High above Singapore

IF YOU start feeling a bit nervous when you're 165m in the air at the top of the largest ferris wheel in the world, the Singapore Flyer, just remember the number 28.

Because, for all of the technological brilliance of the Flyer and all the other amazing structures which have sprung up in modern Singapore, the number 28 is the final deterrent against something going wrong.

There are 28 air-conditioned capsules, they can each carry 28 people, they take 28 minutes to complete a full circuit and, all going well, they go round 28 times a day.

Why this emphasis on 28? "Because," said Toon Hee, our guide from the Singapore Tourism Board, "28 is a lucky number. In Chinese it sounds like 'easy to prosper'. So everyone wants to be associated with the number 28."

But, of course, that isn't the only safety precaution taken with such a massive and complicated piece of machinery.

As well as the primary system for driving the 150m-diameter wheel, there are two back-up drive systems.

Each capsule has an emergency pack including water and a first-aid kit, plus a phone.

On top of that, the wheel rotates in a lucky direction. "When it first opened," said Toon Hee, "it went the other way. But people were worried that, according to the principles of feng shui, it was taking wealth out of the city. So its direction was reversed and now it is much luckier."

I wasn't too concerned about any of that myself, until I realised there were only three of us in our capsule. And, to make matters worse, as we rose into the air the wheel stopped a couple of times, so our trip must have taken more than half an hour. What happened to our lucky 28?

But as soon as we started climbing above the city, I forgot all about that and just marvelled at the incredible views.

Initially we looked out over a vista of endless blocks of apartments amid an incredibly green landscape filled with trees and parks. It was a reminder of the extraordinary planning which has allowed a population slightly bigger than New Zealand's to live in an area about the size of Lake Taupo, and yet seem much greener than Auckland.

When we reached the top, the view changed to the extraordinary skyline of the city centre and, right in front of us, one of the newest and most remarkable developments of all - the Marina Bay Sands integrated resort, which we had visited not long before.

Thanks to an information pack, I knew that this massive complex included a hotel made up of three 55-storey towers, offering 2561 luxury rooms and suites, and topped off with what looks like a vast curved ocean liner sitting astride the three towers and full of gardens, pools, restaurants and an observation deck.

There is also a giant expo and convention centre with 1.3 million sq ft of floor space, and nearly 800,000sq ft of luxury shopping, including one shop where a Pom I spoke to said he had seen a necklace for sale with a price tag of $13 million.

There are more than 50 restaurants, two theatres, several nightclubs and - controversially - a casino. And, most striking of all from our aerial viewpoint, there's the lotus-shaped ArtScience Museum, the focus of our visit to the resort.

Inside, the museum is equally extraordinary, with an emphasis on interactive displays which are designed to immerse visitors in the exhibitions.

The Van Gogh Alive exhibition has the artist's paintings projected on to vast screens, allowing viewers to see in detail the techniques he used to achieve his effects, accompanied by themed music, photos of the scenes he painted and some of his preparatory sketches.

In Dali: Mind of a Genius, 250 original works by the moustachioed artist are displayed, along with a series of distorting mirrors which turn visitors themselves into Dali-esque art forms.

In Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds, 450 pieces of pottery, jewellery and sculpture recovered from a 1200-year-old shipwreck recently found in the adjacent South China Sea are displayed in the context of the maritime Silk Rd, on which the Arab dhows were carried.

And from the skies we could see Singapore's next marvel rising a bit further down the seafront - a magnificent second botanical garden (the first, with its incredible collection of orchids, is remarkable enough), highlighted by the construction of several huge concrete and steel trees which, said Toon Hee, "will have real trees planted on top of them to provide greenery".

Perhaps most fascinating of all, from a New Zealand perspective, its main building will not be a hothouse but a cold house, "so we can grow plants from cold countries ... like New Zealand".

Very funny. And true, of course.

In the meantime, our capsule on the Singapore Flyer was reaching the end of its revolution, giving us a final view of the double-helix pedestrian bridge, an extraordinary structure of curved steel and glass which links the two halves of the resort development on either side of the bay.

As we walked out of our capsule back on to the ground, I checked my watch and noticed that, because of the stoppages, our trip had taken not 28 but 36 minutes. And six, I recalled from a feng shui tour I once did, sounds like the Chinese word for "drop" or "fall". Oops.

Thank goodness for the 28 capsules. And the fact that three sounds like "birth" and is therefore considered fortunate. And for all the modern technology that Singapore uses so impressively.


Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies up to three times daily from New Zealand to Singapore and then to destinations around the world.

Where to stay: Hotel Fort Canning is a modern hotel set in a tranquil historic park in the heart of downtown Singapore.

What to do: Check out Marina Bay Sands resort and its ArtScience Museum. Visit Singapore Flyer for other entertainment options.

Further information: Go to the website for more about visiting Singapore.

Jim Eagles visited Singapore with help from Singapore Airlines and the Singapore Tourism Board.

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