An airport crafted to soothe the world-weary

Email|Print| Text size + By John Donnelly
Globe Staff / February 26, 2006

SINGAPORE -- I remember looking glumly at my itinerary. I had a seven-hour layover ahead. Too long for a novel. Too short for a hotel bed. But when I told my children about the stop at Changi Airport in Singapore, they got excited.

''Can I go with you?" said Gavin, 11. ''Singapore airport is the best in the world, isn't it?"

I had told stories to my three children about passing through there before -- the glitzy candy shops, free Internet, free movies, and a deck-top swimming pool. So maybe he had a point; maybe I should look forward to a seven-hour layover. Or was I losing my mind?

Singapore Air Flight 421, originating from Mumbai, India, arrived 10 minutes early on a Wednesday night last month. My bags were checked to my final destination, so I was completely free to roam the airport's two transit terminals. I figured the first thing to do was to indulge. I got a massage.

A female friend had urged me to do the works: back, feet, pedicure, manicure. I wasn't so daring. I wanted just to relax, and I didn't have to wait long. Just a four-minute walk from my gate was a corner called The Oasis, which included a massage parlor, My Foot Reflexology.

For the next 45 minutes, Jenny massaged my feet, head, shoulders, and back. I gladly paid $21, and left feeling like I could float.

I thought about pulling over for a nap, but I had so much to do: e-mails to check, shopping to do, and the chance for discoveries -- my children would surely want to hear new stories about this airport that had taken on legendary status in their eyes. After 15 minutes of free Internet at one of several clusters of computers (friends from Egypt, Indonesia, India, and the United States had sent New Year's greetings), I decided I needed a plan.

Just a few yards away was an information desk. I had already picked up Changi Airport maps, brochures, and a 16-page tabloid called the Changi Express, but it felt like information overload.

And so I proceeded to ask a bewildering number of questions of poor Farhana Shaheed, the information officer on duty. Where was the pool? A sporting goods store? Flower gardens? Movie theater? Skytrain that linked Terminals 1 and 2?

''Oh," Shaheed said worriedly, as my questions ended. ''You are acting just like an auditor. Sometimes they send people like you around to check on me."

I said not to worry, that I just had time to kill.

''No, I think you are an auditor."

''Well," I said, trying to put her at ease, ''if I was, I would give you high marks."

She looked at me uncertainly. Singapore has the reputation of being one of the world's strictest environments in terms of cleanliness and orderliness, where you can be fined for spitting on the sidewalk or for not flushing a public toilet (although infrared sensors in the airport and elsewhere in the tiny country are good backup). I wondered, as she scurried away from her station, whether the airport penalized its information officers for giving wrong answers to tourists.

But Shaheed had directed me well. Within minutes, I was checking out one of the airport's two transit hotels. There I learned I could have a single room with a shower for six hours for $34.75, or reserve a room with access to a communal shower for $24.40. The hotel also greeted guests with complimentary tea, soft drinks, or water. I mulled my choices, but the receptionist told me not to bother. ''We are booked usually three weeks in advance," she said. ''Sorry."

Next door at the Plaza Premium Lounge, supervisor Wendy Lim was more than willing to offer other options. She spotted me looking at a young man and woman in a glass-walled gym, working out on a treadmill and upright bike.

''Sometimes you travel light, don't you?" Lim said, thinking she could read my mind. ''And the thought of working out just comes to you. Well, we offer the workout, plus a shower, plus sneakers, plus workout clothes." All, she said, for $9 an hour.

Before I could say yes, she swept me into the 7,000-square-foot space, which she said could accommodate 100 travelers. It had the feel of an airport business lounge. People rested in overstuffed chairs; some read free newspapers or magazines; others helped themselves to drinks. But Lim ushered me into a private sanctuary.

And she closed the door. Magically, I felt refreshed within seconds.

It was an ''oxygen therapy" room, and the air was infused with a lavender scent. I inhaled the rich oxygen deeply, again and again, and my nose and facial muscles felt a coolness. Lim started to leave, but my massaged feet weren't moving. ''Oh, just a moment more," I said, closing my eyes.

