#TravelDeeply at Jewel Changi Airport in 48 hours

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Designed for the pleasure of Singapore residents and tourists alike, Jewel is an air-conditioned destination with its inner worlds of fantastical indoor forest and experiential super-stores, its global cuisines and art galore.

SINGAPORE - I live in the east and it is a quick 12-minute drive to the airport. Why would I fancy spending 48 hours at Jewel Changi Airport?

But I pack a cabin bag anyway for two back-to-back staycays at the airport, feeling like a globetrotter on the verge of travel. I also spin a little itinerary to discover the secret facets of Jewel.

Yet, this is not pure whimsy. Like those who love journeys, I live in a permanent state of travel, the senses alive whether I am somewhere on the far rim of the world or navigating emerging enclaves in Singapore.

In this light, Jewel, designed for the enjoyment of Singaporeans and tourists alike, is really an air-conditioned destination with its inner worlds of fantastical indoor forest and experiential super-stores, global cuisines and art galore.

Singaporeans are now traversing the island with fresh fervour during the pandemic, and I feel validated in my choice of domestic travel when I meet several airport stalwarts at Jewel, beginning with Yotelair Singapore Changi Airport hotel manager Nick Cheesman.

Pleasure dome, secret gardens

Before I arrive at the hotel, tucked at the far end of Jewel on the fourth level, he e-mails ideas on how to #TravelDeeply at the pleasure dome.

On social media, #TravelDeeply suggests vivid connections to a destination, formed by lingering two or three days instead of dashing.

Immersive travel is possible even in a familiar locale like Jewel, yes.

Immersive travel is possible even in a familiar locale like Jewel. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

"No place, however well we know it, stays exactly the same from day to day, or even from hour to hour," says Tony Hiss, author of In Motion: The Experience Of Travel.

"There are always different combinations of people present, or different plays of light and shadow,'' he told The New Yorker magazine.

Stationed at the 130-room Yotelair, Mr Cheesman has certainly seen Jewel in every light, doing a double-take when he first spied "Spider-Men" rappelling down the multi-storey gardens to maintain hard-to-access plants during off-peak hours.

He savours "Secret Garden" moments in the vast public spaces and the food from around the world.

His foodie list runs from Asian-European bistro Perch to Norwegian casual eatery Pink Fish to Suju Masayuki Restaurant which, when I pop by, has a whiff of a Nagano countryside inn and a private view of the waterfall.

"People tend to describe Jewel as a shopping mall, which sounds soulless. There's a lot more,'' he says. Many people still want to travel and Jewel is "the nearest we can get to that", adds the Briton, who has also worked in London, Tokyo and the Maldives.

To see the $1.7 billion Jewel from more perspectives, I join guided tours, just like I might sign up for local insider tours overseas.

Also, an architect and horticulturalist do illuminating walk-throughs with me, while insiders get me experiencing the trending Starbucks Reserve and Apple store up close.

I map a culinary journey, walk at all hours and accost random strangers, mirroring my suspended travels.

Exploring Jewel, from its abundance of nature to the 280 retail and F&B outlets and also play zones, it is easy to be transported to other worlds at a daily pace of 10,000 to 15,000 steps.

Flight of fancy in 1938

Monster Day Tours and Tour East Singapore convey highlights of the airport, with a focus on the Jewel story and a sprinkling of hidden gems, which rivet me most.

Monster Day Tours resident guide Basirun Mansor points out wooden benches recycled from the raintrees that once dotted the Terminal 1 open-air carpark, upon which Jewel stands.

At the Shiseido Forest Valley, I relish the cooler "micro-climate" of 23 deg C created by the downward draught as recycled rainwater flows through the mighty Rain Vortex.

Visitors take a selfie at the rain vortex at Jewel Changi Airport on Oct 14, 2020. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

I squint to discern how the Rain Vortex, beguilingly built around the existing Skytrain tracks, is slightly off-centre.

I am also captivated by Tour East guide Joisse Genevieve Chin's excursion, especially when she shares her secret lookout point atop the Discovery Slides, a sculptural playscape that is among the pinnacles of Jewel. It is also the best place to spy the elusive Rain Vortex rainbow, she discloses.

I love her story of bak-kwa purveyor Lim Chee Guan, circa 1938. I had not realised that the logo is an aeroplane, an aspirational symbol for late founder and Xiamen immigrant Lim Kay Eng.

How prophetic that the pioneer brand has now taken flight at Jewel.

Beauty amid pandemic

An idyllic morning is spent with Ms Nikkole Ng, a horticulturalist and manager of user experience at Jewel. Her back stories of procuring trees globally over nine months entrance me - and also her highlights of the 2,000 trees and palms and 100,000 shrubs living in Jewel.

