It’s difficult to talk about the Perhentian Islands without descending into holiday cliché: two car-free islands off northern Malaysia’s Terengganu coast bordered with often-deserted white sand and coral beaches, off which a dazzling array of sea life (turtles, sharks, barracuda, clownfish) teem around pristine coral in shallow sun-streaked waters. 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 find on, say, Koh Phangan (alcohol is technically illegal). The island doesn’t have the range of resorts of Langkawi or nearby Redang, but if you’re happy with simple accommodation and food, it’s worth the trip for beaches and diving that are up there with anything you’ll find in Thailand or the rest of Malaysia.
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, the most backpackers and a laidback party feel, with reggae pumping out at the south end of the beach come nightfall. The warm sandy sea here is perfect for carefree bobbing.
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 (S$8) or a double room with a hot shower and air-con overlooking the sea for MYR160 (S$66). You can’t book here, but it’s worth turning up – ideally near the start of the week, as they’re often out of rooms around weekends. Attached to the hostel is the best dive school on the island, Sunlight Divers, and next door is the best restaurant, Bubu (see Where to eat and drink).
Coral Bay, a ten-minute jungle walk or 15-minute water taxi away, is smaller, more blissfully quiet, has stunning sunsets and great snorkelling just off the beach. The only drawback is that the white sand is partly strewn with prickly coral (though there’s plenty room for beach towels), and the sea is ankle-shallow when the tide’s lowest. We’d recommend booking the Senja Bay Resort (www.senjabay.com), right on the beach – if you want a relative splash-out, go for one of the triangular-roofed wooden beachfront huts with air-con (MYR200/S$82 weekdays; MYR230/S$95 weekends), or pay MYR100-130/S$41-54 for a similar hut back from the beach.
What to do
Aside from lounging on beaches, it’s all about diving and snorkelling. The best dive school 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 (S$352).
But the snorkelling is almost as good, and you’ll fi nd great snorkelling almost everywhere, especially if you head right off Coral Bay. Numerous places along Long Beach and Coral Bay offer the same MYR35 (S$14) snorkel day trips in which you’re guaranteed to see sharks, giant turtles and breathing, technicolour coral.
Otherwise, you can just take a water taxi (from MYR10/S$4) or a canoe (MYR15/S$6 for three hours) to find a secluded beach all to yourself.
Where to eat and drink
Food on the islands is solid rather than spectacular, with a lot of places serving near-identical fusion menus featuring curries, rice dishes, omelettes and mediocre sandwiches. The best option on Coral Bay is Amelia’s, which does excellent MYR18/S$7 barbecue sets at dinner, 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 sea bass (MYR35/S$14.50) and monkfish (MYR38/S$16) as well as good burgers and salads, but is the only spot to get a range of wines and cocktails, including a brilliant lychee-tini for MYR25 (S$10). Technically, alcohol is prohibited on the island, but you can usually find beers for MYR6-8 (S$2.50-3); 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 (S$10).
When to go
The resorts are open from March until around the end of October. Travelling there this month will mean it’s likely to be less crowded, but the water is generally clearer from around mid- April, when the sea has settled after the monsoon season.
How to get there
Ferries leave from the Kuala Besut jetty in Terengganu at 8.30am, 12.30pm and 4.30pm daily, costing MYR35 (S$14.50) each way, plus a MYR5 (S$2) marine park fee, and will drop you wherever you want. You can fl y by AirAsia from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Bahru (www.airasia.com, around MYR126/S$52 return), then take an hour’s taxi ride (around MYR65/S$27) to the jetty.
Terrengganu region on the mainland is strongly Islamic – women should cover their shoulders and dress modestly.