Shortly after tour guide and founder of local operator Let’s Go Tour Robin Loh, 48, launched his new business venture Under Da Boat Seafood Market in June, a member of the public contacted him to organise a kelong tour for his family.
“He approached me as I have both guiding expertise and an understanding of the local fishing industry,” says Mr Loh.
Formerly sceptical of the demand for local tourism, the request changed his mind. Having fished recreationally for over 20 years, the co-owner of a half-cabin cruiser realised he had all the resources needed to get a kelong tour up and running.
So he launched the Let’s Go Kelong Tour in July. Since then, the response has been “overwhelming”, with about 30 bookings a month. A two-hour tour costs $450 for a maximum of five guests.
“We showcase a very different side of Singapore from the sea. People may be familiar with the skyline but less so with the stories of our waters,” says Mr Loh, who guides all kelong tours personally.
He regales guests with tales of what he has witnessed during his years as a fisherman, such as how smugglers in the past would race goods to Singapore’s shoreline in small wooden boats, with the Police Coast Guard in hot pursuit.
With overseas travel halted due to the coronavirus pandemic, operators of boat and waterway tours are seeing an uptick in local guests seeking any avenue to go – quite literally – overseas.
Luxury sailing ship Royal Albatross, which resumed sunset dinner cruises this month, has been seeing healthy demand, with popular timings booked out weeks in advance.
It helps that cruising local waters does not cost a pretty penny.
Ferry operator Singapore Island Cruise, which runs a daily service between Marina South Pier, St John’s Island and Kusu Island for $15, added a direct weekday service to St John’s Island last month after it realised that it was a popular stop for guests heading to the beach at Lazarus Island. Both islands are connected by a causeway, which takes 15 minutes to cross on foot.
Although he declined to reveal figures, manager Li Guoli says the company has seen a “slight increase” in ridership compared with last year, mainly from Singaporeans seeking a quick getaway.
One such guest was actress Rachel Wong, 26, who went to Lazarus Island in July with three friends. They took along their own food and drinks and stand-up paddle boards for entertainment.
Ms Wong, who was visiting the island for the first time, found it very remote and private, unlike Sentosa and East Coast Park.
She says: “We were in the middle of nature and the beach was very quiet. It felt a bit like going on an adventure, like we were not in Singapore at all.”
Uncover the secret side of Sentosa
Wind in my hair, paddles slicing water, seawater flecking legs and shoulders. I taste salt on my lips and feel a delicious burn in my arms. There is something about physical rigour that makes one feel alive.
Perched in an inflatable kayak, paddling across the gulf of water separating Labrador Park from Sentosa, it strikes me that I have not felt this way in a while.
Kayaking, along with other rugged, outdoorsy activities such as trekking, diving and rafting, are not things I normally associate with Singapore.
SECRET SENTOSA KAYAKING TOUR
Fee: $130 a person Duration: Four hours Company: Ninja Kayakers (ninjakayakers.com)
Today’s expedition with Ninja Kayakers, a small outfit founded by Mr Clarence Chua, 37, looks set to debunk that.
Our first stop, a rocky beach called Tanjong Rimau on the western tip of Sentosa, beckons as we approach, stroke by laborious stroke.
Once there, a scramble over mossy rocks gives way to a secluded beach bookended by World War II gun turrets, repainted a cheery blue and yellow.
We pick our way across slippery rocks and shimmy up a steep dirt slope to the towers, and are rewarded with a postcard-worthy view, more precious because there is no one else around.
This is the eternal paradox of travel – we seek to discover under-the-radar spots, yet are loathe to share them with the masses.
“This is the best brunch spot in Singapore,” declares Mr Chua, handing out ham and cheese sandwiches for our first break of the day.
Places like these are exactly what he sought to discover when he bought his first inflatable kayak in 2010.
“Many years ago, I was kayak-less and on a bumboat to Pulau Ubin. I saw this guy just kayaking solo, close to the shoreline. It was like a vision out of a dream. There were no roads, and he was free to go anywhere he wanted,” says the father of two, who is also the general manager of landscaping company Country Cousins.
Having explored numerous rivers and reservoirs over the years with friends and family, he set up Ninja Kayakers in July after being approached by friends to run a tour for them.
