Once upon a time there was a smallish island nation with a biggish reputation for being a ho-hum sort of place. Its residential towers reached impressively for the heavens, but down on its streets, genuine metropolitan allure was in curiously short supply. It was clean but uptight, wealthy but stuffy, safe but – whisper it – really snoozy. A place, basically, that anyone looking for a proper good time usually made a point of transiting through, not stopping in.
And until very recently, that was the end of that tale. Today, however, Singapore is the protagonist of a more interesting story – one in which eight of its restaurants took home plaudits at the 2013 San Pellegrino 50 Best Awards for Asia, and it contemporary art fair attracts top dealers from around the world. Streets lined with once-sleepy shophouses teem at the weekends with expats and locals filling a fast-multiplying array of hotspots – and cultural and nature venues queue to make their debuts. (Even the famous national carrier has upped its game; Singapore Airlines’ cutting-edge 777-300ER fleet, which services Heathrow, offers what has to be one of the cushiest rides in the skies, outdoing even its own swanky A380s.)
Buttoned-up business types will still find their natural dining-entertaining habitat here, as they have for decades, but new chefs, offering contemporary takes on international cuisines in slick environs, are setting a new tone. All things Spanish are particularly of the moment. At Catalunya, overlooking Marina Bay, the refined tapas and killer views conspire to make a wildly popular venue – the suckling pig isn’t to be missed, as much for its sublime flavours as for the dramatic plate-smashing presentation. At Esquina, in Chinatown, a kitchen overseen by Jason Atherton turns out small plates to diners packed amiably close at the bar, while the sweet and powerful sangria flows. Just down the road, Australian chef Dave Pynt puts a creative and delectable spin on barbecue at Burnt Ends. The long, narrow space is almost all counter seats facing the open kitchen, where Pynt and his crew man the multiple grills and massive hand-built wood-burning oven. Anyone bemoaning a dearth of authentic Mexican food in Southeast Asia will henceforth have to take their whingeing elsewhere: Lucha Loco, which has buzzed nonstop since opening at the end of 2012, serves smartened-up versions of all the taquería standards, including a perfectly executed Baja-style fish taco.
One of the city’s most romantic restaurants is also one of its best-kept secrets: Luke’s, tucked away on a tiny Chinatown lane, is a masterclass in the brasserie paradigm, from the white-tile, brass-lamp decor to the menu standards (piquant tuna tartare, buttery filet au poivre, perfect fries scattered with crispy rosemary). And one old favourite radiates a notable new vibe: Les Amis, which turns 20 this year, has new chef Sebastien Lepinoy – who spent 17 years in Joël Robuchon’s kitchens – to thank for a menu that interprets Asian ingredients via old-school French techniques. The room, clad in burnished- wood panelling and black terrazzo stone, is as classically elegant as ever.
Culture is thriving here, too, thanks to a felicitous dovetailing of assertive government initiatives, private investment and genuine, grassroots creativity. The National Art Gallery, housed in the former City Hall, will open in 2015, when its 64,000-plus sq ft of exhibition space will make it Singapore’s vastest visual-arts institution. A quick scan of the participants at the Art Stage contemporary fair (held every January, and now in its fourth year) reveals names that even the layperson will recognise – including Ben Brown and White Cube. Hong Kong-Shanghai powerhouse dealer Pearl Lam felt strongly enough about the market here that she recently established a third standalone gallery in the Gillman Barracks complex. Reopened in late 2012 after a refurbishment in the region of £5m, set amid lush gardens and housing 16 contemporary galleries in its patrician arcades, the barracks are a must-stop for anyone wanting to take the pulse of the art scene. On busy Robertson Quay is the Tyler Print Institute, a learning-exhibiting space for print- and paper-making that merges serious instruction (dedicated workshops taught by masters) with serious shows (Hiroshi Sugimoto and Indonesian artist Eko Nugroho, who represented his country at the Venice Biennale, were both featured in 2013). And then there is aesthetic pleasure of the sort that equatorial nature provides, more than ever on display in this city. The strangely beautiful, hyper-contained Gardens by the Bay won’t appeal to all (though the Cloud Forest dome, with its 35m-tall “mountain” and eddies of rainforest mist, are quite an achievement). Singapore Botanic Gardens, on the other hand, offer a universally appealing 74 hectares of heritage-tree forest, as well as herb and orchid gardens, various lakes and miles of paths and trails (runners note: it’s among the only such gardens in the world open from 5am to midnight year round).
Retail therapy in Singapore can feel a bit of a rote pursuit, consisting primarily of navigating the big-name brands in the Orchard Road malls and the Marina Bay Sands arcade. But quirky, independent shops are to be found – a couple of notable ones, interestingly, in that most touristed of Singaporean locales: the Raffles Hotel Arcade. Front Row is the anti-big-brand emporium, featuring, among others, the eponymous line by Hermès womenswear artistic director Christophe Lemaire, Karen Walker, Bangkok-based Flynow and the first standalone APC store in Southeast Asia. Surrender, just down the corridor, is a favourite for local dandies (it has one of the largest Thom Browne collections in Asia), while both sexes champion the whimsical designs of former ad-exec-turned-metalsmith Carolyn Kan, who sells her Carrie K jewellery out of a cosy shop and studio on Bukit Timah Road; she has just launched a fine jewellery range, made with precious metals and stones, as well as a bespoke line.
A few of Kan’s designs are also on display at Strangelets, in the low-rise Tiong Bahru district. A pleasing edit of jewellery, stationery, tableware and home accessories, Strangelets is matched in sheer charm by BooksActually, which is handily located right next door – and still, after nine years and four location changes, is Singapore’s most original and delightful booksellers. (Its own utilitarian-chic line of hand-cut and -printed stationery, Birds & Co, makes excellent gifts).
By year’s end, the hotel scene here will be generating its own share of excitement. The Patina, Capitol Singapore, an über‑luxurious boutique property housed in the city’s grand Capitol Building and Stamford House will debut in December; and property developer Satinder Garcha acquired the four-star, listed Berjaya Hotel last year and has engaged Anouska Hempel to reinvent it as a five-star heritage boutique property called Blakes House, smack at the centre of Singapore’s nightlife zone, Duxton Hill.
Of the city’s current top hotels, two really earn their stripes: The Fullerton Bay Hotel, with its cinematic views over the three towers of the Marina Bay Sands complex, flaunts contemporary good looks matched by spacious, well-thought-out rooms, a youthful staff and a lively afternoon-tea scene on the ground-level promenade. The rooftop lounge, Lantern, catches a lovely breeze most days – the ideal spot for a sunset aperitif. The other is, of course, Raffles: its old-school interiors may not be able to compete with The Fullerton Bay’s marble-and-glass dazzle, but the hotel is still grand, still wears its heritage impeccably and still offers the best and warmest service to be found in a city that is not particularly known for those things. Meanwhile, the St Regis’s opulent interiors and spot-on location near the top of Orchard Road bring in a loyal clientele, as does its very glamorous spa, complete with Bastien Gonzalez nail clinic.
And for those wishing to escape the skyscraping closeness of town, Sentosa Island is your destination. The Norman Foster-designed Capella Singapore features rooms by Jaya Ibrahim, a lovely pool and gardens that cascade down to the sea. Squint, and you just might think you’ve found a bit of resort-style tranquillity; but you are still in the heart of a city whose snoozy days are a thing of the past.