun.  The gardens don’t disappoint – and its still wondrous the second time around.  Catching the MRT back to Orchard Road, I’m glad that we have managed to fit in these few things this afternoon and can only hope we’ll feel better tomorrow.

Super Trees
Super Trees

Hunting for White Lions

Australian-born comedian Jonathan Atherton, a regular on the Singapore comedy scene, once joked that he loved Singapore and that he couldn’t wait to see what it would look like when it was finished.  He’s of course referring to Singapore’s ever changing sky (and shore) lines.  I had to laugh – because Singapore reminds me of a game I recently became addicted to on my phone called City Island.  You get a plot of land, build some houses, some shops, attractions and facilities, then buy some more land, build some more houses and some attractions and then you start to upgrade and replace them – a never ending game of upscale.

There’s always something new happening in Singapore.  I worked out this is my tenth trip to Singapore in just over a ten year period and every time I return, which in some cases has only been six months apart at most, there’s always a new attraction or some new upgrade, new restaurants or new shops.  And I think that’s why I love it so much.

From the minute I depart the airport, I anxiously scan the world outside the taxi cab windows for new gems.  For me it means the list of things to do in Singapore just never seems to near its end.  I’ve done loads of things in Singapore, and I always think “I’ll just relax this time”.  But then I start reading and next thing you know – well, there’s just not enough time to do everything, which means that I’ll simply have to come back again!

But for now, my plane has landed and the familiar landscape twinges at my heart and head with excitement.  For this trip, I am not alone, travelling with the lady who’s idea it was to come in the first place – Erin, and meeting up with my sister and brother in law, who arrive tomorrow, and will be undertaking their first international trip ever.  So I’m looking forward to whatever this trip will bring.

Ten minutes out of the airport, the cab driver informs us there is a new MRT line (the Downtown line), and a new expressway, part of which runs underwater and cost $4.3 billion, both of which have opened in the last week.  Work has already commenced on the second part of the Downtown line.

After checking into our hotel, the Carlton Hotel, we head for food paradise, stopping into the Tiffin Room at the famous Raffles Hotel for Christmas High Tea.  The Raffles Hotel is a stunning jewel in Singapore’s crown.  First opened in 1887 and immortalised by famous writers Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling, Ernest Hemingway and Alfred Hitchcock, the Raffles is a beautiful glimpse into Singapore’s regal, British Empire past.  Of course, as with most things during this time, the common population was unable to afford to visit the Raffles, and this much has not changed – with rooms at the Raffles starting at around $800 AUD per night.

High Tea 1

High Tea 2

So I am glad to be able to afford to fork out the cash to at least attend the high tea.  We are shown to our little table by the window and bought a three tiered tray littered with an assortment of finger sandwiches, pastries and desserts.  Which would have been enough, except there was also a buffet table scattered with fruits, more pastries and an assortment of Asian specialities such as pau, gyoza and dumplings.  The food is really good, and the atmosphere lovely, given we are seated behind a harpist.  Our glass of champagne completes the meal nicely.

I am glad that we have an evening of sitting down to follow this food fest, because I’m not sure I could spend much time walking around.  We have arranged to do the Christmas Lights Night Tour of Singapore this evening.  We are doing the tour with City Tours, which is a new thing for me, as I usually tour with Tour East in Singapore, so I’m interested to compare the service between the two.  We have a hotel pick up organised, which runs smoothly, however, when we get to the meeting point at the Flyer, it all seems so unorganised!  People are just milling around everywhere and there’s not much direction.  We seem to sit around forever, partly because we didn’t partake in the meal included with the ticket, due to our afternoon’s indulgences, but mostly because it just seems unorganised.

First stop on the tour is Gardens by the Bay.  I have visited here in the daylight, taking in one of the bio domes and wandering through the Supertree Grove, but this, all lit up against the night sky, is a whole different experience.  It is nothing short of stunning.  Each evening there is a light show which takes place (free) which attracts tourists and locals alike.

