Out of this world: The disorientating delights of Singapore

Singapore cityscape. (Shutterstock)
Updated 17 October 2018

Out of this world: The disorientating delights of Singapore

  • Singapore feels like a vision of the future
  • A dreamlike sense of utopia accompanies the city

AMMAN: More than anywhere else I’ve visited, Singapore feels like a vision of the future. Sure, there are cities with taller skyscrapers, faster trains and a more fervent embrace of LED lights, but there’s something about the uniform modernity, efficiency — and, yes, cleanliness — of the southernmost Asian Tiger that seems like a very particular glimpse of an imagined sci-fi world. There is certainly nowhere else on earth you can stroll through a simulated cloud forest, in the world’s largest greenhouse, and be back at the roulette table, or sleeping in a five-star hotel, within minutes.
All this is possible within Singapore’s ultra-modern waterside core, which radiates outwards from the skyline-hugging, S$8 billion, Marina Bay Sands resort — an imposing row of three skyscrapers linked by the 340-meter SkyPark. Such brazen disregard for the rules of nature have led to inevitable comparisons with the Gulf’s vertiginous post-globalized metropolizes (which are not always unfounded — the Sands bears more than a passing resemblance to Abu Dhabi’s The Gate Towers).

In front sits the ultra-modern, and excellent, ArtScience Museum, its curved outcrops shaped to resemble a lotus flower (or an open hand). Behind you’ll find the beguiling Gardens by the Bay, a 100-hectare stretch of exotic vegetation that has no business in a tropical climate, punctuated by giant dancing steel “supertrees” serving a nightly lightshow. The real freakery takes place inside two huge ticketed greenhouses, the technicolor splendor of the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest, which eerily simulates climbing a mountain. If feels, of course, nothing like a real forest — but an imagined reconstruction by post-apocalyptic survivors.
But Singapore’s architectural and horticultural conjuring is only part of the story. A sense of post-national futurism feels stamped in the spiritual DNA of the place. Singapore has four official languages — but non-native English is the most widely understood, with 80 percent fluency. In this imagined future, a global tongue overcomes all tribalism.
Singapore’s fabled orderliness really is a thing. After a few hours in the country, spotting a discarded cigarette butt feels like proof of a minor insurrection. It’s notable that one selling point of the famed Long Bar at Raffles Hotel — established in 1887 and named after the Brit who founded the city — is being allowed, nay encouraged, to throw peanut shells on the floor, in some arcane colonial ritual. Fun has never felt quite so organized.
Leisure takes place where and when its supposed to, such as on Sentosa — a former POW camp brutally used by the Japanese in World War Two, now a resort island that’s home to 14 hotels, two golf courses, Universal Studios Singapore and the city’s second casino. A five-square-kilometer super-real whirl of primary colors, it’s hard to imagine a more artificial environment outside of Disneyland.

This dreamlike sense of utopia accompanies one across the city. Most unnerving is a visit to the much-hyped Chinatown, Little India and Arab Street — traditional neighborhoods which have been brazenly gentrified into sanitized tourist attractions. Strolling through the former, I look up at rows of brightly colored banners waving from every window of an apartment building. What looked like a vibrant display of individuality unraveled when I realized every banner was of a uniform size and placement.
But this could teach the Gulf’s rapidly modernizing cities a valuable trick: Rather than decimating low-income neighborhoods, often home to colorful communities — give them a clever name and market them as cultural destinations. Who wouldn’t want to visit Mini Manila or Little Lagos, after all?

Hello Helsinki: 48 hours in the Finnish capital

The Finnish Capital, Helsinki, shot from above. (Shutterstock)
Updated 19 November 2018

Hello Helsinki: 48 hours in the Finnish capital

  • The best way to explore the city center is on foot, walking around beautiful, clean streets and taking in the fresh air
  • The best-known landmark is Senate Square and its surroundings, which make up the oldest part of central Helsinki

DUBAI: Access to Helsinki has just become easier for Gulf travelers thanks to the introduction of a new route from the UAE to the Finnish capital. Last month, budget carrier flydubai launched its Dubai-to-Helsinki flights, offering the best connection from Saudi Arabia as well.
Our first port of call after the six-hour trip was the utterly enchanting Hotel Kämp, arguably the best-known hotel in Helsinki — after all, it has been around for over 130 years. The classy, comfortable five-star property is known as a place to see and be seen.
While there, do check out Kämp Spa, where saunas are, of course, available. (There are almost as many saunas as there are people in Finland.) Kämp Spa offers two options: the eucalyptus-fragrance grotto steam sauna and a traditional Finnish one.
The best way to explore the city center is on foot, walking around beautiful, clean streets and taking in the fresh air. The best-known landmark is Senate Square and its surroundings, which make up the oldest part of central Helsinki. You can take in the glorious architecture of Helsinki Cathedral, while also viewing the Government Palace, the main building of Helsinki University, and Sederholm House, Helsinki’s oldest building, dating back to 1757.

For shoppers, Helsinki is home to one of the world’s most exciting and influential design scenes, and a treasure trove for unique pieces. Try TRE, which stocks over 300 brands of well-known classics as well as mostly homegrown products — including fashion, jewelry and furniture — from new designers.
Be warned, though: Helsinki is expensive. Very expensive. So you’re probably better off investing in a cool design piece for the home rather than the usual gifts and gadgets. You’ll leave with something memorable that’s high-quality and, of course, unique.
For something on the quirkier (and cheaper) side, second-hand clothes store UFF has chains across the city, where you’ll find some gems that are as good as new.
Dining out in the city also doesn’t come cheap, but it is an experience to savor. For casual snacking, The Old Market Hall sells cheese, beautifully fresh fish (we’d recommend the salmon), fruit and veg, and has cute little cafés.

For dinner, it’s worth treating yourself. Garden by Olo is an official ‘spin-off’ of the Michelin starred Olo and serves Nordic ingredients fused with Asian elements.
One of the newer eateries on the block is Restaurant Andrea at the newly opened Hotel St. George. Here, Nordic and Anatolian kitchens come together to offer a variety of sharing plates, inspired by both cuisines.
If you fancy taking in some of Finland’s stunning scenery, head to one of the national forests close to Helsinki. Nuuksio National Park — forests and lakes spread over Espoo, Kirkkonummi and Vihti — is easy to get to by public transport, and features eight marked trails for hiking in the freshest of air.

If you are visiting for more than a couple of days, then it is well worth exploring Lapland, the official home of Santa Claus. You’ll need to take a one-hour flight from Helsinki to Rovaniemi.
If time is tight, try a reindeer sleigh and husky sled experience, where you can interact with the animals on farms and enjoy rides through the snowy forests.
There’s so much more to see and do than is mentioned here, of course. We’re sure we’ll return to Finland one day, it’s definitely a trip worth making. Just don’t forget to pack your thermals.