FOR a small island, Sentosa delivers an impressive array of holiday attractions, hot hotels and beaches lined with palm trees.
I’m sitting with my toes in the sand, a cocktail in hand, and peering out from the shade of a palm tree to the cool blue of an ocean lagoon.
But I’m having trouble believing this tropical haven – a peaceful scene that could be the inspiration for a daydream set on a Pacific island – is only seven kms from Raffles Hotel, a little less than 10 kms from the shopping heart of Orchard Road, and 27 kms from Changi Airport.
Just on the other side of those hills, modest summits covered by lush rainforest that seem to add to the humidity on this baking equatorial afternoon, is downtown Singapore with its buzzing streets occupied with hustle and bustle from early in the morning until late at night as expats and locals go about the business of being productive.
This is Sentosa, a 500 hectare island connected to the mainland – less than a kilometre away – by a causeway. Celebrated as ‘Asia’s favourite playground’, it draws domestic and international visitors all year round.
Sentosa Island has more than 200 attractions – sandy beaches, two golf courses, a swag of restaurants and bars, luxury hotels and resorts, Universal Studios theme park, MegaZip Adventure Park, Marine Life Park, Wave House Sentosa, the Port of Lost Wonder water playground – that combine to attract 19 million visitors every year.
But it hasn’t always been this way, and it wasn’t long ago that Singaporeans avoided the place and the Lion City’s young residents dreaded the day when parents would announce a family outing to Sentosa Island.
Early in my visit, as I loaf by the pool at Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Resort & Spa, I engage a young hotel staffer in conversation and learn she once hated spending time on the island when her parents decided it was necessary to give the apartment-bound youngster some hours in the great outdoors.
“It was only 20 years ago that we wouldn’t want to come to Sentosa,” the member of Generation Y notes.
“But during the past 10 or 15 years there’s been a lot of development, and that’s made Sentosa a hip place for young people and they spend all day here at the Tanjong Beach Club or playing volleyball on the sand, and they now appreciate Sentosa as a place to get away from the city.”
Ben Bousnina, General Manager of Rasa Sentosa Resort & Spa which is Singapore’s only beach-side hotel by the sand of Sentosa’s Siloso Beach, says that while the island has been welcoming visitors since 1974 the transformation to trendy started late last century when politicians resolved to offer locals a reason to vacation at home.
“It was because of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, when Singaporeans decided that instead of heading overseas they would holiday at home,” the French hotelier explains.
“So the government made the island a destination with attractions, two or three big names like Universal Studios and Shangri-La, and now 20 per cent of our visitors are from Singapore because locals discovered they have a place that’s close and convenient to escape the city.
“But we’re also finding Australians really like Sentosa Island – they consider Singapore to be a suburb of Australia and a safe place to have a holiday in Asia that’s only a six or seven-hour flight from home – and we’re finding people are coming with the family to spend a week with us.
“They might go across to Singapore once during their visit but they spend the rest of the time around the pool and exploring Sentosa Island. But Sentosa isn’t just a place for families, it attracts couples of all ages and honeymooners.”
I occupy my days on Sentosa with equal shares of activity and laziness, spending a few hours in the morning out and about exploring the island or venturing across the causeway on the resort’s courtesy bus to the shopping at VivoCity and the MRT line that effortlessly transports me to vibrant neighbourhoods like Chinatown and Little India.
My days start with an early-morning dip in the Rasa Sentosa’s pool before a relaxed breakfast where I linger over the newspaper and return to the buffet to refill my plate with the irresistible watermelon, mango and pineapple that’s sweet with tropical flavour.
One morning I paddle around the Siloso Beach lagoons in a kayak, another day I catch the island shuttle to Imbiah Lookout to take in the elevated view from Tiger Sky Tower before wandering the Images of Singapore museum and Butterfly Park, and on my final morning I survey Siloso Point to discover the outpost’s military history.
There’s always time for lunch at an island eatery – I can recommend pizza at Trapizza, mussels and Belgian beer at Brussels Sprouts, tapas at Sabio by the Sea, and oysters at Tanjong Beach Club – before retreating to the hotel for an afternoon of slothfulness.
I park myself in the chair on my veranda to watch the armada of ships move through the busy passage beside Singapore’s southern shore, do some people watching, and get lost in my book between cooling dips.
In the evening there’s time for a sunset cocktail and dinner at the hotel or by the pool at the Tanjong Beach Club, modelled after a 1950s beach resort with bars and restaurants perched to savour water views – with a couple of nights spent in the Rasa Sentosa’s Chi Spa indulging in signature treatments.
When it comes to accommodation there’s more on offer than just the barefoot luxury at Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Resort & Spa, with around 3000 guest rooms distributed across a dozen hotels and resorts.
Sentosa Island is home to Singapore’s first W hotel which opened in 2012 with the 240-room property at affluent Sentosa Cove boasting all the brand’s trademark glam features including marina berths for guests arriving by boat, a W Insider to provide hip sightseeing hints, celebrity chefs, and “wow’’ suites that boast private plunge pools.
Those looking for something a little less edgy should consider the elegant Capella Resort Singapore which is an oasis of calm with reception set in a colonial manor constructed in the 1880s to lodge officers of the British Royal Artillery and guest rooms placed in a contemporary extension to gaze across the South China Sea.
Another option that offers bygone beside modern is the renovated Mövenpick Heritage Hotel Sentosa, beside Imbiah Station, with some rooms located in the vintage Heritage wing built in the 1940s and other guest suites in the new Contemporary wing.
A network of free public transport makes it easy to get around and connect hotels with the attractions around the island as well as the monorail and cable car that link Sentosa with the mainland. But it’s going to be a struggle to catch a shuttle bus when you can sit with your toes in the sand, a cocktail in hand, and peer out from the shade of a palm tree to the cool blue of an ocean lagoon. •
Jetstar, Qantas and Singapore Airlines offer daily direct flights from six Australian mainland capitals to Singapore while Scoot now offers direct hops from Sydney and the Gold Coast to the Lion City.