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The evening air is remarkably cool for Singapore, something I’ve not experienced here before.  Although I can tolerate the humidity of Singapore in return for the amazement I get from this city, this cooler Singapore is a welcome change.  Back on board the double-decker, open top bus, with the air blowing in our faces, our next destination is a drive down Orchard Road to glimpse the last days of Singapore’s annual Christmas light up.

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I’ve seen these Christmas lights twice before and didn’t think they held the magic of previous years, but for visitors from Perth – you’ll certainly be amazed at what Christmas holds in the tropics, and you’ll find the Christmas streets of Perth naked in comparison.

Our last stop for the evening is a cruise on the Singapore River, which is always a relaxing experience.  Tonight though, instead of the regular bumboat ride along the river, we board flash-looking new cruise boats, though still skippered by age-old Chinese captains – yes folks, Singapore has changed again.

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The night colours of Singapore just keep on improving, with each visit.  It’s an awesome sight to behold which adds to the magic of Singapore.  I couldn’t have thought of a more relaxing, carefree evening, but I think there are two girls who will sleep very, very well tonight!

Psst…I’m going to…

OK, well my flight takes off this weekend.  Wanna know where I’m going? Of course you do. Well…..drum roll please….it’s….Singapore! AGAIN?  I hear you say. Yes.  I love it. But seriously…AGAIN? Yes.  But there’s a couple of twists this time!  Trust me!  I won’t let you down! Chat to you soon!

Round Up

Here’s a bit of a round up of my travels – what I liked, what I didn’t, what worked well, what I’d do differently next time and just other general bits and pieces.

London

London in late June (early summer) is light.  It’s light at around 3.30/4.00am in the morning until around 10pm at night.  I found this a little difficult to get used to, especially coming from winter in Australia.  My advice if you like your sleep, make sure your windows are closed, blinds pulled down and perhaps invest in some earplugs and an eye mask.

Find a Waitrose, M&S or local fruit stall to stock up on fresh fruit.  Pret a Manger is a great cheap place to find breakfast or a sandwich and they are everywhere.

The underground was really easy to use.  I would suggest getting an Oyster card before you arrive in London.

I would definitely stay at the Rydges Hotel Kensington again.  It wasn’t really walking distance to all the action, but it was a few underground stops away and there was definitely enough in the area to not need to be.  It was close to the underground, supermarkets, plenty of restaurants etc.  I ate at the Hotel restaurant, the Jam Cupboard and was really impressed with the meal.  And of course, Kensington Palace and Hyde Park were just down the road.

There are people out late on the streets, but a lot of stuff doesn’t open til later in the morning.  So use it to sleep in or explore the streets while its quiet or go for a walk through Hyde Park.

Grand Cayman Island

The Caribbean Ocean is stunning.  However, it is very salty.  It played havoc with my hair, hats and clothes.  My suggestions would be to travel with a small container of hair treatment or at least wash your hair after every beach visit.  Rinse anything that you wear into or around the water so that the salt doesn’t ruin it.  Don’t pack overly good clothes.  Make sure it’s beach friendly, because truly that is where you will spend half of your time.  I reckon I didn’t use 1/4 of the clothes I packed for this very reason.

Sunscreen is a MUST.  I can’t stress this enough.  Even coming from Australia, the sun was so bitey.  Please be careful or you will end up very, very burnt.  And make sure you drink enough water.  Dehydration can happen rapidly.

Take an underwater camera, disposable or otherwise.  Schools of fish, stingrays and starfish can all be found in stunning clear water less than 1/2 meter deep.  So even if you aren’t into snorkelling or scuba diving, you can be assured to see sealife somewhere!

This is the place for water sports.  And because the waters are so calm and warm, it’s the best place to give them a try for the first time too.  Snorkeling, stand up paddle boarding, kayaking, scuba diving – just give it a bash.

Despite the fact that Cayman is not huge, it is not really that easy to get from one part of the island to the other.  A lot of the attractions are spread across different parts of the island.  My advice would be to either hire a car, or if you want to hit up numerous attractions pick up a tour.  Generally the tours visit the same locations, so choose between what you will see on the tour and what you can get to by local bus or taxi easily.

