Escape to the Fantasy Islands
Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia
by Tanya Dukes
Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia are primed to take the lead as favored vacation destinations among travelers with a true sense of wanderlust. The island nations of Southeast Asia deliver urban adventure, wildlife and even beach escapes – not to mention some of the best dining options you’ll find anywhere. But don’t pack your bags just yet — read this overview first to choose which getaway fits your unique needs best.
A fascinating hybrid of colonial heritage and forward-thinking culture, the small island nation of Singapore has potent appeal on many fronts. Its famously multicultural population numbers more than five million residents, including Malay, creating a melting pot of charms and experiences that can be tackled in just a few days.
Singapore seems to house countless mini cities within its borders. Most famous among its districts are a constellation of vibrant ethnic enclaves that reveal the cultures that contributed to building the country. Little India, a sliver of territory just north of the Singapore River hums with colorful activity, including the Tekka Centre, which sells street food and draws gourmands from all over the world. Nearby Arab Street is punctuated by the golden domes of the Sultan mosque, but it’s also the center of a burgeoning fashion and art scene. Chinatown is worth a visit for its restaurant and bar scene and beautifully restored shophouses, the low slung, traditional buildings that are a Singapore signature.
Edged by the glittering towers of the city’s financial center, Singapore’s Colonial District is a window into the days of British rule. Neoclassical buildings create a contrast with the bracing modernity found elsewhere. Some of the grand old structures have been adapted to contemporary uses, like the National Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Singapore: Where to Stay
Raffles Singapore: The luxury hotel, named for Singapore’s founder, Sir Stamford Raffles, is synonymous with the city, and recently celebrated its 125th anniversary. It’s a gracious, colonial era structure dotted with leafy courtyards that offers a glimpse of life in a more elegant age. Liveried doormen, the iconic Long Bar and shopping arcade all recall 19th century splendor. Set in the midst of the business district, Raffles is a centrally located landmark that draws thousands of tourists who visit to gasp at its splendor.
Mandarin Oriental, Singapore: Sensational views of Singapore’s glowing skyline are worth the price of a suite in this sleek hotel at the epicenter of the buzzy Marina Bay dining and entertainment district.
The Ritz-Carlton, Millennia Singapore: With its jaw dropping contemporary art collection and classic, streamlined interiors, The Ritz-Carlton, Millennia Singapore is a sophisticated oasis in the midst of the vibrant city. The extra-large swimming pool is the perfect place to relax after a day of seeing the sights.
Two hours south of the capital, in the smaller city of Melaka -- the country's oldest city and a UNESCO World Heritage site -- you can enjoy traditional cultural experiences...
The presence of a Chinese, Indian, Malay and indigenous population with an overlay of Dutch, British and English colonial presence has forged Malaysia into a fascinating cultural destination. Add in the variety of unspoiled natural ecosystems — from rainforests to isolated beaches and active volcanoes — and you get one alluring destination.
Peninsular Malaysia is the start of most journeys, because that’s where you’ll find the striving, glittering apex of activity known as Kuala Lumpur. The dual Petronas Towers, a gleaming pair of skyscrapers that were once the world’s tallest, show the ambitions of a place that was little more than a trading outpost 150 years ago. Outdoor food courts spring up throughout Kuala Lumpur and serve a sampling of the excellent and eclectic cuisine.
Two hours south of the capital, in the smaller city of Melaka — the country’s oldest city and a UNESCO World Heritage site — you can enjoy traditional cultural experiences like tea ceremonies, shopping at artisan boutiques and riding rickshaws past idiosyncratic architecture.
To spot Malaysia’s exceptional wildlife head for the mountainous interior. Taman Negara is one of the world’s most ancient rainforests and a national park; you just might spot elephants, monkeys, oxen — even the resident semi-nomadic indigenous population — on its hiking trails. Just off the peninsula’s east coast the Perhentian Islands are exceptional diving and snorkeling territory, and a nesting site for sea turtles.
Malaysia: Where to Stay
Hilton Kuala Lumpur Hotel: With an unbeatable location directly adjacent to KL’s Sentral Station, there’s no choice more convenient for beginning an adventure in Malaysia. Modern rooms with lots of tech amenities make it a favorite of families and business travelers.
Grand Millennium Kuala Lumpur: Five-star services abound at this inviting luxury hotel, and every room has impressive touches, like floor-to-ceiling windows with skyline views.
Miri Marriott Resort & Spa: There’s never a need to stop staring at the sea — most rooms have private balconies with water views. The extensive spa facilities are a great option for hands-on pampering.
...the highlights found on two islands, Java and Bali, will deliver an enticing overview of the artistic, natural and cultural resources found in the world's fourth largest nation.
The staggering statistics just scratch the surface: Indonesia has at least 17,000 islands, thousands of local languages and more than 240 million people. With those numbers in mind, a single visit won’t be enough to discover everything Indonesia has to offer, but focusing on the highlights found on two islands, Java and Bali, will deliver an enticing overview of the artistic, natural and cultural resources found in the world’s fourth largest nation.
A bustling city at the western end of Java, Jakarta is the typical staging ground for journeys farther afield. The sprawling metropolis doesn’t offer much in the way of traditional attractions for travelers, but it reveals an enthralling look at the country’s fascinating melting pot population.
Moving away from the capital gives a window into even more diversity, where you’ll come across picturesque coffee plantations and rice terraces dotting the landscape. In the city of Yogyakarta, travelers find a center of Indonesian culture; contemporary artists practice their crafts alongside traditional shadow puppet theater and gamelan musicians. Just outside Yogyakarta is a pair of ancient sites: Borobudur, a magnificent Buddhist temple that dates to the eighth century, and Prambanan, a Hindu temple that’s nearly as old.
Just a 30-minute ferry ride from Java’s eastern coast, Bali is practically shorthand for paradise, and for good reason. The island is a hit with hippie surfers on a budget, luxury aficionados and everyone in between, which is why it sees more than two million visitors annually. The city of Ubud and its surrounding villages are an epicenter of creative output, and shops and galleries burst with jewelry, colorful batik fabrics and an imaginative array of out-of-the-box souvenir material. Treasures abound all over the island, from elaborate dance performances to photogenic temples and quiet hikes along volcanic landscapes. Chic nightlife options — from dancing to DJs and cocktail lounges — are on the agenda, too, especially in the fashionable town of Seminyak.
Indonesia: Where to Stay
Grand Hyatt Jakarta: With a central location in the midst of Jakarta’s business district, Grand Hyatt Jakarta is ideally situated to maximize a short stay in the big city. The decor is an attractive combination of traditional Indonesian elements and streamlined contemporary furnishings.
The St. Regis Bali Resort: It doesn’t get more opulent on the beach — guests can choose from expansive suites, or villa accommodations, each with a private butler.
InterContinental Bali Resort: Each luxurious room exudes a sense of place with Indonesian art and crafts throughout, plus a complete program of activities for children of all ages.