Posts in the “Singapore” category...

Singapore Changi Airport and The JetQuay

by Continental Club on May 1, 2009  |  Leave a comment

After the wind-from-sails-removing in-flight experience, all hopes were pinned on the arrival arrangements in Singapore being altogether more impressive. And so they turned out to be. A wheelchair was waiting at the 777’s door, with a pusher whose job it was to shove GCC no further than the other end of the jetty. Here, two drivers with attendant buggies stood to attention, ready to whisk us off to Changi’s on-airport CIP (Commercially Important People) Terminal – JetQuay.

It was a race between these two Ayrton Sennas of Arrivals through Terminals Three and Two, parting a Moses-like path through the sea of early-morning travellers, who’d hitherto been enjoying a leisurely browse of the duty free emporia. With a remarkable lack of self-awareness or embarrassment, we just about managed to avoid smiling and waving at the blurred hordes and we finally rolled up at the entrance to JetQuay. So far: so fun.

A wheelchair was already waiting there and we descended into the Jet Quay lobby, calmed by waterfalls and fountains and decorated with abundant orchids.

Immigration formalities are completed in a private room with no queue, and then passengers are escorted into the lounge area to partake of drinks and/or food as desired.

The facility is used by both arriving and departing passengers and there are numerous seating and meeting areas, televisions, PCs, WiFi, showers and a buffet area.

JetQuay is a privately-run enterprise which integrates seamlessly into the Changi operation. There are differing levels of service, including one which includes limousine transfer from aircraft to lounge, but all are open to all passengers – upon payment of the appropriate fee, of course. It’s an excellent facility – really first class – but it seems somewhat perverse that JetQuay operates at one of the World’s already most efficient and otherwise painless-to-use airports, rather than the myriad selection of will-sapping hell-holes with three-letter IATA codes that litter the rest of the globe. Oh for JetQuay at JFK (that’s a request, by the way, not a comment.)

Arriving passengers have their luggage receipts taken by a member of staff for a porter to retrieve any cases, and deposit them unseen in any onward transport which has been arranged. Only when the luggage is safely stowed in the car outside are the passengers then invited to leave their calm surroundings and head to the hotel-style porte-cochere for their swift and discreet departure.

Along a private drive and through unadorned gates, and we’re out into a Singapore morning in some style.

The more eagle-eyed amongst you will have noted that the waiting transport was far from a brace of minicabs, so things were continuing to look up significantly……


The St Regis Singapore

by Continental Club on May 1, 2009  |  Leave a comment

It has been lightly reported in minor journals that the World is quietly progressing through a spot of financial upset. Apparently some smaller, mostly insignificant, corporations are at risk of marginal revisions to their growth trajectories.

Sitting in the back seat of the second car in a Bentley Continental Flying Spur convoy, carving through the sparklingly dew-laden early-morning streets of Singapore, chauffeur’s cap on the dashboard and hotel’s logo finely embroidered on the rear of the baby-soft cream leather front seat headrests, it’s not immediately apparent that the foundations of capitalism are shaking around us.

The only sense of limitation is that these most finely-crafted of Crewe creations, each capable of 314kmh, are reined in to a maximum of 90kmh on even Singapore’s speediest stretches. Which is tedious.

Driver announces that we are seven minutes from the hotel, inaccurately as it transpires. Perhaps due to unexpected traffic-light phasing, arrival is 6 minutes 43 seconds later. Sloppy, I would say.

Now, why was the arguably off-pitch St Regis selected in the face of such exalted alternatives as the Mandarin Oriental or the Four Seasons, the garlanded Shangri-la Valley Wing, or even Singapore’s iconic Raffles Hotel? Why, having read a couple of merely very good, but not superlative, reviews of this most recent addition to the city-state hotel scene had I still decided to entrust them with the aged clan?