I would definitely stay along 7-Mile beach again.  A self-contained room, like what you’ll find at Sunshine Suites is perfect.  That way you can prepare the majority of your meals and then just splash out on the odd one.  There are some great value buffet meals around – like XQ’s and the Marriott’s Buckaneer’s feast.  But don’t forget to try some local specialties.

New York

If you are happy with a not so close up snapshot of the Statue of Liberty, just catch the free Staten Island Ferry.  If you want a better close up, I would suggest taking one of the paid ferries, which travel closer to the statue.  Of course, if you actually want to access Ellis Island and climb the statue, then that’s another option again.

The museums are huge.  Central Park is huge.  A lot of the time, you will need to decide whether you have time to dedicate a whole day or whether you want to fit more into your day.  I chose to do a little of each thing, rather than one or two things, but that’s just me.

New York is an easy city to walk around.  I walked most places, but I found that cabs were affordable and used them on occasions such as late at night or for further trips.  Bring good walking shoes.

New York is a noisy city.  Earplugs did not work for me.  Get yourself good and tired during the day and then have a few glasses of wine before bed, perhaps go to bed with the TV on snooze and hopefully that will give you a few good hours before daylight.

I found it easy to eat relatively healthy in New York.  There are plenty of shops such as Pret a Manger, Fresh & Co, Hale & Hearty where you can get fresh salads, sandwiches and fruit and they are open all day serving breakfast through to dinners.

New York is literally the city that never sleeps, but the city doesn’t sleep in either, so if you are into getting out there and seeing all the sights you can stuff into your visit, plan on some long, long days.  There are people out on the streets until late at night, and you can dine at any time of the day.

I wouldn’t stay here any less than 4 nights next time.  I stayed at the Affinia Manhattan in Midtown, across the road from Madison Square Gardens and a 10-15 minute walk from Times Square.  I felt this was a perfect location.  The hotel, whilst old, had been recently renovated.  The rooms were large and funky, if not still showing some signs of age.  Niles Restaurant had great meals and hotel guests were entitled to a 20% discount on dining in.  There were a load of restaurants around the area in any case.

Seattle

I stayed in Belltown and I don’t reckon I could have chosen a better place.  Walking distance to the Space Needle/EMP, Pike Place Market, the shopping district and the waterfront, loads and loads of restaurants and bars to choose from – what more could you want.  Seattle is an easy city to walk around, and its such a pretty place, there’s no reason you wouldn’t want to.

Get out and visit Mt Rainier – it’s worth it.  I chose Mt Rainier over Yosemite, as Mt Rainier is only a 2hour trip each way.  I chose Evergreen Escapes and although I probably paid a little more, the service and quality of the day was well and truly worth it.

Things don’t get going that early in the morning, so go for a walk around the markets, sleep in or do breakfast somewhere nice.

I wouldn’t stay here any less than 4 nights next time.  And I would definitely stay at the Ace Hotel again (I had a private room, but you can book otherwise).  The free breakfast was awesome.  The place smelt so clean and fresh and the staff were awesome.  The bed was the most comfortable I stayed in the whole time I was away.  FYI – Ace also have a hotel in New York.

San Francisco

San Francisco is not really an easy city to walk around.  A lot of the streets are actually at a 45 degree angle.  Obviously if that’s what you’re into, then go for it.

There are homeless people everywhere, as with all cities, but I didn’t feel threatened anywhere else.   I didn’t do my research thoroughly enough and ended up on the edge of Tenderloin (well I knew there were homeless people around, but just not quite the extent).  In saying that, Macys, Saks Fifth Avenue, the Hilton and the Westin were all about two blocks away and they weren’t immune either.  I probably would have felt more comfortable staying in the Fisherman’s Wharf area, seeing as that’s where I spent most of my time. There’s loads of restaurants here and most of the tourist attractions are here or leave from here.  Because I didn’t feel safe here by myself, I would suggest the city sightseeing buses or guided tours with hotel pickup/dropoff.

I chose to stay at the Best Western Hotel California.   The vegan restaurant at the hotel, Millenium was fabulous.  Don’t let the fact that its vegan put you off – the meals are so hearty that you probably won’t even notice.  But I wouldn’t stay here again.

