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Top five ‘to do’ list – Singapore travel guide


Traveling to Singapore? My top five ‘to do’ list covers stay, food, shopping and sight-seeing. If you have the budget, chose from the hotels around the Marina Bay. I booked the Ritz Carlton Millenia through Tripadvisor. My daughter and I were spoiled silly by their gracious hospitality and stunning room views.

The stunning night views - Ritz Carlton Millenia

The stunning night views – Ritz Carlton Millenia

Next – eat. Start with an ice kachang at the Makansutra Gluttons Bay, next to the famed Esplanade Theatre.  Three – explore. Visit the unusual Gardens by Bay in the vicinity. Four – check out Bugis Junction and Little India for budget shopping. Throw in Haji Street for a whiff of the unusual. Five – go for a drink and dinner at the hip Ang Siang Hill (close to China Town) as an alternate to a night at Clarke Quay.

You could do more. But hey, take it easy. Stop to savor the sunsets or the occasional rain that drenches you without warning.

 

How to get there

While Emirates does a direct flight, a friend told me that if I could handle a Colombo stopover, then Sri Lankan Airlines was the best alternate. A business class ticket costs Dh 2900+ from and to Dubai. Getting a visa to Singapore was a breeze.

History was in the making when I left. The televisions at the airport showed Argentinan Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, stepping onto the balcony as the new pope and waving to the masses at St Peter’s Square in Italy. Sri Lankan Airlines employs some of the warmest flying and ground staff I have met in eons. The menu is excellent (try the curry bread), the hostesses are genuinely warm and I slept well.

Time flew at Colombo airport – I was determined to finish an article and email it before reaching Singapore. But on my way back, I realized that business class passengers get a free 15 minute Ayurvedic massage session using Siddhalepa products at the tiny spa room (hidden in a corner). I enjoyed a free neck massage but paid for the relaxing thirty minutes foot massage.  A must after all that walking around Singapore.

What to eat

The elusive fruity aroma wafted around my nostrils and would linger in my soul for the next few days of leaving Singapore. My first exposure to durian was in the form of a scoop of the yellow fruit sitting atop an ice kachang (a Malay dessert made of coloured and flavoured ice shavings, chendol, kidney beans and such). My foodie daughter who studies in Singapore said that I simply could not leave the country without trying an ice kachang; a great way to beat the heat and humidity in the country and akin to the Indian gola, which has less frills.

Ice kachang - durian atop

Needless to say, I fell in love with the durian and wanted more. My daughter also pointedly added that it was this very ‘enigmatic’ smell that made it a banned item on the MRT; like fresh fish on the Dubai Metro. We picked up the kachang and a chicken murtabak (a panfried stuffed pancake) from Makansutra by the Bay, which is a bustling foodie street outside the famed Esplanade Theatre. The place was packed to the gills with people wolfing down food as fast as they were served.

Singapore is foodie haven and I suspect that eating out is one of the national pastimes. During my stay, I ate a mind-blowing peanutty Sichuan style pork wanton noodle soup at the Crystal Jade restaurant in Bugis, a mean prawn Laksa with quail eggs whipped up for me by the chef at the Ritz Carlton, a deliciously chilled thai lod chong (green chendol in cold coconut milk and crushed ice with water chestnuts) at the Thai Express branch in the olde worlde Siglap residential area and a melt-in-the mouth moist paella at Los Primos, a tapas bar at Ang Siang.

What to see  

Start or end with the Gardens by Bay. If possible by night – though I did it by day. Apparently weekends are sheer madness in terms of visitors.  The project features conservatories but it is the Supertrees that take your breath away. “We knew that they had to be large, from the opening of the project, to counterbalance the impact of the conservatories and also to register in the local urban setting dominated by 200m high towers,” said Andrew Grant at Grant Associates, a UK-based landscape architecture consultancy when I interviewed him last year. “We could never achieve this using transplanted tree material and decided to develop an abstracted, artificial tree of a scale that would dominate the heart of the gardens.” It does. I was a bit awed, especially, when I went up the lift to the Supertree walkway (not recommended for those who do not have a head for heights).

Supertrees - Gardens By Bay

Supertrees – Gardens By Bay

If you are an art lover, it might stun you to know that the Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore has one of the finest corporate modern art collections in Singapore and Southeast Asia, comprising  4,200 pieces. Valued at about S$5 million, 90 percent of the works were specially commissioned for the hotel including approximately 350 major, “museum quality” pieces. The collection includes David Hockney, Henry Moore, Andy Warhol and Sam Francis as well as artists such as Dale Chihuly. The lazy ones can take a self-guided podcast art tour. Ask the concierge.

