International Adventure Guide 2013: Singapore

Contrary to popular belief, Singapore offers more than just skyscrapers and street food. In the last few years, the Asian city-state has transformed itself into a premiere destination for adventure and nature lovers. Singapore doesn’t just have gardens; it is a city within a garden. Plus, its tropical climate makes it the perfect place to indulge in outdoor pursuits year round.

What does this mean for adventure travelers? The unique opportunity to indulge in world-class adventures from the comfort of one of the world’s most well ordered cities. Care to go under the sea? Reef diving is available just 30 minutes off the coast. Looking to be airborne? Try zip-lining on Sentosa Island.

For Singaporeans, active pursuits aren’t just a luxury; they are seen as crucial for a higher quality of life. As a result, the city has invested heavily in outdoor attractions in recent years. Last year saw the opening of Gardens By The Bay, a horticultural theme park with futuristic “supertrees” and conservatories. And this year, the team behind the popular Singapore Zoo and Night Safari will unveil River Safari, Asia’s first river-themed wildlife park featuring recreated habitats from the Yangtze to the Congo to the Mighty Mississippi. Also in 2013, Singapore will host the World Street Food Congress, with celebrity chefs and foodies from around the globe – an adventure of a different variety, but an adventure nonetheless.

Adventure Activities

Hiking: Westerners tend to view Singapore as more of a concrete jungle than an actual one. But the truth is, Singapore contains miles upon miles of lush greenery, some of which is primary old-growth rainforest. One of the largest patches is in the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, a .6-square-mile national park that contains 40 percent of Singapore’s flora and fauna. Trails range from easy to moderately difficult, and most can be completed in less than two hours. Or, get a bird’s-eye view of the rainforest from the TreeTop Walk, a 820-foot freestanding suspension bridge connecting the two highest points in the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. Hiking there and back is a moderate to difficult 3.7-mile trek that can be completed in two to three hours. For a less intense hiking experience, try the Rainforest Walking Trail at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, which features 314 species of flora and fauna, 80% of which are rare or endangered. The 0.37-mile walk can easily be completed in 30 to 40 minutes. Admission to all parks is free.

Water Sports: It’s easy to forget that Singapore is an island, with miles of beaches and dozens of water sports up for grabs. The People’s Association Water-Venture is a good place to start, with reasonably priced courses and rentals in water sports like sailing, kayaking, power boating, sea rafting, windsurfing and dragon boating. There are nine outlets throughout the island. For diving enthusiasts, Pulau Hantu boasts bright corals and colorful wildlife, despite being just a 30-minute boat ride from the coast. The Dive Company offers one-day dive trips to Pulau Hantu starting at S$95 (US$76). Or, try something completely different at SKI360, Singapore’s first cable-ski park. This relatively new water sport uses a cable system to pull water skiers and wakeboarders around a man-made lagoon. Ski passes from S$32 (US$25).

Adrenaline Activities: Singapore has no shortage of ways to get your heart racing and adrenaline pumping. Thrill seekers flock to the Gmax Reverse Bungy, an attraction on Clarke Quay that propels riders into the sky at speeds of up to 200 km/hr (124 mph). If that’s too tame for you, try the recently opened GX-5 Xtreme Swing, which catapults riders 100 meters across the Singapore River. Each ride costs S$49 (US$39), or you can do both for S$60 (US$48). If you prefer diving downward, try iFly Singapore, a large indoor wind tunnel that simulates the skydiving experience. First-timers can give it a try from S$69 (US$55) for two dives. There’s also the MegaZip Adventure Park, with an aerial rope course, free-fall simulator and some of the most extreme zip lines in Asia. Admission from S$35 (US$28) per person.

Hotspots

Sentosa Island: This hedonistic resort is a veritable playground for adventure travelers. Whether your poison is extreme segwayingzorbing” or more traditional pursuits like swimming and lying on the beach, you’ll find it on Sentosa. Visitors can get to the island by foot over the recently opened Sentosa Boardwalk, by cable car or by public transportation. http://www.sentosa.com.sg/en

Gardens By The Bay: Opened last year, this expansive attraction is more a theme park for plant lovers than a simple botanical garden. Indeed, the more futuristic elements of Gardens By The Bay warrant comparisons to the movie “Avatar”: towering 16-story “supertrees,” gravity-defying suspended walkways, a Flower Dome conservatory simulating the Mediterranean and a Cloud Forest conservatory with a 35-meter “mountain” covered in rare vegetation. The outside gardens are open to the public, while entrance to the two conservatories will cost foreign visitors S$28 (US$22). http://www.gardensbythebay.com.sg

Pulau Ubin: Singapore’s man-made adventure attractions are certainly impressive, but sometimes they can feel a bit too … “Singapore.” In less-developed Pulau Ubin island, a quick 15-minute bumboat ride from Changi Point Ferry Terminal, the pace is slower and the vegetation more unruly. Once there, you can hike the island’s extensive system of nature trails, rent mountain bikes or just sit on the beach and take a breather from the frenetic energy of the mainland. There’s just enough activity to make for the perfect low-key day trip. http://www.pulauubin.com.sg