If you want to go to Alcatraz, book in advance if possible.

Pack warm.  Even in ‘summer’.  July (summer) is the foggiest month.  I would say it was more akin to winter in Perth.

Singapore

Let’s face it, I don’t think there’s many parts of Singapore that you could go wrong for accommodation.  But that said, I like indulging in everything that Singapore has to offer.  The only thing that would determine my accommodation is this – if you want to relax by the water, have kids or want to indulge in water sports – head to Sentosa.  If you are keen for shopping – stay on Orchard Road.  If you are into luxury – head to Marina Bay.  If you like Museums and great food, perhaps head for Chinatown or the Raffles area.  If you want a quieter, greener area, try around Cuscaden Road.  Keep in mind, nowhere on the island is more than a 10-20 minute taxi ride and Singapore’s MRT system is fantastic.  So you really can’t go wrong.

There is always something new to do in Singapore.  Keep an eye out on www.yoursingapore.com, www.timeoutsingapore.com or even just make sure you pick up the tourist brochures at the airport like Where and you will find out all you need to know about where to go and what to do.  I can recommend any tours by Tour East (www.toureast.net), especially the Night Safari with dinner, which I find to be the best value.

Singapore is not just about tourist attractions though, so if like me, you had no idea how much history Singapore had particularly in relation to World War II, make sure you check out Fort Siloso (on Sentosa), Changi Prison & Chapel, Fort Canning or the Old Ford Factory for starters.

Culture vultures will not want to miss the Chinatown Heritage Museum and the Peranakan Museum.  There are also numerous walking tours through Chinatown and Little India.  And for art lovers – you must stop by SAM or the Art Science Museum.  But sometimes, the best thing about Singapore is that even if you just stroll around the streets, you will get a really good picture of the country, its food and its people.  And don’t be afraid to try anything here – the food is amazing.

Again, things don’t get going until around 10/11am in the morning, so use the time to enjoy brunch, sleep in or just explore the streets or Botanic Gardens while it’s quiet.

Hotel 1929’s terrace rooms are the best.  That said, I would only chose one of these if I were by myself or with a boyfriend etc, simply because the rooms are on the small side and the toilet is situated in with the shower, surrounded by glass.  The hotel itself is in a great location, the staff were amazing.  Free wifi, good coffee, free breakfast, free cookies and drinks.  Well worth the price, which was much less than a lot of the other big name hotels

Don’t bother with a transfer here, just grab a cab from outside the airport.

Overall

Whilst there’s lots of conjecture over what works and what doesn’t when trying to combat jet lag, what worked for me was a) following the time clock of the city I arrived in (ie. even if you are tired, make yourself go out for dinner or even just sit on a city sightseeing bus and go to sleep when the sun goes down) and b) try Jet Ease (or No Jet Lag), they may be called something different in your country, but I found this homeopathic remedy to work a treat.

Book transfers.  I know you can catch taxis, but I prefer to know that I don’t have to bothered thinking about where I’m going and how I’m going to get there after a long flight.

I booked a lot of tickets on line which saved time queuing up.

When you are budgeting, make sure you include for tipping – I found this added incredibly to my bills in Cayman and the US.

Everyone will tell you this – but don’t over pack.  You won’t use it all.  And if there’s something  you need while you are there, if you need it bad enough, you can buy it.

Buy a second battery for your camera.  I take lots of photos and the best investment I made was in a second battery.  I find there are lots of days where I spend all day snapping away and not having to worry that I’m running out of battery is a relief.  Obviously make sure you have lots of spare cards if you are also this way inclined.

My best flights were with Emirates, Jet Blue and Singapore Airlines.  I was surprised that you had to buy food on the six hour Virgin flight from New York to Seattle.

Order a low fat meal for the flight home!

Any questions?  Please drop me a line and I’ll be more than happy to share my point of view!

Sleepless in Singapore

Day 28:  Hong Kong / Singapore

I’ve been flying now for seven days, twelve hours and thirty seven minutes.

