Several things make me shiver in delight as I step into Singapore's Cloud Forest Dome. One is the bliss of its chilly interior, an immediate antidote to the island nation's relentless humidity. Another is the 35-metre waterfall, reputedly the world's tallest indoor waterfall, and the surrounding walls of greenery that tumble with orchids and ferns.
Most of all, it's the delight in discovering something so utterly magical for the first time. I've been to Gardens by the Bay before, but only to see the Supertrees that form part of an evening sound-and-light show against the backdrop of Singapore's skyscrapers. How could I have missed the Cloud Forest Dome – and why isn't it just as famous as the nearby Supertrees? Which are, dare I say, just that bit overhyped. And over-hot.
The Supertrees are admittedly a fine idea, but there are quite a few novelties in the Cloud Forest Dome, too. The experience of feeling the temperature drop as you step into a greenhouse, for a start. The three-dimensional exploration of space for another. This isn't a greenhouse you potter through like a Victorian gentleman, craning your neck for a look at palm trees.
This is a thoroughly modern greenhouse that you explore on multiple levels, linked on walkways that swoop around a great mountain of plants. You can look up, you can look down, you can eyeball pitcher plants and get up close to trembling begonias, their ruffled petals dewed with water droplets.
I don't know who the mad genius was who thought of recreating a cool-climate cloud forest here on the sweltering sea-level equator. It's an engineering achievement to build a huge dome 58 metres high and unencumbered by a single column. (In fact, its twin Flower Dome is the world's biggest such structure.) It's a marvel to maintain the temperature at about 24 degrees and to mist it in re-creation of the damp, cool conditions found in tropical highlands and mountains.
Most of all, it is sheer inspiration to create an actual mountain on which to display the plants – or at least an impressive scaled-down version of one. The Cloud Forest Dome takes the idea of the Supertrees – a steel structure draped in thousands of plants to form a vertical garden – and transforms it into something quite different.
The best way to visit is to take the lift up to the summit and walk down using the various walkways that encircle the walls of greenery. The plants – there are some 60,000 of them, and every leaf seems perfect – change as you descend, mimicking various altitude zones.
You start among ferns and mosses and descend among epiphytes and anthuriums and rhododendrons. Don't miss the world's largest insect-catching pitcher plants from Mount Kinabalu in Borneo, which have traps 40 centimetres long – big enough to swallow the occasional rat.
It's troubling to think that one day this might be the last remnant of a ruined ecosystem. Displays in the Cloud Forest Gallery explain how cloud forests, already in a sorry state in most parts of the world, are among the habitats most vulnerable to global warming.
You end up at the close of your visit in the Secret Garden, amid plants from cave environments. Some orchids are so small you have to peer at them through magnifying glasses. You depart feeling you've seen something special, and with renewed appreciation for our glorious planet.
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Visit Singapore and The Fullerton Bay Hotel Singapore.
The Fullerton Bay Hotel Singapore is located on Marina Bay and is the contemporary counterpoint to the colonial-era The Fullerton across the road. Rooms from about $700 a night. See fullertonhotels.com
Entry to Cloud Forest Dome and Flower Dome is $29 for adults, $15 for children 3-12 years old, and is part of the otherwise free Gardens by the Bay. See gardensbythebay.com.sg