Marina Bay Sands: Move over Merlion, Singapore has a new icon

Culture | by Aimee Groom
Posted: April 2nd, 2011 | Updated: May 11th, 2011 | Comments
Marina Bay Sands_View from Merlion A year ago, China Travel editor Stephan Larose made his way to the southernmost reaches of the South China Sea to Singapore, reporting back on some big changes that were afoot in the tiny island city-state's tourism industry. In the past Singapore—an increasingly popular destination for Chinese travelers as well as foreigners living in China—is beginning to shake its reputation as an uptight conservative business hub as its rich cultural heritage gets ever more interest where before it was overlooked. It's a place that has managed to seamlessly meld together a vast number of different ethnicities and nationalities over its long history, having been first a Malay sultanate, then a British trading post and colony and finally becoming a sovereign state in 1965. Now, we may be "China Travel" but with 74.2% of Singapore's cultural stew being of Chinese descent, we like to think of of the Lion City as an part of the Chinese world, culturally speaking, and for anyone wanting to get a look-in at Chinese culture in all its globalized glory, it really does makes for a great destination. Find out more after the jump.... Even now, many travelers consider Singapore as little more than a pleasant stopover en route to elsewhere, but its vibrant culture, tropical climate, green and clean environment, plus increasingly relaxed attitudes and new government-sponsored initiatives (such as casinos and Integrated Resorts), the island state is  challenging that preconception, and it's working. But don't just believe us, believe the numbers: there's been a 20% overall increase in visitors since 2009. Last month I was fortunate enough to be part of a group of China-based media invited to witness the Grand Opening ceremony of the ArtScience Museum at Wonder Full accompanied by a tasting tour of some the culinary delights on offer from the seven celebrity chef restaurants that grace its 581,400 square meters (6,258,000 square feet). Over the next few weeks I'll be dipping in to the experience to introduce the Marina Bay Sands Resort, the sister-site to Macau's Venetian Hotel & Resort, looking at how Marina Bay Sands is quickly making its mark as Southeast Asia's hottest luxury playground, along with a few other choice Singapore attractions. We'll also take a look at some of the myriad delicious dining options in Singapore and—because no matter how you look at it, this place ain't cheap—how to do Singapore on a shoestring for those without a big budget to blow.

A mega-hotel for Marina Bay

So, let's start with the Marina Bay Sands itself. This resort is nothing if not mega, its raison d'etre to be Asia's leading destination for business, leisure and entertainment. Housing 2,561 luxury rooms and suites, 1.3 million square feet of convention center, a luxury shopping mall, more than 50 dining options, two state-of-the-art theaters, the ArtScience Museum and two major international nightclub names soon to open their doors. The rooftop Infinity pool and the world's largest public cantilever viewing deck, which offers 360 degree views of the city, are just the icing on the 57-story cake. In less than a year of existence, the Marina Bay Sands has welcomed a whopping 11 million people through its doors and has transformed both Singapore's tourism landscape and skyline forever.  For me, the building itself is of the love/hate variety. Architecturally its magnificence cannot be denied; its three, sloping towers holding up a single sleek platform like something out of Star Trek look surreal at night, bathed in ever changing swathes of colorful light. On the other hand, there's also something a little sinister about the way it looms alone over Marina Bay and the surrounding CBD. An imposing guardian of the seas, it seems to say "move over MerLion, there's a new icon in town." All that is quickly forgotten though, once you get inside its imposing walls. Even more so when you reach the 57th floor Skypark where the thrilling views quickly cast such ideas to the back of your mind, replacing them with a childish sense of glee as you rush about gasping at the fabulous views across city and the sea, and the on-top-of-the-world sensation that comes of being the tallest thing around. But its not just sensational height it's got going for it—let's check out a few of the Marina Bay Sands' other highlights.... Marina Bay Sands_Skypark 3

Reach for the sky

The rooftop "Skypark" is phenomenal, with arguably one of the coolest swimming pools in the world. An Infinity pool 200 meters high, its 150-meter length is fringed by palm trees and sun loungers, perfect for watching the sun go down over Singapore's glimmering skyscrapers with a cocktail in hand. The rest of the enormous deck is a combination of lush greenery providing much needed shade for the loungers and jacuzzis that face seaward, overlooking the hundreds of giant tankers that lie like tiny Tonka toys, scattered across the carpet of water far below. Though the pool is a guests-only affair, anyone can take advantage of the birds-eye views with a public elevator whisking visitors up Tower 3 and onto the enormous cantilever observation deck that overlooks the Singapore F1 track and Singapore Flyer below. Plush bar-cum-club-cum-poolside restaurant Ku De Ta is perched at one end, its sleek design  and decadent beats putting the style into what is hailed as the city's hottest lifestyle venue. Singapore_streetfood

