Sunrise at the Marina Bay district is the perfect time for a walk or some light exercise; colorful shophouse fronts as seen in these architectural details in a Peranakan—the term referring to the Straits-born Chinese or Indian neighborhood district, many of which are national heritage sites.
Traveling around the world today is easier than ever, with new long-haul routes connecting ever-farther cities each year. It wasn’t that long ago when get- ting to Singapore required two stops, a change-of-gauge flight, or multiple airlines involved just to arrive at one of Southeast Asia’s most amazing cities. Today, with brief stopovers at any of Asia’s must-see and must-shop airport hubs, getting there is almost half the fun, and much is waiting to be discovered in this multi-layered city-state. The fun really begins with exploring the parts of Singapore that locals know and love. For visitors, it may seem like venturing off the beaten path, but for locals, these are the hidden gems of their everyday lives.
With a long and rich history, replete with multiple cultures migrating from across the region, each bringing unique ingredients to add to the calabash pot, swapping power and control from era to era, yet remaining in place over the centuries and continuing to contribute to the culture, language and culinary scene. Centuries of Indian, Chinese, Malay and Indonesian—not to mention Euro- pean—migration to the city have imbued it with a true multicultural element not unlike Hawai‘i’s, which will be familiar to long-time kama‘aina. One finds distinct ethnic neighborhoods, many settled over a hundred years ago, and an intriguing localized patois, Sing-lish which delivers a dizzying assemblage of languages, slang and idioms, all within one rapid-fire sen- tence, lah. (that “lah” being the ubiquitous sentence-ender, use of which is a true signal of one’s assimilation—or capitulation?) Sing-lish is mostly English, with Hokien Chinese, Malay and Indian words thrown in for color and levity.
A visit to exotic Singapore can be just as easy as visiting any major world capital. Virtually every global brand has established outposts in the farthest-flung corners of the world—and the home of the Merlion certainly hasn’t been spared. They’re all present, bringing their familiar “corporate brand cues,” same-same products and global-genericana, and making it just as mind-numbingly dull to stay in that city’s typical tourism hub. Wake up your idea of traveling and skip the phalanx of awe-inspiring glass-tower hotels, seemingly anchored by the usual retail and dining chains that one finds, well, just about everywhere these days.
With very little hunting, one can just as easily experience true local flavors and the very fabric of life that locals weave through their neighborhoods and favorite spots. Truly experiencing this city is definitely the best reward one can get after flying half a lap of our blue marble. Its local neighborhoods invite one to step into a sliver of daily life, just for a moment. There may be an understandable reluctance to choose a place to stay in a neighborhood like Little India, where street vendors sell their curry (in a hurry) without a word of English, but look at it this way: it isn’t permanent, as most visitors do arrive with return tickets. The Little India experience is but one that’s possible in this oriental outpost, and a veritable haven awaits at one of the city’s newest and hippest places to stay; The Vagabond Club (hotelvagabondsingapore.com).
Nestled at the quieter end of a bustling thoroughfare that traverses Little India’s commerce and residential neighborhoods, The Vagabond is housed in a humble three-story building that fits right in with its red shutters and art deco awnings. At street level, the neighbor- hood’s iconic covered sidewalks were retained, allowing guests and locals alike to wander from block to block, out of the tropical sun. The property is ideally situated near heritage neighborhoods like Kampong Glam, but close enough to Downtown and Marina Bay.
