Singapore named Lonely Planet's No 1 destination: What 5 non-locals love about the Lion City

Shoppers crossing at the traffic crossing between Ngee Ann City and Paragon at Orchard Road on Sept 25, 2014. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
Shoppers crossing at the traffic crossing between Ngee Ann City and Paragon at Orchard Road on Sept 25, 2014. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
View of Marina Bay Sands (MBS) as seen from OUE Bayfront Walk on Oct 16, 2014. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
View of Marina Bay Sands (MBS) as seen from OUE Bayfront Walk on Oct 16, 2014. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
People from a hobby group take pictures of the supertrees at the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore on September 4, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
People from a hobby group take pictures of the supertrees at the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore on September 4, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - Singapore has a new honour to its name, with global travel company Lonely Planet naming the Lion City the world's top travel destination for next year.

In its latest guidebook, Best in Travel 2015, Lonely Planet noted that Singapore is "always celebrating something", and will be ushering in new attractions like the National Art Gallery and Singapore Sports Hub next year in time for its Golden Jubilee.

The list places Singapore ahead of countries like Namibia, Lithuania and Morocco, which also made it to the top 10.

The Straits Times speaks to five notable permanent residents and expatriates here, and finds out why they love Singapore and what they would recommend to visitors.

Nikki Muller, 29

When the show host touched down in Singapore in February 2011, she instantly felt at home, and has settled here ever since.

"There was something about the energy and vibe about the place," recalled the Swiss citizen in a phone interview with The Straits Times.

"I've moved around a lot in my life and it was the first time I ever felt like I could call a place home," said Nikki, adding that the good service at Changi Airport played a huge role in her decision.

"I think the airport is a wonderful ambassador for Singapore. It gave me a really good impression of the country," said the Fly Entertainment artiste, adding that being immune from natural disasters and a budget flight away from the rest of South-east Asia are also extra perks for living here.

She is also glad to see more support for the creative industry and start-up companies here.

"This Little Red Dot is way more than what it used to be ages ago," said Nikki. "This is the place to be if you want to be in Asia."

Nikki recommends:

- Attending the Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix

Having hosted the event for three years, Nikki is anything but jaded from it.

"It's the only night race, and the city skyline is gorgeous at night," she said. "Even for non-F1 fans, you have concerts, magicians, actors and installations. They also push for local artistes to perform, which is great."

- Taking a walking tour of Katong

The ever-curious Swiss-Filipina took a six-hour walking food tour of the historically-rich area last year, and she is still in awe of the tasty Peranakan food and local trivia that she picked up along the way.

"You get to walk around with a Singaporean who would tell you things you wouldn't otherwise know, actually visit an HDB flat and even see how Peranakan food is prepared in the kitchen," she said of the tour which is run by Betel Box Hostel.

And speaking of feeling like a local, she also recommends that visitors spend Chinese New Year with a local family, and strike up a conversation with a taxi driver.

"They know everything. You don't have to read the papers - just hop into a cab."

- Exploring nature around Kranji

Calling it the "last countryside of Singapore", she is a fan of the relatively unscathed wilderness at Kranji.

"If you just want a quiet day, you can visit vegetable, goat and frog farms there. Or check out Sungei Buloh Nature Reserve," she said. "You wouldn't believe you're in Singapore, or in a city. I hope it stays that way."

Ann Kositchotitana, 38

Having lived in the United States and Thailand, the owner of fashion boutique Front Row at Raffles Hotel is thankful for Singapore's political stability.

"I have family in Thailand, and this past year has been a huge ordeal not knowing what will happen," said the 38-year-old American citizen and Singapore permanent resident.

The mother of two young daughters also told The Straits Times in a phone interview that the safety of the country makes it "liveable", with "honest" and "transparent" people to boot.

"People are more straightforward here. They can take constructive criticism well," she said. "In other cultures, you have to be more mindful."

Ann recommends:

- Strolling or biking at Gardens by the Bay

Ann has taken visitors from Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong and China here, and they have appreciated the greenery and clean air.

"It's better than what they have at home. They told me, oh my god, I can breathe here," she said, chuckling.

About once or twice a month, Ann and her Singaporean husband also take their daughters cycling here. "I like that you can have family activities here, and it's free," she said. "It's man-made, but it's beautiful and well-maintained."

- Eating along East Coast Road

It might be an understatement to say that the Tanjong Katong resident is a fan of Singapore's food, especially when she gets excited talking about Ampang Yong Tau Foo, Mei Yuen Roast Duck and 328 Katong Laksa.

These food institutions, all conveniently located along the same stretch of road, is her "good excuse" to splurge on food when she has visitors. "I buy all of these for them to try. It tastes so good."

- Visiting Raffles Hotel

No place has been closer to her heart than this iconic five-star hotel.

In 2001, before getting married, Ann and her husband had a date at the Tiffin Room restaurant, which later inspired her to set up her store there.

"I remember thinking 'wow'. It was so grand. I like the history behind it, the colonial architecture, how it has retained its old floor plan and fixtures," she said.

