Surf's up: anything goes in Singapore

It's midday. I'm hot, sunburnt and I've just been dumped by a four-foot wave for the third time in the past 15 minutes.

In short, I've had enough.

By the way, did I mention I'm in Singapore?

Surf's up on Sentosa Island.

It's possible to do just about anything you like in Singapore (including surfing, thanks to the Flowrider at Sentosa Island's Wave House), which makes it surprising that this impressive country remains just a transit stop for so many travellers.

According to Singapore Tourism Board statistics, around 60 per cent of visitors stay two days or less and, based on my experiences, I can't understand why. 

The following is a list of some of the boxes I tick in my four days in Singapore – surf a man-made wave, play golf (badly) on the course that plays host to the $6.5 million Singapore Open, attend the same party as Richard Branson, go to a concert featuring Shakira, Linkin Park, Rick Astley and Shaggy, eat a Cuban meal (part of which seemed to be Irish Stew), buy a style of Nike Air Jordans that I've never seen anywhere before, spend half a day marvelling at Marina Bay Sands, consume a literal ice cream sandwich (OK, so maybe more than one), fall asleep and have my rubber thongs stolen during an hour-long massage at a day spa, and sit five rows back at a Formula One Grand Prix.

The Grand Prix, which is far more watchable than I might have imagined, happens only once a year but it's one event guaranteed to attract tourists (half of the 82,000-strong 2011 attendance is estimated to be foreign).

It's also, ostensibly, the main reason for my visit, so here's a brief but not necessarily chronological of my F1 experience.

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Sebastian Vettel dominates. Shakira sways. Linkin Park sort of rock. I test the water by asking scalpers how much my ticket would be worth on the street, then realise police are watching and refrain. Branson is spotted at an amazing post-practice session Amber Lounge party, for which Taio Cruz appears to have been flown in to sing just the one song. The Heinekens flow freely. Michael Schumacher crashes.

Sebastian Vettel dominated the 2011 Singapore Grand Prix.

I mention Schumacher because his is one of only two accidents I see in my five days in Singapore. The other is a taxi that has been rear-ended at a T-junction and shunted across the street into a bollard.

I'm no expert on road systems but I reckon this is pretty impressive in a city-state of five million people, 570,000 private cars and less than 700 square kilometres, especially considering many major routes are closed because of the Grand Prix.

Mind you, I shouldn't really be surprised by this because Singapore is a place where everything just seems to work.

The next few paragraphs probably require stereotype alerts but it's impossible to visit and write about Singapore without mentioning its famous cleanliness and safety.

Fancy a 2am stroll by yourself along the river? Go ahead, not only can you do so without striking human trouble, you also won't trip over any rubbish and can marvel at a standard of public gardening that people would make a gold coin donation to view in Australia.

Politically, it's a similar story. Singapore is as secure a "democracy" as you can imagine (the ruling People's Action Party has won every election since independence in 1959, albeit this year with a lower majority than ever).

My indefatigable guide Eros, a globetrotting Italian who settled in Singapore 15 years ago, says this is why the one-time British colony has attracted so much affluence. The rich invest in Singapore because they feel secure putting their money there.

Which brings me to the last (I promise!) of my Singapore stereotypes - the price of alcohol.

While you can eat diversely and extremely affordably in Singapore (witness the $40 smorgasboard, featuring roast duck and pepper crab in the Grand Hyatt's Straits Kitchen), drinking is another matter.

The best I can do for the price-conscious is to recommend seeking out happy hours or hitting your hotel mini bar (sad but practical) to avoid paying $12 for a bottle of Corona (my day one night cap), $17 for a pretty plain gin and tonic (the ritzy Avalon nightclub at Marina Bay Sands) or $20 for a pint of Tiger (it's not a trip to Singapore without a visit to the Raffles Hotel).

Then again, if you are visiting Singapore, chances are you aren't there in search of cut-price drinks.

While so much of South East Asia specialises in cheap stays, Singapore instead prides itself on luxury experiences.

It's there when you go shopping in the mega-malls of Orchard Road. It's there in Marina Bay Sands - whether you get the chance to see it up close or just gaze in awe from afar. It's there in the Grand Prix, a four-day party for which no expense is spared.

It's also there if you get the opportunity to play at Sentosa Golf Club, where membership fees hover around $40,000 and an 18-hole round for a non-member (with buggy and club hire) costs $340.

Still, as with most of Singapore, you get what you pay for (in a good way).

Sentosa Golf Club - beautiful facilities, pristine fairways and a great view of the commercial powerhouse that is Singapore.

Sentosa's manicured fairways offer amazing views of both the port of Singapore (which takes in about 1000 ships a day) and the city itself.

The men's changerooms also have a shoe-shine service, marble-laden bathrooms, polished oak as far as the eyes can see and their own attendant (who I startle by asking to take a photo of me in a massage chair).

When I embarrassingly top my drive on the first hole, another attendant sympathises with me, before uttering my all-time favourite golfing phrase "would you like a mulligan sir?"

I accept his kind offer but sadly have to skip out on the back nine in order to make my ill-fated appearance at the Wave House down the road.

After the Flowrider disaster, I initally think I should have just stayed on the golf course and "enjoyed" a round of 130 or so.

But then, as I walk to the bus stop to get my ride back to the city, I catch a glimpse of a couple of people in black jumpsuits and happen across the iflySingapore building.

Skydiving without even going up in a plane? Maybe that's more my speed.

At the very least, it's proof you really can do anything in Singapore.

