Travelogue – Singapore

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Raffles Singapore

 

After five weeks in Australia I was ready for a change. Singapore is a great city – clean, cheap to get around in either public transport or taxi (our taxi back to the airport was only £7!), plenty of temples and museums for culture vultures and with great nightlife and restaurants on the river for nights out.

For this visit I was lucky enough to stay at Raffles, the most iconic hotel in Singapore (some may argue that Marina Bay Sands is taking over this mantle but having now stayed at both, Raffles is winning the battle in my view). On arrival I was greeted with a Singapore Sling, not my usual type of cocktail but delicious. Raffles has had many famous guests and especially pride themselves on the number of writers and journalists who have stayed there. The Writer’s Bar is by the lobby and is a tribute to such former guests as Noel Coward, Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham. This is an all suite hotel, even our lead-in room had separate entrance hall, bedroom and living room. The location is super central – we walked to the river in ten minutes and from there easily across into Chinatown taking in Boat Quay.

A walking tour is the best way to get to know the real Singapore. Ours was through SneakPeek (sneakpeeksingapore.com). We met our guide, Darren, at the Asian Civilisations Museum close to the river. The group was a mix of British, Americans and some local Singaporeans (it’s worth noting that Darren gets a lot of locals on his tours – definitely one for a more authentic feel!). This is a free tour, apart from an optional $5 to access a viewing deck at the end of the tour, and lasts for four hours (there are a couple of rest stops along the way). Darren is a student hence why this tour only runs on a Saturday. He relies on tips and definitely earns them.

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Singapore River

 

The tour began along the river. Darren carries a Mary Poppins style bag with him – it looked like a normal courier bag but during the course of the trip he produced several props to help him explain Singapore history, fans for those who were a bit hot and local snacks for us to try. First we learned how Singapore came to be, along with the story of how Sir Stamford Raffles really managed to set up a British port here by taking advantage of a severe case of sibling rivalry. Darren showed us how the city was built, much of it according to Chinese beliefs, so that Boat Quay sprang up as that section of the river resembled the belly of a carp therefore leading to wealth and prosperity.

Crossing the river, we moved into Chinatown. Many buildings in this district are now heritage listed. Because of this many of the shophouses that Singapore is famous for are still protected. Within reason these can be painted according to the owner’s preference so there are many colourful examples.

We visited a couple of temples here, one smaller one and the much bigger and quite tourist heavy Thian Hock Keng temple. Dating back to 1842, Chinese immigrants came here to give thanks to Ma Zu, goddess of the sea. Around one third would perish on the voyage from southern China and so those who made it to Sinagpore were truly thankful. When Raffles arrived here in 1819 the population of Singapore was only around one thousand, mainly indigenous Malays. Within fifty years the population had grown to over 80 000 and over half were Chinese.

As well as swelling in terms of population, Singapore has also grown in size. At Telok Ayer MRT station Darren showed us old photos showing the old coastline and how land reclamation had changed the profile of the city. Land reclamation is an important part of future planning in the city with already around 20% of Singapore having been reclaimed from the sea. We had a rest stop at Maxwell Food Centre (recommended for anyone wanting to visit an authentic hawker centre for local food) before going on to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) where Darren used to work as an intern.

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Model of Singapore city at the URA

The URA City Gallery may sound boring but is actually fascinating. It’s free to enter and open six days a week. There are several models of the city on three levels. All buildings in Singapore have to be agreed with the URA, down to the colour of the glass used on the windows. In the picture above you can see all the current buildings, then the plain brown buildings at the top which have not yet been constructed. We also saw how the island has changed and grown over the years, and the process used today in reclaiming land for further building.

Our final stops of the day were at two public housing blocks. Darren took us to an older style block where the lifts only stop on every other floor! Following World War II and the Japanese occupation, the severe housing shortage resulted in many Singaporeans living in slums, with several families living on each floor of the shophouse style buildings pictured above. Without proper sanitation diseases such as cholera were rife. These housing blocks were built from the 1960s onwards and are much cheaper to buy than private homes. There are very strict regulations for buyers though – families and married couples are vastly preferred so single buyers would find it almost impossible to access public housing.

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Skyline view from Pinnacle @ Duxton

 

 

From the older style building we went to see The Pinnacle @ Duxton. Only a few years old, the Pinnacle is seven connected towers of 50-storeys with a total of 1848 units! Residents have free access to the Sky Garden on the 50th floor but tourists can go up there for only $5, much cheaper than most other viewing points in the city.

That was the end of our tour. though Darren was happy to take people back to Outram station or point out directions for those wanting to head off on foot. We went back down to Ann Siang Hill and Club Street, still in Chinatown. and had a few drinks. Clarke and Boat Quays are very well known for nightlife but I preferred this area. Drinks in Singapore aren’t cheap – be prepared to pay $80 minimum for a bottle of wine (at the moment the rate is approx. $2 = £1 so…). but the atmosphere was excellent, reminding me of Lan Kwai Fong in Hong Kong. From there we managed to walk back to Raffles fairly easily via the river. Overall a great way to see the city when on a tight timescale.

