I’m an outdoorsy kind of person who is big into his mountains, forests and wide-open spaces but every now and then, I like to up gear a notch or three and spend a few days in a big city. It’s not just because of the change of scenery, shopping, nightlife or even the infinite choices available in which to eat or be entertained. There is an energy that such places generate and I’ve yet to figure out exactly what it is. Is it real or imaginary? When we think of such urban spaces, we tend to think of iconic skyscapes such as New York, Hong Kong or even Shanghai or Dubai as we associate such places with progress, the future and the likelihood that that is where more and more of earth’s population will be living in 20 or thirty years from now.
Currently, according to the United Nations, 54% of the world’s population lives in urban areas and this percentage is expected to increase to over 66% by 2050 so the curve is only going in one direction. The urban population of the world in 1950 was 746 million whereas it was estimated to have grown to almost four billion by 2014. Cities often get a bad press and sometimes for justifiable reasons: decay, pollution, crime, diminished quality of life and so on but I’m here to tell you that when the planners get it right, urban conurbations can be magical places.
I recently had the pleasure of spending a couple of days in Singapore. I had briefly visited the city state a few years ago on a stopover whilst en route to New Zealand but I knew that I had only scratched the surface. This time, I was determined to explore the city in a little more detail and what I found was one of the most enchanting places in the world. The city lies just 85 miles or one degree north of the Equator at the very southern tip of the Malayan Peninsula from which it gained independence in 1965. It is one of the most densely populated areas in the world with a population of 5.6 million crammed into an island just 278 square miles in area. Imagine squeezing the entire population of the island of Ireland into a space smaller than Co. Louth which, at 319 square miles, is the smallest of Ireland’s 32 counties!
Lying at that latitude and longitude, Singapore is blessed with an almost perfect tropical rainforest climate where the average temperature all year round is in the high eighties. Humidity is high because of the abundant rainfall but not oppressively so and the cities’ numerous parks, public spaces and major thoroughfares all boast abundant trees and plant life. The first thing that you notice about Singapore once you start exploring it on foot or at street level is that it is extremely clean and litter free. Everything is kept immaculate and the city enjoys an unrivalled public transport system which is cheap, regular and always on time. Despite the dense population, I never saw a single traffic jam, even though there were major civil engineering projects going on all around the city.
Taxis are cheap and abundant; the shopping is off the Richter scale in terms of sheer choice and although not particularly cheap, will certainly not put off any Irish shoppers willing to indulge! Singapore is a multi-cultural city where ethnic Chinese, Indians, Malays and European, Australian and US ex-pats all mingle freely and where English is the lingua Franca. They drive on the left-hand side of the road and all street signs are in English so there is a sense of familiarity about the place. The population is young, dynamic and extremely friendly and you are made to feel at home the moment you land at Changi airport.
I loved everything about the city: the futuristic skyline and amazing buildings such as the iconic Marina Bay Sands which is surely one of the eight wonders of the modern world; the people; the shopping; the cleanliness; the sense of feeling supremely safe; the eclectic choice of things to do and places to see — China Town; Little India; Clarke Quay; Sentosa Island; Universal Studios; the amazing Gardens by the Bay. I could go on but then you’d simply assume that I was on the payroll of the Singapore Tourist Board (which I’m not, by the way!) It’s been a long time since I’ve come away from someplace feeling sorry to leave and looking forward to the next time that I return to carry on where I left off.
The downside? There’s only one and it’s the time it takes to get there as, let’s face it, Singapore is a long way away but trust me, any visit there will be worth the effort. People tend to think of Singapore simply as a stopover destination on the way to somewhere else. I was guilty of that perception myself. I now believe that Singapore has more than enough to amuse, impress and satiate even the most jaded palate and if you’re tired of New York; bored with Dubai and are looking for the next big thing in long-haul city breaks, then take my word — you won’t want to miss what Singapore has to offer!