It’s difficult to talk about the beautiful Perhentian Islands without descending into holiday cliché. The Perhentians are two islands off the northern Malaysian coast bordered with often-deserted white sand beaches, boasting a dazzling array of sea life (think turtles, sharks, barracuda, ‘Nemo’ fish) teeming around pristine coral in shallow sun-streaked waters.
True, nearly every beach destination claims most of these things, but the Perhentians do the dive/snorkel beach holiday better – and cheaper – than just about anywhere we’ve been. The sea is clearer and the beaches whiter than around Australia’s Great Barrier Reef; the travellers are less obnoxious than in Thailand’s Koh Phangan or Bali; the diving is cheaper than on Thai island Koh Tao; and food and accommodation are basic but cheap.
The caveat is that it’s a bit more complicated than jumping on a plane, landing on a beach and wandering into a beach hut. But follow our guide and plan properly and you’ll soon be swimming with giant turtles in the azure sea.
Where to stay
On the islands The Perhentians are composed 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 resorts, and most people stay on Small Island at either Long Beach or Coral Bay. Long Beach is the busiest, with lots of cheap accommodation, the most backpackers and a faint hint of Koh Phangan about the reggae and trance that pumps out at the south end of the beach come nightfall, though the warm sandy sea 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 Dhs24 up to a double room with a hot shower and air con overlooking the sea for Dhs195 (www.perhentian.com.my, no number). 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 (see What to do) and next door is the best restaurant on the island, Bubu (see Where to eat).
Coral Bay, a 10-minute 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 part-strewn with prickly coral, though there’s plenty of room for beach towels, and the sea is ankle-shallow when the tide’s lowest. We’d recommend booking the Senja Bay Resort, right on the beach – if you want a relative splash-out, go for one of the triangular-roofed wooden beachfront huts with air con, which will set you back Dhs245 on weekdays; Dhs280 at weekends (www.senjabay.com, +6 09 691 1799).
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 at the quiet end of Long Beach, which has impeccable safety standards and a young but professional team of instructors, largely Brits who studied at Edinburgh University (owner Sunny is a recent graduate). The school offers both SDI and PADI certified courses, starting at Dhs1,015
(+6 01 793 12630).
The snorkelling is almost as good, and you’ll find great snorkelling almost everywhere, especially if you head right off Coral Bay. Numerous places along both Long Beach and Coral Bay offer the same Dhs43 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 Dh12) or a canoe (Dhs18 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 Malay-Thai-Western fusion menus featuring curries, rice dishes, omelettes and mediocre sandwiches. Must-trys include the roti canai (usually Dhs3.6), delicious fried bread with a light curry sauce, and the lassis and shakes (usually Dhs7), with flavours ranging from fruits to Snickers and M&Ms. The best option on Coral Bay is Amelia’s, which does excellent Dhs22 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 (+6 01 991 30742). But easily the most sophisticated dining spot on the island is Bubu on Long Beach (+6 09 691 1333), which not only has delicious food, including fresh and tasty sea bass and monkfish (Dhs42) as well as good burgers and salads, but is the only spot to get a range of grape and mixed drinks, including a brilliant lycheetini for Dhs30. Technically, alcohol is prohibited on the island, but you can usually find hops for Dhs8 per bottle.
Need to know
Travelling in the Perhentian Islands is cheap, but it’s not that easy, involving buses, taxis and ferries. Qatar Airways flies from Abu Dhabi to Kuala Lumpur via Doha from Dhs1,919 return (www.qatarairways.com, +6 03 7843 3000). Then catch an internal flight from Kuala Lumpur up to Kota Bharu from Dhs150 return with Air Asia (www.airasia.com, +6 06 0085 9999). Due to ferries leaving Kota Bharu only at certain times, it may be best to spend a night in KL first – which is no hard task.
Once you get to Kota Bharu, you have to jump in a cab to Kuala Besut, which is where the ferry leaves from – taxis take just over an hour and the going rate is Dhs80. Ferries leave for the islands at 8.30am, 12.30pm and 4.30pm, costing Dhs42 each way, plus a Dhs6 marine park fee on the way out, and will drop you at whichever beach or resort you want to go to. On the way back, ferries leave at 8am, noon and 4pm. We’d recommend the latter, which means you get a morning on the beach.
Did you know?
‘Perhentian’ means ‘stopping point’ in Bahasa Malay – which refers to the islands’ role as a trading waypoint for traders from Bangkok and Malaysia.
There are no structures on the island taller than two storeys (apart from one communication tower).
The islands belong to Pulau Redang National Marine Park: fishing, disturbing coral and littering are strictly prohibited.