Exploring Asia: Colonial Homes & Skyscrapers in Singapore

Singapore's towering skyscrapers certainly captivate visitors with their creative shapes and trend-setting architectural design. But what truly enchants are the destination's lovely black-and-white traditional homes, reflective of a past era. 

Black & White Mansions

I was fortunate to peruse many of these beauties during a private car tour by travel writer Heidi Sarna, editor of QuirkyCruise.com and a 13-year Singapore resident.

Her new book, "Secret Singapore," comes out later this year, and she certainly knows the "ins" and "outs" of this Southeast Asia island nation.

She drove me around historic neighborhoods brimming with lush tropical foliage so I could view these lovely black-and-white homes.

Scattered in many neighborhoods across Singapore, most of these iconic structures were constructed near military bases during the nation's Colonial era.

Some date from the late 19th century, with many constructed between 1910 and the 1930s. In addition, some modern homes have been constructed in this traditional style as well. 

Check out our original slide show above.

Desire to peek inside? For clients who'd like to do just that, one good option is the "Black and White Homes" tour offered by Jane's SG Tours. Operated by local resident Jane Iyer, this Singapore tour company specializes in heritage, cultural and architectural tours that are beyond the ordinary.   

Priced at $95 per person, the three-hour "Black and White Houses" tour includes transportation, expert commentary and visits inside several of these lovely homes, as well as refreshments. 

Agents receive 10 percent commission on this and other group tours, and Jane's SG Tours will negotiate pricing on private tours, too. 

Botanic Gardens for Breakfast

After viewing the black-and-white beauties during my recent visit, Sarna and I ventured to Singapore Botanic Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for breakfast at Casa Verde, a casual eatery with outdoor tables. 

Saturday is a great time to mix with the locals, who stroll the grounds with their kids and pets. Anecdotally, there seemed to be more residents than tourists at the time of our visit -- as evidenced by the Yorkie in the stroller at the adjacent table.

Founded in 1859, the Singapore Botanic Gardens has free admission, although there is a $5 per adult charge to enter the National Orchid Garden, which is well worth the nominal fee -- as visitors can gaze at 1,000 species of orchids and 2,000 hybrids.

Among the botanic gardens' many free diversions are The Learning Forest, the Amazing World of Plants, and such lovely themed gardens as the Ginger Garden, Healing Garden, Fragrant Garden, Foliage Garden and Evolution Garden. 

When it's time for a late breakfast or lunch, head for Casa Verde. Just order and pay for the food inside and wait at your table for delivery.  

Prices are reasonable. It was less than $18 US for my robust breakfast order of traditional Singaporean Laksa (see photo at right) and a drink.

Spicy and delicious, the laksa is a traditional noodle dish in Singapore. It's created with thick vermicelli, spicy coconut milk, prawns, eggs, fish cakes, bean sprouts and dried bean curd.

If you go, be sure to pair it with a refreshing glass of calimansi juice, which helps soothe the palette -- especially if you've ordered a spicy dish.  

Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus

On my previous day in Singapore, I had opted for more of an "overview experience" -- boarding Big Bus Singapore’s Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus to see many top city sites. It was an easy, flexible way to enjoy independent sightseeing.  

The coaches are color-coded, and each route is different. Visitors just choose the sightseeing route of interest and then hop off as desired. Then, after visiting a museum, historic building or other attraction, they just wait at a designated stop and hop back on when the next bus of that color route arrives.  

Be sure to ask for the company's brochure from your hotel’s concierge or download the free Big Bus Tours App. Both offer a detailed, stop-by-stop map of the bus routes.

No reservations are needed, and the map and app shows the schedules. The app also has landmark/attraction information and “Locate Me” functionality so travelers easily can find both their location and the nearest bus stop.

I flagged down the Yellow Route bus at Stop 14, a public bus stop across the street and one block down from the Hilton Hotel on Orchard Road.

If you have cash, you just pay the driver, hop on, and your ticket is good for 24 hours. I paid 47 Singapore dollars.

Tip? Have correct change, as none is given by the driver. 

If you want to pay with a credit card, the driver will drop you at the line’s nearest “counter” for payment – such as at Sentec Center, a hub for the various bus routes.

So there you can hop off the Yellow Route, for example, and board a Red Route bus, a good route for those wishing to explore Little India and Chinatown.

Once onboard the Yellow Route bus, I stayed on for the full loop. Heading up top by an interior bus staircase, I grabbed an open-air seat with stellar views.

Singapore's towering structures surrounded me on every side. I so wished for an owl's range of circular head motion. Check out the photos in the slide show above.

Around me were glistening high-rise condos, luxurious hotels, malls, schools, offices and government buildings, as well as some historic structures, including the iconic Raffles Singapore (reopening this year). 

At street level were eateries, shops and lots of "people gathering" spots. From my bus-top perch, the city seemingly "came alive" in a way not seen at ground level. 

One suggested stop for visitors taking the Yellow Route is the Singapore Visitors Centre at 216 Orchard Road; it’s open from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Among the stops on the Yellow Route were the Singapore Flyer, the wheel-in-the-sky ride; the Marina Bay Sands, three towers topped by a surfboard-looking entertainment space with an infinity pool; City Hall; Clarke Quay along the Singapore River; the Zion Food Centre, a local hawkers center with savory local cuisine; the Singapore Botanic Gardens; many hotels and more.

It's advantageous to review the bus company's app or brochure in advance as numerous combination tickets can offer sizable savings. For example, visitors can buy the Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus ticket in combination with the Singapore Flyer, Duck Tour (amphibious vehicle), or the Singapore Night Safari, among other options. 

In our next blog, we'll talk about boarding the luxurious Seabourn Ovation for a two-week cruise through Southeast Asia.

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