Malaysia's best beaches, diving and a civilised backpacking vibe
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, where a dazzling array of sea life (turtles, sharks, barracuda, clownfish) teems around pristine coral in shallow sun-streaked waters.
We stayed on the more popular Small Island, which has a laid-back 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, which 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 comprise 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 laid-back party feel (reggae pumps out at the south end of the beach come nightfall).
The warm, salty 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 approximately BD2.5 or a double room with a hot shower and air-con overlooking the sea for BD20. 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, 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 of room for 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, go for one of the triangular-roofed wooden beachfront huts with air-con (approximately BD27.5), or pay around BD15.5 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 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 BD100. But 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 Long Beach and Coral Bay offer the same BD4 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 (aroundBD1.2) or a canoe (BD1.8 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 barbecue sets at dinner (BD2.2), 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 serves delicious food, including fresh sea bass (BD4.2) and monkfish (BD4.6), as well as good burgers and salads, but is the only spot to get a range of grape and mixed drinks. Technically, alcohol is prohibited on the island, but you can usually find hop beverages (costing around BD1; other than Bubu, your best bet for a mixed drink is Buffaloes in the busy bit of Long Beach.
When to go The resorts are open from March until around the end of October. Travelling at the start or end of the season 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 around BD4 (plus a marine park fee), and will drop you wherever you want. Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies direct to Kuala Lumpur from Dubai; return tickets start at BD280. You can then fly AirAsia from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Bahru (www.airasia.com) for around BD15 return, then take an hour’s taxi ride (around BD8) to the jetty.
Cultural sensitivity Terrengganu region on the mainland is strongly Islamic – women should cover their shoulders and dress modestly at all times.
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Flight time: Approximately seven hours 45 minutes. Time difference: Five hours ahead of Bahrain. BD1 = 8.35 Malaysian ringgits.