Beneath a giant glass dome, where a waterfall plunges 130 feet through a forest, and a winding path leads past palms and fig trees, orchids and anthurium, a robot came rolling around a bend.
It was about five feet tall, and cruising my way. In its frame were shelves of bottled water and, with a lilting voice, it encouraged passers-by to grab a drink. Delighted, I obliged. Alas, the robot didn’t stick around for small talk — and neither did I. It was time to cross a Sky Net suspended more than 80 feet in the air.
So began my airport vacation.
Before you recoil at the thought of an airport holiday, let me explain. This is no ordinary airport. It’s Singapore’s Changi: part theme park, part futuristic pleasure dome. And while an airport is typically a limbo — a swinging door between where you’ve been and where you’re going — Changi is the rare airport that invites you to stay.
Indeed, it’s so inviting, that while planning a trip to Southeast Asia, I suggested to my husband that rather than just transit at Changi, we stay overnight. The plan was to spend 27 hours taking advantage of its dazzling attractions. I could idle in the rooftop Sunflower Garden; watch butterflies in the tropical sanctuary; get lost in the Mirror Maze; zoom through a tube slide; and explore indoor “walking trails,” as verdant as any found outside. Never mind airplanes. Changi’s website reads like a brochure for an all-inclusive resort: free movies in 24-hour theaters, retro arcade games, light-and-sound shows starring the soaring waterfall spilling from an oculus in a roof.
The back story
Last year, more than 65.6 million passengers passed through Changi. That put it among the top 20 airports in the world for passenger traffic, cargo and aircraft movements in the latest World Airport Traffic Report from Airports Council International, a trade association. Yet as busy as Changi is, for the last seven years air travelers have voted it the world’s best airport, according to Skytrax, the London-based air transport rating organization. This year, Changi upped the ante by opening Jewel Changi Airport, a glass-and-steel shopping and entertainment complex accessible to travelers and locals alike.
While more airports are introducing diversions besides upscale shopping and eating — like the opening this year of an infinity edge pool and observation deck at the TWA Hotel at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City — none have pushed the envelope as far as Changi — and Jewel is the latest evidence of that. Yes, there are fashionable restaurants, shops and bars. But there are also eye-popping gardens and whimsies that wouldn’t be out of place in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory: Animals made of bright flowers; a field where children can play amid fog that rises from the ground; a glass-bottomed bridge; a hedge maze with blooms that snap closed before you can stop and smell that they aren’t real.
It’s a far cry from what we normally think of as an airport. More than a century ago, The New York Times reported that an aviation pioneer named Alberto Santos-Dumont had “coined a word.” The year was 1902 and the word was airport. Eventually, airport would be defined in Merriam-Webster as “a place from which aircraft operate.” Yet airports are not just physical launching pads. They are psychic ones, too. While waiting to board, the mind takes flight. It’s this enforced pause, when the mind can wander and reflect, that is one of the unsung benefits of air travel.
So what happens to a traveler when an airport is a high-octane destination unto itself? I checked into the Crowne Plaza Changi Airport (named the world’s best airport hotel for the fifth consecutive year, according to Skytrax) to find out.
It was 7 a.m. when I arrived at the Crowne Plaza, which I chose because, despite being in a terminal, the hotel feels a bit like a tropical resort. (This was, after all, a vacation.) There’s an outdoor pool and lounge chairs, wood decking, islands with palms. You can practically swim up to some rooms. Open-air hallways flanked by reflecting pools let in the Singapore heat and lend a sultry atmosphere. And the hotel’s location next to a bridge to Jewel means you can walk right into Changi’s latest draw (though it’s worth a Skytrain ride sometime for a close-up of the waterfall). Since my flight was arriving in the morning, I’d arranged to pay an additional fee (160 Singapore dollars, or about $118) to check-in early, so there was no wait for the room. (Those who wish to stay right inside Jewel may want to give the nascent Yotelair a try.)
A morning stroll around Jewel
After unpacking I headed over to Jewel, which its architect, Moshe Safdie, described in Architectural Digest as a kind of “mystical paradise garden.” Standing on a viewing deck amid its tall trees and thousands of lush shrubs — the waterfall pouring right through the building — you can’t help but be enchanted. I marveled at its inventiveness, scale and beauty. Visitors wearing backpacks and wheeling luggage stopped to pose for photos, the falls hissing behind them like a newfangled Niagara. When sunlight hit the water just so, there was even a rainbow.
