This week China is on holiday and we decided to flee the crowds and fly to Singapore for a couple of days. I like Singapore a lot, it’s very clean and it’s better organized than any other Asian country. And it’s a country that just get things done, the government there works like a real corporation and delivers impressive results. Normally we always spend our tropical beach holidays in Thailand, Malaysia or Bali, and we never really considered Singapore for a sun & sea vacation. But because of Sentosa’s transformation over the past years, Singapore is now a good competitor for other beaches in Asia, especially for a family with kids.
The first time I visited Sentosa was back in 1997 at the end of a backpacking trip in Indonesia. In my memory the island was already quite nice at that time, but there was not a lot to do and there were not many good hotels. But the place has completely changed since then: A new monorail was built that connects Siloso and Palawan beach with the “mainland” in about 5 minutes, new attractions were set up along the southern beaches and on the north coast a huge complex (Resorts World Sentosa) of hotels, shopping malls, restaurants, a casino and the Universal Studios was constructed. It’s now a clean and well organized tropical island with white (mainly man made) beaches only 45 minutes by taxi from Singapore airport.
View from the highest point of Sentosa down to Siloso beach
Sentosa is not big island, probably about 3-4 km from west to east and about 1-2 km north-south. But it’s a place that has everything that I want to have during a beach holiday. There are several quiet beaches (esp. the beaches to the east were virtually deserted when we were there), there are beach bars and restaurants where you can have pancakes for breakfast or a nice dinner on the beach, there are jungle trails for hiking or running and a lot of good hotels with nice pools. What it does not have is the unorganized (and therefore relaxed) atmosphere that you find in Thailand or other South-East Asian countries, so it is certainly a different kind of holiday than our usual ones. And a big difference are the prices, Sentosa is simply an expensive place to stay compared to a holiday on Koh Samui or on Langkawi.
We stayed at the Festive Hotel in Resorts World, a nice family oriented hotel in the middle of the complex. We had a room at the top floor of the hotel overlooking the pools and the harbor, and after putting the kids to bed I spent most nights sitting on the balcony reading a book and sipping a cold beer (or two). The hotel was fully booked because of the Chinese holidays and many Chinese couples with their kid(s) were staying here. The place was not cheap though, I think we paid about USD 500 per night per room, without breakfast or any other meal and even without Internet (USD 27 + tax per day per device – ridiculous! That would be the main reason not to stay there again for me -I normally never stay in hotels that charge for Internet- but I am afraid that all Sentosa hotels overcharge for a simple wifi connection. The solution is of course to buy a local SIM card with data and use your phone as a 3G wifi hotspot for other devices). The pools are nice and not too busy, and there were always stretchers, beach beds or salas available next to the pool.
Water park next to Palawan Beach on Sentosa
We spent almost a week on Sentosa but only left the island twice, once to go shopping on Orchard Road for kids books and toys and once to go to the Night Safari in the north of Singapore. For the rest there was so much to do that I did not even have one lazy morning or afternoon at the pool or beach!
Resorts World Sentosa
Staying at Resorts World Sentosa has the advantage that there many shops and restaurants within walking distance of your hotel room. So every morning we had breakfast in a different restaurant, or Scott and I went to the BreadTalk bakery to buy some food and drinks to eat in the hotel room or on our balcony. Also most of our dinners we had in the area, there are so many good restaurants there that we only tried some of them. Among others there is a Malaysian Food Street with great hawker food, there is a Din Tai Fung restaurant (where we had our Moon Festival dinner), there are several fast food places (Chili’s, KFC), coffee shops (Coffee Beanery, Toast Box) and of course a couple of bars such as the Big Easy.
Another advantage of Resorts World is that there are 2 monorail stops in the complex, so that you can get to the mainland or to the beaches within minutes. The monorail is free, so no hassle of buying tickets each time you want to use it. The buses and beach tram on the island are free as well, making it very easy to get around. Scott and Elaine loved the monorail and we took it at least twice per day.
