Not far from the high rises lies a wilderness of walks and wildlife. Sophie Lam hits the nature trails
Flying into Singapore's Changi Airport, you're as much struck by the soaring, modern skyscrapers as you are by the pockets of green that sprout up between them, rather like grass between paving stones. Space is at a premium on this diminutive tropical island state, so town planners have been careful to build skywards rather than laterally, in order to safeguard the city's nature. Singaporeans are proud of their "city within a garden" and rightly so: much care and attention has gone into preserving the gardens and nature reserves. There are meticulously tended gardens, nature reserves, farms, garden spas and even a safari park. And because it's all so compact, refuge from city life is never more than a few minutes away.
There were skyscrapers millions of years ago: trees - and descendants of the originals still stand at the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve (00 65 6468 5736;; open 6am-7.30pm daily, admission free). This compact plot of primary rainforest in the centre of Singapore is an example of the greenery that once covered the island. The raw array of vegetation contrasts with the manicured, organised parks elsewhere on the island. There are four walking trails - under soaring Dipterocarpaceae trees (which can reach 70m in height), palms and ferns - which wind their way up to Singapore's highest peak, Bukit Timah Hill (a modest 164m). At weekends, walkers, joggers and mountain bikers pound the paved paths to a soundtrack of screeching cicadas, but head off track or visit during the week if you want to catch some of the wildlife, such as macaques, monkeys and snakes. There's a small visitor centre at the Hindhede Drive entrance, which charts the forest's history and its inhabitants. Bleeding out from the north of the Reserve is the MacRitchie Reservoir, a water catchment area surrounded by mature secondary forest, walking trails and a Treetop Walk (00 65 6468 5736; ; Tuesday-Friday 9am-5pm, from 8.30am at weekends, closed Monday; admission free), a 250m trajectory through the tree canopy.
This is tropical South-east Asia, so there is ample animal and bird life, and from zoos to wetland reserves, most interests are catered for. Popular with families are the Singapore Zoo (00 65 6269 3411;; open 8.30am-6pm; S$15/£5) and adjoining Night Safari (00 65 6269 3411; ; open 7.30pm-midnight; S$20/£6.70) (see page 15). Here you'll find native wildlife such as snakes and palm civets, as well as komodo dragons, baboons and the world's largest colony of orang-utans. Over on the leisure resort of Sentosa Island there's a small Butterfly Park and Insect Kingdom (00 65 6275 0013; www.sentosa.com.sg; open 9.30am-6pm daily; S$10/£3.30), where over 1,000 huge, decorative butterflies flit around an enclosure full of tropical flora. At the end is a small museum of insect life with a handful of live exhibits, including a curious snake-necked turtle. There's plenty of wildlife in its natural habitat, too. Peacocks strut boldly around Sentosa, while monkeys drop down from the palm trees at dusk and pythons lurk in the trees. Singapore's positioning off the end of mainland Asia means that it's also on the migratory bird route. The best time to catch birds is from mid-September until April and the place to see them is the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve (00 65 6794 1401; ; open 7.30am-7pm Monday-Saturday, from 7am Sunday; admission free except S$1/30p at weekends). The reserve encompasses mangrove and wetlands and attracts scores of birds, from white collared kingfishers to egrets, herons and olive backed sunbirds. It's not just a haven for twitchers, though, with otters, crabs, monitor lizards and mud lobsters all within its boundaries. An easier approach for families may be the Jurong Bird Park (00 65 6265 0022; ; open 9am-6pm daily; S$18/£6) where around 9,000 birds are kept in open aviaries, with landscaped tropical gardens. There's a huge enclosure full of birds from South East Asia, as well as pelicans, parrots, toucans, birds of paradise and more.
