Near wild heaven
No cars. No crowds. No cash machines. Malaysia’s Perhentian Islands offer some of the world’s best beaches with a blissful backpacker vibe. By Toby Skinner
It’s difficult to talk about the Perhentian Islands without descending into breathless holiday-cliché: two car-free islands off the Terengganu coast bordered with often-deserted white sand beaches and spectacular coral gardens off which a dazzling array of marine life (turtles, sharks, barracuda, clownfish, moray eels) teem around pristine drop-offs in shallow sun-streaked waters. If you’re looking for beautiful isolation on your Easter break, this is the ideal location.
We stayed on the more popular Small Island, which has a laidback vibe and is populated by a more civilised breed of backpacker than you’ll likely find on, say, Koh Phangan. (Being an observant Muslim community, booze is ‘technically’ illegal, so this isn’t a party island... although ‘anything goes’.) The island doesn’t have the range of high-end resorts of Langkawi or nearby Redang, but if you’re happy with simple accommodation and simple food, it is well worth the trip for the glorious beaches and spectacular diving that are up there with anything you’ll find in Thailand, Malaysia or anywhere else in Southeast Asia.
Where to stay
The Perhentians are made up of two islands: Big Island (Perhentian Besar) and Small Island (Perhentian Kecil), both of which are made up of hilly jungle surrounded almost entirely by little beaches. Big Island is exclusively single resorts, and most people stay on the Small Island at either Long Beach or Coral Bay. Long Beach is the busiest, with plenty of cheap accommodation. It contains the most backpackers and a laid-back feel, with reggae pumping out at the south end of the beach come nightfall. The warm sandy sea here is perfect for carefree bobbing and splashing. We’d recommend staying at the basic but friendly Moonlight at the quieter north end of the beach, where you can get a dorm bed for MYR20 up to a double room with a hot shower and air con overlooking the sea for MYR160. You can’t book here, but it’s worth turning up (ideally near the start of the week, as they’re often completely out of rooms around the weekends). Attached to the hostel is the best dive school on the island, Sunlight Divers, and next door is the best restaurant on the island, Bubu.
Coral Bay, a 10-minute jungle walk or a 15-minute water taxi away, is smaller, more blissfully quiet, has stunning sunsets and fantastic snorkelling just off the beachfront. The only drawback is that the white sand is partly strewn with prickly coral, though there’s plenty of room to lay out your beach towels, and the sea is ankle-shallow when the tide is lowest. We’d recommend booking the Senja Bay Resort (www.senjabay.com), right on the beach – if you want a relative splash-out on better digs, go for one of the triangular-roofed wooden beachfront huts with air con (MYR200 weekdays; MYR230 weekends), or pay MYR100/130 for a similar hut backed away from the beach.
What to do
Aside from lounging on beaches and catching up on your latest novel, it’s all about diving and snorkelling. The best dive school
by far on the islands is Sunlight Divers (www.sunlightdivers.com) at the quiet end of Long Beach, which has impeccable safety standards and a young but professional team of mostly-British instructors. The school offers both SDI- and PADI-certified courses, starting at MYR850.
If you’ve not time for diving, then fret not: the snorkelling here is almost as good and you’ll find great spots to snorkel on the surface almost everywhere, especially if you head right off Coral Bay. Numerous places along both Long Beach and Coral Bay offer the same MYR35 snorkel day trips in which you are guaranteed to see sharks, giant turtles and breathing, technicoloured coral. Otherwise, you can just take a water taxi (from MYR10) or a canoe (MYR15 for three hours) to find a secluded beach all to yourself. You really will feel as if you’re half a world away.
Where to eat & drink
Food on these islands is solid rather than spectacular, with a lot of places serving near-identical fusion menus featuring curries, rice dishes, omelettes, so-so pizzas and mediocre sandwiches. The best option on Coral Bay is Amelia’s, which does excellent MYR18 barbecue sets at dinner, and where you’ll get everything from fresh barracuda to lobster and blue marlin served with a baked potato, salad, rice and fruit. But easily the most sophisticated dining spot on the island is Bubu on Long Beach (www.buburesort.com.my), which not only has delicious food, including fresh and tasty sea bass (MYR35) and monkfish (MYR38) as well as good burgers and salads, but is the only spot to get a decent range of (...shhh) wines and cocktails, including a brilliant lychee-tini for MYR25. As mentioned, on a technical level, alcohol is prohibited on this Muslim island, but you can find beers for MYR6-8; other than Bubu, your best bet for a cocktail is Buffaloes in the busy bit of Long Beach, where they can usually throw together a good Caipiroska (vodka, fresh lime, brown sugar) with added fruit syrups for MYR25. Pure bliss.
When to go You’re in luck. The resorts are open from March until around the end of October. Travelling this month will mean it’s likely to be less crowded, but the water is generally clearest from around mid-April, when the sea has settled after the monsoon season.
How to get there It’s a bit of trek, but worth the effort. Plenty of airlines fly daily direct flights to Kuala Lumpur (check your favourite flight comparison websites). From KL, take an Air Asia flight to Kota Bharu (www.airasia.com, MYR126 return) and then an hour’s taxi ride (around MYR65) to the jetty. Ferries leave from the Kuala Besut jetty in the Terengganu region at 8.30am, 12.30pm and 4.30pm daily, costing MYR35 each way, plus a MYR5 marine park fee on the way out, and will drop you at whichever beach or resort you want to go to.
Need to know Currency: HK$100 converts to MYR39. Religion: The Terrengganu region on the mainland is strongly Islamic – women should cover shoulders and dress modestly.