Beat the long-haul blues

Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Beat the long-haul blues
Singapore by night.

If you want to break a long flight to Europe, Singapore may be the solution. Mike Dolan takes stock and looks at some of the Lion City's best hotels.

I'm yet to meet anyone who enjoys 23 hours in the oxygen-deprived, paper-dry atmosphere of a cramped aircraft, but it's the fate that awaits most of us on a long-haul flight to Europe.

Nine to twelve hours in such conditions is bearable — 24 is not. There's a simple solution — the stopover.

You can't beat Singapore for this. It's one of the safest, cleanest and most efficiently run cities in the world.

Its airport has scooped every award worth winning and research shows the time it takes passengers to "deplane" and get through immigration is one of the fastest of any international hub.

A metered taxi to the city takes 15-20 minutes and you'll never have to haggle over the fare or insist the driver put on the meter. This is Singapore, after all.

Once refreshed in your hotel room, you may have time to stretch your legs around the cultural hubs of Little India or Chinatown. Or you may stay in and dine at your hotel.

Most flights to Europe depart late the following evening, so there's an option to sleep in or spend a day exploring the Lion City.

So why Singapore and not the Emirates' Abu Dhabi and Dubai? With their whiff of Middle-Eastern promise, these twin cities seem beguiling.

All those shiny skyscrapers rising out of the desert, the camels plodding across the dunes at sunset, the repro souks, circa 1999, and their glitzy designer shopping malls, where everything looks like Versace, tempt some travellers.

Impressive at first, yes, but on further acquaintance, these cities seem a little desperate to impress. No wonder they've both been dubbed Arabia's answer to Disneyland.

Come to think about it, those camels must be tourist props. No self-respecting Emirati would ride one unless there were tourist dollars at stake; they prefer their SUVs and only the latest models will do, thank you.

Then there's the little matter of the flight's first leg — 15-16 hours from Sydney to Dubai without a break ("May I have another cushion, please"). Compare this with the seven hours to Singapore from the east coast and the Emirates option seems a little grim.

I'm not saying these cities aren't great destinations in their own right. They are, but all that glitz and razzmatazz could give the eager-to-see-it-all-in-a-day tourist a headache.

Singapore's charms, in comparison, seem a little more soothing. And that's a good feeling to have on a stop-over.

Depending on your budget, here is a selection of Singapore's best hotels.

Ibis on Bencoolen $$+
170 Bencoolen Street (+65 6593 2888; www.ibishotel.com)
Just around the corner from Little India, this affordable gem provides chic on the cheap. Its rooms are small, but so artfully designed they seem spacious. The corridors are dull, but the lobby, bar and restaurant sparkle, especially the restaurant, Taste, which offers a selection of iconic Singaporean dishes — three tastes for $15, four for $18 and five for $22 and that's Singapore dollars. You can feast on laksa, fish curry with roti pratta, sweet and sour prawns, chicken rice, pepper crab and roasted duck to mention a few of the dishes — and they're delicious. The staff is efficient and friendly and the bellboy will always hail a taxi in minutes when you want to zip back to the airport. It's also perfectly located for a walk around Little India, so stretch those legs.

Marina Bay Sands $$$$$
10 Waterfront Avenue, Marina Bay (+65 6688 8888; www.marinabaysands.com)
Undeniably spectacular, this mega-hotel with its 2561 rooms and suites packs a great visual punch. Now a firm fixture on the Singaporean skyline, its ship-shaped terrace — which is longer than the Eiffel Tower — sits majestically on top of three 200-metre high towers. Adorned with a water park of palm trees and a series of swimming pools, it attracts Singaporeans in their thousands. Blessed with a dozen restaurants and countless designer shops, it's more metropolis than hotel. The views are unparalleled, but so are the queues for breakfast, which isn't surprising with thousands of rooms and one breakfast buffet in the lobby. Its publicity blurb proudly states four-and-a-half 747s could be parked on top of it. On my visit, all I wanted was some furniture on my balcony and a seat from a Jumbo would have done very nicely. The suites are worthy of their five-star rating, but the standard rooms lack warmth. Don't miss out on a meal at chef Justin Quek's Sky on 57 restaurant — it's eclectic dishes are unforgettable and so is the chocolate bar.