 

Travelogue – Cape Tribulation and Daintree

From Melbourne I flew up to Cairns and then took a one hour transfer to the tourist town of Port Douglas. For anyone visiting the region who is not sure of the best place to stay, think about what activities you’re likely to do.

Cairns – The main city and gateway to the region. Perfect if you’re a backpacker – there is a choice of cheap accommodation from dorms to apartment style. If you want nightlife and drinking until the early hours then this is the place for you. On the other hand, most of the big 5* chains are represented here: Pullman, Shangri La, Hilton etc so if you prefer big chain hotels then this is ideal. The downside is that there is no beach to speak of (people talk about the lagoon but really it’s just a public outdoor pool).

Palm Cove/Northern Beaches – There are several small towns around 20 minutes north of Cairns which would be good for beach lovers who don’t want to transfer too far. Think low key and quiet, though they have more of a local feel. Trinity Beach is great for families and most accommodation is apartment style. Palm Cove is quite upmarket, mainly 4-5* resorts and apartments.

Port Douglas – A compact town set on Four Mile Beach. There are a couple of big resorts out of town (Sheraton, Pullman, etc) but most accommodation in town is owner-operated giving a more personal vibe. Macrossan Street is the hub – choice of restaurants, bars, supermarkets and shopping. Reef tours depart from the marina in town and you can be in the rainforest in less than an hour.

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Daintree River

I stayed at the 4.5* Shantara Resort & Spa on Davidson St, just a 2 minute walk to Macrossan St. My apartment was a good size with full kitchen and free access to laundry facilities. March is still classed as rainy season so the town was still quite quiet with a few businesses closed until Easter weekend.

The highlight of my time here was a day trip to Cape Tribulation, Daintree and  Mossman provided by Down Under Tours.

Pick up was a civilised 8.20am in a comfortable 4WD vehicle (this tour has departures from Cairns, Palm Cove etc but these will be up to an hour and a half earlier) and it was a leisurely drive with commentary up to the Daintree River.  We had morning tea here and took a one hour cruise along the Daintree River whilst our tour guide took the ferry to meet us at the end. Usually on these cruises you can spot a crocodile or two but as we were at the height of wet season they were all the water. We did see a snake, quite a few birds, and our guide was very knowledgeable about the mangrove ecosystem and the history of the area.

 

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Alexandra Lookout

 

Once on the other side of the river it was a short drive up to Alexandra Lookout – the view above was taken in misty conditions but it shows the Daintree River flowing out to the Coral Sea.

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Cape Tribulation

 

As lunches on group tours go, this was one of the best. We stopped off at Noah Creek, right in the heart of the World Heritage listed Daintree rainforest. There was a short walking trail along the side of the creek before we reached the BBQ area. There was steak, sausages and fish, all cooked fresh (we didn’t have any vegetarians in our group but all dietary requirements can be catered for), plus a range of salads and sauces.

From Noah Creek we weren’t far from our most northerly stop of the day: Cape Tribulation. This headland was named by James Cook after he encountered a number of issues in the area. Although the beach is spectacular it is home to crocodiles and also box jellyfish during the wet season so not really for swimming!

 

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Mossman Gorge

Our last stop of the day was at Mossman Gorge. We drove back south, taking the cable ferry across the river and back into civilisation. We stopped at the visitor centre first, a new development that aims to provide an authentic indigenous experience. The traditional owners of the gorge are the Kuku Yulanji people and we had a short welcome ceremony and talk. After afternoon tea in the café (this is a great place to buy local produce such as tea and honey) we took a shuttle bus into the gorge itself, around a 5 minute drive. Once there we took a short walk on one of the rainforest trails and ended up by the edge of the Mossman River. Currents are strong and although it can be ok for stronger swimmers, on this particular day we had been advised not to swim (due to the high water level), though as usual there were a few people out in the water.

From here it was an short drive back into Port Douglas. I’d definitely recommend this day tour. You could self-drive it as well but for anyone actually interested in the rainforest flora and fauna, and the history of the area, I don’t think you’d have anywhere near the same experience.

Travelogue – Great Ocean Road

Next on my itinerary was Melbourne, Victoria. Again, a city I’ve visited before. The one day trip I was really keen to do was the Great Ocean Road. This drive is one of the most famous scenic drives in the world. It starts from Torquay, a surf town around an hours drive from Melbourne, and finishes around 250km west near the city of Warrnambool. I did this as a day trip with Bunyip Tours and there are several other local operators. For those who have more time it’s worth hiring a car and staying in local B&Bs and guesthouses in the pretty coastal towns along the way. On reaching the end of the GOR many people continue on to South Australia to visit Kangaroo Island, Adelaide and the wine regions, otherwise there is the option to loop inland and take in the Grampians mountain range and the Goldfields region.

