A Singapore surprise: tropical camping

It had been two years since I visited bustling Singapore, the quintessential business city. But even before I landed on the city-state's soil, I yearned for a different experience, far removed from the usual hustle and bustle. I decided on camping. In Singapore, camping means Sentosa Island, a family destination.

Information about procedures, fees, facilities, and what to bring on such an adventure were all readily available on the website www. Sentosa.com.sg. Clicking away and determined to rough it, I rented a tent and a barbecue grill for less than $26.

The island's campgrounds provide a natural ambience, with access to showers and clean facilities. But for those who'd rather sleep in the great indoors, Sentosa also offers a five-star resort, midrange accommodations, and a five-dormitory youth hostel, all on the perimeter of a beach.

After resolving to "go tropical," I packed my knapsack, forsaking dress pants and shoes for shorts, sneakers, boots, and flip-flops.

A 1,500-foot causeway separates the island from the city-state core. In compact Singapore, you don't have to stray far to get anywhere. The Tiong Bahru MRT (subway) stop is adjacent to a bus terminal at the World Trade Centre. Ferries and buses bound for Sentosaconverge there; many buses to the island also leave directly from the major hotels. In addition, taxi service to the island is available.

But adventure was my credo, and so I opted instead for one of the cable cars that depart for the island from the Tiong Bahru MRT stop. These operate in both directions from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m.

On the ride, I scanned the horizon. Gleaming high-tech citadels dotted much of the country. To one side, on Sentosa, a tram passed through a 19th-century British fortress. Ahead lay the outskirts of Singapore's port, ranked No. 2 worldwide in terms of seaborne cargo.

Minutes later, I was gazing at vegetation-laden Sentosa. Geckos, monkeys, and assorted wildlife darted about below. Disembarking, I could choose to explore Butterfly Park, a re-created Asian Village, spice gardens, or take a sanitized nature walk.

Sentosa is organized into discreet sections. A monorail criss-crosses the north and central areas, with attractions laid out theme-park style.

En route to the campsite – located between Central Beach and Siloso Beach – is the nine-story Merlion statue, which is a symbol of Singapore. It "guards" the entrance to the Singapore River. Walking through this half-lion, half-fish mascot's interior, I learned about local history and lore.

Back out in the sunshine, I strolled toward my temporary home amid white sand and turquoise water. The campsite can accommodate 200 or so visitors. I intrepidly staked my claim in the great outdoors: A hundred yards off in any direction, fellow campers appeared as faceless dots.

Perfect, I thought.

Then the beach beckoned, and I followed a swim in calm waters with a barefoot walk, as savory spices' scents wafted from nearby barbecue pits. Captivated by the many multicolored tropical birds nearby, I ignored the dark clouds behind me and was drenched by the daily 15-minute downpour.

The reappearing sun, laughter from a passing canoe, sounds of fellow campers' Indonesian disco music, and a distant cacophony of bahasas (native Southeast Asian languages) intertwined with the food aromas of late afternoon.

Relaxing on my mat, I reacquainted myself with Joseph Conrad – one of many writers inspired by the colorful tapestry of this formerBritish colony's coastline.

In the serenity of a tropical sunset, I was transported light-years away from Sentosa's now-invisible food marts, cafes, and upper-crust eateries. I availed myself of the immaculate shower stalls and returned to my tent to awaitthe second day of my visit and an island walking tour.

Sentosa is located at the boundary of rustic, rugged – but perhaps too adventurous – Indonesia. The island offers an escape from that frontier land, while still providing ample opportunities for spontaneous fun. An open-air concert stage, a theater in the park, the re-created Chinese village, and a first-rate aquarium blend entertainment with education.

That ideal shines at Siloso, the fort where garrisons valiantly attempted to hold off Japanese invaders in 1941. There, children (of all ages) can relive the daily experiences of the colonials, reenact a historic battle through displays and recordings, and walk through gazebolike tunnels and fortress mazes.

You're not likely to be bored on Sentosa. The Singapore Tourism Board manages to attract top-flight entertainment – including jazz – to the island. The Serapong golf course is highly rated, and scuba diving abounds, although sailing is better in Malaysia.

Continuing development of the island shows the world that Singaporeans aren't all business – they know how to have fun, too.

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