Offbeat Singapore might sound like an oxymoron considering its rep as a buttoned-down, rule-obsessed city state, but there's actually a quirkier side. If your ship calls on Singapore or you've got a day or two to kill before boarding, you have two choices: see Singapore the predictable way -- Chinatown, the Night Safari, Botanical Garden -- or seek out the local secrets. Allow us to lead the way.
Tasting local flavors. Singaporeans are foodies. Among the specialties you can gorge on, why not try Peranakan cuisine? Peranakans are descendants of Chinese traders and local Malay women, so the food is a tasty combination of the traditions. The family-run Spice Peranakan (20 Biopolis Way, just 15 minutes from cruise piers) whips up favorites such as Ayam Buah Keluak (black nuts stuffed with minced pork and prawns and cooked in a brown gravy) and Babi Ponteh (tender pork with mushrooms in sauce), plus delicious dishes made with tofu and bean curd.
Snacking, Singaporean-style. Singapore's answer to beef jerky, bak kwa, is sweet barbequed pork strips that's super popular with locals. You can find the snacks in most malls, or go to Lim Chee Guan barbequed meat shop (203 New Bridge Rd) in Chinatown. Another favorite, ice kachang (literally "red bean ice" in Malay), is a heap of crushed ice with a mound of red bean paste, with colorful syrups drizzled over the whole thing. Teh tarik is a caramel-colored hot black tea and condensed milk drink you'll often see locals carrying around in little plastic bags tied with red string. When it's prepared, it's repeatedly poured back and forth from cup to cup to create a frothy top.
Having high tea, well, high up. Raffles Hotel is known for its high tea, but for excellent views of the island while grazing on a buffet of local (lots of dumplings!) and international favorites, head to the Equinox Restaurant. High tea is offered from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. daily on the 70th floor of the Swiss Hotel (across the street from Raffles at 2 Stamford Road).
Hitting the "other" museums. Besides the mainstream options such as the Asian Civilizations, National and Peranakan history museums, Singapore has eclectic collections for every interest. The Mint Toy Museum (www.emint.com; 26 Seah St, across the street from Raffles Hotel) displays the passion of one dedicated (and rich) collector who amassed old tin, wooden, plastic, and cloth toys from more than 25 countries, including robots, stuffed animals, dolls, cars, trains, and airplanes -- and Mickey Mouse. Changi Museum (www.changimuseum.com, 1000 Upper Changi Rd) is a worthwhile stop for those interested in Singapore's WWII history and the Japanese occupation (the once-rustic village of Changi became an internment camp during WWII). The third floor of the Raffles Hotel arcade features 19th-century black-and-white photographs of Singapore and Southeast Asia.
Seeing black (and white). About 600 colonial black-and-white houses remain in Singapore, serving as grand reminders of a time before the onslaught of bland high-rise structures. Built by the British between the late 1890s and 1940s, the white homes with black trim (white to keep cool in the tropical sun and the black parts, a special paint that kept insects away from the main beams and rafters) were created as government staff quarters and reflect a range of styles depending on when they were built and by whom. Many designs were influenced by the U.K.'s Arts and Crafts architectural style and the Art Deco movement. Some of the loveliest homes can be seen in Goodwood Hill, Adam Road, Ridley Park, Alexandra Park, Mount Pleasant and Malcolm Road. Hop in a taxi, and ask the driver to take you to one or more of these roads for a drive-by.
Touring with a local. Ditch the ship's predictable bus tour and join Geraldene Lowe for a much meatier walking tour of Singapore. Born in Singapore before WWII, Lowe expertly leads visitors on all kinds of adventures, from exploring temples and architecture in ethnic neighborhoods like Little India or Arab Street to taking her charges for a peek inside colonial-era bungalows. E-mail in advance to see what's being offered (email@example.com); Lowe can arrange group as well as private tours.
Ogling Haw Par Villa. The actual villa was built in 1937 by the Aw Boon brothers (who made their fortune on the still-popular Tiger Balm ointment), but it was destroyed less than a decade later by the Japanese during WWII. What remains is the estate's wacky collection of hundreds of colorful statues and life-size dioramas dedicated to Chinese folklore, fables, and values (262 Pasir Panjang Rd; a 10- to 15-minute taxi ride from cruise ship docks).
Trekking through the jungle. Hit the Southern Ridges nature trails, which link up three hilltop parks (Mount Faber Park, Telok Blangah Park, and Kent Ridge Park). A series of treetop-level steel and wooden boardwalks wend along for about six scenic miles. (Start at either Reflections of Bukit Chandu museum at the top of Pepys Rd or at the Harbourfront MRT Station at the foot of Mt. Faber, just a few minutes from the cruise ship piers). Further afield is the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, about eight miles from the cruise pier, where you'll find Singapore's highest hill. In the colonial days, the reserve was covered with tigers; today, monkeys pose the only danger (they'll leave you alone if you don't eat near them or carry food). Unlike other parts of Singapore, the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve was never logged and the forests - with more than 840 types of flowering plants and 500 species of animals and butterflies -- still thrive.
Getting the tootsies tickled. In Singapore, foot reflexology outlets are more plentiful than nail salons. Not for the faint of heart, your feet will be vigorously massaged, stretched, and generally manhandled. Luckily, it's a form of relaxation you'll enjoy after sightseeing all day. Outlets range from the bargain variety like the People's Park Complex shopping mall in Chinatown on Eu Tong Sen road to the slightly pricier versions (about $30 SGD for 40 minutes) at My Foot Reflexology outlets in the Great World City, Centre Point and Forum malls.
Who Goes There
Ships currently dock at the Singapore Cruise Centre (SCC; at the Harbourfront MRT station and next to VivoCity shopping mall and just across the harbor from Sentosa), though a new cruise terminal is in the works a couple of miles away in Marina Bay in the central business district. The new facilities, slated for a 2011 opening, will accommodate four larger ships. Due to low cable-car wires that run between Sentosa Island and the mainland, ships carrying more than 2,000 passengers are generally too tall to reach the SCC dock.
Costa Cruises (www.costacruises.com), Royal Caribbean (www.royalcaribbean.com) and Star Cruises (www.starcruises.com) cruise in and out of Singapore regularly. Other lines pass through annually, including Azamara Club Cruises (www.azamaraclubcruises.com), Crystal Cruises (www.crystalcruises.com), Cunard (www.cunard.com), Holland America (www.hollandamerica.com), Oceania Cruises (www.oceaniacruises.com), Regent Seven Seas (www.rssc.com), Seabourn Cruise Line (www.seabourn.com), and Silversea Cruises (www.silversea.com).