I did not go up the Singapore Flyer; also in the Marina Bay area. But it is worthwhile to explore the restaurants around the entrance. Or pre-book and join a foodie tour, which was in full swing as we walked around the area.  I preferred the impromptu version of a city tour led by my daughter over the guided ones.

We visited the LASALLE College of Art, near Bugis Junction, which was hosting an interesting exhibition – ‘Linking cities, designing experiences.’ I enjoyed the brilliant work, which was the outcome of a collaborative project between LASALLE and South Korea’s Sangmyung University; the aim was to offer an insight to unique visual narratives of the cityscapes of Singapore and Seoul.

An exhibition at LASALLE College of Art

An exhibition at LASALLE College of Art

Shop till you drop

Shopaholics will go crazy at Bugis Junction, the largest covered street shopping location in Singapore. Bags, shoes, clothes, vintage styled new t-shirts (read Audrey Hepburn themed) are packed cheek to jowl for the budget conscious shopper. Bargain to one-thirds of the price but do check zips and insides of bags. I brought a beautiful bag for SD20 but the decorative studs popped off in a day.

Shopping galore at Bugis Street

Shopping galore at Bugis Street

For the unusual, walk down Haji Street, which is a ten minutes walk from Bugis. You would find the same clothes at Bugis for less. But the unusual interiors of every store are worth a dekko – each one tries to outdo the other. Only suggested if you are fit to climb wooden stairs. Arab Street is so so.

Haji Street

Haji Street

Little India

Little India

If you have time and love unusual stationery, go to 313 Somerset Mall on Orchard Road and visit Typo on Level 1 – the mix includes retro Paris-themed items that can double up as show pieces. I bought an abstract metal tree with two birds on different branches. An empty cage hangs on a lower branch. Go figure.

Little India is a great place to pick up some unusual souvenirs for friends. I found some miniature chilli wall hangings. Get a quick henna tattoo for five dollars or less at Jayaram’s Creations. While we got our hands done, the skies started to pour. The weather in Singapore is very unpredictable. It can go from broody sky to bright sunshine to balmy breeze to hot and sticky within hours.

A gaggle of Chinese kids on a school trip suddenly materialized into the arcade. The teacher with a megaphone and the guide tried to channel them into some semblance of order. They finally gave up and allowed them ten minutes off to get a henna tattoo.

Henna cuts borders

Henna cuts borders

Talking of which, if you have to get your hair done, do visit the Team Salon at Siglap. Jean Tong, the gracious Creative Director is a truly enlightened soul who patiently guides you through the aromatherapy treatments based on your personality and connects from the heart with every client. The hair washes are transformative experiences where your scalp is massaged so gently that you may fall asleep. A rarity.

Where’s the party

The whole world talks about Clarke Quay. An old college friend asked us to take a cab and come over instead to Ang Siang in Chinatown for dinner. I was meeting him after 20 odd years. The Sikh cab driver who was third generation Singaporean said that Jaggis Parathas was the place to try some authentic dhaba kind food.

My friend walked us around the buzzing streets, which were akin to my memories of a walk down Mayfair street in London (many years ago). Office-goers, still in their formals, sipping sundowners and spilling out into the sidewalks. Bursts of relaxed laughter and chatter that preludes the joy of a weekend ahead. Once called Qing Shan Ting, today, Ang Siang features elegantly restored shophouses. Hunger pangs stopped the forays.

We chose to eat at Los Primos. Both the food and service are excellent. Despite the calamari and other starters, we shamelessly scraped the bottom of the paella dish for the last of the delicious rice laden with succulent prawns, calamari and mussels.

Maybe the best paella in town? Los Primos, Ang Siang

After dinner, we walked down to look at the rest of Chinatown. Closed for business! But I stumbled upon the Chinese Opera Teahouse and decided to save that visit, among other to-do-lists, for the next trip. What lah!