Originally built in 1950, the building was transformed and reinvented into a 40-room hotel that reflects the designer’s “everything in excess” philosophy. Unexpected visual and tactile cues greet guests as soon as they step into the cool haven of the lobby. Within, once past the gold-gilded Rhino that serves as the front desk, and the life-size elephants that herald one’s arrival, the hotel delivers a luxurious “urban refuge” vibe, leveraging its authentic structure with a comfort- able and intimate lounge and restaurant, strategically draped to create cozy nooks for enjoying a craft cocktail. Upstairs, the rooms are uniquely art-filled, and executed to a degree that leaves guest wanting nothing more. Very-well-appointed rooms that go beyond one’s expectations are rarely found these days, but should there be a need, the letterpress-printed card next to the vintage-looking phone sums it up well: “Dial ‘0’ for everything” and one of the ultra-responsive and most- friendly staff will do their utmost. It felt like home being in their care, without the need to present keys or vouchers for breakfast or cocktails in the evening— they knew me by name, if not by face, shortly after my arrival, and the feeling of welcome was heartfelt.
One more bonus to staying at this gem? The surrounding neighborhoods have become a launching pad for some of Singapore’s best coffee shops, and a few blocks away is one of the most unique.It was actually a bar-side chat with The Vagabond’s chef that inspired the trek to discover this next spot. In another transformative reinvention on an art deco cluster of shop houses, the Chye Seng Huat Hardware (cshhcoffee.com) complex delivers the full “third-wave of coffee” experience, from live onsite-roasting of single origin beans, to a modern coffee bar, complete with a well-stocked selection of vinyl records and one wall of shelving made entirely from No. 4 rebar, in a nod to the space’s industrial hardware past. This third wave of cof- fee’s popularity is described as appealing to the rediscovery of the craft of coffee, far removed from the days of serving a buck-a-cup, scorched pot of drip coffee on a diner counter—that being the first wave—and retreating from the second wave, described as the more pedestrian “green-mug-soy-latte-ccino” of more recent times. Up on the second floor, there’s more for the coffee enthusiast to discover, and the staff is eager to help one refine a home-brewing method to suit one’s particular choice in morning fuel. With a space like this one’s, it would be too easy to whitewash the past and erase the patina’ed vestiges of decades of metalworking, but the current stewards of the space have been careful in melding old and new; enjoying a cup of coffee there is like reading a well-worn vintage watch, the space tells a current story, while drawing from a deep well of former times.
Once the coffee kicks in and begins to fight the effects of jetlag, one more of Maslow’s needs will begin to tug—the craving for some good food. The myriad offerings on every block might cover the midday pangs, but every trip must have at least one dinner-to-remember, if not more, and the Dempsey Hill area is where to head for that. This former British Army barracks, built in the late 19th century, with its soaring clay-tile roofs and tropical colonial architecture now house an array of restaurants and shops. At the apex of the dining options are the sister locations of Como Cuisine and the Dempsey Cook- house & Bar (comodempsey.sg).
At Como Cuisine, with chef Timothy De Souza at the helm, and with world- renowned and Michelin-starred chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s involve- ment with the Dempsey Cookhouse, writing about these places is a job that’s made far too easy: there’s not much one should say beyond, “Book your table already.” Their names are their calling cards, and their menus are the bright beacons that attract discerning diners from every corner of Singapore’s 250 square miles and beyond.
De Souza draws on his global experience in both metropolitan cities, as well as in far-flung island locales to deliver contemporary dining experiences in a modern space. With regional influences like the tandoor being brought into play, the menu at Como Cuisine will both delight and vex; never has it been so hard to choose. That dilemma is echoed steps away at the Cookhouse. Some restaurant reviews might leave a few bon mots about must-try dishes, but why?
Chef Jean-George’s menu is as dynamic as the dishes on it. Arriving early is a must-do, so that one can indulge in a pre-dinner cocktail at the bar that is situated between an incredible delicates- sen and the dining room. It is the only way to begin to delve into the details of the dishes being prepared. While taking in the magnificent space, staff members are keen to share their insights and offer up a few back-of-house tidbits that rarely make it to the typical tableside explanations of the evening’s specials.
The opportunity to travel is one that any person would be fortunate to have, and being able to visit Singapore is undeniably bucket-list-worthy. Expand that list with truly unique places to experi- ence and you’ll soon come to find that sometimes, the destination can, indeed, surpass the journey.