Well that’s what it seems like, but after actually only about 17 hours, my flight touches down in Singapore and I’m home – my second home anyway.  Terrified at the thought of not going to Singapore this year, I managed to book a flight home from San Francisco that has a 31 hour stopover in paradise.  It will be fantastic to have one day to regroup before getting back to reality tomorrow night.

I know and love Singapore, having visited about 10 times or so now, so I won’t be in a rush to sightsee, but everything is close enough in case I do feel lively and want to get out and about.  No matter how much I do each visit to Singapore, there’s still a lot I haven’t done.  And this will probably be the only chance I have to visit Singapore this year, so I’m making the most of it.

I’m staying at Hotel 1929 in Chinatown.  Whilst I’m not a stranger to staying in Chinatown, I’ve not stayed at this hotel before and I’m looking forward to it.  I’ve splashed out and booked one of two of the best rooms they have, though I still managed to pay less than a normal room at one of the bigger hotels.  All the hotels I’ve stayed in whilst travelling in Singapore over the years have been good (except you, Allson), but there’s certain hotels you stay in when travelling with others to those you might choose when travelling alone (ie. glass panelled bathroom, not such a good idea when travelling with parents).  So I’ve gone with this little boutique place, which has a claw foot tub on the balcony and a contemporary room layout.

My room
My room
My balcony
My balcony

Check in is a breeze.  I get free cookies, free soft drink, free wifi and free breakfast (and yes! there’s bathrobes).

I actually feel quite ok after my flight.  I chose to try Jet Ease tablets for my flight home, which are a kind of homeopathetic remedy for jet lag (also known as No Jet Lag in other countries) and they seem to have done the trick.

So I’ve got 31 hours here and seeing as I’m feeling fine, I’m not mucking around.  It’s drizzling in Singapore so I hop into a cab.  Cabs are so cheap and easy here compared to Perth.  It’s basically 20 minutes to anywhere on the island, so in the heat or the rain or just when your tired or have too much shopping – it’s the only way to go.  First stop is OPI at the Forum Mall to get my nails shaped and painted.

Next up is ION Orchard to load up on Royce chocolate, my favourite as you’ll know from previous blogs – if you ever see it (not sold in Australia), do yourself a favour and at least try the Nama chocolate.  Then I head to Kinoukinuya to browse for books, making sure to stock up on whatever Haruki Marukami books I can find, because you just can’t get the back issues in Perth.

And then its time to head to Bath Culture for some well earned foot therapy.  My poor feet have taken an absolute pounding for the last month and they deserve a rest.  First I get a neck and shoulder massage.  All those hours of flying have not done me any favours and it sure hurts in places.  Then my therapist soaks, massages and de-calluses my feet.  The treatment seems to last forever, and I feel myself going in and out of short sleeps.  The lavender tea must be working a treat.  I feel so good right now.

Bath Culture
Bath Culture

Stepping out into the streets of Chinatown, I head through the markets on my next mission – to find my niece Lola a replacement cheongsam night gown.  She was terribly upset when her last one lost its button and couldn’t be mended so she politely requested I try to find her a new one – blue or purple this time would be nice she said.  Well Lola – you are in luck, cause I found a blue one.  There’s not many out there, but I got it.  You really do have the best aunty in the world!

Chinatown Night Market
Chinatown Night Market

I’m now fading fast, but hunger is gnawing at me, so I need to grab something to eat before I head back to the hotel.  I was hoping to go to Da Dong for chicken and corn soup (they do THE best chicken and corn soup), but the streets around Da Dong are being excavated and it seems to be closed for renovations.

Closed for renos!
Closed for renos!

Such a shame, but I’m tired and I can’t be bothered going from stall to stall, so I just settle on the restaurant at the Chinatown Heritage Centre.  Wolfing down my spring rolls, and black pepper beef noodles with some Tiger beer, this is the perfect end to the day – I love Singapore.

I return to the hotel and, pre-mixed cocktail in hand, have a short soak in my rooftop bathtub.  The night air is warm and I can hear the noises of the streets around Chinatown and the smell of food from all those little stalls and restaurants wafts across the skies.  Did I mention I love Singapore?