The key to a successful family holiday in Singapore, we quickly realise, is to draw up the kind of daily itinerary you might have followed when backpacking around Asia in those distant days before children. Then halve it, and halve it again.
It’s a wonderful thing, applying the rhythms of slow travel to a city as bustling and on-the-go as Singapore. It’s also a necessity, as the heat often makes us feel as if we’re walking through invisible velvet curtains.
And so, having planned a day trip to the Arab quarter we end up only spending two hours there — and we enjoy ourselves all the more for it. Seeing the Malay tombs beside the banyan trees on Victoria Street lets us — the parents — discover something new in a city we already know well. Afterwards we wander back, following the five-foot ways to the Kampong Glam Cafe where my daughter Hannah swigs teh tarik (tea with condensed milk) and brings the glass down on the Formica table in a manner that I suspect foreshadows her future solo forays abroad. We buy some parti-coloured Peranakan spoons and that’s it for the day. Back to the hotel.
It’s a scenario we play out for the next nine days. Early one morning I take my son Thomas for a walk in Fort Canning Park, high on my list of favourite municipal parks across the world. We explore the fig trees and pick out exotic woodpeckers and giant snails. After an hour, we amble downhill and buy a lychee juice at Ah Teng’s bakery in Raffles. With its rattan chairs, and newspapers fixed to poles, I’m delighted to find the cafe retains the essence of the Far East from my first visit 20 years ago.
We’re certainly helped by our choice of hotel. The Shangri-La may be one of the smartest addresses in town, but it’s also refreshingly unstuffy and child-friendly. The pool is huge, the lifeguards become friends and the leafy gardens are wonderful for playing hide-and-seek.
Over the course of our stay we meet families en route to somewhere, anywhere but Singapore. They’re often incredulous that we’re here for so long. But Singapore is the perfect introduction to Asia. As a city, it works: you can drink the water, eat the food, get around by taxi and not spend hours haggling over a fare or being taken to a brother’s carpet shop. When travelling with children, this instantly cuts your stress levels by 95%.
All the hawker centres are great hits. The favourite is Maxwell Food Centre, in Chinatown, which gets top marks on account of its fantasy world of fruit juices — we visit time and again so that the children can experiment with combinations of strawberry, mango, kiwi, pineapple, dragonfruit and papaya. Keeping sugar and water levels high in steamy Singapore is not something to worry about.
The show-stopper of the holiday is the new and still-sprouting Gardens by the Bay, which resembles Kew Gardens and the Eden Project combined, on steroids. We follow a coiling route around a dizzying indoor waterfall draped with orchids and gawk at the Supertrees — towering artificial trunks that form a walkway from where you can enjoy the signature cityscape views of Singapore.
Having scaled the heights of the Supertrees without incident, we head for the Singapore Flyer, the big wheel that slowly spins high above the marina. We discover too late our youngest child Oscar has a fear of heights. Thirty minutes with a petrified, hysterical seven-year-old ensue. Afterwards we calm our over-heated infant down with a bumboat trip, a high-spirited ferry ride down the Singapore River, beneath a series of elegant bridges and revamped colonial-era buildings. The landmark Merlion statue and the Fullerton Hotel are rather theatrically set against the magnificent backdrop of the central business district.
Our last foray is to the night safari at the zoo, and this proves a hit for all three. My wife and I are a little chastened — we came here before children and found the zoo tram and commentary corny. Now we find it heart warming, well-intentioned and fun, if at times a little goofy — which sums up our family trip to Singapore.
Who: Mark and Lucy Rowe and their children Hannah (10), Thomas (8) and Oscar (7).
Best for: Kids aged 7+.
Highs: “I loved the amazing high buildings and the multi-coloured lights of Marina Bay because it looked cool at night. They were really fab.” Hannah
Lows: “I didn’t like the loud hammering music along Clarke Quay but I liked seeing turtles in the river there.” Thomas
Need to know: Take the kids for a day on the island resort of Sentosa. Amid much tat, the Marine Life Park’s S.E.A. Aquarium and Adventure Cove Waterpark will keep all the family entertained. There’s no malaria but check before you travel for an update on dengue fever.
How to do it: Western & Oriental offers a 10-day twin centre trip to Singapore and Bali, staying at the Shangri La in Singapore. Prices start from £1,649 per adult and £829 per child.
Alternative: Penang and Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
Published in the Winter 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller Family (UK)