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Singapore's 'new' Sentosa Island

By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 18, 2010; F01

Not long after arriving on the island of Sentosa, I could tell that something had changed.

Amid the lush tropical greenery, a turreted silhouette loomed. As I got closer, I could see the outline of what looked like a fairy-tale castle. There, in the middle of the 1,200-acre island, stood Shrek's castle, a feature of the 49-acre Universal Studios theme park that opened in March as part of a casino resort on Sentosa.

Shrek? Casino? Sentosa?

The combination would have been unfathomable when I was growing up in Singapore in the 1980s.

During my childhood, Sentosa, a small island just off the southern coast of the Asian city-state, was that dorky place your parents or teachers dragged you to for slightly out-of-step activities. Sure, it had miles of picturesque beach. But there was also the inexplicable musical fountain, which was entertaining only if you like watching water torpedoed into the air in sync with Muzak. The Images of Singapore museum, stuffed with wax figures illustrating the country's history, was a musty stop for every schoolchild. And don't even get me started on the Butterfly Park.

But recently, the island has undergone a transformation. In the past few years, a number of trendy bars and restaurants have sprung up. A year ago, a luxury resort opened in a grand colonial building the British military put up in the 1880s. Then in February, after much anticipation, Resorts World Sentosa, a $4.4 billion project featuring four hotels, shops selling Cartier jewelry and Jimmy Choo shoes, and the country's first casino, opened its doors to a flood of gamblers and shoppers.

How would the new Sentosa stack up against the old Sentosa? I decided to investigate.

* * *

Sentosa as a tourist attraction is a fairly recent concept. The island dates to at least the 14th century, when it appeared on early maps of the region. When British colonists arrived in Singapore in the early 19th century, the island's populace mostly made a living on the water, either from fishing or harvesting turtle eggs or by offering their services as navigators for ships, according to Timothy Barnard, an associate professor of history at the National University of Singapore.

At the time, the island was known as Pulau Blakang Mati, which means "Island of Death From Behind." Some speculate that this was due to its shady reputation as a place where many of the trading ships that passed through the deep passageway between it and mainland Singapore were raided. "It was a pirates' lair," said Barnard.

But some historical records indicate that the name may derive from a malaria outbreak that killed many residents in the 1840s, according to Sentosa Leisure Group, which manages development on the island.

In 1972, the Singapore government decided to turn Blakang Mati into a tourist attraction and held a nationwide contest to come up with a new name. Sentosa, which means peace and tranquillity in Malay, was selected, the villagers were resettled to the mainland and the overhaul began.

Still, Sentosa remained relatively low-key for many more years (although the Singapore government sentenced a political dissident, Chia Thye Poh, to house arrest on the island in the 1990s). It was accessible only by cable car and ferry until a causeway for cars and buses was built in 1992, and a monorail system linking mainland Singapore to Sentosa opened in 2007.

Since the opening of the casino resort, not far from a giant statue of the Merlion, a half-fish, half-lion that is something of a Singaporean mascot, this causeway has often been filled at peak hours and on weekends with cars headed for Sentosa. Within the first week of the new resort's opening in February, the casino alone drew 149,000 visitors, according to an estimate by Resorts World Sentosa.

When I walked into the casino shortly after it opened, it was chaotic. Even in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday, throngs of people filled the massive hall, snapping pictures as they milled around. In a bid to curb gambling among its own, the government has imposed a levy on Singapore citizens who want to gamble: It costs them about $70 just to enter the casino for 24 hours. That hardly seemed a deterrent at the beginning, however: Late on the two weeknights I was there, the line to pay the entrance fee was dozens of people long, even close to midnight. And inside the casino, dozens of people were packed around each card table, with several piggybacking on those with seats and placing bets on their games as well.

Outside the casino, changes to the once quiet Sentosa continue. There's a Hard Rock Hotel with a lobby bar overlooking a well-manicured pool area with private pavilions, each with its own wading pool, and a "beach" filled with soft white sand flown in from Perth, Australia, at a cost of more than $350,000. Renowned chef Joël Robuchon is slated to open three restaurants near the casino later this year. In the Hotel Michael, chef Susur Lee, who also has establishments in Washington (Zentan in the Donovan House hotel) and New York, runs a decent operation at Chinois by Susur Lee. The dishes are well-done high-end Chinese: A deliciously fresh marble goby fish was oh-so-lightly breaded and deep-fried. And the double-boiled shark's fin soup -- a dish I don't generally seek out, for humane reasons, but it was served as part of the $70 set menu I ordered -- came filled with more large slivers of fin than I've ever seen in any bowl of the soup.

The Malaysia-based Genting Group, which built the resort, has poured significant effort into the design. Artwork by Botero and Salvador Dali looms large in the common areas between the hotels. Smaller pieces by glass sculptor Dale Chihuly are scattered about. And the Hotel Michael itself was designed by the whimsical Michael Graves, best known for the modern teakettles he created for Alessi. (Whimsy doesn't always translate into practicality, however. An artistic-looking large teepee-shaped structure that covers the hotel lobby waiting area, for example, makes it impossible to spot people who might be waiting for you -- and vice versa -- unless you take the extra step of walking into the enclosed space.)

* * *

New Sentosa was looking very slick, but I wondered what remnants of the Sentosa I once knew remained. So I trekked to Siloso Beach to check out old Sentosa. Very little mars this rustic stretch of sand along the southern end of the island -- well, except for the oil tankers and refineries dotting the ocean horizon. Rasa Sentosa, one of the island's oldest hotels, offering scenic pools and outdoor bars, is perched in a quiet corner of the beach, a grand and impressive presence much like the Royal Hawaiian Hotel on Waikiki Beach.

A short walk away, a row of beachside bars and restaurants offer myriad low-key options to watch the sunset while sampling Singaporean Tiger beer. As I sipped cocktails of Moet & Chandon and mango puree at the Wave House, Lady Gaga and Def Leppard blared from the speakers, providing an aggressive, South Beach-like soundtrack for the faux surfers tackling machine-churned waves nearby. A few doors down, at the Bikini Bar, I spent a lovely, quiet hour watching the sun disappear as I snacked on a dish of perfectly grilled glazed chicken wings.

Just as I was pondering the dichotomy of the two Sentosas -- one old, idyllic and charming, the other new, big and loud -- and wondering why the two weren't quite converging, I happened upon Capella. Located on top of a hill not far from Sentosa Cove, where multimillion-dollar mansions stand, the luxury hotel can be easy to miss. Blink and you might not see the little entrance sign blanketed by trees. But wend your way up the hill, and an imposing colonial building that the British military used for galas and balls in the late 1800s gradually appears, a gleaming ivory tower on a canvas of darkness.

The place is so still, it feels as if you can hear the leaves rustling in the massive old trees, the gnarliest and grandest of which also date to Singapore's colonial days. A path led me down to Bob's Bar, an elegant and quiet outdoor area where the tables are spaced far enough apart so that your neighbors' chatter is just a low, pleasant hum. But what's unforgettable is the view: Before you are three brilliantly blue infinity pools shrouded by gently backlit trees, and above you, nothing but the night sky, thick and black, dotted with bright, tiny stars.

Sipping a whiskey to cap the evening, I sat motionless, listening to the rustling and looking up at the expanse, drinking in a reality without hubbub or neon city lights. This was a sliver of Singapore that I'd truly never experienced. And it was quintessential Sentosa: a bit of old, a bit of new. Balancing the two, it seemed, was possible after all.

Tan is a New York-based writer whose food memoir, "A Tiger in the Kitchen," will be published by Hyperion in February 2011.

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