Best way to see Singapore? Get on your feet

Nicholas Walton, for CNNUpdated 5th June 2015
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(CNN) — At 8:30 in the morning, I set out to do something that appears in no tourist guide to Singapore: walk from the top of the island to the bottom. It's not really surprising that hiking is rarely considered a sensible way to see this island city-state.
Beyond the climate -- it's 30C (90F) on the day I walk it -- Singapore's public transportation is cheap, efficient and, most important, air-conditioned. On the other hand, Singapore is compact and has an enormous amount of variety packed into its tiny land area.
Standing on the beach at Sembawang Park on the northern part of the island, water lapping at my feet and Malaysia just across the Straits of Johor, I'm looking forward to my 24-mile (38 kilometer) hike.

A little corner of England on the equator

Shortly after starting his walk at Sembawang Park, the author encountered Singapore's neo-Edwardian houses known as '"Black and Whites."
Nicholas Walton
After leaving behind the park's manicured lawns and thickets of ficus tree roots, I'm rewarded with a maze of streets that perfectly complement the warm and clear morning sunshine. As the names suggest, the area around Gibraltar Crescent and Queen's Avenue is straight out of the later years of the British Empire.
A network of little lanes full of neatly trimmed gardens, frangipani trees and the neo-Edwardian houses known in Singapore as "Black and Whites." These little transplants from the leafy English county of Surrey can be found all over the island, hidden behind the tower blocks and freeways.
They served as weekend getaways and plantation houses for the British when they ran Singapore, and the government has been careful to preserve those that remain. Soon, however, I leave the quaint lanes behind and as the sun creeps higher and turns the heat up, I move on to the multilane trunk roads that hold the island together.
For the next few miles, clumps of newly built housing blocks that stretch to the sky are mixed in with seafood shacks, country clubs, golf courses and military installations. Rows of eating-houses showcase Singapore's multicultural culinary heritage -- kindergartens are dotted in between small family businesses. The names are wonderful, from "Shami Banana Leaf Delights" to "Cheap John's Enterprise," "Happy Brainy Kidz in Wonderland" to the "Headshot Gaming Club."

The green heart of Singapore

A cluster of natural reserves and parks in central Singapore include the MacRitchie Reservoir Park.
Nicholas Walton
This long stretch is as sweaty, hot and arduous as I'd feared, but all is forgotten when I reach the green heart of Singapore, where there are more than 100 parks and gardens, including the MacRitchie Reservoir Park.
This is a surprisingly large area of dense forest, hiking trails and reservoirs, designed to safeguard the water security of the island. It's also a good place to spot wildlife.
One troop of monkeys crosses Old Upper Thomson Road just a couple of yards ahead of me, with the elders shepherding the young like schoolteachers on an outing. Later, I have a close encounter with a twin barred tree snake on the wooden boardwalk that skirts MacRitchie Reservoir, a popular spot for water sports, bird watching and trials.
One of the hiking routes leads to the a treetop walk in the forest canopy. It's not the Himalayas, but this part of Singapore has enough to keep hikers happy for an afternoon or two, provided they carry lots of water and smear themselves with mosquito repellent.
Singapore's Botanical Garden
Nicholas Walton
To the south is an area that saw lots of fighting when the Japanese invaded in 1942. Sime Road, next to a rolling golf course, was a former British headquarters that the Japanese turned into an internment camp. Relics of the fighting, like bullets and helmets, are still being dug up in the jungle between the Black and Whites of Adam Drive.
At Kheam Hock Road, next to the massive and overgrown Bukit Brown cemetery, I start to re-enter urban Singapore. But not before a stroll through the manicured perfection of the incomparable Singapore Botanic Gardens. I never grow tired of this place, and am still discovering new corners, hidden between the heliconias and sealing wax palms.
It's the one place in Singapore where most tourists leave the air conditioning behind and head out to explore on their own two feet.

The final straight

The Interlace is a residential complex that looks like shoe boxes stacked atop each other.
Nicholas Walton
By this stage of my walk I'm drenched, thirsty and happily changing into the fresh T-shirt that I always carry in my bag. The next few miles are uneventful -- a trudge past the expat condos and the forests of social housing skyscrapers, where most Singaporeans live.
One condo deserves a mention: the Interlace, a bizarre jumble of giant shoe boxes that look like they've been stacked one on top of the other by some gargantuan toddler. It sits across Alexandra Road from one of the loveliest Black and White enclaves, with more evocative names like Hyderabad Road, Canterbury Road and Winchester Road.
The final straight of my walk is another reminder of Singapore's imperial past: Labrador Nature Reserve, and a hilltop artillery battery that the British hoped would help protect the island's crucial harbor. Back in 1942, Japanese approached British forces from behind their positions, rendering the guns emplacements at Labrador Park of little use.
For me, however, they mark the end point of a sweaty but fascinating 24-mile walk. Finishing in equatorial heat feels like an achievement in itself.
As I sit looking across to the resorts and tourist attractions of Sentosa Island, I wonder whether any of its visitors know how much they're missing by not exploring Singapore on their own two feet.
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