Songs of the Sea with amazing projections in the sky
One of the highlights for our kids was the Songs of the Sea show on the beach at the end of the monorail. This show that takes place daily at 7:40 and 8:40 PM is a must see if you bring your family. It’s a simple story in the form of songs and dance with fantastic light effects and projections in the sky. The background is a fisherman’s village built on stilts in the sea, which is also used as the stage for some nice fireworks at the end of the show. If you want to have the best view buy the more expensive tickets for the show (SGD 15 per person instead of the regular SGD 10), I felt it was worth it. After the show you can walk to Coastes (2 min walk), one of my favorite beach bars where you can have a drink watching the sea while listening to live music.
But the real highlight for all of us was Universal Studios, which is also within the Resorts World complex. We spent a full day there and because we had VIP tickets (meaning you don’t have to wait in line for attractions), we managed to do almost all rides in one day. I will write a separate blog post about this attraction park (it would make this post too long), that is at least as good as Hong Kong Disneyland.
One evening we spent outside Sentosa, when we took a taxi to the Night Safari in the north of Singapore. The last time I had been there was back in 2003 when Grace did a few months of her INSEAD MBA in Singapore. I had good memories of the zoo so wanted to see it again. It’s still a great park to visit at night, also for kids. The night safari has all kinds of animals that are not kept in cages, but that live in the jungle separated by deep trenches or water from other animals (and probably invisible electrical wires, but you can’t see those at night). There is a tram that rides around the park from which you can see all the animals. Some are so close that you can almost touch them, which was a bit scary for the kids sometimes. There is artificial moonlight so you can see the animals, but they are not disturbed by it.
Entrance to Night Safari Singapore
The tram ride takes about 40 minutes and after that you can walk around the park on your own. We did not do that because otherwise the kids would be in bed too late. The park opens at 7:30 PM (when it is dark), and because it’s quite busy it’s best to come a bit early and stand in line around 7 PM already (you can board the first trams at 7:15). Going on an early ride has the advantage that all animals are just being fed, so you can see all of them in action. The last ride is around 10:30 PM. There are restaurants in the park as well that open at 6 pm, so you could come early, buy tickets, have a quick dinner and then do the tram ride.
Jungle trail on Sentosa Island
If you like to be active, Sentosa is also a good place for running and hiking. There are a couple of hiking trails through the jungle and I did all of them during the past week (I normally went out when the kids took their afternoon nap). The best place to start is at the Merlion, from there you hike up (or take the escalator!) to Imbiah Lookout from where the nature trails start. Don’t expect hard walks, but it’s fun to be away from the crowds: I did not meet anybody else during any of my walks, despite there being thousands of tourists on Sentosa.
Hidden beach on north side of Sentosa (one of the few non-man-made beaches)
Running is also great, especially if you like to run on the beach (tip: run on Tanjong and Palawan beach, these are much more quiet or even deserted). But there is also a running/cycling trail all along the southern coast, from the Shangri-La until the eastern end of Tanjong beach. And of course you can run on the normal roads on the island, they all have good sidewalks but are quite hilly! Take the tropical heat into account when you plan your run, my favorite running time was after 4 PM when it started to cool off a little bit.
Tanjong Beach, the most quiet beach on the island
I look back at a very nice vacation with my family. Different from our regular beach holidays, also because we stayed in a hotel this time. Normally we rent a villa with staff for cooking and cleaning, which gives you a lot more space and privacy, but that’s very difficult on Sentosa (there are a few villas for rent, but none of them is on the beach or has impressive views, and they are all fully booked during Chinese holidays). But the kids liked it, despite not having a private pool – or maybe even liked it better because there were several pools in the complex. I would recommend a stay of a few days on Sentosa to anybody who wants to get away from daily life in Asia for a few days, or for people who make a stop-over in Singapore from Europe to Australia or New Zealand. It’s different from a normal South-East Asian beach holiday, but for some it may be an even better experience.
For more pictures of our trip to Sentosa see this set on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/chijs/sets/72157631682772830/