Sentosa Island: A tourist attraction no longer just for tourists

Sentosa Island: A tourist attraction no longer just for tourists

With fantastic new sites, from restaurants to roller coasters, the 40-year-old venue continues to reinvent itself

With 800 species of marine animals, S.E.A. Aquarium is the world's largest oceanarium.

In September 2012, Sentosa Island celebrated its 40th anniversary -- hardly a young filly in the leisure destination game.

But with new attractions continually being added to its roster of tenants, the island has reinvented itself over the last couple of years, becoming a destination that's not just for tourists, but locals too.

"As a lot of Singaporeans are increasingly cash rich and time poor, they look for quick and convenient places to escape,” says Robert Lagerwey, general manager of the island's Capella Singapore Resort. “As such, many Singaporeans have been taking staycations here in Sentosa, as it is an easy drive and their holiday can start almost immediately, instead of having to travel a long distance." 

From its humble beginnings with just nine attractions luring around 600,000 visitors annually in the 1970s, the 500-hectare island now has more than 200 offerings, including two golf courses, the nation's first casino, Southeast Asia's first Universal Studios (now rocking the world's first "Transformers The Ride"), the region's first 4D theater, the city state's first dedicated beachside kid's club and Singapore's only indoor skydiving simulator, which at 17 meters high is also the world's largest. 

Despite the impressive list, many locals have cheekily dubbed Sentosa an acronym for “So Expensive and Nothing TO See Also.” 

Expensive, yes. Contrived? Definitely.

Nonetheless, visitors number more than 19 million per year, half of which are locals (not including Resorts World). In June 2012, the island rang through its 150 millionth guest.

For the fiscal year ending March 31, 2012, a majority 75 percent of unique downloads of the MySentosa mobile app were from locals.

Lisa Tan, branding and communications assistant manager of Sentosa Leisure Group, adds that the Sentosa Islander family membership (a scheme offering locals and permanent residents unlimited admission plus privileges and discounts at more than 40 spots) has increased 20 percent over the last year.

Here are some recent additions fueling Sentosa's newfound popularity with locals, along with a few newcomers slated to open in the next two years. 

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Marine Life Park

Riptide Rocket, Southeast Asia's first hydro-magnetic coaster. November 2012 saw the last piece of the Resorts World Sentosa jigsaw put in place to complete the integrated resort. The new Marine Life Park -- comprising Adventure Cove Waterpark and S.E.A. Aquarium -- joins six hotels, a casino, Universal Studios, FestiveWalk and the Maritime Experiential Museum. 

S.E.A. Aquarium is billed as the world's largest aquarium, home to 800 species of marine animals living behind yet another superlative -– the largest viewing panel in the world, coming in just shy of 300 square meters. 

Adventure Cove Waterpark has six water slides, including the Riptide Rocket. The region's first hydro-magnetic coaster, it allows you to taste your stomach as you drop 225 meters in 40 seconds.

More on CNN: World's largest oceanarium opens in Singapore

More rooms

Singapore's new W Sentosa Cove.Sentosa Island currently offers more than 3,000 rooms across 14 hotels and resorts, including the country's first W hotel, which opened in September.

The 240-key property bears all the W trademarks of designer glam. Not one to be left behind in the claim to Singapore "firsts," the hotel is the only accommodation to offer private marine berths for guests who want to arrive by sea.

It hasn't always been good times on Sentosa. During WWII, the island, ominously named Pulau Blakang Mati (literally, “Island After Death”) was home to a British military fortress. Today, you can step back in time and check into a heritage hotel.

Opened in 2009, Capella Singapore comprises numerous heritage-listed buildings. Two colonial manors, dating to the 1880s, once housed officers in the British Royal Artillery.

At Capella, chauffeur-driven golf buggies transport guest around the 111-room heritage resort. One of the Lord Norman Foster-restored buildings is allocated as part of the 111-room hotel. Another was released into The Club at Capella long-stay inventory, available for a hefty SG$42,000 (US$34,374) monthly rental fee. 