Well, for one, we’re all different, with different priorities and expectations, and reviews should always be read (are you listening?) circumspectly on that basis. Secondly and more importantly however, I have a theory about service provision. It’s not fashionable, and my much-published friends at Cornell, Cranfield and Harvard tend not to grab headlines with management books on the subject, but in my experience the single most important characteristic demanded by the vast majority of consumers is: reliability. The fact that there is so little satisfaction with general levels of service provision is a reflection of what I call ‘The Rarity of Reliability’. You heard it here first.

The books, of course, all talk about ‘excellence’ because we live in an age where marketing dictates that a message without superlatives is uncommercial. Well, excellent is not good enough for me – reliability first, then build to sustainable excellence.

Which is where Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc., comes in. Few outside the industry have heard of the company, as they trade under non-corporate brands. Far more will recognise Sheraton, but the stable includes Westin, Four Points, Aloft, and W Hotels amongst others.

Each is tailored to appeal to a different demographic, or to sit more happily in a given geographic location and, right at the top of this carefully brand-managed tree sits St Regis.

Starwood makes no secret of the fact that they believe St Regis is a worthy competitor in the Four Seasons, Ritz Carlton, Mandarin and Peninsula stratosphere of hotel accommodation and, in many ways, they’re quite right. Certainly, from a room-rate point of view, there can be little to distinguish between them but, and this is only my experience to date, St Regis has a tendency towards the more individual, dare I say it: old-fashioned style of hospitality.

They’re definitely American, but rather more John Jacob Astor than George Walker Bush.

So, from the Four Points by Sheraton in Kamloops, British Columbia, to the Lanesborough in London, Starwood have proved in their dealings with me to be the most reliable of hotel operators. That I have an affinity with the grand and slightly more iconic style of hotel brings St Regis into sharper focus and, frankly, why would I spend my money with a company other than one which has done most to develop my loyalty over many years?

Just as well, then, that the St Regis Singapore had managed to open its doors a mere 15 months in advance of our arrival. Time enough, hopefully, to iron out any early kinks and ensure that everything on the snagging list has been attended to.

Sweeping onto the hotel forecourt, it might have been supposed that minor royalty or senior diplomats were expected and that we would be flagged to a side entrance to ensure no let or hindrance. Except that the retinue there-waiting was primed and prepared for nothing other than to welcome two claret Bentleys and their long haul cargo of self-loading freight.

Observe therefore, if you will, those members of the hotel staff visible in this hastily-taken snap, not forgetting those just out-of-shot ready to handle doors and luggage. Note also that, ever-so-slickly, a wheelchair was ready and waiting, despite no prior knowledge on the hotel’s part that one would be required.

At little after 7am, two adjoining rooms had been prepared and made available, at whose doors our Butler was on hand to add to the growing throng of gracious hosts. Inside, platters of breakfast pastries and freshly pulped juice, personal letters of welcome from management and the discreet presentation of a single piece of paper to sign as a check-in formality.

As the last of the staff completed their duties of haulage, explanation and welcome and ebbed away from the rooms, the huge, vault-like doors were clicked shut and a welcome peace, tranquillity and respite from hours of travel washed over this motley crew of pensioners and their passepartout.

Unlike many other properties in the chain, the Singapore edifice is brand-new and purpose-built, a shimmering collection of sky-bound towers and a Guggenheim-esque barrel clad in stainless steel. Its modernity seems in no way to compromise the obvious fact that this property is very much a hotel in the grand tradition – exemplified by contemporary sculpture backed by rare 19th Century Chinese silk wall-hangings.

Vast expanses of marble floor are crafted in the most ancient manner and yet seem to display a lightness and finesse that suits their avowedly 21st century setting.

Carpets seem at first-glance to be of traditional luxury, but closer inspection reveals frankly remarkable detail and even, in the case of that draping the grand staircase, the most discreet LEDs embedded in the weave of the treads and risers, twinkling ever so slightly.

