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Tops for tots in Asia
Pack up the kids for a trip to Hong Kong or Singapore. You won't be disappointed
Hong Kong, off China’s south coast, and the Republic of Singapore, at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, are both cosmopolitan centres loaded with kid-centric amenities. So choosing between them can be a toss up. For some families, climate will be the deciding factor (the former is ideal weather-wise about six months of the year; the latter continually washed in equatorial sunlight). For others it may be a question of cost, with budget-conscious Hong Kong beating Singapore on that count. For many, however, the decision ultimately rests on the specific experiences available. Take a look at our checklist to see how the two stack up in the categories that matter most to you.
Singapore (yoursingapore.com), though startlingly clean and orderly, isn’t nearly as bland as some believe. Its British colonial pedigree is still evident (Raffles Hotel, with its glorious high tea tradition, testifies to that). Moreover, the city state’s three main ethnic groups have preserved key elements of their own colourful heritage. The vivid row houses in Chinatown, gold-trimmed mosques in Kampong Glam (an Arab enclave), or stacks of saris displayed in Little India are all a case in point.
That said, these compact, well-tended quarters do have an Epcot World Showcase quality which can’t match Hong Kong’s (discoverhongkong.com) cultural cacophony. There the rattle and hum is so pronounced that even sites you’d expect to be staid possess palpable energy. Witness Man Mo Temple (with its mountainous coils of incense) or Wong Tai Sin Temple (notable for wizened fortune tellers): more than Facebook photo ops, they offer full-on sensory overload.
If diving into the fray seems daunting, get back-up support from the tourism board’s Cultural Kaleidoscope program (discoverhongkong.com). It sponsors free events like Kung Fu demos, Tai Chi classes, and Cantonese opera tutorials. Architecture Walks showcasing Hong Kong’s incomparable skyscrapers are also organised for visitors as young as three. Kids probably won’t recognize the names of the famous architects who designed them, but they may recognize the buildings themselves. They’ve featured prominently in movies starring Batman and James Bond.
Snacks and skewers
Globetrotting foodies rave about Hong Kong’s gastronomic scene. Kids not so much… Marinated chicken feet, fish balls, eel soup, 1000-year old eggs: dining on such delicacies can sound like a Survivor challenge to young children. And while older ones might appreciate the YouTube potential in ordering any of the above, actually eating them is a different story. Complicating the issue further is the fact that even run-of-the-mill Chinese dishes bear little resemblance to those kids typically beg for back home (namely anything battered, deep-fried and smothered in fluorescent goo). Happily, dim sum is an exception to the “icky edibles” rule. It’s a local passion and — since portions are small and priced accordingly — a practical choice.
A dizzying selection of stuffed buns, rolls, and wrappers is prepared in Singapore’s Chinatown too. Better still, its Kampong Glam neighbourhood sells an array of kid-friendly kebabs, shawarma, and all manner of mezze; and Little India serves up satay skewers as well as savoury concoctions wrapped in banana leaves. That multicultural combination gives Singapore the lead in the culinary category. To enjoy it fully, chow down at an outdoor hawker centre. Strictly regulated for hygiene, these atmospheric food courts provide a tasty introduction to Singaporean cuisine.
Shop till they drop
On a per capita basis, residents of these locales rank among the richest in the world. Plus they tend to wear their wealth, which makes each popular with upscale retailers. Glitzy malls and boutique-lined boulevards (think Orchard Road in Singapore or Nathan Road in Hong Kong) abound. Yet street markets hold more interest for families and Hong Kong’s Kowloon district has the mother lode. Its flower, bird, and goldfish markets are a picturesque preamble to the main event: excursions to the Ladies Market (which opens daily, noon to 11:30PM) and Temple Street Night Market (which runs from 4PM to midnight).
Claustrophobes will be put off by these tightly packed venues and shopping snobs will be appalled by the volume of junk. The payoff is that, between the fake Mao memorabilia and those teetering piles of Jackie Chan t-shirts, “designer” clothing awaits. Because items are inexpensive, budding fashionistas can get their label fix on a middle school budget; and, because sizes run small, even petite progeny can score adult styles. (Although you’ll be expected to haggle, touts armed with calculators ensure the bartering process is as painless as possible.) When authenticity counts, nab funky mandarin jackets and cute cheongsam dresses; or detour to the nearby Jade Market where trinkets made from China’s royal gem are sold for a few bucks a piece.
When it comes to purpose-built creature features, perhaps no spot on earth can trump Singapore. The reason? A trio of sites managed by the non-profit Wildlife Reserves Singapore organization (wrs.com.sg). The best known of the bunch is the Singapore Zoo (80 Mandai Lake Road; zoo.com.sg) which houses 300-odd species, a third of them endangered. Meticulously-designed habitats mimic Africa, Australia and more. Yet Asia gets pride of place, with Burmese elephants and orangutans from neighbouring Borneo and Sumatra being the biggest draws. Your brood can get an up-close look during shows, feedings, even themed meals (the zoo’s spin on character breakfasts); then retreat to a dedicated family section that boasts rides, a water park and petting zoo.