Imported trees were pruned to fit into shipping containers. Arriving in Singapore, they were nursed back to health at an off-site nursery and acclimatised to the tropical weather over two years.

Flowers at the petal garden, canopy park at Jewel Changi Airport on Oct 20, 2020. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

Exotic species include a pair of century-old Spanish olive trees at the Canopy Park. They are whimsically topiarised so one sports a table-top look and the other is bowl-shaped.

As we tour, she shows me the mandarin ducks acquired this year, and swipes her smartphone to reveal pre-pandemic floral displays and foliage that were more brightly hued but demanded more work.

With Covid-19, plant maintenance work has been rationalised, though the ducks, paddling serenely, are an adorable reminder that beauty persists.

Air-conditioned nation

My collective experiences at Jewel, mainly this year though the newest local icon opened its doors in April 2019, got me thinking why it is another metaphor for Singapore.

Jewel is an expression of the nation's grand plan to be a world-class metropolis in a garden. It was also designed for Singaporeans to love, and that egalitarian ethos has endured as a national ideal.

Mr Mark Wee, executive director of DesignSingapore Council, takes the symbolism further when we walk through Jewel. The architect and designer was involved in some of the conceptual thinking of Jewel several years ago.

"Jewel is the perfect imagery for Singapore," he says.

It is all-Singapore in its modernity, twin push for innovation and design excellence and city-in-a-garden dream. Even the extraordinary Rain Vortex evokes tropical rain, he observes.

A visitor takes photos of the rain vortex at Jewel Changi Airport on Oct 14, 2020. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

"Within Jewel, you have a lifestyle destination and obviously, in a very controlled environment."

We riff on Jewel's DNA - it is a scion of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's "air-conditioned nation"; the engineering and architectural marvel that is Jewel is a beautiful way to brand Singapore.

Decision-makers have indicated that Jewel is like a window to "bring Singapore to the world, and the world to Singapore", he notes.

At the same time, Jewel is a signifier of national identity, where Singaporeans will continue to build bonds and memories.

As we traipse around, he comments on the local brands here, including the Supermama lifestyle store, Violet Oon restaurant and FairPrice Finest supermarket.

At FairPrice, the trolleys are lighter and aisles wider for travellers, he says. The store, which has splashes of Peranakan motifs, retails anything from plants to souvenirs.

Jewel exclusives

Other stores have Jewel exclusives too. The Tiger Street Lab is an experiential concept store that presents seasonal Tiger Beer brews and local food collaborations. You can create a personalised Tiger Beer label.

Apple had a signature photo-walk to explore Jewel and figure out iPhone features, before the pandemic. The store used to be a scene of suitcases everywhere - the global staff here communicate in 20 languages including sign - but what has not changed is that Apple stirs wonder, like Jewel itself.

Apple had a signature photo-walk to explore Jewel and figure out iPhone features, before the pandemic. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

At the artisanal flagship Starbucks Reserve, a hand-chiselled Singapore-style Starbucks Siren has a Vanda Miss Joaquim orchid in her tresses.

The store carries Jewel-exclusive pastries and merchandise, including a glow-in-the-dark tumbler with airport motifs.

I savour my tasting session at the sleek coffee-bean-shaped bar with young shift supervisors Helda Nurhanis and Lee Yew Teck, as they prepare and pair the earthy, complex Komodo Dragon Blend with tart pastries and roti prata, their passion infectious.

Cafes - and some swathes of retail - continue to flourish this year. It is heartening to see new store openings at Jewel, including Kyoto's % Arabica, whose philosophy "see the world through coffee" resonates at an airport.

Earlier, a number of high-profile food brands made their debut at Jewel, including Shake Shack, Burger & Lobster and Shang Social, even as some, such as d'Good Cafe and Cafe&Meal Muji, have exited.

Aloft, away

While I nibble my way around Jewel - stopping by South Korea's Pizza Maru and Pazzion Cafe, among others - the scenes that return to me after my 48-hour sojourn are the Avatar-style fantasy gardens.

I think it is because celebrated architect Moshe Safdie modelled Jewel after the paradisical gardens of ancient scriptures and the dreamscape of the Avatar movies - even as Jewel authentically retains the city-in-a-garden essence of Singapore.

One night, I step onto the glassy Canopy Bridge. The panels below my feet reveal the shimmering forest valley while I am eye-to-eye with the Rain Vortex.

As the man-made mist swirls, I think I have concocted my pandemic escape. Aloft at Jewel, this is the closest sensation to being away.

For more stories on exploring Singapore, go to the SG Go Where page.

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