02 Apr 2017 15:49 IST

Singapore for the cynic

The lines between the natural and the artificial blur at the Gardens by the Bay

On a Friday night in Singapore, the financial district is abuzz as a snaking queue outside One Raffles Place grows progressively. After IDs are checked and wrists are stamped with invisible ink, an elevator whizzes up 63 floors to deposit the crowds at 1-Altitude, “the highest al fresco bar in the world”. Barely a few hours into my third visit to Singapore and there it is: Superlative #1. Dubious as I am of these tall claims, I have to admit that the 360° view from the rooftop of the towering skyscraper elicits a double take. Far below lies a spread of monumental man-made creations, where city lights twinkle and dance, as if to the music that fills the club.

With a strong sense of déjà vu, I take in the view of the gold-fringed waterfront framed by the Singapore Flyer, the familiar silhouette of Marina Bay Sands, and other iconic motifs that have come to define the Lion City.

On m y previous visits, I’d never really given Singapore a chance. It’s too commercial, I’d said of these very same establishments. Now, I thought of how, in 50-odd years, the country built itself up from scratch and carved an identity as an entertainment and shopping hub, high on the standard of living index. What if I shed my preconceived notions and indulge in all that I dismissed as “touristy”?

With this thought, the next day I step into Marina Bay Sands — a hotel, casino, and shopping mall, all rolled into one defining feature on the skyline. Housed on a floating pavilion is the Louis Vuitton Island Maison, supposedly the largest outside the flagship Paris store (there’s Superlative #2). From across the water, I’d seen the LED-strung glass frontage glittering as if sprinkled with diamond dust. The cavernous interiors contain several sparkly minuscule objects with price tags inversely proportional to their size.

Rather unexpectedly, I chance upon a special display of vintage trunks, some nearly a century old. As I read stories of the royals who owned these pieces, the space fills with an old-world charm. A smart tan piece, featuring the classic LV monogram, is initialled in the Devanagari script and emblazoned with “C.G Baroda. No. 8”.

Who did this trunk belong to?

Some clues lie in the accompanying account: “Dating back to 1920, the trunk belonged to a Maharani of Baroda who fought for women’s rights and education. At the time of her death, she possessed 21 numbered, personalized, Louis Vuitton trunks.” Back home, a Google search reveals that it could possibly have belonged to Maharani Chimnabai II, wife of Sayajirao Gaekwad III. The initials matched.

Buoyed by the chance history lesson in a behemoth of commerce, I venture into Gardens by the Bay, where the lines between the natural and the artificial blur. Man-made trees, some up to 50-m tall, fan out in a tangle of branches to create a canopy.

Singapore’s famed Supertrees were created as part of a plan to green the city’s urbanised centre. The Supertree Grove, where 12 colossal concrete-and-steel trees form an artificial forest, redefines the term ‘urban jungle’. They may be artificial, but these trees act as vertical gardens, with more than 200 species of ferns, orchids, and climbers planted into the ‘living skin’ or planting panels. Partially covered with plants already, with time, these tropical flowers will creep all the way to the top. The shade of the Supertrees is a welcome respite from Singapore’s harsh sun. From an elevated walkway that connects the structures, I have an aerial view of the gardens below and Singapore’s urban skyline beyond. Bursts of white and magenta flowers peek out from the canopy, and between them, I spy photovoltaic cells that harness solar energy. The trees also act as exhaust ducts for the two temperature-controlled conservatories — the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest.

In the Flower Dome, made up of 3,332 glass panels, I hear Superlative #3: the world’s largest glass greenhouse as per the Guinness World Records 2015. Cooled to a moderate 23°C, the dome is a wonderland of Mediterranean cool-dry climate plants. Baobabs and succulents, flowers, ferns, and olive trees fill the space.

I’ve always appreciated nature’s gifts more than anything man has ever built, but here, in the midst of skyscrapers, Gardens by the Bay shows me that it’s possible to merge the two. A free-to-access public space, it uses solar power and rainwater harvesting, and aims to build a green canopy.

I’m a happy convert.

Travel log

Getting there

Fly Singapore Airlines or Jet Airways direct to Singapore from major Indian metros.

Stay

M Social, Philippe Starck’s latest offering, sits by the river at Robertson Quay.

Do

The outdoor offerings at Gardens by the Bay are free of charge. Don’t miss the OCBC Skyway (SGD8 or ₹375 approx) and the two Conservatories (SGD28 or ₹1,310 approx).

Tip

The Marina Bay Sands SkyPark Observation Deck on the 57th level is a great vantage point for city views.

(Malavika Bhattacharya is a Delhi-based freelance travel journalist. The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)

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