Singapore’s novel Jurong Bird Park (2 Jurong Hill; birdpark.com.sg) along with the zoo's Night Safari (80 Mandai Lake Road; nightsafari.com.sg), the largest and only facilities of their kind respectively, are equally entertaining. With its walk-in, free-flight aviaries, the former feels like heaven or a Hitchcock movie depending on your perspective; while the latter, operating from 7:30PM to midnight, employs subtle lighting effects to let you spy on nocturnal critters. The zoo's sister park, River Safari (80 Mandai Lake Road; riversafari.com.sg), recreating iconic waterways such as the Congo, Nile and Amazon will raise the bar further when it debuts in the second half of 2012. Combo tickets for the three original parks are $45.50 for adults, $30 for guests three to 12.
Nature on tap
Since both destinations are so densely populated, you can be forgiven for thinking of them as concrete jungles. In reality, though, 40 percent of Hong Kong’s total area is protected and Singapore has sufficient parks and preserves (some 300 all told) to justify its nickname: the Garden City. This translates into ample outdoor opportunities. In Hong Kong, where the topography is dramatic, intrepid types can explore mountains, wildlife-filled wetlands or beach-edged outer islands. But ease of access — coupled with gentler terrain and more age-appropriate infrastructure — give Singapore a competitive edge.
Just west of downtown, for instance, you can follow well-marked paths through virgin rainforest (spotting macaque monkeys and flying squirrels en route) at the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve (177 Hindhede Drive; nparks.gov.sg; free). And just east at Pasir Ris Park (Pasir Ris Road; nparks.gov.sg; free) you can watch tree-climbing crabs from a mangrove boardwalk or observe marine birds from a three-storey tower.
Singapore Botanic Gardens (1 Cluny Road; nparks.gov.sg; free), occupying 74 hectares in the urban core, offers a manicured variation on the theme. Ideal for picnicking and kite flying (a favourite civic pastime), it also contains the Jacob Ballas Children's Garden, which has hands-on exhibits, tree houses and a refreshing water play zone.
Both destinations deliver on the theme-park front since 2010, when Universal Studios Singapore (8 Sentosa Gateway, Sentosa Island; rwsentosa.com; $53.50 adults, $39.25 kids 4 to 12) opened as a rival to Hong Kong Disneyland (Park Promenade, Lantau Island; hongkongdisneyland.com; $52 adults, $37 kids 3 to 11). Being smaller, tamer versions of their North American cousins, each promises a déjà vu-inducing outing that is the perfect antidote for youngsters suffering culture shock.
Of course, if it’s Asian ambiance you’re after, you can always do like the locals — which in Hong Kong means visiting venerable Ocean Park (Aberdeen; oceanpark.com.hk; $36.50 adults, $18.25 kids 3-11). By turns charming and cheesy, its mixed bag of amenities includes giant thrill rides and giant pandas, not to mention a giant aquarium and SeaWorld-style aquatic theatre.
Singapore’s Sentosa Island (Sentosa Island; sentosa.com.sg) balances the scale by operating its own oceanarium and dolphin lagoon ($20.25 adults, $13.75 kids 3 to 12), along with a slew of other attractions: among them a butterfly park aimed at little tykes ($12.50 adults, $7.75 kids 3 to 12) and an aerial park with ziplines and obstacle courses for older siblings (packages from $43.25). Across town, Snow City (21 Jurong Town Hall Road; [snowcity.com.sg]; $21.50 adults, $17.50 kids 3 to 16) — a surreal venue for indoor sledding and skiing — lets you take to the bunny slope with locals who’ve never seen snow before.
Merely getting around qualifies as an adventure in both places, so they are on par in this department too. Take Hong Kong: while its subway system isn’t just cheap (day passes are $7.25 for adults, $3.25 for kids 3 to 11), it is über modern. Picture Blade Runner without the messy bits. Fun above-ground alternatives include vintage double-decker “ding ding” trams, open-top buses and panoramic cable cars, as well as the world’s steepest funicular and longest outdoor covered escalator. Nevertheless, Hong Kong’s transportation star is, appropriately, the Star Ferry (Star Ferry Pier or Central Ferry Pier No. 7; www.starferry.com.hk): a floating fixture for over 100 years. An upper deck ticket for the quick trip across Victoria Harbour will set you back less than $0.40.
Singapore counters with its own cool conveyances. After all, it also has stellar public transit (subways are so clean you could eat off the floor if eating in them was permitted); plus on-the-water options ranging from traditional bumboats and junks to amphibious vessels. The Singapore Flyer (30 Raffles Avenue; singaporeflyer.com), meanwhile, offers eye-popping views for the upwardly mobile. Thirty metres taller than the similarly-styled London Eye, the observation wheel is as high as a 42-storey building. The downside is that a half-hour ride, reflecting higher prices in Singapore as a whole, costs $23.50 for adults, $16.50 for children three to 12.
So, with the two destinations evenly matched, it’s your call. In the final accounting, either can deliver an unforgettable family foray. It simply comes down to finding the right fit.
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