Ceilings and internal windows in the public areas pay homage to the art of the glass-stainer and metal-worker,

– with stunning chandeliers and light-fittings sailing in the manner of vitreous galleons beneath celestial support.

You’ll have guessed by now that I rather like this hotel.

Grand Deluxe Rooms are spacious and well-appointed, incorporating a Bose sound system and with a media interface discreetly located beneath a flap in the writing desk – through which an iPod or USB connection can be made.

The entrance lobby to the room plays host to a comprehensive bar housed in an elegant sideboard and, reflecting the juxtaposition of the modern and the traditional in the public areas, the otherwise genteel guestrooms are also home to such features as clear acrylic occasional tables, polished metal lampshades and contemporary glass lamp stands.

The bathrooms, similarly, combine chandeliers, polished wood and centrepiece free-standing baths, with the very latest LCD televisions built in to expansive mirrors and massaging multi-jet showers.

And our view looks across to the Shangri-La.

Dining in the hotel is spread between the lobby lounge Drawing Room, the large main restaurant, Brasserie des Saveurs – with dancing fountains beyond its floor to ceiling windows, an open-kitchened Italian, La Brezza, and the upper-floor Yan Ting Chinese. The Astor Bar is an atmospheric spot for an aperitif or one-for-the road, but Decanter represents the hotel’s principal destination for the discerning imbiber, with 1500 wine labels available and daily tastings for hotel guests.

Breakfast and Afternoon Tea arguably vie for the accolade of most-notable culinary features of the hotel however, both of which are served in the grand surroundings of Brasserie des Saveurs.

Breakfast is a particularly happy combination of cold buffets with seemingly never-ending selections of cereals, fruits, charcuterie, patisserie and the like, which are laid out with abundant choice but careful quantity, so that they are constantly freshened and replenished. Cooked options are offered a la carte, ensuring the highest quality. Uniquely in my experience, the hotel also offers amuse bouches at breakfast and, throughout service, there are regular offerings of breakfast canapés brought to table – a most memorable addition to the norm.

Afternoon tea is also a hybrid affair. Hot selections of quiches and pastries, or Dim Sum, are delivered direct from the kitchen, along with sandwiches, wraps and generously proportioned scones. Cakes and confectionery are displayed on a tiered cascade from which only modesty and the need to be able to walk afterwards can prevent the diner from ensuring his or her rapid removal to the nearest bariatric ward.

Indeed, this level of consumption renders the hotel’s fitness facilities essential, and the gym is a well-featured space with regular attendance by staff to ensure supplies of headphones, water and towels are maintained both at the entrance and at each individual machine. Polished apples are also available for a fast fructose hit.

The gym sits between the spa and the outside pool which, whilst far from vast, has been intelligently designed to allow both laps and paddling –

– with a selection of day beds and sun beds alongside, including some which are partially submerged for stress-free toe-cooling in the equatorial heat.

Staff are on hand to dispense iced water and chilled facecloths, and dainty fruit kebabs.

Indeed the staff members, as is so often the case, were the real icing on this Starwood cake. Undoubtedly professional and trained to exacting standards, the over-riding impression is of a group of people who are exceedingly proud of their place of employment.

The ex-Four Seasons doorman, fulsome in his praise of his former employer, could barely disguise his delight in having secured his new position.

A Receptionist, Starwood Graduate and member of the team since opening, could not have been a more enthusiastic ambassador for the property, whilst all the time maintaining an air of calm assurance that reminds one that these people are not mere service-providers. They are those who, in Bombay and Islamabad most recently, are our first line of defence as hotel guests – and we benefit from far more than mere smiles and help with our bags in times of challenge. Were there to be flood or fire, tempest or terror, I have to say that I would feel immensely secure in the care of these people – and that, with a family in tow, is a priceless comfort.

