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An Aerial View of Singapore and Sentosa Island

May 21, 1989|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

SINGAPORE — Can you picture riding in an aerial cable car above tropical islands just one degree north of the Equator?

Here, in this capital city of an island nation barely 25 miles long by 15 wide, you can do just that.

The cable cars that leave from Mt. Faber Scenic Park at the edge of the metropolitan area soar for more than a mile across the harbor to the one-time fortress island of Sentosa just offshore.

After the Malays came to Singapore more than a thousand years ago, the tiny island became known in their ceremonies as Pulau Blakang Mati, "The Island of Living Dead."

In the 19th Century, the British built Ft. Siloso on the island as the main bastion of defense for the western approaches to Singapore harbor.

The fort was taken by the Japanese in World War II. After the war, the island again was used by the British and then by Singapore forces until the early 1970s, when it was made available for development as a nature preserve and recreational retreat.

The island's name was changed to Sentosa, a Malay word meaning tranquillity.

My wife Elfriede and I boarded the cable car and soon were treated to a magnificent view of the Singapore skyline, the harbor, Sentosa, the tiny southern islands beyond and the Riouw Archipelago of Indonesia on the far horizon.

Sentosa is barely three miles long and little more than a mile wide, so it didn't take us long to find the boating lagoon, next to the thatched-roof sun shelters on the sandy beaches of the swimming lagoon.

At $4 Singapore per hour (about $3 U.S.), we rented a canoe and paddled away into the lagoon. On the main island, we could have rented a similar canoe, with life jackets, for paddling in the South China Sea for about $4 U.S. per hour.

Sentosa has hiking trails and bike paths, as well as a monorail that circles the island from the cable-car station and ferry landing.

A nature trail winds into the jungle to still another overview from Mt. Imbiah. We walked amid thousands of butterflies in the Butterfly Park and saw the turtles at the Turtle Pond and the living coral in the Coralarium.

Beyond fountain gardens, the Magic Grove is shadowed with majestic Tembusu trees. Fireflies glow. Monkeys and white cockatoos cavort overhead.

We ended our Sentosa exploration at the new ferry terminal, then rode the ferry back to Singapore, this time watching the cable cars high overhead.

The East Coast Parkway follows the seashore between the central city and the Changi International Airport at the far end of the island, where the narrow Johore Strait, which separates Singapore from Malaysia, meets the waters of the South China Sea.

Soon, we were in life jackets and paddling another rented canoe, quartering into the roll of the waves and then riding them back toward the skyline. Sunlight danced off the water. The spray and the wind were warm.

As on Sentosa, temptations for the active traveler don't end at the waterfront. The East Coast Recreation Centre rents tandem bikes for touring the island for about $2 per hour.

The Zoological Gardens beside the Seletar Reservoir shelter more than 1,700 animals, including many endangered species, among them the Sumatran tiger.

The Jurong crocodile farm, meanwhile, has more than 2,500 crocodiles, but we were content to walk in the hillside orchid garden and in the botanical gardens.

For more information on travel to Singapore, contact the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board, 8484 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 510, Beverly Hills 90211, (213) 852-1901.

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