Two types of routes are available – rural ones around Pulau Ubin and Coney Island where you “don’t see a single building”, and urban routes like the one we are on, which offer an alternative view of familiar sights.
Full-day and overnight adventures are available, and the more gung-ho can even customise their own expedition.
Inflatable kayaks, no less stable than the hardshell variety, offer more flexibility. They are more easily deployed and can be packed away at the end, so there is no need to make the return journey with jelly arms.
We face no such risk, as our 2.5km Secret Sentosa route is the shortest one available.
Even so, there is plenty to see, including the manicured gardens of Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Resort and Spa and beaches dotted with inflatable slides, volleyball courts and bikini-clad sunbed loungers.
From afar, I spot a brave soul dangling by the ankles on the AJ Hackett bungee jump. My companion and I make a pact to return and do it together.
With the wind at our backs, we arrive all too soon at our penultimate stop, an islet breakwater opposite Siloso beach. The water is clear and the sand waves pristine on the semi-circular beach we can make out in the rising tide.
So many times, I have stared at these breakwaters and wondered if it was possible to swim across from Sentosa. As it turns out, they are yet another tiny slice of paradise.
I scramble up some rocks onto a plateau to find Mr Clement Chua, 31, Clarence’s younger brother who helps out on tours, already stirring two pots of pasta on outdoor stoves. He has even brought along condiments, parmesan cheese, cold drinks and beer.
After the morning’s exertions, the simple fare tastes grand. It has been hours since I last looked at my phone.
Behind us, the island thrums with man-made activity. But looking out, the view is all sea and sky.
The name Sentosa translates to peace and tranquillity. In seeking out the island’s secrets, I have experienced what its name means.
Set sail on a romantic dinner cruise
Overseas proposals and birthday trips may have been scuppered due to the coronavirus pandemic, but a sunset cruise aboard luxury sailing ship Royal Albatross is a unique and dreamy alternative.
Birthday celebrations take place almost every night and proposals about once a week on the sailing ship, which resumed sunset dinner cruises this month.
My 5pm cruise on a Saturday evening, the ship’s most popular timeslot, is fully booked at 50 persons, down from an average of 130 pre-pandemic.
SUNSET DINNER CRUISE
Fee: $195 for an adult and $95 for a child Duration: 21/2 hours Company: Royal Albatross (tallship.com.sg)
Boarding starts about 45 minutes before departure from a berth outside Sentosa’s Adventure Cove Waterpark, so come early to pick your seat.
Tables at the bow offer an unblocked view, while those at the stern are close to the popular and highly Instagrammable flying seat, an elevated bench backdropped by the horizon.
It is grey and drizzly, like many other September evenings, but awnings keep the rain out – though they also obscure our view of the four masts and 22 sails the ship is known for.
Built in 2001 in the United States, the ship’s sails and rigging were designed by master rigger Jim Barry, who is behind the ships featured in the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies.
In 2008, it appeared in The Dark Knight as the private yacht of Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne.
The same year, chief executive officer and founder of Royal Albatross Peter Pela bought over the ship, pumping in millions of dollars and about 360,000 man-hours to transform it into the luxury sailing ship of the present.
It is money well spent, for the yacht sails beautifully. It slips noiselessly from the dock and we glide past familiar landmarks such as Universal Studios and Singapore Cruise Centre with ease.
We pass Sentosa’s trifecta of beaches, yachts berthed at One15 Marina and bungalows at Sentosa Cove. It all feels very Crazy Rich Asians.
Amid the gawking, waiters serve a three-course dinner where my smoked salmon roulade, pan-seared halibut and cappuccino mocha mousse are tasty, if not the most memorable. A menu revamp is under way, helmed by a new chef who will include more Asian influences into the dishes.
Between the food, view and posing for pictures, there is plenty to keep guests entertained. Nobody seems to mind that entertainment such as a live band, or watching adventurous guests take on the mast climb (and sometimes propose up there), has been temporarily halted.
Instead, we wave at sun-kissed leisure-seekers on pleasure craft and people camping and fishing on St John’s Island.
Golden hour descends on our return journey to Sentosa. The 21/2-hour sail is over too soon.
After all other guests have disembarked – group by group, in accordance with safe distancing measures – staff bring out a bouquet for a woman. Her partner goes down on one knee.
And, of course, she says yes.
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