The Chinese Opera Tea House, Singapore

The Chinese Opera Tea House, Singapore

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Posted by on June 27, 2013 in Art, Foodie reviews, Travel

 

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A photo-poetic journey of Sikka Art Fair, Bastakiya, Dubai 2013


When the Nomad Urbanista decided to take a walk … for the rest of the photo poem http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.511628202229224.1073741825.231374570254590&type=1

Street art reaches out to the soul - the beautiful Bastakiya area, Bur Dubai, Dubai, UAE

Street art reaches out to the soul – the beautiful Bastakiya area, Bur Dubai, Dubai, UAE

 
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Posted by on March 24, 2013 in Art, Travel

 

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The Marrakech Diaries : a travel guide

The Marrakech Diaries : a travel guide

As the waiter removed the lid with a flourish, he unveiled a platter of tender and semi-browned delicately spiced chicken tagine, which was deftly carved up into seven portions and simply melted in the mouth. We ate till we could not ingest a sliver more..

Dar Yacout’s delectable chicken tagine, Marrakech

The Dar Yacout restaurant is a foodie’s delight and claims to be the last frontier for authentic local cuisine in Marrakech. The Moroccan mezze included innumerable salads as starters – including a sweet tomato puree, which serves as a sharp contrast to the crisp raw vegetables. My favourite was the chopped liver with a hint of tomato gravy – great when mopped up with the fresh bread. However, the lamb tagine had a very overpowering smell and I had to pass.
The must-have from the dessert menu – Pastilla au lait et amandes (sheets of filo pastry alternating with a sweet milky sauce and almonds), a crunchy and light dessert that is a fitting end to the evening – I shamelessly showered myself with flakes of pastry as I bit into a new layer.
The musicians sang a traditional and endless mix of old Berber, Lebanese and Egyptian songs in the background – my Arab friends at the dinner translated the songs that spoke of love – stories of the beloved, of pining, of the unrequited.. When they were not singing along with the musicians.. It was drizzling off and on but no one complained. Our last night in Marrakech seemed intertwined in some kind of magic and mint tea.

How
Four days ago, I had set the alarm for 4 am. After the endless check of switches, passport and keys, I walked bleary-eyed into the airport – the flight leaves at 7.30 am from Dubai. We flew Emirates to Casablanca – a long eight hours of sleep, movies, food and more sleep. In February, the airline replaced the Airbus A340-500 for the bigger aircraft Boeing 777-300 to Morocco. Being a movie buff, I managed to catch two captivating Malayalam films – Arjunan Saakshi (a thriller) and City of God, another brilliant and dark thriller, which uses the hyperlink cinema format to reveal the intricate intermingling of different lives. As the flight descended into Casablanca, one could see endless stretches of mountains and farms creating beautiful patterns of brown and green landscape. The photographs were taken by Moi with my favourite Nikon D60 and new Nokia 808 (worth the price for great pixs and videos on the go).

Where
The airport has a 70s feel and the two hour drive to Marrakech was pretty uneventful – long stretches of farmland, small huts, horses, two-storied buildings, donkeys and erratic heaps of tires but a very smooth highway. And brilliant sunshine minus the humidity one is so used to in other hot climates. While Casablanca is known as the Blue City, Marrakech, which was founded in 1070 by Youssef Ben Tachfine, the chief of the Almoravides dynasty, is known as the Red City.
Palais Namaskar marks the Oetker Collection’s first hotel in Africa and is located on an offbeat road in Marrakech between the Atlas Mountains and Djebilet Hills. The first glimpse of the hotel was a surprise – orange trees growing around the walls. A long walkway through a fragrant archway leads you to a serendipitous moment – a delicate balance of water and walkways leading to villas and palaces amidst a tranquil Balinese inspired landscaping. The owner, Philippe Soulier, along with the French-Algerian designer Imaad Rahmouni, set out to create a destination based on Feng Shui philosophy – to make it as close to nature as possible.

Palais Namaskar, Marrakech – the walkway to the villas

It is a success based on firsthand experience. Over the next four days, I did not switch on the television (even as background noise).

The Palais Namaskar grounds, Marrakech

Most of my free time in the villa was actually spent sitting outdoors and gazing at the stars – including a 5 am session with a steaming cup of tea. Look for the free yoga mat in the cupboards – it is a pleasure to do Suryanamaskar outdoors at 6 am when the water sprinklers come on and birdsong fills the air.

View from my bedroom, Palais Namaskar, Marrakech

No matter how you travel, each hotel is like the woman Elvis is singing about in Moody Blues “When Monday comes, she’s Tuesday, when Tuesday comes, she’s Wednesday…”  What won my heart was the service – an attendant walked you through the entire villa and explained the angle to insert the key, the location of every light switch and button (with the name next to it). A rarity in most hotels – normally, you are expected to  stumble your way through geeky gadgetry and then the reception sounds condescending when you call after managing to soak your self with the overhead shower instead of the spray.