She laughed, which jarred me to my other senses. I realized if I stayed a moment more, I would stay an hour, and that came with a cost -- $13.90 for every 20 minutes inside and lost opportunities for exploration. Lim also had more to show me, stopping at a nearby bar in the lounge. She moved aside a bar stool and opened a door in the paneling. It revealed an oxygen tank. This, she said, was no ordinary bar.

It was an oxygen bar.

''When you get off a plane, you yearn for oxygen," Lim said, as I stared at the tank. ''All that recycled air you breathe is so bad for you."

Still, I could not imagine pulling up a seat at the bar and asking for an oxygen tank. I could imagine requesting a gin and tonic. Maybe I needed to change my old ways of thinking.

But not now. I thanked her, walked out into the airport terminal air, and heard the sounds of a car crash.

SMASH! BOOM! Then, machine-gun fire, RAT-A-TAT-TAT!

I hustled toward the noise and around a bend found the movie theater, which had no doors. ''Commando," starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, was playing. The two dozen seats were full; the overflow audience sat in the aisle.

''Isn't this great?" I asked a mother with two small children as we approached the theater's screaming speakers.

''Yeah, right," she said, looking at me as if I were out of my mind. ''It's not very appropriate for kids."

She tugged her children away, dragging her reluctant boy. She may have been right -- but I was alone. So I watched for a while, admiring Arnie's cartoonish biceps and grimaces for 10 minutes or so, until I began to feel sleepy.

Time for fresh air.

Not many airports offer outdoor patios. Fewer still offer outdoor gardens, but Singapore's has fern, cactus, orchid, and sunflower gardens, plus a rain forest area. It has 15 staff gardeners in Terminal 2 alone. Closest to the movie theater was the sunflower garden, and as I opened the door to see it, an eerie scene greeted me.

The sunflowers, illuminated by spotlights, stood out as golden orbs against the night sky. But it was not a spot that would have inspired van Gogh. A jet thundered off the runway below; the noise caused me to cover my ears. Packs of smokers milled around the sunflowers, and their clouds of smoke hovered over the flowers.

I left to shop. My two sons had asked for ''American candy," which I dutifully found in one of the airport's nine candy stores. My sons and daughter also wanted an iPod, which I bought for $230, compared with $300 in New Delhi. But I waltzed past perfumes, diamonds, clothing, mini-stereos, and locally-made, gold-plated orchids (costing up to $356).

I needed to find the Skytrain, to travel from Terminal 2 to Terminal 1. ''The ride takes approximately 89 to 90 seconds," said Shaheed's replacement at the information booth, directing me to the rail car.

''Approximately?" I asked.

''Yes, approximately," she said.

It took 84 seconds, after a four-minute wait.

I ate sushi. I watched MTV with a group of teenagers on one TV set. I watched the Discovery Channel with 4-year-olds on another set. I hooked up my laptop to a free Ethernet line next to a 20-year-old Malaysian student who was chatting with his family over his laptop using Skype technology. I poked around the cactus garden that had ''do not touch the plants" signs every 10 feet, which of course encouraged me to touch the cephalocereus senilis (old man cactus from Mexico) and the euphorbia splendens (crown of thorns from Madagascar).

And I found the outdoor swimming pool. It was past midnight and closed, but I stumbled upon an unlocked door and climbed the stairs to admire the water shimmering in the night-lights. No one was around, the water seemed so inviting, I bent over to test the temperature. Warm. Should I strip to my boxers and jump in? My children would treasure that story.

I looked at my watch. It was 1:15 a.m. Oops! My flight was leaving in less than an hour from Terminal 2. With regret, I hustled to the Skytrain (two-minute wait, 85-second trip), raced to my gate, and arrived with only minutes to spare.

My seven-hour layover had flown by. I was ready for my next seven hours in this airport. I could try oxygen therapy, a workout, a pedicure perhaps, and, if my timing was just right, maybe even a forbidden Singapore skinny-dip. Now that would be a layover to remember.

Contact John Donnelly at

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