Holidaying without your passport

THE YEAR 2020 has made all of us look at our lives with new eyes. And, in a way, Trafalgar’s guided staycation series, Near Not Far, asks us to do just that.

Compelled by Covid-19 to reinvent itself, the travel company has launched a 2-day, 1-night itinerary that takes you on a tour of Singapore’s heritage precinct. And, tempting as it may be to think of it as “another history tour”, this one stands out for its authoritative exploration of cultural landmarks that some of us may have come to take for granted.

Among the places it takes you to are the grand old buildings of Victoria Theatre, Victoria Concert Hall and The Arts House. While many of us have been there, almost none has climbed up the former’s clock tower whose iconic clock has chimed every hour on the hour for so very long – 115 years, to be precise – that it’s ceased to register.

But Trafalgar has obtained access from The Arts House Limited, which manages the three properties, to allow you to climb the 54-metre high clock tower and take in the complex mechanism of the clock as well as the views from the top. Since the clock tower was built in 1905, thousands of skyscrapers have surpassed it in height. But there’s something unexpectedly gratifying about seeing the Singapore River, Padang and National Gallery Singapore from the tower which, in its time, offered the best vantage point of the young city; you sense a distinct echo of history in the walls you touch.

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Trafalgar has appointed Jerome Lim, the well-known blogger of The Long And Winding Road, to lead the tour. And his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of these buildings is impressive. He confidently relays historical anecdotes as if he had been present at each momentous occasion, and fields questions expertly.

Did you know, for instance, that the national anthem Majulah Singapura was not written for the birth of the nation, but the reopening for the newly remodelled Victoria Theatre in 1958? Having been performed at the theatre’s inauguration, the song was subsequently adopted seven years later by the government of a newly independent country.

Another interesting factoid is that The Arts House – formerly known as the Old Parliament House – was originally built as a private mansion for a rich Scottish merchant, John Argyle Maxwell. But he was based in Java and never lived in the mansion, so he leased it instead to the government who used it as a courthouse. Today it is the oldest surviving building in Singapore, and you can still see a small portion of its original red brick walls, as well some vertical bars on the first floor that mark the location of the courthouse’s holding cells.

If you’re a performing arts lover, you’ll be thrilled to be taken into Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Hall which appear cavernous and hallowed without an audience. You’ll appreciate their architecture and design which, even in their remodelled forms, have been conceived to create intimacy: An audience member sitting in the last row never feels too far from the performers on stage.

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Besides the three buildings, you also get to explore the vibrant Kampong Glam, beginning with the Malay Heritage Centre, the former residence of Malay Sultans. Dinner is at Violet Oon’s National Kitchen in National Gallery Singapore, where Oon herself makes an appearance to talk about the inspiration and influences behind her Peranakan dishes.

Subsequently, you retire for the night at Parkroyal at Beach Road (in the case of a Friday or Saturday check-in) or the Kempinski (in the case of a Wednesday or Thursday check-in), both located in the Civic District alongside the aforementioned attractions.

Trafalgar hasn’t reinvented the wheel in its Near Not Far limited edition staycation series. But it’s certainly made local history and heritage more alive and kicking than it has any right to be.

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