"Everything is changing so quickly in Singapore. But I like to step back into Raffles Hotel and feel like time has stood still," she added.

"It has that air of romanticism, of a bygone era. You don't see that a lot anymore in Singapore."

Joshua Tan, 24

Food is the "number one" thing that this young star of Jack Neo's "Ah Boys to Men" film series misses the most when he is away from Singapore.

"I was raised here so I've been brought up on very Singaporean diet," said the Australian-born Singapore permanent resident.

He also likes the country's efficiency and emphasis on meritocracy.

"Singapore has always been very open to receiving foreigners who have had the resources to help her grow and I've always appreciated that," said Joshua in an email interview with The Straits Times.

Joshua recommends:

- Eating at a kopitiam

Inclined to "fatty food" such as curry rice and chicken rice, his first stop for visitors is the quintessential kopitiam, or coffee shop in Hokkien.

"It pretty much sums up what Singapore is about - a melting pot of cultures with its own distinct flavours."

- Unwinding at Tanjong Beach Club

Describing the Sentosa restaurant and bar as a perfect place for unwinding with friends over the weekend, this is the next stop on Joshua's itinerary for his visitors.

"It's a nicely laid out place with a very lepak (Malay for relaxed) vibe which I like," he said. "I always have a couple of cold drinks and a platter of fried food. It's also great for people watching."

- Checking out Marina Bay Sands

He calls the integrated resort "one of Singapore's most amazing buildings". "The infinity pool is a definite must go."

Bobby Tonelli, 38

The actor and radio DJ from Las Vegas believes that Singapore, with its modernity and efficiency, is a "good introduction to Asia".

"It's English-based and very much of a Western city," he told The Straits Times in a phone interview on Tuesday. "It's not as much of a culture shock for many tourists."

The Fly Entertainment artiste, who has lived in Singapore for seven years, also appreciates the country's cultural kaleidoscope.

"There are so many different, beautiful cultures here. You have people celebrating Deepavali, Chinese New Year and Hari Raya. It's quite unique to see it all happening in one place."

Bobby recommends:

- Eating at a hawker centre

When his cousin visited four years ago, one of the places that Bobby brought him to was Changi Village Food Centre.

"You have to get them to try the real food," he quipped, admitting that he has an enduring soft spot for laksa, popiah, ayam penyet, chilli crab and other local dishes.

"The food is exotic for Westerners but very clean, a lot cleaner than in other countries," he said. "Even a simple thing like kaya is so fantastic...we just don't get it back home."

- Strolling along Orchard Road

For the American, a trip to Singapore's famous shopping belt is a must.

"It's beautiful to look at and everybody likes to shop," he said. "The architecture of places like ION Orchard is also stunning. We take it for granted sometimes."

- Visiting Gardens by the Bay

Bobby believes that nothing beats seeing the beautiful flora setup in person.

He said: "It's just so unique. You have the Supertrees and the greenhouse - it doesn't look real. It looks like someone drew it."

George Young, 34

The weather, the MRT and safety.

Those are three things that the UK-born actor and presenter loves about Singapore.

"(In) London in the winter...you have to perfect the 1-metre dash from the bathroom door to the shower and pray there's enough hot water to keep your body temperature up, and then the dreaded moment where you have to get out of the shower. Every morning and night for months on end," he said in an email interview with The Straits Times.

In Singapore, he pointed out, one can swim any time and any day. "That alone makes my friends in England extremely jealous," he said.

Comparing the MRT to London's Underground, George, who has lived in Singapore for three and a half years, is quick to sing its praises: "The carriages are nice and wide here...yes the trains can get crowded here, but believe me - sardines have it better than a London carriage on the Piccadilly Line at 5.30pm."

Above all, he is thankful for the "warm sense of safety and security" in Singapore.

"It's one of the most precious things that a nation can enjoy," he said.

George recommends:

- Digging into crab at Ghim Moh

It is hard to tell from George's fit physique that he is a regular at Master Crab at 19 Ghim Moh Road.

The Fly Entertainment artiste loves to bring visitors to the seafood restaurant for authentic local dishes.

"Sure you can order chilli crab, but you best make room for their best dish: salted egg crab," he gushed. "It's the saucy kind, so I provide the uninitiated with the cereal prawns to go along with it so that they can clean up the sauce with the left over cereal... oh great now I'm hungry."

- Enjoying the view at The Lantern Bar

This swanky spot on top of The Fullerton Bay Hotel is George's pick for a breathtaking tableau of the city.

"I take any visitor there at night if I want to instantly impress them with Singapore's modern cityscape," he said.

"You see the Marina Bay, including the Esplanade, the Flyer, a Merlion pushing out water, and a ship that's somehow landed itself on top of three skyscrapers - aka Marina Bay Sands."

- Relaxing at East Coast Park

There is more to Singapore than its fast-pace working life and style, he contends.

To experience the "chill vibe", he recommends popping by East Coast Park.

He said: "Most of East Coast has this different relaxed vibe when compared to the West in fact - it permeates the air as soon as you get across the MCE/ECP."

yeosamjo@sph.com.sg