Dine with the stars

Singapore is certainly no slouch when it comes to food and a friendly "Have you maken (eaten) yet?" is a common greeting for Singaporeans—an echo of their Chinese ancestry and the Mandarin greeting "Chi guo le ma?" that has now passed into mainstream Singaporean culture. From fine dining to hawker stands, Singapore has a plenty to offer, but even so, the Marina Bay Sands has upped the ante, bringing not one, not two, but seven celebrity chefs into its dining fold: Guy Savoy, Wolfgang Puck, Tetsuya Wakuda, Justin Quek, Daniel Boulud, Santi Santamaria and Mario Batali. The "Magnificent Seven" were all in town for the Grand Opening and it was with great sadness that they bade farewell to one of their number, Spanish superchef  Santi Santamaria, who suffered a heart attack in his restaurant and passed away during the event. A bon vivant to the very end, the larger than life chef had said just hours earlier: "I have discovered that to eat is a vice of a good life—it is an addiction." His passion for food could never be doubted and he leaves behind an already incredibly successful restaurant that is packed night after night and a legacy in the form of a program at the Singaporean Culinary School to promote his native Catalonian cuisine. Such a wealth of talent under one roof (albeit a rather large roof) is quite a feat, and the promise of such culinary heavyweights was one of the linchpins of Las Vegas Sands' successful bid for the contract. Between them there's a diverse range of fine-dining experiences on offer (though, in keeping with their luxury location and international names, they favor larger wallets and deep pockets when it comes to check time). However, they are all fabulous and if time, money or expense accounts allow, then go. Here are just a few tasters to whet your appetite.... The godfather of Nouvelle Cuisine, Guy Savoy represents the classic French fine dining philosophy with the finest of ingredients and impeccable service—be sure to try the artichoke and black truffle soup with toasted mushroom brioche and truffle butter... the pungent truffle flavor explodes through the silky textured soup as you crunch into the mushroom brioche. Delicious. Waku Ghin_Tetsuya_Wakuda_Marina_Bay_Sands_2 Waku Ghin is Japanese chef Tetsuya Wakuda's only restaurant outside of Testuya's, his world-famous Sydney establishment. In Singapore, Wakuda's creative genius stretches beyond the kitchen to design,with a clever and multi-faceted use of space. Accommodating just 25 guests, Waku Ghin moves them from room to room with each course. It's an almost home-style experience (if you happened to live in a beautiful yet minimalist apartment designed by JZA+D and employed a team of private chefs) as diners begin their evening in an intimate lounge for pre-dinner drinks and aperitif. They then move through four private dining rooms where skilled chefs prepare succulent delights from a European-based-yet-Japanese-influenced menu, and finish up with dessert, coffee and digestifs in a drawing room with stunning floor-to-ceiling views across Marina Bay and the city beyond. The creative menu draws on ingredients from both hemispheres, because as Wakuda points out: "being based on the equator, Singapore is in a great position to enjoy equally fresh produce from both sides of the equator," which means he can play around with innovative combinations of seasonal foods not usually found together. Chef Daniel Boulud is somewhat more prolific, and the Marina Bay Sands locale of his dbBistro Moderne is the latest in a long line of restaurants that span continents, even putting in an appearance in China with Beijing's Maison Boulud. A casual but elegant joint with lots of burgundy red leather and smoky mirrors, dbBistro Moderne Boulud blends traditional French bistro-style cooking with an American twist. Most people will tell you to go for his signature dish, the dbBurger, a beef patty stuffed with foie gras. I tell you to go for the madeleines which were hands down the lightest, airiest and most delicious bite-sized bits of spongy goodness I have ever tasted, served in bowls of cleverly folded white linen and ever-so-lightly dusted with icing sugar. Yum. Marina Bay Sands_The Shoppes_TWG Tea

Time for tea

Wading through the the luxury of The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands can be thirsty work, and if you're in need of a break to mull over whether you really need another pair of Tiffany earrings or just want to take the weight off your Jimmy Choos, then I've got just the place for you. TWG Tea (it stands for the "The Wellness Group") sits on a mezzanine floor as you head toward Tower 1. Perched over the mini canal that runs through this wing of The Shoppes, TWG is an open-air olde worlde tea shoppe with a mind boggling array of teas on offer and something to suit every palate. I sampled the romantically named "Silver Moon," a green tea with a hint of red fruits and spices, while my companion sampled the rather more robust-sounding "Dragon Warrior,"  a blend of black and blue (who knew?) teas with a hint of fruit and floral flavors which she claimed to be something akin to Earl Grey. Both were SGD 11 per pot. It being the perfect time for Afternoon Tea, we further indulged in some scones with delicious tea jellies and cream and some madeleines which, though they didn't quite live up to the successes of the previous night, made a nice accompaniment to the many cups of tea consumed.

It's a Wonder Full life!

