State of play
Alex Frew McMillan
The crowd of families on the four-hour flight to Singapore is a testament to the city state's attractiveness as a quick, child-friendly getaway. Singapore is as safe as Southeast Asia gets, is easy to tour and boasts plenty of family attractions.
The usual rant about Singapore is that it is sterile and sanitised. But when your toddler is picking up trash to put in her mouth, sterile is exactly what you want.
The first stop is the island resort of Sentosa. Its sands may be shipped in, but they make for Singapore's best beaches. Sentosa tries to sell them with separate identities - Siloso is apparently 'Singapore's hippest beach', while Palawan is for families and Tanjong for lovers - but families with children will feel at ease on them all. The waves are nonexistent, the beach shelves slowly and there are cafes on the shore.
Sentosa has a handful of resorts fronting the sea. Both the Amara Sanctuary Resort and the Siloso Beach Resort are relatively new additions. The Capella Singapore opened on Sentosa in March, the first hotel in Asia from that luxury chain.
Shangri-La's Rasa Sentosa Resort at the end of the beach has banks of rooms facing south to the Singapore Strait. It has a huge swimming pool next to the beach, and both a water slide for older kids and practically an Olympic-size paddling pool. Peacocks patrol the grounds, strutting past koi carp in the ponds and oversized ceramic frogs, one of the themes of the resort.
Sentosa is linked to the main island of Singapore by a causeway. Entry is free if you're staying on the island, but costs S$2 (HK$11) per person if you're visiting. There is also a train that runs to the island from downtown Singapore.
The cable car is a panoramic way to get off Sentosa and gives you views of ships in Keppel Harbour. The end point is the Singapore Cruise Centre, where ferries leave for nearby islands in Indonesia. It can be a trek through the terminal if you're carrying a stroller and kids.
There's a better view of the city from the Singapore Flyer, which gives you a panoramic glimpse of downtown (and the building site of the city's second casino complex). Prices add up for a group, at S$29.50 for an adult and S$20.65 for a child, but promotions are held sometimes.
Our cylinder circumnavigates its 30-minute loop with no hitches. At its peak, we are 165 metres above the ground. The Flyer is 30 metres taller than the London Eye, making it the world's largest observation wheel, about the height of a 42-storey building (or, for the little ones, 31 giraffes stacked on top of each other).
Singapore's most friendly family attraction is the Singapore Zoo, in the central catchment area. It's actually two attractions, with the zoo open during daytime hours (from 8.30am to 6pm), with the Night Safari next door (open 7.30pm to midnight). You can combine the two zoos if you have the stamina. The zoo, which sprawls over 28 hectares, boasts open enclosures, lush rainforest grounds and conservation programmes. Even its toilets win awards (they're often voted the city's cleanest).
The best way to see the Night Safari is on the tram, a 45-minute loop past the main enclosures. Those who want a closer peek at the tapir, spotted hyenas and otters on display can stroll along three trails. The babirusa, an Indonesian relative of the pig, is worth a second look, although it probably won't win any modelling contests. Males have four tusks jutting through their snouts.
You can ride elephants and ponies, and get your photo taken with the orang-utans as they eat bananas. In Singapore, it seems like there is someone to snap your picture every time you step on or off anything. It's a skilful way of separating you from S$5.
There are great opportunities to interact with animals at the Jurong Bird Park, home to more than 9,000 birds. It's the largest bird park in Asia, naturally enough with a focus on Southeast Asian birds. (Tickets cost S$18 for adults, and S$9 for kids from three to 12.)
Buy a cup of seed in the lory aviary, and you'll soon be surrounded by a flock of crimson-headed birds. Don't miss feeding time at the pelican exhibit, where you can watch seven species of pelican diving for fish. There's a great glass wall on one side that gives you a fascinating over-under shot of the birds in action.
If you've had your fill of animals, head to Downtown East, in Pasir Ris. The complex, run by the leisure arm of Singapore's National Trades Union Congress, houses a shopping mall and restaurants and an indoor 25-metre Ferris wheel.
The ExplorerKid Indoor Playground is Singapore's largest indoor playground and is open only to those under 12. With 3,500 square metres to explore, children can clamber through tunnels, and up and down ropeways.
Older and younger kids alike will exhaust themselves at Wild Wild Wet next door. It's a huge water park, with dozens of slides, a 'river' you can ride inflatable tubes down and a wave pool almost big enough to surf.
The long weekend over, we head back to Changi Airport, a little more sun-browned and a lot more tired. The flight back is mercifully quiet as the children sleep in their seats.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines have daily non-stop flights from Hong Kong to Singapore.