Hotels

Wanderlust: The Wanderlust hotel in Little India is intended for the “madcap voyager.” Designed by Singapore’s top design agencies, Wanderlust’s 29 themed rooms are bright, clean and funky. Adventurers will love sleeping under the faux branches of the whimsical “Tree” suite; as a writer, I’m personally obsessed with the industrial-themed “Typewriter” suite. From S$161 (US$129). http://wanderlusthotel.com 2 Dickson Road, Little India

Siloso Beach Resort: One of the more budget-friendly options on Sentosa Island, Siloso Beach Resort is a beachfront eco-resort surrounded by vegetation, wildlife and the longest spring water landscape pool in Singapore. Splurge on the Glass Loft “Tree House,” with floor-to-ceiling windows that make you feel like you’re in the middle of the jungle – despite the fact that you’re minutes from the madness of Sentosa. From S$180 (US$144). http://www.silosobeachresort.com 51 Imbiah Walk, Sentosa

Celestial Ubin Beach Resort: The only hotel on Pulau Ubin, the newly reopened Celestial Ubin Beach Resort is euphemistically described as “rustic.” In reality, standard rooms are small, dingy and not quite worth the price tag. The real treasures are the villas, which are situated right on the almost-private beach and can sleep up to five people. Standards from S$168 (US$134); villas from S$299 (US$240). http://ubinbeach.celestialresort.com 8V Pulau Ubin

Logistics

Seasonality: Peak tourist season is from December to June, and budget travelers can find less crowds and lower prices in the off-peak months of July and August. Temperatures are pretty consistent throughout the year, with a daily average of 81 degrees Fahrenheit. Expect cooler temperatures during the Northeast Monsoon season from November to mid-March, with the heaviest rains falling between November and January.

Safety: Singapore is one of the safest cities in Asia, thanks to strict punishment for minor offenses like chewing gum, jaywalking, forgetting to flush a public toilet, walking around your own house naked and even connecting to an unsecured Wi-Fi hotspot. While some of the laws may seem pretty absurd by Western standards, their result is a country that is incredibly safe and orderly.

Get Around: Singapore’s Changi International Airport is one of the best in the region, if not the world. Transportation options to downtown are plentiful, with a range of public transport, shuttle and taxi services. The best way to get around Singapore is by its extensive public transportation system. Choose between the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT), which connects the busiest parts of the island, and the bus system, which covers everywhere else. The fare depends on the distance traveled; be sure to pick up an EZ-Link tap-and-go stored value pass, which works on all forms of public transport. Singapore Public Transport also offers a handy PDF guide for tourists. Metered taxis are a relatively affordable option too; fares start at S$3 (US$2.40) with S$0.22 (US$0.18) charged for every 400 meters thereafter.

[Flickr Photo via digitalpimp]

Paraguay Makes It Easier To Obtain Tourist Visas

paraguayPlanning a trip to Paraguay? Don’t know where Paraguay is? Haven’t heard of it? I feel you; it’s not the most well known destination (psst, it’s in South America). But I’m headed there in a few weeks for Gadling, and until yesterday, the biggest stressor in my life was obtaining my Paraguayan visa.

For the intrepid few who venture to Paraguay, the rewards are many– rich indigenous culture and cuisine; a sub- to tropical climate and virgin rainforest; amazing biodiversity; gorgeous campo (countryside; Paraguay has a strong ranching heritage); generous people; inexpensive everything; exquisite handicrafts; remote national parks; and Jesuit missions. Until last month, however, getting a visa (required for U.S. citizens, among others) was a bitch.

According to the Paraguayan Embassy & Consulates website, in order for me to enter the country, I had to cough up $100 (money order or cash, por favor), and two copies each of a utility bill with my current address, proof of “financial solvency (oh shit) or company letter, and round-trip tickets – this in addition to the usual passport/visa photos/pre-paid, SASE. Paraguay may be the poorest country in South America, but they sure don’t want you setting up shop there.

After several calls to my “local” consulate in Los Angeles, I was told that I could have my visa back within a week. This was all well and good, but my tickets were delayed due to a processing glitch until several days ago, and I leave on March 17. Experienced travelers know better than to expect their passports or visas to arrive in a timely fashion, especially when coming from a Latin American consulate (I’m not trying to be a jerk; it’s simply a cultural difference with regard to the concept of time). By yesterday morning, having returned the previous night from a three-day backcountry ski trip, I was seriously wondering if I was going to make it to Paraguay.

Since the L.A. Consulate had apparently decided to take a long siesta (no one ever picked up the phone, despite my calling them obsessively since late last week), I finally got ahold of someone who spoke fluent English in the New York office. And guess what I found out? You can now get a Paraguayan visa in-country, right at the Asuncion airport, for $160!

Weeks of anxiety melted away. I went to the bank, had them shred my money order, and tucked a crisp Benjamin into my passport holder. Stay tuned for my upcoming adventures in South America’s most under-rated country.