Five things to do in Singapore:

1) Buy an ice cream sandwich from a cart vendor- I've no idea how the ice cream is kept frozen but the array of flavours is amazing and, at $1 Singaporean (less than 80 cents Australian), you can't go wrong.

2) Visit Marina Bay Sands - it cost more than $6 billion to build, so the least you can do is go and have a look at it.  Take your pick of activities (shopping, eating, gambling, a gondola ride or, ahem, ice skating) but make sure you take guided tour that allows you to see the SkyPark's amazing infinity pool.

3) Spend a morning shopping in Orchard Road - the mega-malls have pretty much everything you could ever want (at some good prices) but the slightly chaotic atmosphere at Lucky Plaza was my favourite shopping experience.

4) Spend an afternoon wandering around Chinatown - great architecture and a million miles away (albeit only a few, literally) from Singapore's commercial heart.

5) Have a beer at the Raffles - just like everyone says, you can't go to Singapore without doing this. The colonial counterpart to Marina Bay Sands' new-age bling.

Seven simple steps to enjoying the Singapore Grand Prix

So you're all set to head to the Singapore Grand Prix?

If it's your first F1 experience (as it was for this writer), it can be a little bit daunting and very loud.

If it's your first trip to Singapore, it can be very hectic and more than a tad expenseive as you look to quench your thirst in the tropical humidity.

Below are seven tips, designed to hep you survive both the Grand Prix and Singapore.

Do: pack ear plugs and use them
You'll probably feel like an idiot putting shoving these pieces of rubbery foam down your earholes. But after 10 seconds of the race (or even the practice laps) your hearing will be thanking you for putting them in. The high-pitched squeal of a Formula One engine can literally churn the stomach and is deafening to the naked ear.

Don't: wait too long booking your accomodation
The Singapore Grand Prix is one big party and it's not getting any smaller - of the 82,000 spectators across the three days, half are estimated to be visitors. Good hotel accomodation, therefore, is at a premium and it isn't uncommon for rooms overlooking the F1 circuit to go for $20,000 a night. Planning in advance won't hurt.

Do: make use of happy hour at pubs and clubs
Everyone knows Singapore is an expensive place to drink. But the first time you experience it for yourself, it's still a shock. The $20 I forked out for a pint of Tiger at the Raffles was a particular favourite. Drinking from your hotel mini-bar is much cheaper but also anti-social so keep an eye out for happy hours, particularly around Clark and Robertson Quays. By the way, just as a note of warning - VB is an imported (and therefore slightly exotic) beer in singapore.

Don't: fall asleep at the grand prix
Curiously, I noticed several people snoozing behind me in a grandstand, only 20 metres or so away from the Grand Prix action. This is perplexing, when an F1 car generates 100-plus decibels (and there were 23 of them on the track). It's also a bit rude, when you consider drivers are risking their lives right in front of you at 300km\h. Likewise, it's probably not a good idea to fall asleep at the post-Grand Prix concert. One sleepy fellow I noticed, evidently unmoved by the work of Linkin Park, received an abrupt wake-up call from the local police.

Do: entertain all party invites associated with the race
If somebody offers you an invite to any of the official pre or post-race parties associated with the F1, just say "yes". If it's an invite to the Amber Lounge party, you should also probably give the person inviting you a hug. The Amber Lounge is a $1 million (at the very least) extravaganza at which you might get the chance to bump into Richard Branson and definitely will be delivered a continuous flow of Heinekens by the very helpful waitresses. Honourable mention to The Podium Lounge at the Ritz Carlton, with its relaxed poolside atmosphere and the peanuts we "borrowed" from a VIP table (until the rightful owner turned up).

Don't: be tempted by the ticket touts
Ah, scalping - surely the second oldest profession in the world. Go anywhere near a track entrance on Grand Prix night in Singapore and chances are you'll be hit up by someone either wanting to buy your ticket or wanting to sell you one. Engage them at your own peril - F1 ticket touts are increasingly coming under the microscope in Singapore. It's also probably not the best idea to talk to a tout (as this writer might have done) just to try and get an idea of what your ticket might be worth on the black market. Such behaviour is bound to attract the attention of security staff. 

Do: opt to stay in Singapore a few extra days
The Grand Prix might be your reason for going to Singapore but don't make it your entire trip. Stay a few extra days and try out some of the following: the amazing Marina Bay Sands, golf (or "surfing" or "sky diving") on Sentosa Island, the plethora of shopping malls along Orchard Road, Singapore's literal ice cream sandwiches and the many attractions of Chinatown. 

The writer travelled as a guest of the Singapore Tourism Board.  

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Singapore Airlines currently operates 92 flights per week between Australia and Singapore, flying from Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney. From 26 March, Singapore Airlines' regional carrier Silk Air will begin operations between Darwin and Singapore. See www.singaporeair.com

Staying there

The Gallery Hotel offers twin share gallery rooms (including W-Fi access) from about $A250 per night. It is conveniently located – a short taxi ride from the Orchard Road shopping precinct, a brief stroll from the entertainment are of Clarke Quay and also within walking distance of the colour and sights of Chinatown. See http://www.galleryhotel.com.sg/ for details.

The 2012 Singapore Grand Prix

This year's Grand Prix is on from September 21-23. Tickets start from around $140 (walkabout) up to $840 (three-day booking in the pit grandstand). Hospitality packages are also available.
Katy Perry is the off-track headline act for this year's race. See http://www.singaporegp.sg/index.php for details.

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