Nina Karnikowski steps out of this world into Singapore's latest mega-attraction, where plants from around the planet get the high-tech treatment.
Entering the 54-hectare urban oasis that is the Bay South area of Singapore's Gardens by the Bay feels like I imagine it might stepping into Pandora, the verdant wonderland depicted in James Cameron's epic Avatar. It's a combination of things: the imposing canopy of 18 steel Supertrees that range from 25 metres to 50 metres high, the two glass conservatories popping out from the foliage like a pair of giant mechanical turtles, the 22-metre-high aerial walkway weaving through the Supertrees and, of course, the 700,000 plants surrounding us.
When we visit, three weeks before the gardens' official opening on June 29, our guide, Michelle, tells us construction has been in progress for seven years.
"As you can see, there's still lots to do before the opening!" she says, laughing, as we pick our way past workers, trucks and piles of dirt and soil, into Supertree Grove. This area is home to 12 of the arborial monoliths and is the hub of the Bay South gardens.
We enter the trunk of one of the Supertrees, which is covered in bromeliads, orchids, ferns and tropical flowering climbers, and stomp up eight flights of stairs to its canopy. When we pop out the top, we forget our burning thighs as we take in stunning views of the two man-made lakes, the Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino complex just across the way, the Singapore Flyer in the distance, and the surrounding themed gardens. The Heritage Gardens, we're told, offer Chinese, Malay, Indian and colonial-themed areas, where visitors can learn about the links between plants and Singapore's history; and the World of Plants is a collection of six gardens that promote biodiversity.
Singapore Tourism Board has been busy attempting to transform the city into a destination in its own right, rather than a stopover. The Marina Bay Sands, completed last year, has played a central role in this, and Gardens by the Bay takes it a step further while helping realise the National Parks Board vision of transforming the "garden city" into a "city in a garden". The government has so far spent $S1 billion ($771 million) on the project.
Michelle tells us they're predicting 5 million visitors will visit each year (more than 220,000 came through in the first 10 days after opening) and that the horticultural team travelled to every continent except Antarctica to source the plants for the Bay South area.
She points to an expanse of parkland across the water and tells us that, once they have the funds, it will become the second phase of the project, Bay East. Once the third phase, Bay Central, is complete, Gardens by the Bay will cover 101 hectares of prime waterfront real estate in the Marina Bay area, the equivalent of 177 football fields.
For someone not completely comfortable with heights, it's quite an experience to walk along the narrow skyway that connects two of the Supertrees. I clutch the handrail as Michelle tells us that the Supertrees also generate solar power, act as air venting ducts for nearby conservatories, collect rainwater, absorb and disperse heat, and, of course, generate shade. One of them will even have a treetop bistro perched on it, just one of 13 food and beverage spaces planned for the Bay South area.
Back on solid ground, we make our way over to the two climate-controlled conservatories - the Flower Dome, which houses plants from Mediterranean and semi-arid subtropical climates; and its smaller neighbour, the Cloud Forest, which showcases plants that grow from 1000 metres to 2000 metres above sea level. We enter the Flower Dome; a cool, cavernous space filled with plants from south-west Australia, South Africa, central Chile, California and Europe. There are baobabs, olive trees and a flower field. But the highlight has to be the succulent garden, which combines flowering cacti of all shapes and sizes with vivid crystals, stalagmites and African sculptures to dazzling effect.
We meet one of the heads of the horticultural team, Australian Anton van der Schans, who was poached from Cairns and has been in Singapore working on the project for the past 5½ years.
"There was nothing like this happening in Cairns!" he says, adding that the biggest project he'd done before this was a small, 40-square-metre glasshouse conservatory on top of the Cairns casino. "When we first told people we were building a cool glasshouse on the equator, everyone said we were crazy."
Indeed, many of the plants in the Flower Dome wouldn't survive Singapore's tropical heat. But the dome has been designed to let in as much light, but as little heat, as possible, with the help of a retractable shading system and high-performance glazing. The interior is cooled using solar power as well as bio-fuel from tree waste.
Eventually, our time in the Avatar gardens is up. As we drive away, I sneak a final glance in the rear-view mirror. I swear I see a dragon arcing across the sky, but manage to restrain my imagination and realise it's just a passing plane.
The writer travelled courtesy of the Singapore Tourism Board and Scoot.
Three things to do
1 Walk Grab one of two maps designed for self-guided discovery - take either the Cooled Conservatories tour or Themed Gardens trail. Choose between a variety of suggested itineraries which range from one to four hours in duration and you'll be able to do all the must-sees at your own pace.
2 Cruise Ride the "Garden Cruiser" tram, which takes guests on a 25-minute, audio-guided ride around the Bay South garden, passing the cooled conservatories, themed gardens and Dragonfly Lake on its merry way. $S5 ($3.85) for adults; $S3 for under-12s.
3 Watch Take in the free nightly light-and-sound display, in which the massive man-made Supertrees are psychedelically illuminated after sundown with spotlights and neon lights.
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Need to know
Gardens by the Bay, 18 Marina Gardens Drive, Singapore. +65 6420 6848, gardensbythebay.com.sg.
The Bay South gardens open daily from 5am until 2am, and the cooled conservatories and skyway from 9am to 9pm. Entrance to the gardens is free, the biomes are $S28 ($21,) the skyway $S5.