As with all wonderlands, though, there’s a fine line between fantasy and dystopia. Looking around, it isn’t hard to imagine a future in which everyone lives in domed cities in temperature-controlled, never-ending summers. Signs refer to “trails” that you can “hike,” as if Jewel’s smooth, clean floors are rugged arteries through the wilderness. The trees and shrubs around the waterfall have a corporate name: the Shiseido Forest Valley, after the Japanese beauty company. The waterfall is officially known as the HSBC Rain Vortex. And it’s surrounded by stores and restaurants, allowing a visitor to keep one eye on the jungle-scape and the other on the latest fashions at Calvin Klein — or the queue for Shake Shack. The result is a staggering display of artificiality and nature, with lights that can turn a waterfall crimson, or make it seem as if you’re dining al fresco under a starry sky.
Beneath that sky, on Jewel’s tree-lined top floor, is Canopy Park, where we went to try theme-park style attractions (standard tickets for adults start at 5 dollars): mazes, slides and the Manulife Sky Nets, one for bouncing, the other — the one I would soon choose to follow — for walking.
Late-Morning balancing act
“Just don’t look down,” my husband said.
Reader, I did. Far beneath my sneakered feet were the tops of people’s heads and I instantly imagined falling through the net into the display of acrylic boxes at the Muji store below. I gripped my husband’s arm while a woman who looked to be about 70 bounced past us, hands in the air, grinning and waving at a little girl not far behind.
Eventually, I made it back to terra firma where I realized that land-based activities, like the Mirror Maze (for which I’d been given a foam noodle to tap the space in front of me as a way to avoid bumping into a mirror) were more my speed. Indeed, while Cirque du Soleil-style recreation is novel and fun (ahem, for some), Changi is at its best when it conjures something of the spirit of its home, of Singapore, the polished “city in a garden.”
Green, blooming spaces — cactus, water lily and orchid gardens; ponds alive with koi; Jewel’s indoor forest — beckon with flowering plants, palms and water flowing over rocks into pools and ponds. The soothing sound of water is one of Changi’s most delightful features. Even in Jewel, while flitting from store to store, at some point you become aware of a quiet roar. Turn in its direction and where you expect to see yet another string of dazzling shops, you find instead that the wall has fallen away and in its place is an opening to another world: that massive waterfall splashing through a garden, a fine mist spraying up from the valley below.
We followed the waterfall below ground, riding an escalator to the basement levels of Jewel, where the water barrels through an immense clear column encircled in part by tables for nearby eateries. A couple on a bench were chatting, facing the falls, as if in a park. Others were snapping photos of children as they pressed their palms to the column between bites.
With award-winning restaurants and specialties from Singapore and throughout Asia (Singaporean cuisine from Violet Oon Singapore; hotpot from Beauty in The Pot), we treated lunch at Jewel like a cruise ship smorgasbord. A friend who lives in Singapore joined us for dim sum (prawn dumplings, shredded chicken spring rolls, barbecue pork buns) at Tim Ho Wan, an outpost of the Hong Kong-based Michelin-star winner (even so, it’s surprisingly affordable). Afterward, it was on to Japanese Soba Noodles Tsuta, a branch of the first ramen restaurant to receive a Michelin star, where we had the Shoyu soba; followed by raw milk, soft-serve ice cream from Japan’s Icenoie Hokkaido; and “botanical gelato” in flavors like white chrysanthemum (imagine the taste of flower florets and cacao nibs) from Birds of Paradise.
All afternoon we browsed regional snack and confection stalls as if we were at a street market. At Rich & Good Cake Shop, known for its Swiss rolls, a sign said that “due to overwhelming demand and limited stock,” each adult was allowed only one item. Of the small boxes, the sole remaining flavor was durian, a fruit with a smell so pungent, that it’s not allowed on public transportation in Singapore. Meanwhile, over at Irvins Salted Egg, maker of salted egg-flavored treats, almost everything was sold out, though I managed to procure a bag of salted egg potato chips (8 dollars) that I later discovered regrettably lived up to the brand’s “dangerously addictive” tagline.