The Fullerton Bay $$$$$
Clifford Pier,80 Collyer Quay (+65 6333 8388; www.fullertonbayhotel.com)
For proof that size doesn't necessarily matter, look no further than this glamorous 100-room hotel on the other side of Marina Bay. It's an astonishingly beautiful five-star establishment; a temple to inspiring design, courtesy of Andre Fu. Fronted by a glimmering glass facade, the hotel's impressive 17-metre wide lobby joins onto Clifford Pier, a heritage site that saw the arrival of thousands of Singapore's early settlers. Immigration halls seldom brim with warmth and vitality, but this intimate hotel does. The colours, materials, bespoke furniture and superb use of space caress the senses. It's known as the sassy younger sister of The Fullerton. It sits on stilts over the bay — the only pier hotel in the city. In the rooms are magnificent beds, sumptuous fabrics, rose wood, lattice screens and balconies with water features, but the highlight is the rooftop Lantern bar that surrounds a 25-metre pool with views of the night-time dazzle of the Singaporean skyline. The Clifford restaurant serves international cuisine and is excellent. Once you enter this glass-encased jewel case, you'll be reluctant to leave.

The Scarlet $$$+
33 Erskine Road (+65 6511 3333; www.thescarlethotel.com)
A two-minute walk from Chinatown and the Temple of Heavenly Bliss, this hip hotel is housed in a converted terrace of 14 Chinese shop houses, circa 1868, filled with sumptuous baroque decor in many shades of red, black and gold. Its public spaces are very theatrical, but impressive. It has 84 rooms with soft leather and velvet furnishings, seductive drapes, chandeliers, flat-screen TVs, wireless and cosy bathrooms. The Desire restaurant serves international breakfasts, but rather uninspiring fare for lunch and dinner; the Bold bar is the place to pose and preen; and the roof terrace cafe/bar offers cocktails, seafood platters, barbecued meats under the stars. Its corridors are dark and cave-like, so a torch could come in handy, and some of the rooms are small and stuffy. Others have a touch of Versailles.

Budget: Hotel 1929 $$+
50 Keong Saik Road (+65 6347 1929; www.hotel1929.com)
In the heart of Chinatown's former red light district, two minutes walk from MRT underground station, Hotel 1929 offers funky retro-chic in a four-storey, light-filled heritage terrace, circa 1929, with vintage chairs in lobby (Eames, Jacobsen et al). Budget prices attract aspiring artists and architects, older backpackers and anyone in search of style at budget prices, good value considering the 32 compact rooms each have bold Marimekko fabrics, broadband, flat-screen TV, CD player and mosiac-tiled bathrooms. Don't miss out on the French-Asian fusion food at Embers restaurant, with its floor-to-ceiling plate-glass view over a bustling Chinatown street.

Novotel Clarke Quay $$$
177A River Valley Road (+65 6338 3333; www.novotel.com)
The success of this new Novotel rests on two masterstrokes — simple, elegant design and a convenient central location. This hotel — with its spacious top floor pool deck — overlooks the Singapore River and Clarke Quay with its lively restaurant strip. The rooms have flat-screen TVs, high-quality beds and the best big breakfasts for the price in town. Stretch the legs and make an evening of it by exploring the bars and restaurants of Clarke Quay.

The Fullerton Hotel $$$$$
1 Fullerton Square (+65 6733 8388; www.fullertonhotel.com)
As exquisite as any Parisian palace hotel, this is the grand madam of Singapore's hotels. An independent, one-off establishment, The Fullerton's charisma and superb position make it the first choice of well-heeled globetrotters and business executives alike. Overlooking Marina Bay and the Singapore River, it's within easy walking distance of the city's colonial and business core. Once the central post office, it has been spectacularly converted into a five-star establishment with deluxe rooms that overlook the river, the bay and an internal courtyard. On a first-floor terrace is a lap pool and al fresco restaurant with intimate views of old Singapore — the perfect place for an early swim and breakfast before the humidity of the day builds up. Jade restaurant offers some of the most innovative Chinese cuisine in South-east Asia. It's sensational.

Your say: Where is your favourite international stopover destination?

Video: Jowett Yu's guide to Singapore

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