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It's a contradiction of old and new - a 'green city' alongside CBD skyscrapers, writes Tracey Spicer.
'It looks like the Wookies' hideout in Star Wars!" Our nine-year-old son thinks he's inside a Lego set on steroids.
We're standing beneath skyscraper-sized Supertrees - concrete covered by creeping plants - next to the $10 million children's park at Gardens by the Bay.
Surreal sculptures, including a huge baby floating above the ground, dot the water play area, in the shadow of the shell-shaped Flower Dome and Cloud Forest. The latter houses the world's biggest artificial waterfall, surrounded by interactive displays about climate change (a touch ironic, given the gardens are built on 100 hectares of reclaimed land.) Such is Singapore, a place of paradoxes you must see to believe.
ASIA OR THE AMAZON?
Taj and Grace wonder where they are, as we cruise past jaguars, flamingoes and giant anteaters. This is Singapore Zoo's new river-themed wildlife park, with the world's largest freshwater aquarium, replete with piranhas and manatees: the mammal behind the mermaid. Nearby, giant pandas, six-year-old Kai Kai and five-year-old Jia Jia, feast on bamboo in their indoor forest. Outside, in 35-degree heat, is the incongruous sight of the polar bear Inuka: the first born in the tropics.
A breakfast with the orang-utans is a treat, as the kids ask awkward questions about the theory of evolution. "Wow, we really are monkeys," Taj says thoughtfully, munching on a banana.
MUSEUMS & MARVELS
A boat ride of a different kind reveals man-made wonders.
The ultra-modern ArtScience building, resembling a giant lotus flower, is known as the "Welcoming Hand". Each finger represents a different gallery.
The nearby Theatres of the Bay looks like durian fruit, although the original design was criticised by locals as "two copulating aardvarks". Another architectural marvel is the Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino, designed as three decks of cards, with a spaceship on top. Take the lift to SkyPark to see the world's largest public cantilever, housing an observation deck.
HITTING A HIGH SEA
Wooden stilt houses hover over the water's edge. Mysteriously, they're veiled in a blue mist. Then, bang! Fireworks shoot from the top, performers backflip on the beach, and cartoon characters dance on a screen of droplets from water fountains.
Welcome to Songs of the Sea, an esoteric show at Sentosa Island, a 10-minute drive from Singapore's CBD. All of a sudden, fire explodes from volcanic "rocks" on the beach, eliciting a scream from seven-year-old Grace, who's alternately delighted and terrified by the performance.
From here, take the chairlift to 4D Adventureland, with a variety of virtual roller-coasters. There's also tobogganing without the snow at Skyline Luge, and surfing without the sea at the indoor Wave House ... and the new S.E.A. Aquarium, with its replica mangrove forest rooted in concrete.
CALIFORNIA, SINGAPORE STYLE
Walk past busy Siloso beach, along sedate Palawan beach, to Tanjong Beach Club, a slice of California. This is a dichotomous delight: a funky bar and plunge pool spilling on to a beach dotted with day beds decorated by the beautiful people, but still family-friendly.
We relax with a gin and tonic (hey, it's Singapore, right?) watching buffed 20-somethings play volleyball, while the kids splash in the shallows. The menu features truffled fries, tuna tartare with pineapple and chilli, and Argentinian chardonnay. Unlike Australia, there are no drunken yobbos on the beach; at $15 a beer it's too expensive to get tipsy.
Perhaps the greatest contrast in this country is between the calm control of the centre, and the chaos of Little India. This is the place to haggle, get your hand painted with henna, and buy bountiful bangles. Despite its Western name, Big Bites is a local favourite, serving spicy channa bhatura and tasty masala chai. The sweets are deceptively savoury, with gulab jamun based on cardamom powder: "yum" for Mum, but "disgusting" for the kids.
Most of the restaurants in Singapore serve food tempered for western tastes, which is, at times, disappointing for those with adventurous palates. However, it's great for families with fussy eaters, being able to choose from a selection of Western, Malay, Indian, or Chinese cuisine.
Our last night is spent lying on the ground, gazing up at the Supertrees in a symphony of light and sound. It is stunningly surreal: the juxtaposition of Lee Kwan Yew's "green city" with the skyscrapers of the CBD.
That sums up modern-day Singapore. Sure it's safe, friendly and affordable. But it's also a little bit quirky, lah!
The writer was the guest of Singapore Tourism Board and Sentosa.
Singapore Airlines is extremely family-friendly, with kid-sized headphones, Angry Birds activity packs, and healthy children's meals, plus latest release movies. Daily flights from Sydney and Melbourne. See singaporeair.com.
The elegant, clifftop Singapore Resort and Spa Sentosa and its 11 hectares of tropical woodlands and landscaped water gardens, has interconnecting family suites and is walking distance to the beach. Luxury rooms start at $470 a night. See singaporeresort sentosa.com.
The stunning Sentosa day spa features a Garden Cafe focused on "conscious dining", with ingredients sourced from organic or biodynamic farms. See website above.
Five family tips
You can get special deals on tickets to Universal Studios on Sentosa Island through rwsentosa.com. Arrive before opening to avoid the queues, and download the Resorts World Sentosa app to check out waiting times. Or, to skip the queues, buy an Unlimited Express Pass for $50. Kids under four are free.
Buy an EasyLink ticket for train or bus, or a Singapore Tourist Pass for unlimited travel. Alternatively, off-peak taxis are cheap. The See Singapore Pass is terrific if you want to visit lots of attractions.
Eat at the hawker markets. They all have food safety ratings displayed. Our favourites are Hill Street and Satay on the Bay at Marina Bay Sands.
Instead of buying expensive tickets to the SkyPark observation deck, take the lift to Ku De Ta, the cocktail bar at the top, buy a drink, and enjoy the same view.
Need some interpreting? "Lah" is a "Singlish" expression used at the end of almost every sentence. It can mean anything, from emphasis to surprise.