Where opulence gets really opulent

The Marina Bay Sands has rapidly become a Singapore icon - even if it has had to ban the public from its spectacular pool, writes Simon White.

On the third day of my trip to Singapore I get stopped on a bridge in Clarke Quay by a local university student seeking help with an assignment.

She hands me a list of items and asks me to pick out which one I associate most with Singapore.

On the list are the Merlion, the iconic almost nine metre statue that spits out water at the entrance to the Singapore river, and the Flyer, the giant Ferris Wheel that overlooks the Marina.

But the item I choose – and the one thing I find consistently impossible to ignore in Singapore – is the Marina Bay Sands.

Whether I'm sight-seeing at the St Andrew Cathedral on North Bridge Road, taking a river cruise or driving to or from Sentosa Island, I just can't resist peering between buildings to get a glimpse of this incredible feat of engineering.

Marina Bay Sands is hard to describe and even harder for the amateur to get a good photograph of.

Maybe the best way to describe it is just to stick with the simple facts – a 2500-room hotel and entertainment complex, consisting of three 55-story towers, topped with a 12,400 square metre "boat" (150 metres of which is given up to a breathtaking infinity pool).

As you would expect of a $6 billion-plus venture, Marina Bay Sands offers the most opulent of experiences in a city that prides itself on opulence.

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On my guided tour, I'm shown through a two-bedroom Straits Suite that goes for upwards of $5000 a night, spans 330 square metres and has its own gymnasium room and karaoke set-up.

I don't get the chance to see the Chairman Suite first-hand but, given it contains its own pool table, I'd suggest it's also fairly well appointed.

Less than two years after it rose out of reclaimed land (something Singapore specialises in) Marina Bay Sands has already attracted its share of high celebrity clientele.

Among them are the Liverpool soccer team, who my guide Damien says he gleefully volunteered to work with, Justin Bieber (naturally!), and, only a few weeks before my visit, Lady Gaga.

Damien confesses that he found the latter a little intimidating.

"Because she's so famous?" I ask.

"No," Damien replies. "Because of her height."

"She looks quite short but the heels made her a lot taller than I expected."

In contrast, the views available along the ship - officially known as the SkyPark - are exactly as you might expect, provided your imagination extends to swimming pools that float 200m off the ground.

The view from Marina Bay Sands' world-renowned infinity pool is only upstaged by the debate about who gets to enjoy it. Photo: Reuters

Unfortunately, fewer and fewer "ordinary" people are going to be able to enjoy such views.

It turns out paying hotel guests haven't been all that keen on members of the public watching on as they take a dip in and it has been decided that only those on official tours will get a brief glimpse of the SkyPool ("No More Ogling," reads the subtle headline in Singapore's Sunday Times during my visit).

Still, you don't necessarily have to be staying there to enjoy Marina Bay Sands.

There are more than 300 shops, including outlets for the usual suspects such as Chanel, Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent and Ralph Lauren.

With more than 300 outlets, the Marina Bay mall well and truly caters for retail shoppers.

Located outside the main complex and on the water's edge is the grand-daddy of them all, a floating Louis Vuitton store where, if you have a spare $7500 or so you can buy a no doubt very nicely made but otherwise quite standard looking trolley bag.

If culture, rather than shopping, is your thing, then I can recommend the Art Science Museum. Looking somewhat Sydney Opera House-inspired, the Art Science Museum is actually crafted in the shape of a lotus leaf and contains all manner of impressive interactive exhibitions.

During my visit it's a mix of Salvador Dali, Vincent van Gogh and artefacts from an 1100-year-old shipwreck. Right now it's treasures from the Titanic.

For those seeking a physical aspect to their Marina Bay Sands experience, you can go ice skating – well, as much as you can ice skate on a polymer designed to resemble frozen water. I don't give it a go but I see a young couple fall on their backsides enough to be convinced it's nearly the real thing (minus the dampened, chilled trousers, one assumes).

Ice skating in a shopping mall in the tropics? Why not?

And those who build up an appetite skating or shopping (covering the entire mall is a fair hike) won't go hungry, with seven "celebrity" restaurants inside Marina Bay Sands – Wolfgang Puck's CUT, Daniel Boulud's Bistro Moderne, Gus Savoy's (ahem) Gus Savoy, Mario Batali's Osteria and Pizzieria Mozza, Santi Santamaria's Santi, Justin Quek's Sky on 57 and Tetsuya Wakuda's Waku Ghin.

For the cheaper-minded, there is also the mother of all food courts, the Rasapura Masters.

It stretches to more than 21,000 square feet and 960 seats and is very affordable. My Singapore Tourism Board guide and I share six dishes of local Peranakan food for lunch and end up spending something like $24 Australian between us.

You'll notice that I haven't yet mentioned the casino that is implied by the third part of Marina Bay Sands' name.

Well camouflaged, or day we say hidden? The Marina Bay Sands casino.

It's there all right – and, at 500 tables is purported to be the world's biggest atrium casino - but you'd basically have to be looking for it to find it. I wouldn't be bold enough to say it is hidden but it is very well disguised among the rest of Marina Bay Sands.

Casinos and Singapore are an interesting mix.

The Singapore government stayed away from them for a long time and still has only two to worry about – Marina Bay Sands and another at Resort World on Sentosa Island.

Since opening last year, the two gaming venues have already had a significant impact on tourism. The number of visitors to Singapore jumped 20 per cent and the country's GDP increased by 14.5 per cent.

The Marina Bay Sands casino seems to be a particularly nice little bit of cat and mouse.

On one hand, locals are discouraged from attending by a $100 entry charge (it's free for foreigners).

On the other, only three per cent of the Marina Bay Sands floor space is allowed to be given over to the casino, which makes me wonder whether some of the added extras (a convention centre that houses South-East Asia's biggest ballroom, two theatres totalling 4000 seats) are simply a way of maximising the gambling space.

Still for those who are lucky enough to win big at Marina Bay Sands, there are plenty of spending options.

Perhaps my favourite is the Richard Mille store, where the watches lack somewhat for quantity (perhaps a range of 10 or so) but obviously don't want anything for quality. One of them retails for nearly $500,000.

But then, at the most opulent destination in an always opulent city, you would hardly expect anything less.

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

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

 For more information on Marina Bay Sands, visit www.marinabaysands.com

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