If you want to pick up the pace then follow the locals and go for a run in one of the numerous parks. The epic task of constructing a traffic-free park connector is well underway, linking all of the city's green spaces and providing long distance routes for cyclists, runners and hikers. Bikes can be hired from several outlets in Singapore's largest and most popular park, East Coast Park () from S$5-S$10 (£1.70-£3.30) per hour, where potential routes trail the palm-fringed coast. A more gentle alternative is to cycle around one of the outlying islands. On weekdays Sentosa (00 65 6736 8672; ) is relatively quiet, but the island of Pulau Ubin (00 65 6542 4108; ; open 8.30am-6pm, admission free) off the north-east coast is even more so, and rewards visitors with a glimpse of how Singapore might have looked half a century ago. This protected, rural island of palm groves, rubber plantations, mangroves and coloured-clapboard, tin-roofed houses is best explored by bicycle and there is a handful of marked trails. As you arrive from the bumboat jetty at Ubin (from Changi Point, S$4/£1.30 return) you'll come to rental outlets in some rundown old houses, charging around S$8-S$15 (£2.70-£5) per day depending on the model.
Most Singaporeans want to escape the city at some point and this has encouraged a trend for the "garden spas", which are emerging in housing estates (Aramsa Garden Spa in Bishan Park: 00 65 6456 6556;) and leisure destinations (Spa Botanica at The Sentosa resort: 0065 6371 1318; ). Here you can be pummelled, kneaded and spiritually uplifted while at the same time being surrounded by verdant tropical foliage. Pilates classes are also held every morning from Monday-Saturday at the Aramsa Garden Spa. New to Sentosa Island is the Amara Sanctuary Resort (00 65 6825 3888; ), where an impressive garden spa is set to open this autumn. Until then, you'll have to make do with the rooftop infinity pool, with views across the island and across the South China Sea. You don't have to indulge in the latest treatments to unwind. The Sembawang Hot Spring is the island's only natural hot spring, with reported healing waters. There are basic facilities available and it opens daily 7am-7pm daily, admission free.
There are pockets of green right in the heart of town. The stately Fort Canning Park (00 65 6332 1200;; open all day; admission free) is a former English fort that drapes down from a small hilltop reservoir. It encompasses well-tended lawns, shady walkways and a few old cannons that remain stationed at various hillside lookouts, as well as what is thought to be the tomb of Sultan Iskandar Syah (the second ruler of Malacca, who died in 1424). There's also a replica of Sir Stamford Raffles' spice garden on the site where he first established a botanical garden, dotted with cinnamon trees, lemongrass, turmeric, galangal, white and black pepper, chilli and ginger. Perhaps the most impressive of Singapore's parks is Singapore Botanic Garden (00 65 6471 7361; ; open 5am-midnight daily; admission free). It was established in 1859 as a replica of London's Kew Gardens and is a haven of luxuriant lawns, palms, rain and tembusu trees (some more than 100 years old) undulating around a peaceful lake full of fish and turtles. At weekends it's a hive of activity with joggers, dog walkers and tai chi practitioners. Tucked within is the immaculate National Orchid Garden (open 8.30am-7pm daily; S$5/£1.70), where the colourful and delicate flowers are nurtured. A walkway snakes through beds of dainty white spider orchids, yellow "golden shower" orchids, hybrid varieties, black tea trees and Japanese honeysuckle. There are also displays of celebrity hybrids, created for visiting dignitaries from Princess Diana to Margaret Thatcher.
Look beyond the urbanised centre and you'll find a few undeveloped pastures. The north west of the island is home to the "Kranji Countryside" (), an association of local farm owners that have opened up their fields to guests. There are frog farms, fish farms, dairies and garden centres, but the most visitorfriendly is Bollywood Veggies (00 65 6898 5001; ; open 9am-6pm Wednesday-Sunday; S$2/70p). Here, you can wander through well-tended beds of organic produce from herbs to banana trees, papaya, guava, vanilla, balsam, citronella and more. Some of the produce is put to use at the Poison Ivy Bistro, where you can sip cool aloe vera juice while tucking into delicious fish curry and spiced kang kong (a spinach-like vegetable). The garrulous founder and owner, Ivy Singh Lim, is often on hand to welcome guests and explain the work (and plight) of the local farmers. The Kranji Association has also initiated a bus route, the Kranji Express, which shuttles between the farms hourly from Kranji MRT station between 9am-5pm; fares S$2 (70p).
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