More banally however, I was immensely impressed by (and grateful for) the staff’s ability to handle a relatively complicated booking, which had to be amended on a couple of occasions pre-arrival, and their discretion in dealing with the check-out process and looking after MCC and FCC who were to depart on a slightly later flight than GCC and I. I might also, finally, add that I considered the value for money, under the circumstances, to be absolutely exceptional.

Final Verdict for the St Regis Singapore: 9.0/10. The staff were wonderful, the location peaceful but still accessible with Singapore’s cheap and plentiful cabs, the guest rooms luxuriously comfortable and the hotel in general elegant and detailed, impressive yet unintimidating. A fine contemporary interpretation of a grand city hotel.


Flyers & Flowers – The Heights and Horticulture of Singapore

by Continental Club on May 1, 2009  |  Leave a comment

Despite years of travelling to and through Asia, Singapore had been touched by these toes only momentarily and then merely as a transit-passenger at Changi in 1992. Repeated attempts to discover the city had been thwarted by time, itinerary or funds and yet, despite having made numerous attempts, my research and knowledge of the place was limited mostly to Raffles Hotel and, well, actually to Raffles Hotel.

A swift pre-departure trip to Borders, and the acquisition of the latest addition to this traveller’s collection of the glossily-descriptive Insight Guides, had helped to thrash out some ideas of an itinerary and so, once the bathing delights of the St Regis had been sampled and a WiFi connection secured, an online booking for the latest local attraction – the narrowly London Eye-beating Singapore Flyer – was made. The booking being all the more impressive thanks to the lack of the usual tedious ‘online bookings must be made a minimum of 14 days in advance’ kind of guff that seems an all-too-prevalent demand of Sales Prevention Departments the World over. None of that here and the booking is confirmed for 90 minutes hence.

The wheelchair which we have been gifted by the hotel for the duration of our stay (again, full marks for that) is unfurled and readied for perambulation and off we set for the lobby and the summoning of some suitable cabbery.

No Bentleys this time, but a perfectly serviceable Hyundai and we’re heading through the city streets in no time. In fact, so rapid is our progress that we arrive at the big wheel almost an hour before our scheduled departure time. The ticket office has the booking on-screen and we are invited to fly early if we wish. Now, honestly, why can’t the rest of the World work like this? (OK, the wheel broke at New Year, but apart from that, why can’t the World work like this).

From the air-conditioned pods, the view out across the harbour is expansive, and most of the landward sights are easily identifiable. We’re blessed with a relatively clear day as we look across to Merlion Park, the Fullerton Hotel and Boat Quay.

Wheelchair access is, as one might expect of a modern development, very good, although entry to and exit from the pods requires the complicity of a staff member to temporarily arrest the rotation and then assist with the control of the chair up and down the adjacent ramps. They’re well-versed in the procedure though and therefore most helpful.

Another cab ride from the rank outside takes the family CC to Merlion Park for a view back towards the Flyer, and to inspect at close-quarter the statue fountain after which this park of terraced paving is named.

It’s then a pleasant walk along the Singapore Riverside (with one small hiccup in the wheelchair access) to join Boat Quay for a (sanitised) view of Singapore in times past, with the restored ‘Shophouses’ lining the river bank. Trade was clearly far from brisk however as the waterside restaurant patios were largely empty and the touts desperate to fill some seats. The price of Chilli Crab being a useful barometer of catering desperation, declining as it did with every passing step.

Crossing the river by way of Elgin Bridge, the opposite bank of the river from Boat Quay plays host to both the contemporaneous Singapore Parliament building, and also the earlier, colonial, Old Parliament House.

It’s here that the City’s founder, Sir Stamford Raffles came ashore, at the creatively-christened ‘Raffles Landing Site’.

There’s a nice statue to commemorate the man, should you otherwise have missed the almost ubiquitous local application of his name, including to some most unlikely commercial endeavours.