The evening show
Evening came quickly, and with a puff of mist from above, the first of the free nightly light and sound shows at the Rain Vortex began. We joined the scores of visitors slipping out of stores and leaning over balconies, smartphones at the ready, to watch the waterfall try on a kaleidoscope of colors and projections set to rousing music. Perhaps more impressive than the show is the fact that an enormous waterfall can be controlled as if it were a kitchen appliance. Something about this might niggle at the back of the mind as the hours go by. Your animal instincts — initially numbed by Jewel’s astonishing landscape — prick up, and you begin to feel restless, for you know that while there are plants and trees, there’s nonetheless a ceiling between you and the sky.
Dinner, drinks and late-night shopping
After the show, under cafe string lights on Jewel’s top floor, we had dinner at Tiger Street Lab. I enjoyed flatbread with shrimp, guacamole and mango salsa, as well as a half pint of Singapore’s Tiger Beer, while intoxicated by the sweet scent of the boneless coffee pork ribs (deep-fried and coated with caramelized coffee sauce) by Keng Eng Kee Seafood. Locals, too, come to the airport to eat, socialize and, as another friend living in Singapore pointed out, study, thanks to free air conditioning and Wi-Fi.
We followed dinner with a passeggiata past the glow of gift shops like Naiise Iconic (the Singapore-based store where you can buy books about the city, home décor, and knickknacks like luggage tags) and Supermama (another Singapore-based design shop with crafts such as porcelain plates); Japanese retailers, including Tokyu Hands, where I snapped up designed-in-Japan stationery; and global behemoths like Apple, which offers a “photo-walk” in Jewel for those who want photo-taking and editing tips for capturing the surrounding architecture, gardens and Rain Vortex.
An encore before bedtime
As night settled in, we found ourselves under wire-mesh clouds twinkling with Swarovski crystals for the evening’s second sound and light show. Too beat to cap it off with a movie, we strolled back to the hotel and slept soundly in the shadow of the Changi Control Tower.
I barely heard the planes gliding by overhead.
Morning reflection in the gardens
It was the grandeur and hyperreality of Jewel I was most looking forward to when I first arrived for our Changi vacation. Yet after much wandering around the waterfall, in and out of stores and mazes, over and under lookouts, beneath the sprawling dome, I had begun to feel as I were being swallowed. In the mood for a little less razzle-dazzle, I found it in the gardens sprinkled throughout the terminals. These are Changi’s intimate breathing spaces, home to big fish and small scenes of tranquillity.
In the Sunflower Garden, a young man with a backpack walked among the stalks. In the Orchid Garden, an old man was resting beside a pond filled with koi. On a little bridge over the water, a couple embraced. Each garden has a sign or two with facts about nature or Singapore’s culture. One in the Sunflower Garden tells of how sunflowers may be used, including in the production of fabric and paper, paint and cosmetics. In the Butterfly Garden, I read about metamorphosis, from egg to imago.
This leading-edge airport, home to robots and a Rain Vortex, is also home to the simplest of delights: sunlight, flowers (most of them real), flowing water, and here and there, a tree to sit under and daydream. In the final hours before my flight, walking beside Sago palms in the Cactus Garden, I passed a young woman stepping out of her sneakers to lie on a bench with a book in the sun. Above a pond in Terminal 3, a man held his smartphone so that a child on the other end of the line could watch an orange fish swim. In Terminal 2, a girl showed her mother a woodblock print she made at a public art station. Here, waiting feels like living.
Stay too long, though, and you risk sensory overload, or worse, taking the place for granted. And that would be a shame, for the airport is a gift to travelers. Changi even offers free tours of the city to visitors staying for less than 24 hours if there are at least five-and-a-half hours before their connecting flight. But for those who don’t have time to leave the airport and see Singapore proper, Changi’s gardens and playful attractions are the next best thing. All that’s required is a willingness to embrace the fantasy.
Stephanie Rosenbloom, the author of “Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude” (Viking), has been writing travel, business and styles features for The Times for nearly two decades. Twitter: @Stephronyt. Instagram: @StephanieRosenbloom