Best stopover cities
Author: rob ingram
Photography: Anson smart
Singapore - everyone's first dragon-dance of Asian excitement in the 60s and 70s - lost most of its raffish charm when draconian legislation cleansed it of such evils as long hair, chewing gum and smoking in public. It became sterilised not only of its dagginess but of its appeal, and most travellers took to changing planes at Changi Airport rather than opting for a Singapore stopover. Well, it's time for a rethink, jetsetters. These days it's not only clean, safe and efficient, but elegant and stylish, funky and fashionable and at the cutting edge of creative design and technology. Orchard Road is a designer shoppers' paradise, while the buzzing Clarke Quay area is a bar and nightlife hot spot.
Highlight Diverse ethnic quarters add to the colour and excitement.
Buy Habanero-hot designs from the Red Dot Design Museum.
Eat Black pepper crab.
Bangkok is back in the big league of Asian stopovers, having undergone a dramatic makeover in the past few years. Happily, the old is still there as a contrast to the new. Saffron-robed monks shop alongside designer-label fashionistas, and street vendors line the sidewalks outside modern shopping plazas. Should you tire of the plazas, there's still the heady amulet market in Pra Chan Road with its antiquities, relics and kitsch homages to royalty. And look, up in the sky, faster than a speeding tuktuk, more powerful than the leaders of a military coup, is the Skytrain monorail which soars above the traffic madness and provides a great panorama of the city.
Highlight Ride the Chao Phraya River Express ferry as an antidote to the city clamour.
Buy Edgy designs in Siam Square boutiques.
Eat Pad Thai from a pavement kitchen.
Ho Chi Minh City
You have to shake your head at the new invasion of Vietnam. Its peasant army which defeated the French colonial army and outlasted the Americans did so with a belief in egalitarianism. They plundered the wealthy to feed the poor. Now, new names have marched into Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon. Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana - they're all here, and they've helped gentrify the city's aggressive capitalism which used to be a bit like a bayonet charge. Generally, though, the pace of life is just as manic - eating, drinking and shopping being regarded not only as time out but also fierce competition. It's a brash and bustling city, but there's something invigorating about its energy.
Highlight The peaceful sanctuary of the Duong Dong Du temple.
Buy Anti-American propaganda posters and T-shirts.
Eat Durian ice-cream.
The least-known of our stopovers is an eye-opener - its vibrant Hyundai/Daewoo/Samsung-led economy transforming it from a backwater of political repression to the title of 'New Tokyo'. Home to 11 million people, it appears to be a stark megalopolis of high rise and highway, but there is glamour here in the trendy districts of Cheongdam-dong and Apgujeong-dong (also known as Rodeo Drive). The most satisfying Seoul-searching: riding the subway to either Cheongdam or Apgujeong-dong and cruising the top-end boutiques, chic cafés and cool bars.
Highlight The spectacular Leeum Samsung Museum of Art - the architecture is as stunning as the exhibits.
Buy Close copies (as opposed to fakes) of current catwalk creations at Migliore, a multistorey mall of more than 2000 stores.
Eat Japanese-style oden dishes from one of the many fashionable oden bars.
Shanghai can appear as sultry and mysterious as an old sepia postcard or as glossy and hectic as the powerhouse of China's economic development that it is. But its appeal to the stopover tourist lies in the fact that it has rediscovered its defiant individuality - Chinese, yes, but cosmopolitan, cutting edge, progressive and exciting. While the new has been embraced, the old has been renovated and the Bund, the city's colonial-era waterfront is one of China's most enduring memories. The Old City, the Xintiandi restoration and the French Concession with its gracious 19th-century architecture, are also musts.
Highlight An evening cruise on the Huangpu River to get a dramatic perspective of the diverse architecture is highly recommended for the first-time visitor.
Buy Art and imaginative craft from the converted factories along Suzhou Creek.
Eat Steamed xiaolongbao dumplings.
Not just a handy halfway point on the long haul from Australia to Europe, Tokyo has the added benefit of allowing you to set the pace of your stopover. There's the modern maelstrom of a turbo-charged city or the serenity of ancient temples, gardens and lanes. Each of the 23 city wards caters to a distinct market, such as Ginza (upmarket shopping), Asakusa (old Tokyo), Akihabara (discount electronics), Harajuku (teen catwalk), Roppongi (nightlife) and Ameyoko (street markets). Ignore horror stories about Tokyo's prices. Deflation and market pressures have brought it back into line with many capital cities.
Highlight The temples of Asakusa and the Meiji-jing shrine in Harajuku.
Buy Anything at all from the astonishing Nihonbashi branch of Mitsukoshi, the oldest and largest department store in Japan.
Eat Monjayaki, a half-pancake, half-pizza dish of Tokyo origin.
One of the world's most fascinating destinations, Abu Dhabi shows its neighbour Dubai the value of restraint. Development is breathtaking here and while a place that 50 short years ago was just a few hundred palm huts, a handful of coral buildings and the Ruler's Fort now has a Manhattan skyline, traditional culture is holding its own against the pressures of globalisation. Abu Dhabi is the name of both the capital city of the United Arab Emirates and the largest of seven emirates that make up the country. Sensitive planning has enhanced the environment with parks and tree-lined streets a feature of the city. And the palpable sense of history and heritage magnifies its appeal.
Highlight Join the locals promenading the dramatic Corniche.
Buy Antique silver jewellery.
Eat Fresh seafood at the Al Dhafra docks.
Still referred to as Bombay by locals, Mumbai is right up in the premier division of the world's glamour capitals. Safe in the knowledge that its Indian-ness can never become diluted, the city is now as cappuccino as it is chai; as Bulgari as it is bangles and beads. A decade ago, stopover tourists would look for an escape to the past, but these days they revel in the current. Don't, however, miss the indelible landmarks in favour of the boutiques and bars of the Bollywood set. Here, in the richest city of all India, the most spectacular building is a railway station - the old Victoria Terminus. A stone's throw away is the Gateway of India arch, both better value than a designer-label bargain.
Highlight Catch the late late Bollywood screening at a neighbourhood cinema.
Buy Exotic, colourful fabrics from Mahatma Gandhi Road.
Eat Channa and bhaturas at the super-popular Cream Centre on Marine Drive.
Honolulu was hot when it was fashionable to sit around pink hotels consuming blue drinks with yellow umbrellas. Then not when it wasn't. Now tourism is booming again and the eight million tourists a year aren't there just to ride the Banzai Pipeline. Once regarded as America's year-round beach, Honolulu is now respected as a strategic commercial link between California and Asia and business is suddenly as important as recreation. The area around the harbour has been transformed from seedy to stylish, and the latest hip neighbourhood is Chinatown where American-Asian fusion knows no bounds.
Highlight The recently renovated landmark Hawaii Theatre.
Buy Waikiki tropicana beachwear.
Eat Pineapple custard malasada doughnuts.
While the world satisfied itself with the impression that Zurich was about as exciting as a bank boardroom, it turned into the new Berlin. Hip, happening, edgy and entertaining, it's easy to get to know and even easier to enjoy. A worldwide survey consistently names Zurich as the best place in the world to live, and it offers as much to the short-term traveller as it does to its contented residents. The city exudes the excitement of a place in a perpetual state of reinvention, and with impeccable taste and clever design. It's ringed by fabulous day trips and a host of relaxing lake and river cruises.
Highlight A walking tour of the medieval Old Town.
Buy Antiques and vintage toys from specialty shops between Bahnhofstrasse and the river.
Eat Bratwurst, rösti and mustard at Caffè & Bar Bellevue.