Home sweet home

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Staycation? I didn't have high hopes for it, but Singapore surprised me

It was a toss-up between Bangkok and Singapore and, in the end, I went with Singapore - reluctantly.

My niece is visiting from America and I thought we'd go away for a bit.

There's not that much to do or see in Singapore, I warned her before she came. You'd be done in one week and be bored after that.

Bangkok, on the other hand, promises more exciting sights and sounds, not to mention the food and spas.

But H couldn't get leave from work and I couldn't find any good airline deals. After doing my sums, it wasn't worth the money, time and effort for all of us to fly to Thailand for just one weekend.

Sorry, I told my niece, we'll have to stay in Singapore the whole three weeks you're here. The only trip we'll make is across to Sentosa island, where I'd booked us a two-night staycation.

But this turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it was there that I got my epiphany: Wow, Singapore has become so pretty darn cool.

The realisation hit me on the cable car ride from Sentosa to Mount Faber.

I can't remember the details of the one and only other time I'd been on the cable car. It was probably in the late 1970s with my parents. (The cable car opened in February 1974, by the way, one of Singapore's earliest projects to boost tourism.)

I've driven in the shadow of the cable car route countless times since then, and every time I wonder who on earth are up there in the carriages. Isn't it a bit of a tourist trap? What's there to see?

Well, plenty, I discovered last Saturday.

I hadn't been enthusiastic about going on the ride, but my niece was keen, so I said okay.

We decided to go in the evening. When we got to the counter, the woman helpfully told us to come back at 7pm as that was when the cheaper night rate would kick in. (That's good service for you.) It was about 6.50pm and we happily killed time.

The cable cars - gleaming black carriages - surprised me for being so new, spacious and clean.

But even better was to come.

As our car glided towards first HarbourFront, then Mount Faber, Singapore unfolded beneath us.

Night was falling and the glittery scene below was a sight to behold.

The houses and hotels on Sentosa twinkled with lights and their swimming pools and waterparks created snaking blue formations around the island.

Out at sea, hundreds of ships were anchored in the harbour, a sign the economy is doing well. Cranes at the container port were still at work.

In the distance, the jagged towers of Reflections at Keppel Bay cut the skyline, looming over other condominiums, as cars streamed up and down West Coast Highway. But it wasn't just structures of steel, metal and glass that made me gasp.

As we neared Mount Faber, we flew over large swathes of lush secondary rainforest.

Rainforest next to a bustling port next to a frenetic holiday island next to a gorgeous condominium project designed by famed American architect Daniel Libeskind? How wonderful is that?

Singapore looked so beautiful, so vibrant, so full of promise and just so fun.

Did I really need Bangkok when I had all this at home?

Like many Singaporeans, I can't wait to leave town whenever I can.

When I go on leave, I fly off first thing in the morning and return the afternoon of the day before I go back to work.

The thought of remaining in Singapore fills me with ennui. Why stay in Singapore when there are more exciting cities to explore?

But as my niece's visit proved, it's silly of me to give short shrift to what Singapore has to offer too.

I might think I know all there is to know about Singapore, but I don't, really. My world revolves around my home, workplace and weekend haunts, which are just a modest segment of the island.

When I travel, I lap up everything about the city I'm visiting. Why don't I bring that sense of wonder to the parts of Singapore I've never or seldom been to?

To prepare for her visit, I spent a lot of time reading up on Singapore's attractions in online forums. It was eye-opening to read how others view us.

On Tripadvisor, for example, there are a total of 571 "things to do in Singapore". The National Orchid Garden at the Botanic Gardens is currently at #1 and some Tickle Tickle indoor children's playground at #571.

While one should be a bit sceptical of reviews in travel forums (bogus reviews are not uncommon), there's no running away from how Singapore has plenty to offer in the eyes of visitors.

Of the 4,858 reviews of the National Orchid Garden, 3,588 rated it excellent and 1,087 very good.

A woman from Sydney noted: "Wonderful large orchids and ones that hang down in a cluster falling outwards like a sunbeam and tiny tiny small fragile exquisite orchids... every style and every colour."

A visitor from New Jersey pronounced it "absolutely, stunningly beautiful".

I wouldn't know. The last time I toured the Botanic Gardens was about 10 years ago. I didn't even know an orchid garden existed and, if I had passed it then, I had probably dismissed it as something for tourists.

At #17 is Changi Chapel and Museum. It got 958 excellent/very good ratings out of 1,048 reviews.

Said a visitor from Zurich: "Lots to read inside and digest afterwards. World War II in Asia is not well known in Europe and there were a couple of 'light bulb moments' when reading what had happened when and where in Asia."

Again, I wouldn't know. I've never been there.

Over the past three weeks, I discovered and rediscovered many parts of the country - Sentosa's beaches, its Skyline ride and Luge, S.E.A Aquarium, Night Safari, Gardens by the Bay, Chinatown, Tanjong Pagar, Holland Village, Kampong Glam, Marina Bay Sands, MacRitchie nature trail.

There were many other places we wanted to go, but couldn't fit in.

Not all the attractions were wonderful, of course. Service staff at some places weren't exactly welcoming either. Some were downright cold.

But there were enough "wow, I never knew" moments and warm service for me to conclude that it's not Singapore that's boring - it's me, for being so set in my views.

The next time I go on leave, I will spend a few days exploring my own backyard and at the top of my list will be the National Orchid Garden.

sumiko@sph.com.sg

Follow Sumiko Tan on Twitter @STsumikotan