The opening of the Marina Bay Cruise Center in 2012 put Singapore on the map of cruise-itinerary planners. The ultramodern terminal, with its angular look, is an attractive place to begin or end a cruise
As Singapore minister of trade and industry S Iswaran observed at the recent christening of the Seabourn Encore, Singapore has become the cruise industry's homeport of choice in Southeast Asia.
Administered by the British until 1963, the settlement founded by Stamford Raffles in 1819 is a cosmopolitan world city where English is one of four official languages, even though 74% of Singapore's residents are of Chinese ancestry.
North American cruise passengers braving the long flight here will find plenty to see and do on a pre- or postcruise stay in the city-state, including beautiful gardens; handsome, modern architecture; clean, safe streets; and food that is a fusion of Chinese, Indian and Malay culinary cultures.
Visitors have a wide selection of top hotels to choose from. At the invitation of Seabourn and the Singapore Ministry of Tourism, I stayed in two of them recently.
The Marina Bay Sands hotel in Singapore has three towers and share a rooftop that has restaurants and an infinity pool. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst
The first one, the 57-story Marina Bay Sands, changed the skyline when it opened in 2010.
Built at a cost of $8 billion, the 2,561-room hotel, casino, convention center and shopping complex is a piece of Las Vegas relocated to the Far East.
The hotel comprises three 55-story towers, unified at the top by a long, horizontal deck that looks like a futuristic ship. Here guests will find three fancy restaurants and a 490-foot-long infinity pool that is an icon of today's Singapore.
Swimming in the pool is a pinch-me experience. A panoramic view of Singapore can be seen from the water, which gives the illusion of dropping off the edge at 57 stories.
The pool is at its best around dawn, when the weather is cooler and guests wielding selfie sticks are not quite as numerous as they are later.
The Marina Bay Sands is the closest hotel to the cruise terminal, making it a logical choice for passengers with limited time. It also is convenient to several of the go-to attractions of Singapore.
The Gardens by the Bay is a high-tech botanical garden with plants wrapped around giant steel trees. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst
The hotel's front yard, so to speak, is Gardens by the Bay, a horticultural park with two domed conservatories and a singular forest of giant, treelike structures connected by a skywalk five stories in the air.
The metal trees serve as scaffolding for the living walls of plants growing up their sides. At night the trees are illuminated by a sound and light show.
Guests at the Sands can stroll to the gardens on a bridge from the hotel, although finding the tucked-away access point to the bridge can be a challenge.
From the Marina Bay Sands it is also a short walk to the Singapore Flyer, a London Eye-style Ferris wheel. One can also catch a small boat at the resort to take an excursion up the Singapore River.
Website rates for March start at $449 at the Sands, which comes with the bustle and hubbub you'd expect of a 2,500-room hotel attached to the world's largest atrium casino.
Street food vendors were installed in food courts when Singapore became independent in 1965. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst
For a different experience, head to the Four Seasons Singapore farther inland, which offers a quiet oasis in a shaded, parklike setting, even though it is just two blocks from the hectic high energy of the Ion Orchard shopping complex.
Orchard Road is like upper Fifth Avenue in New York, full of Prada, Gucci, Rolex and other luxury emporiums. A little longer walk will take you to one of the truly special reasons to visit Singapore: the Singapore Botanic Gardens.
Designated as a Unesco World Heritage site in 2013, the Gardens is the Walt Disney World of botanical sites, with separate subgardens for gingers, frangipani, bamboo and more. Admittance to its crown jewel, the mind-blowing National Orchid Garden, cost me all of one Singapore dollar (70 cents U.S.), making it the best bargain there, if not anywhere.
The Raffles Hotel created the Singapore Sling at a time when women couldn’t drink alcohol in public. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst
Less of a bargain, but another classic Singapore experience, is ordering a rose-colored Singapore Sling at the Long Bar of the colonial-era Raffles Hotel.
The sweet drink was created in 1915 as a discreet option for ladies at a time when they weren't supposed to drink alcohol in public. It will set you back $28, but if you've ever wanted to feel like a proper British imperialist, the Raffles Hotel is the perfect stage.
Amid the forest of modern high-rise towers, it can be hard to find the historical side of Singapore. However, several museums are worth searching out.
My favorite was the Chinatown Heritage Center, which has similarities to New York's Tenement Museum. Located on Pagoda Street in three of Singapore's distinctive shop houses, the museum re-creates 1950s-era conditions when whole families of Chinese immigrants squeezed into 8-by-8-foot cubicles.
Another worthwhile stop is the Intan, a house museum run as a labor of love by the irrepressible Alvin Yapp. Chock-full of antiques, it tells the story of Singapore's Peranakan, a subculture formed by the descendants of primarily Chinese immigrants who married local women and formed part of the elite under British rule.
Also worth a couple of hours, as much for the architecture as the art, is the National Gallery Singapore, which is housed in the creative unification under one roof of the former Supreme Court and City Hall buildings.