Twice a night (three times on Fridays and Saturdays) the waters in front of the Marina Bay Sands come alive as music fills the air and the water literally dances, filled with light and the fantastic visual effects of lasers on jets of water that surge out of the bay. The brainchild of CEO Michael Leven, the Wonder Full light water and sound show was turned into reality by the man who brought you the Guinness World Record breaking "Symphony of Lights" in Hong Kong, so you know it's going to impress. The concept—to "tell the story of life"—may be a bit too cheesy for some, but it's an event that should be seen at least once, if only for the grand finale as strains of Old Blue Eyes' "It's a Wonderful World" fill the night sky. ArtScience Museum_Wonder Full_MArina Bay Sands

ArtScience Museum

In a final flourish, architect Moshe Safdie has created the ArtScience Museum, which stands beside the hotel, making for a great visual sidekick with its curving, upward-grasping fingers providing a complement to the Marina Bay Sands' three massive legs, firmly planted on the ground. LVS Chairman Sheldon Adelson said the Singapore government got a "twofer" when they signed them up for the project, landing a duo of iconic buildings on their waterfront, and there's no doubt the museum is already a significant part of the skyline. As the hotel interior, Safdie has built works of art and sculpture into the building itself, creating, for example a massive hand-like structure whose palm forms a runoff for rainwater that feeds into a constantly recycled cylindrical waterfall sculpture. Inside are a number of unique and challenging gallery spaces where curved walls and soaring ceilings put curatorial creativity to the test. The permanent ArtScience Gallery pays homage to its namesake, a concept that Safdie stated "emerged from the desire to create something completely new in Singapore. The idea that art and science are not completely separate is very current right now and we embraced it." This embrace involves a long-term exhibition examining the nature of art and science and how creative minds throughout the ages have brought the two together with the likes of DaVinci and his flying machines, an ancient Chinese scroll, and a Kongming lantern, just to present one example. It's designed to make you think but not let things get too highbrow in an effort to maintain a broad appeal. The opening temporary exhibitions follow in the same vein, with lots of interactive multimedia moments. Marina Bay Sands_ArtScience Museum_Shipwrecked_gold cup Current visiting exhibitions include Genghis Khan (to April 10, 2011). A look at one of the most powerful and feared men of the 13th century, it features some 200 rare treasures never before seen outside of Mongolia and some pretty terrifying-looking siege weapons. In Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds (to July 31, 2011) things could get a bit drawn out for young'uns. A collection of almost perfectly preserved Tang Dynasty artifacts discovered in shallow waters of the Singapore Straits, it tells of the existence of a maritime version of the Silk Road. The prologue section provides the context and probably the most appeal for kids, with replica boats offering insight into the crew's life on board, but mum and dad might appreciate more the latter half where darkened rooms host glass cases filled with treasures from everyday ceramics and metal work to unique precious gold pieces.

Hit the jackpot!

With four levels of gaming glory, this is one of only two casinos in Singapore. Filled from top to bottom with gaming tables, slot machines and the sound of dice rolling and cards folding, it may only be a fraction of the size of its big sister over in the Venetian Macau, (LVS' agreement with the local government prevents more than 3% of the total resort space being given over to gambling), but it's already pulling in the punters. Marina Bay Sands_Casino_2 High rollers head to the Ruby Lounge or Paiza Club depending on the weight of their wallets, with Paiza just about as exclusive you can get; it's an invitation-only club for premium players who enjoy as member privileges the very best of every hospitality service within the entire resort complex, including gourmet food and drink at their beck and call 24/7. If hitting the slots is not for you, at least spend some time wandering the four-story atrium that surrounds the action. It's a visually stunning tapestry of red and gold and beautiful people, set off by one of the world's largest crystal chandeliers whose 132,000 Swarovski crystals shimmer like a miniature sun. Presumably to keep the locals from gambling away all their time and hard-earned cash at the roulette table, there's an entry levy for Singaporeans and permanent residents of SGD 100 per 24-hours. Foreigners, however, are welcome to lose their money free of charge but must show photo ID such as a passport along with proof of short-term immigration status. Over 21s only. With all this and more going for it (we haven't even touched on the 1.3 million square feet of convention center that is already booked up into next year), Marina Bay Sands is most definitely on a roll. Chatting with our cabbie as we left, I was clear that talk of its success is echoing across Singapore as more and more people flood in from around Southeast Asia to  visit, shop, eat and explore the city. In the press conference, Adelson shared some of his thoughts on what drives the travel industry, saying, "It's supply, not demand. In this region of the world there are many attractions for tourists, natural sights, places like Angkor Wat... and Asians love to travel, but if there's no attraction, no one will come. Before, people thought of Singapore as a small, conservative place but with Marina Bay Sands we have created an attraction. We have made Singapore synonymous with entertainment." And with the Singapore Tourist Board predicting 17 million tourists a year by 2015, there's a whole lot more to come. You can bet on it. Click the link to book a room at Marina Bay Sands and if you're looking for great prices on flights from China to Singapore, call Ctrip on 400 619 9999 from Mainland China or (86 21) 3210 4669 from abroad.

Singapore on the China Travel Blog

[showtime] Images by Aimee Groom, unless noted.
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