There’s also a lot of 19th century history associated with this route. Many European migrants travelled to Melbourne as their first jumping off point in Australia. The road itself is also known as the world’s largest war memorial, having been built by those who returned from, and dedicated to those who were killed in, World War I.

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The beach at Lorne

 

The day tour does make for a long day – 7am pickup to return approx. 8pm – but there are plenty of scenic stops. Our first one of the day was Lorne, an upmarket coastal town 90 minutes drive out of Melbourne. There is a wealth of accommodation here so a good stop-off for a self-driver. A good tip would also be to try and avoid Australian school holidays, especially over Christmas/January period which is the long summer break, as these towns become flooded with domestic tourists and holiday home owners. I was here off peak and there were still a fair number of people around!

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Koala hiding in a tree at Kennett River

 

Our second stop was at Kennett River, not the most exciting place, but all the day tours stopped here. I imagine the main reason is so that everyone gets to see a koala as this area is well known for being one of the best spots to see one in the wild.

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View from the top of Cape Otway lighthouse

Our lunch stop was at the Cape Otway lighthouse, the oldest surviving lighthouse on mainland Australia, its lamp having been first lit on 29th August 1848. Cape Otway was often the first sight of land for 19th century migrants from Europe after months at sea. The Bass Strait collides with the Southern Ocean at this point, making the waters particularly treacherous, and before the lighthouse was built the many shipwrecks led to hundreds of lives being lost.

 

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Port Campbell National Park – 12 Apostles

 

The highlight of the Great Ocean Road is a sight of the Twelve Apostles (although there were only ever nine and now only eight after one of them collapsed in 2005). They are spectacular, a collection of limestone stacks formed by erosion. Due to the popularity of the site, there is a well-organised system of lookouts here and its possible to take a helicopter to get an aerial view. I’m not a fan of helicopters so I gave this a miss, but there were three or four in the air at any one time and the photos were worth it (prices were also very reasonable).

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Loch Ard Gorge

Our final stop of the day was at Loch Ard Gorge, just five minutes or so down the road from the Twelve Apostles. This spot is named for the Loch Ard,  a clipper ship which ran aground in 1878 on its way from England to Melbourne. Of fifty four crew and passengers only two survived. It’s a beautiful spot with several walking trails and the beach you can see in the picture above. The perfect place to cap off a great day

Travelogue – Sydney

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Sydney’s most famous view

Just a quick update on Sydney – as this was my fourth visit I didn’t really do a lot of touristy stuff even though I was there for a week. This trip was mainly for shopping, seeing family and catching up with an old friend.

 

I split my stay between two hotels – the Swissotel and the QT. Both hotels are 5* and located on Market Street, in the heart of the shopping, but they are very different hotels. One thing common to both: free wifi! There is a lack of free wifi available in Australia in general (even in Starbucks you need to ask for a code which allows you 60 mins access) so this is essential. Also, both hotels had minibars with reasonably priced drinks! I actually bought a bottle of water in a shop (admittedly right on Circular Quay) which cost more than the water in my room at the Swissotel. I chose to split my stay as each hotel had a deal on but not for my full stay so to get the best price it made sense. I would sum up each hotel like this:

Swissotel = large, corporate, full health club with spa, gym, pool and has everything you need

QT = boutique, trendy, great service, FREE in-room movies, great bathrooms

I did book one tour – the Kings Cross – Crime and Passion tour booked through Intrepid Urban Adventures. I hadn’t spent any time in Kings Cross on my previous visits and this tour was a great way of not only learning more about Sydney history but hearing stories of more recent crimes and local notorious characters. I had a great guide and would highly recommend this tour.

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Ferry coming in to Watsons Bay

 

At the weekend I went to Watsons Bay with my cousin and his family. We drove as were coming from north of the city but I have visited before via the ferry which is a scenic way of getting there from the CBD. Most of the tourist hopper boats stop here as well. Next to where the ferry comes in is Doyles which is a famous seafood restaurant. It’s a pretty spot, very popular with weddings and there were a lot of families down there as it was such a nice day.

My highlight of the week was finally getting to a performance at the Sydney Opera House. Although I’ve done the tour of the building – twice – I have never quite timed my visits right to go to the opera. Thankfully there was a performance of The Pearlfishers on the Tuesday evening which I managed to get good seats for at a reasonable price. Of course, the building is incredible (and can be a bit tricky to navigate as there are several venues within it, a little like the National Theatre) and there is more leg room in the seats than the average London theatre. We were in C reserve seats (top are A), so middle of the road, but had a perfect view and once the auditorium doors had closed the ushers came round and let everyone know they could move up to any empty seats in a better position. As far as the opera itself, it was enjoyable with a great set and strong performances. Even as far as opera storylines go the plot is thin, with only one instantly recognisable duet, but the dramatic conclusion makes it worthwhile.

Next stop: Melbourne