Cavenagh Bridge, whilst incorporating a set of wheelchair-eating grilles at either end, presents a useful means of returning to the Boat Quay side of the waterway and, passing the charming Chong Fah Cheong bronze sculptures of bathing children, rocking up at the portico of the Fullerton Hotel and cheekily enlisting the assistance of a doorman to hail a cab.

Next on the list, after ginger beers at the St Regis and a rest and revive, is Singapore’s Botanic Garden. The hotel proves ideally situated, just a few minutes walk/push from the garden gates for this, the highlight of our attendant Percy Thrower-on-castors’ tour of the tropics.

Our particular target is the World-renowned Orchid Garden, for which GCC has Googled that pensioners can benefit from special concessionary entrance fees. Which, to me, seems a remarkably uncommercial offer, since surely the vast majority of visitors will be, how can I say this: over the hill. Surely it’s the carers and providers of pushing power that should get the discount?

The gardens are, even to this horticultural philistine, quite beautiful and far more interesting than I’d have expected. What a relief that digital photography has been invented though; the cost of developing the billions of snaps GCC was reeling off from his (un)steady cam would have been astronomical.

A grand day out, anyway, but the combination of undulating terrain and high 90s humidity rendered the Casa Verde park café in the distance the most singular of targets, and the sinking of the nectar labelled as ‘Tiger Beer’ a relief not yet achieved by any prescription pain-killer.


Peace, Tranquillity and Tongue-in-Cheek? Sentosa Island

by Continental Club on May 1, 2009  |  Leave a comment

Guarding the entrance to Singapore’s Keppel Harbour is an island which, for many years, was known as Pulau Blakang Mati which, in Malay, translates as the somewhat difficult to market ‘Island of Death from Behind.’ Myths and legends abound as to the origin of the name but, few disagree, there was probably more than some justification for it since, for many years, this 5km long island, fourth largest in Singapore after the main island, was considered uninhabitable.

The second most famous myth surrounding the island relates to the British surrender to Japanese forces in February 1942. Allegedly, the British fort at Siloso was orientated to guard from maritime invasion only and not, as would prove the Japanese strategy, a land-based assault from the North. The British fort, it’s said, had guns which could only fire offshore and could not be rotated landward.

While there may be justification for the Island of Death from Behind sobriquet, there is in fact none whatsoever for the British guns pointing the wrong way. They, like any of their type, were fully rotatable and did, in fact, offer up the strongest defence that they could. Aligned correctly they may have been, but ultimately Singapore was grossly under-defended and, on 15th February 1942, in the Board Room of the Ford Motor Company’s factory in Singapore, the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese was signed at 5.15pm and Pulau Blakang Mati became a prisoner of war camp.

With a far from rosy history then, the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board held a competition in 1972 to rename the island, with the winning entry being Sentosa – this time meaning Peace & Tranquillity in Malay – and a long term project to develop the island into a tourism and recreation amenity for locals and visitors was begun.

Today, with around five million annual visitors to this tiny speck of rainforested rock, neither peace nor tranquillity are words which immediately spring to mind.

The island lies 500 metres off the main island of Singapore and is reached by road, cable car or the Sentosa Express monorail, which departs from the 3rd Floor of the newly-opened Vivo City shopping mall. It is, again, a surprisingly swift cab ride from the St Regis on Tanglin Road, skirting the CBD and down to the waterfront.

The monorail ride is equally brief, though less as a result of any break-neck speed and more that it has relatively little distance to cover across the water, through the single intermediate stop and finally to the line’s insular terminus at Beach Station – which is at, erm, the beach. Oh, how their creative minds must have ached over naming that one.

A good deal more consideration has been put into the interchange facility at Beach however, with an easy transfer available to the island-wide bus system. The buses are free once visitors have paid to access Sentosa, a fee which is usefully included in the monorail ticket price.

The Blue Line bus calls first at Imbiah Lookout before heading to Siloso. The destination bus stop is immediately outside Underwater World which, having nothing with which to compare it, appears an interesting enough family attraction – especially the moving walkway which propels visitors at a uniform pace through the acrylic tunnels.

