Mention this tiny island nation off the tip of the Malay Peninsula, and Americans may envision a prim, repressive society that puts drug dealers to death, censors movies and TV...

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SINGAPORE — Mention this tiny island nation off the tip of the Malay Peninsula, and Americans may envision a prim, repressive society that puts drug dealers to death, censors movies and TV, and fines citizens for chewing gum.

That’s unfortunate, because this former British trading colony of 4.6 million, now an international financial and high-tech hub, is surprisingly convivial and has much to offer: world-class nature parks and museums, an exciting Pan-Asiatic cultural blend, unique cuisine, sparkling high-rises and diverting ethnic enclaves.

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And you can chew gum, under recently relaxed rules. Just make sure it’s sugarless and teeth-whitening — the only kind that can be sold. You can also view HBO’s naughty “Sex and the City,” albeit with racier parts excised.

I learned all this during four days on the tropical island in September. I went with my partner, Wesla, as part of a seven-day package to Singapore and Hong Kong that totaled just $2,508 for two, including airfare from Los Angeles

Our package was among many bargains designed to jump-start tourism after outbreaks of SARS hit Singapore and other Asian nations. At the scare’s height this spring, visitor arrivals here sank to a quarter of normal. The World Health Organization declared the outbreak contained in Singapore in May and worldwide in July.


Singapore Tourism Board:

SARS was far from our minds on the half-hour shuttle ride from spotless Changi Airport to our luxury high-rise hotel. Instead, we were enchanted by the lush jungle on both sides and down the highway median.

In the city were oases of shady parks, affording respite from a climate so steamy that it drove one famous 19th-century visitor, Rudyard Kipling, to entreat his hosts, “Leave me alone and let me drip.”

The greening of Singapore is largely the work of its 20th-century founder and now Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, dubbed by some the “monster gardener.” He’s also the architect of its (until recently) roaring economy and strict laws, designed to forge a modern Asian powerhouse from what was once a crumbling colony.

After a night in our comfortable 17th-floor harbor-view room at the Pan Pacific Singapore, which sports a soaring 35-story atrium (and rooms with published rates starting at $228), we sampled the city’s past on a superb two-hour Chinatown foot tour run by Original Singapore Walks.

Yes, there is a Chinatown in Singapore, a predominantly Chinese city. You’ll also find a Little India and an Arab Quarter. They are legacies of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, a British East India Co. officer who landed in 1819, laid out the city into ethnic zones and established it as a British trading post. The Raffles Hotel here bears his name.

Among other Raffles legacies are the so-called Five Foot Ways, covered walks about five paces wide that protect strollers from sun and rain in front of shop-houses (stores on the first floor, living quarters above) in Chinatown, home to generations of immigrant Chinese laborers. Highlights of our walking tour included the ornate 19th-century Thian Hock Keng Temple, crafted without nails; a modern Chinese medicine store; and tiny but historic Sago Street, with its “wet market” full of tropical fruits, fish, live frogs and more.

Doing a fast-forward to contemporary Singapore, we spent the evening in and around Esplanade-Theatres on the Bay, Singapore’s $343 million contribution to cutting-edge architecture. Its shiny twin harborfront domes with spiky surfaces are not beloved by all, but I liked their quirky glamour.

The complex was also a hit with hipster couples, who swarmed its cafes and cuddled on outdoor benches. Many strolled over the Esplanade Bridge to Merlion Park, home of the water-spouting half-lion, half-fish statue that Singapore has adopted as its tourism symbol.

The next day we took in the beautiful Asian Civilisations Museum, which opened in March in the restored 1860s Empress Place.

Then it was off to the zoo. Actually two zoos: The Singapore Zoological Gardens on the northern side of the island and, next door to it, the Night Safari, which totaled about $16 for a combined ticket with tram ride. (Another bargain: Our half-hour cab ride there was less than $10.)

Singapore’s main zoo is large and lavishly landscaped. The Night Safari is unique: A tram takes you past softly illuminated natural environments where you can see flamingos prance, tigers prowl and hippos bathe.

Our final day included a brief visit to the city’s serene Singapore Botanic Gardens; a stroll through Little India, with lunch from fragrant food stalls ($3 total for two); and tea and a drink at Raffles Hotel, a late 19th-century shrine of colonial history.

The hotel is still luxurious, although now nearly engulfed by a high-end retail arcade built during its 1989-91 restoration.

Our evening included another must-do: a half-hour bumboat (motorized sampan) cruise through the harbor and up the Singapore River, past the twinkling lights of Boat Quay and Clarke Quay cafes.

We met a few American visitors, most with family or financial ties to the city. Among them was Andrea Liebert, a Highland Park, Ill., audiologist on a weeklong trip to train hospital staff here.

Liebert, among hundreds attending a Night Safari wildlife show, was the only volunteer willing to “wear” a live albino python. Clearly she was a fearless adventurer.

But Singapore is well-nigh irresistible to any traveler, and it doesn’t take an explorer to track down its charms.