Language can get a bit of a barrier – French and Arabic win over English in Morocco. But sign language works and one can always call the reception.

Places to visit
Marrakech is exotic, quirky and at times exasperating – but the highs are so delightful that one forgets the rest. The heat is deceptive – so use a hat or long scarf and don’t forget to drink water as you go. Wear loose and comfortable clothing, slip on a sturdy pair of walking shoes, carry a backpack to dump your finds and leave your hands free to take pictures. Don’t forget to pick a bottle of cold-pressed argan oil – Morocco’s beauty secret. Everything is more expensive at the airport – so look, bargain and pick up when you see a must-have.
Gueliz : an interesting place for picking up odd antiques, jewellery, leather and clothes. Go into the inner lanes, which have shops saying “solde” (“Sale’ to the uninitiated). Lunch at the Café de la poste, an olde-worlde restaurant that serves a great citrusy and tangy beef tagine – the taste still lingers.. The restaurant is behind the main Gueliz post office and the interiors features old fans, palms and a movie-like feel.

Reading till the next shoe shine – Gueliz, Marrakech

Djemaa El Fna: The square and the surrounding souq is a must-see. Be prepared to give up three hours of your life exploring the lanes and inner lanes and running into sing-song guides and confused tourist groups – just like yours. Anytime post 3 pm will be ideal to visit this famed souk, which sells beautiful and unique leather bags, jewellery, Moroccan tea-pots (the heavier, the better), mirrors, the famed babouche slippers, decorative locks and trinkets..

Djemaa El Fna souk walkways, Marrakech

Start with 2/5th of the price quoted by the shopkeeper and be prepared for continuous rounds of bargaining. This includes walking away, being called back to show you the difference between the real and the fake piece, exasperation at your stubbornness – it is all a game that both the shopper and the shopkeeper must enjoy with laughs and mock dismay. I have good practice in this game having grown up in Mumbai.

Try some sweets – Djemaa El Fna souk, Marrakech

Warnings – if you take pictures with the traditional dancers, snake charmers and such exotica, be prepared to pay them for giving you the honour to just stand next to them.. It can get ugly. By evenings, the souk turns into a bustling market place, which also translates as being roughed around by rival guides and food stalls. An ex-colleague told me that the solution lies in shopping and then parking at the first floor of a restaurant around the square before twilight – so that one can enjoy the sights from a distance.

Djemaa El Fna souk dancers – they will ask for money if photographed, Marrakech

Jardin Majorelle  in Guéliz. Yves Saint Laurent’s electric blue Art Deco estate is another must-visit. It was designed by the expatriate French artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s. The special shade of bold cobalt blue, which he used extensively in the garden and its buildings is named after him, bleu Majorelle—Majorelle Blue. If you look close, the bamboo trees have been vandalised by grafitti from sharp objects – the “A loves B” kinds or just names of people who wished to immortalise themselves. On bamboo!

Jardin Majorelle, Marrakech – true cobalt blue

Yahya Gallery – featuring the work of Yahya Rouach, the famed metal designer, who moved to Marrakech in 2002. Declared unfit for art school, he has also worked as a martial art instructor in his other avatars. “It was a case of the first will finish last and the last first,” he said as we walked around the gallery. He also been commissioned to work on some of the leading hotels in the world, including the Royal Mansour in Marrakech and currently working on a collection of 25 handmade pieces with artist Mehdi Qotbi, which will be exhibited in Paris at ‘Institut du Monde Arabe’ in April & May 2013. He is looking at options to set up galleries in Dubai, Doha, Riyadh, and other cities in KSA, Europe & Asia but in no particular order he said.

Yahya Rouach’s Gallery, Marrakech

La Mamounia Hotel – Go, if only for a drink. The hotel, which opened in 1923 and had a major facelift in 2009, features dark, opulent Moroccan interiors with Art Deco touches that take you back to another world.
Comptoir – The first lounge restaurant in Marrakech located at Hivernaget features a spectacular show at 10.30 pm – the lights dim and a bevy of belly dancers come down the grand staircase and dance around tables to an accompaniment of music, drums and loud ululations. The food is not much to write home about though.. Despite other me-toos in Marrakech, it remains on the must-visit list.

The last night in Morocco was filled with showers and the heady fragrance of freshly soaked earth. The candle-lit lanterns and the arches were reflected in the water – on the hotel walkway and made me feel like I was walking in a beautiful, never ending illusion.