[Photo credit: Flickr user marissa_strinste]

Lost WWII Planes Discovered In Mint Condition In Myanmar Jungle

A Spitfire Fighter Plane Like Those Found In the Myanmar JungleTwenty-five years ago a British farmer by the name of David Cundall overheard a group of American World War II vets discussing how they had buried a squadron of unused Supermarine Spitfire fighter planes in the jungles of Burma. The plan was to leave them there until the RAF needed them, at which time they could be dug up and pressed into service. But as the war ground to a halt and newer planes replaced the Spitfire, there was never a need to retrieve the hidden aircraft. So, they’ve stayed there, buried under 40 feet of soil, ever since. That story struck a chord with Cundall, who was a farmer at the time, and for some reason felt compelled to go looking for the lost planes. Two-and-a-half decades, and $210,000 later, he has found them, and the discovery has exceeded his imagination.

Cundall started his search about 15 years ago, making regular trips to Burma, which is now known as Myanmar, to comb the jungles there. Earlier this year, he finally found what he had been looking for but while he expected to locate about 20 planes, he has actually discovered nearly 140. All of them are still stored, wings folded back, in their original crates and are wrapped in wax paper and covered in grease. That has kept them in near mint condition, even after being buried in the jungle for nearly 70 years.

After the discovery, Cundall petitioned the government of Myanmar for permission to begin excavating the vintage planes. They have recently granted him that permission, and he is now free to start the process of digging them up and shipping them home. And why exactly would he want to dig up all of those old planes? Because each of the Spitfires is estimated to be worth about $2.5 million when sold to a collector. That makes the entire find worth roughly $350 million.

It seems this lost cache of British fighters may not be the only one either. According to the “Business Insider” story linked to above, there are rumors that more than 230 Spitfires were buried somewhere in Queensland, Australia, as well. To date, none have been found, but that hasn’t stopped anyone from searching.

[Photo credit: RAF via WikiMedia]

New BBC America cooking show combines travel and adventure

It was only a matter of time before all the eating of rats and scorpions on “Survivor” grew tiresome. Perhaps that’s why producer Kevin Greene and “Chopped” producer Chachi Senior created a new cooking series for BBC America that combines exotic locales with dodgy outdoor adventures. There’s just one little catch: there’s no kitchen.

No Kitchen Required” takes 2008 Food & Wine “Best New Chef” Michael Psilakis of New York’s FISHTAG and Kefi, private executive chef Kayne Raymond (aka the resident beefcake), and former “Chopped” champ Madison Cowan, and drops them into ten remote locations to perform some serious hunting and gathering.

After being plunked down in Dominica; Belize; New Zealand; Fiji; Thailand; Hawaii; New Mexico; Louisiana, and Florida, each chef is handed a knife (“Pack your knives and go,” is not a sentence you’ll hear uttered on this series) and a few key ingredients. They’re then left to fish, hunt, forage, and otherwise scrounge up the remaining ingredients to “create a locally-inspired meal that will be judged by the community.”

Despite the gimmicky and somewhat contrived nature of the challenges, there’s a lot to love about this show. It’s fun, innovative, and despite my raging addiction to “Top Chef,” I’m happy to see a cooking show that finally requires the use of local/seasonal ingredients (let’s hope there’s no blow-darting of endangered monkeys or serving of shark fin). Weaving the regional and cultural element into the concept is genius. Braised nutria, anyone?

The series premieres April 3rd.

[Photo credit: © Gilles Mingasson for BBC AMERICA]

Ancient Mayan city discovered in Guatemala

Archaeologists have discovered an ancient Mayan city in Guatemala Archaeologists have used modern technology to uncover an ancient Mayan city buried deep in the jungles of Guatemala. More than two millennia ago, the city was home to 2000 people, but in the centuries since it was abandoned, it has been reclaimed by the jungle, and now sits beneath several feet of dirt and plant life. It is for that reason that it has remained undiscovered for so long.

The city, known as Holtun, was completely unknown to archaeologists until the 1990′s. It was at that time that they trailed treasure hunters and looters to the region for the first time. But because of the thick jungle growth, they didn’t even recognize that a city once existed at the site, although the locals were aware that something large was hidden there.

Recently, researchers used a combination of satellite imagery, GPS coordinates, and 3D mapping software to explore the area, and what they discovered was startling. The decidedly 21st century technology was able to help them identify more than 100 buildings, including several homes, a sports arena, an astronomical observatory, and a pyramid that is more than seven stories in height. The structures are believed to date back to between 600 and 300 BC.

For now, the site remains shrouded in mystery and covered by the dense Guatemalan rainforest. But this summer, the archaeology team that discovered Holtun hopes to begin the painstakingly slow excavation process that will roll back centuries of jungle growth that have consumed the city. When they do, they will have the opportunity to get a glimpse of what life was like in Mayan city more than 2000 years ago.

Stories like these never cease to fascinate me. I’m always amazed that we can still find such great archaeological discoveries in this day and age. It truly makes you wonder what else is out there, hidden in plain sight, just waiting for us to stumble across it.

[Photo courtesy Michael G. Callaghan]