Destination of the week: Singapore
The diamond-shaped island of Singapore is 42km from east to west and 23km from north to south, making it compact enough to be explored exhaustively in just a few days. The state's central or downtown districts lie within a three-kilometre radius of the mouth of the river and although MRT lines and buses do run between these districts, you might prefer to explore the whole area on foot.
Downtown Singapore is probably where you'll spend most of your time, but the rest of the island has its attractions too – the super-efficient bus and underground train networks link the city centre with the suburbs to the north, east and west, and there's even the chance to take a ride on a cable car.
While exploring always bear in mind that you're in the tropics: apply sunscreen and stay out of the midday sun. And beware, strolling through the remaining pockets of old Singapore entails negotiating uneven five-foot ways (the covered pavements that front Singapore's old shophouses) and yawning storm drains.
Ever since Sir Stamford Raffles first landed on its northern bank in 1819, the area around the Singapore River, which strikes into the heart of the island from the south coast, has formed the hub of the city. North of the river, and forming the core of downtown Singapore is the Colonial District, around whose public buildings and lofty cathedral the island's British residents used to promenade. The Colonial District has a cluster of buildings that recall the days of early British rule: Parliament House, the Cathedral, the Supreme Court, the Cricket Club and, most famously, Raffles Hotel. Further west, Fort Canning Park provides a welcome splash of green to the high-rise landscape and offers several attractions, including the Singapore History Museum. From here, it's a five-minute stroll to the eastern end of Orchard Road, the main shopping area in the city, and a metropolis of retail malls and shopping centres. South, across the river, the monolithic towers of the Financial District cast their long shadows over the city.
Each of Singapore's three ethnic enclaves has its own distinct flavour, ranging from the aromatic spice stores and gaudy Hindu temples of Little India, to the tumbledown back streets of Chinatown, where it's still possible to happen upon calligraphers and fortune-tellers. Visitors to the Arab Quarter can browse stores stacked with fine cloths and silks, to the accompaniment of the otherworldly wail of the muezzin's call to prayer at the Sultan Mosque.
The area north of downtown Singapore is the island's suburban heartland, and home to a grid of vast new towns; but it's here that you'll also find the state's last remaining pocket of primary rainforest, the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, and the splendid Singapore Zoological Gardens. In addition to Singapore's industrial zone and port, the west of the island boasts a clutch of good theme parks, most notably Jurong BirdPark, and Haw Par Villas – a mind-boggling hybrid of eastern mythology and Disneyland kitsch.