I woke up at 5 am next morning and lay in bed with the doors open. It was cold. The sky was overcast with brooding clouds. I was ensconced beneath the thick duvet and soaking in the intoxicating beauty of the monsoon. The flight was at 2.30 pm – so we left the hotel by 10 am after a delicious outdoor breakfast.. The manager remembered that I liked ginger in my tea.. The rains had soaked all the outdoor seating cushions… I did not want to leave..

I slept for most of the way – lulled by the beautiful landscape and grey sky.  Strangely, the shops at the airport actually price everything in Euros – though they accept dirhams and dollars.  I learned from my newly-made friend Merieme that the best argan oil comes from Agadir and costs far below the airport prices. She also educated me about the difference in the kinds of oil – the toasted amber one is used for cooking while the yellow, cold-pressed argan oil is the Berber beauty secret.

The flight landed around 1 am in Dubai.. Everything seemed so warm and familiar and yet, I knew that some part of me had changed again..  The nomad NRI now fully understood the old Zen saying.. “Before Zen, chop wood, carry water, after Zen, chop wood, carry water.”

 
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Posted by on October 4, 2012 in Foodie reviews, Travel

 

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Jazirah Aviation Club – my first microlight flight in UAE


Dh 150 for 15 mins of sheer giddiness

Nomad NRI in Dubai

Saw a microlight plane whizzing past as I was returning from a trip to Ras Al Khaimah over the Eid holidays.. On a lark, I drive down the dirt road and sign up for a 15 mins chakkar at the Jazirah Aviation Club, which has all the necessary government approvals. Heart thudding. Thought of running back to the safe confines of the car… After all, I did not know how to swim.  And sea was very much a part of this trip.

But having forced my friend to sign up, my gargantuan ego forced me to sit smiling and examine the grey sky with what they call studied casualness. Ask for mint and sat ruminating on life, the universe and other random incidents.. We both choose the yellow planes. The control room said that there was a 30 percent chance of a storm alert.. Did I make a mistake? A…

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Posted by on June 27, 2012 in Travel

 

Paris and Mumbai : a tale of two cities

Paris and Mumbai : a tale of two cities

Tea at Mariage Freres, Paris

As I bite into a tangy green chutney sandwich at the 54-year-old historic Tea Centre in Mumbai, I know that this is the year of serendipity. The magical affair with tea and all things fragrant and fashionable started two weeks ago when I said yes to a trip to Paris. Thereby getting a chance to witness the mysterious ways of the in-house tea taster at Mariage Frères, a haute couture tea salon on Faubourg Saint-Honoréin Paris. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on February 27, 2012 in Travel

 

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Bridging the generation gap – a tale from Fujairah, UAE

Bridging the generation gap – a tale from Fujairah, UAE


The stone house in the mountains is a stark contrast to the village dotted with modern villas. The white graffiti on a wall says Amna in Arabic and Suzuki in English.
Last year, I had gone to stay with my Emirati friend Amna, who is from the Asmah village in Fujairah. Her family has always welcomed me with open arms on my sporadic visits — making it an extended home in the UAE. The trip has always involved a leisurely drive through the village and mountains — to their farms and other areas. Till then, I had not seen this stone home — just farms full of lettuce, parsley, papayas, roses and many other fruits and vegetables (sometimes oranges). When asked if it was abandoned, I was told that this was the home of a relative, Amna Khamis Ahmed Alshehyari, an 88-year-old woman who chooses to live here during the daytime. Despite her children’s numerous pleas and requests, she will agree to stay in their modern homes only for the night. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on February 27, 2012 in Travel

 

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It is so nice, they had to name it twice – Baden-Baden

It is so nice, they had to name it twice – Baden-Baden


If you are an innately lazy human being, take a horse-drawn carriage to experience the old world charm of Baden-Baden. Else lace up your sneakers and pick from the many tours at the local tourist centre of this beautiful city in Germany, once the summer capital of Europe.

Culture fanatics can follow the music trail to Brahmshaus or choose the novelists’ route to the Dostoyevsky House, which was the Russian writer’s retreat during the summer of 1867 when he incurred colossal losses while gambling at the famed casino. Nature lovers can try the ‘With the Gardener in the Park’ tour or pay one euro and walk into the Rose Garden on Beutig Hill, open daily from June to September. Or visit the Fabergé Museum, which opened in May 2009 and holds the last Fabergé egg ever made.  Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on February 27, 2012 in Travel

 

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