Less family-friendly but far more culturally and historically diverting is the aforementioned and now-restored Fort Siloso. It’s a short walk from Underwater World to the ticket office, from whence a ‘tram’ bus facilitates the ascent of the hill up to the Parade Yard.

Many of the buildings have been restored to their wartime appearance, if not condition. There are exhibitions and documentaries to take in, as well as tunnels and look outs, gun emplacements and arsenals.

Some of the recreations are augmented by wax-work figures – the translucent skin tones unusually conveying quite accurately the sweaty pallor of those who would have been stationed there.

It’s certainly a worthy reminder of the privations suffered by so many in the past and upon which the modern day, air-conditioned, polished, scrubbed and orderly Singapore is actually founded.

There are numerous hotels and resorts on Sentosa and it’s impossible to miss World Resorts, which is under development on the Northern side of the island, through which the monorail passes. When complete, it will include hotels, shops, restaurants, a somewhat controversial casino and an outpost of the Universal Studios theme park chain. All that said, Sentosa remains for most a day-trip destination, and the actual peace and tranquillity of the St Regis seems a welcome respite from the building work and visiting hordes on the Island of Death from Behind.


Wimoweh? The Lions (Get No) Sleep Tonight – The Singapore Night Safari

by Continental Club on May 1, 2009  |  Leave a comment

It may seem a curious, if not foolhardy, suggestion to propose venturing into equatorial jungle in the dead of night, wearing nothing but tourist togs and with nary a bullwhip or elephant gun in sight. Yet, night after night, hundreds of untrained, ill-equipped holiday makers do just that and, what’s more, they pay handsomely for the privilege. Then, having apparently risked life and limb, they go on to vote the experience one of the top attractions in Singapore.

There’s nowt so queer as folk.

The Night Safari next to Singapore Zoo might, on the face of it, sound like a somewhat unlikely attraction but, no, dusk after dusk as the city becomes swathed in darkness, hundreds (if not thousands) take cars, cabs and coaches out of town and into the lightless rain forest.

There, they queue and then board open-sided road trains to tour the nocturnal habitats of some of the World’s most reclusive wildlife. There’s a live commentary though thankfully no backing music; the only Tight Fit being into the train itself. The vehicles proceed at little more than walking pace through the gloom, pausing periodically for what is, in all fairness, a rather unique viewing experience.

To all intents and purposes, it seems that the lions’ meadow is quite open to the visitors in their unprotected state. However, the cloak of night disguises deep ditches and concealed fencing that together conspire to keep watcher and watched quite separate.

Expect to see, along with the lions (though not in the same enclosures, obviously) rhino, hyena, deer, giraffe, anteater and gaur. Don’t expect to be able to take photographs however, as the lighting is almost non-existent and flashes would clearly startle the animals.

The heat, humidity and darkness are an oppressive combination though, and our discomfort was compounded somewhat by the breakdown of a road train ahead, which took some time to resolve. The discomfort did serve to remind us of what it must have been like for those WWII servicemen who were forced to work and fight through the jungles of the Malay peninsula in much worse conditions. Suddenly, a short delay in at least a seat seemed very much less concerning.

Access to the tour is gained via a large entertainment, shopping and dining complex, which is revisited again upon completion of the sight-seeing circuit. It’s mostly open air and there are circus acts and fire-eaters, a rather incongruous (if not plain inexplicable) suspended vintage aircraft and tateramas aplenty.

No need was felt to detain ourselves in this hot and somewhat sweaty cash-extraction facility, so we made for the exit and found a cab straight away. Again, the St Regis proved usefully situated for this particular excursion; being on the zoo side of the city saved a good 20 minutes of travelling time on the way, if a little less on the return, quieter, journey.

Overall, despite it being expensive and a bit of a tial, I’m pleased that we’d seen it.


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