Another addition to the island's colonial digs is the Mövenpick Hotel Heritage Hotel near the Merlion Plaza, which opened in December and brings the number of heritage rooms island-wide to more than 500. Dating to the 1940s, two British quarters have been renovated to hold 62 old school rooms and suites. 

In 2012, Resorts World Sentosa also introduced the 172-room Equarius Hotel and 22-key Beach Villas, both “eco” sleepover options next to the island's rainforest environs.

New restaurants

Paradiso's signature steak with blue cheese. Joining the brigade of celebrity chefs at Resorts World, which already includes Joël Robuchon, Kunio Tokuoka, Scott Webster and Susur Lee, chef Sam Leong opened his pride and joy Forest at Equarius Hotel in February 2012.

The Malaysian-born chef offers contemporary Chinese with sprinklings of Thai inspiration. 

On Siloso Beach, Café del Mar has come and gone. Taking over its coveted seafront spot is the new Mambo, whose aspiration of “worlds of design, music and fashion” sounds suspiciously like the W mantra.

Cuban-inspired food and nightly live music give way to DJs, with beachfront cabanas separated from the main building by a pool. 

Serving up a nautical view from all of its restaurants, Quayside Isle is positioning itself as the “Capri of Southeast Asia." Upon completion, it will comprise 12 F&B outlets plus retail space.

Restaurants have started to dot the waterfront stretch adjacent to W Singapore, including Mediterranean Paradiso Restaurant & Bar, Spanish tapas bar Sabio by the Sea and Brussel Sprouts, the latter offering more than 20 varieties of mussels and 180 bottled Belgian beers.

Other restaurants rolling out include bistro Kith, Aussie-styled Grillado and the Italian SolePomodoro Trattoria-Pizzeria, all penciled in for January 2013 openings. Another to look out for is Japanese eatery Ezoca, which will be flying in everything from the motherland to keep it real. 

Kid stuff

The Port of Lost Wonder's epic Pirate Ship. Good luck dragging the kids away from this beast. With so many fancy restaurants, high-end resorts and beach clubs moving onto the island, kids under 10 are often left in the dust of adult frivolities on Sentosa.

The opening of Port of Lost Wonder in April flips the paradigm around –- at this dedicated kids' beach club, adults are the tag-alongs. 

“The opening of Port of Lost Wonder marks the first step in our plan to reinforce Palawan Beach’s status as a must-visit destination for parents with young children,” says Mike Barclay, chief executive officer of Sentosa Development Corporation.

Amid the sprawling 6,177-square-meter playpen is the main Pirate Ship, where 100 squealing kids can have a splashing good time. There's also an outdoor activity zone, Curiosity Island, and kid-friendly Hatch Patch, where toddlers tumble on faux turf.

Supervising adults are rewarded for their patience come evening with dinner at Port Belly restaurant.

In the pipeline

In a bid to turn Palawan Beach into a “family entertainment zone,” more development is underway, including a 11,500-square-meter Family Entertainment Center, which will house the country's first KidZania. The edutainment “functioning city" for the wee ones -– complete with its own declaration of independence and national anthem –- will open in late 2014 or early 2015.

The Sentosa Bungy will be open at the end of 2013 at Siloso Beach. It's not just any bungy, of course, but a double swing, where you can either race or crisscross with a fellow adrenaline junkie.

Other plans for the island include an 850-meter, intra-island cableway scheduled for completion at the end of 2015 and a new 4.2-hectare parcel of land complete with colonial buildings, which will be developed into a heritage hotel. 

The Sentosa Islander Family Membership gives a family of five (including grannies and nannies) unlimited entry into Sentosa for one year via the Sentosa Boardwalk, Sentosa Express and drive-in through Sentosa Gantry. Annual membership is SG$50 for the first year, with renewal options at SG$40. Members receive up to 35 percent discounts at more than 40 participating Sentosa establishments. 

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