Running away to a tropical island is a dream escape for many travellers, but if you stick to the beaten path in Southeast Asia, you might well find that everyone else is running away with you.
The Perhentian Islands off Peninsula Malaysia’s far north-east coast are famed for their excellent snorkelling and diving, and it’s on the smaller island of the two – Kecil – that you’ll discover beachfront bungalows fringed by jungle, straight-off-the-sand snorkelling and a slice of the simple life.
On Kecil, my pick of the beaches is laidback Coral Bay where timber bungalows are staggered up the jungly hillside, overlooking sheltered coves and rocky headlands that protect rocky coral reefs. The views from these bungalows are lovely, and when you’ve explored the reefs that begin mere metres from your room, you can follow the seaside walking path north or south to explore other underwater scenes, keeping an eye out as you go for green crested lizards, tokay geckos, red tailed squirrels and pit vipers.
The further you get from Coral Bay’s jetty where local boats anchor, the better the snorkelling is. At Shark Point, blacktip reef sharks cruising along the sand spit provide thrilling encounters for those floating daringly above them. Snorkelling boat trips visit Kecil’s more remote coves and coral gardens, and head further afield to pristine dive spots off neighbouring Pulau Lang Tengah and Pulau Redang.
Coral Bay’s cluster of family-run restaurants provides authentic, home-style cuisine and popular nightly seafood barbecues, served as the sun goes down over the sea at candlelit tables by the water’s edge. Alcohol is absent from menus here, which seems to suit the quieter crowd, but you can easily access Long Beach’s livelier backpacker scene, a 10-minute walk across the island’s jungly interior.
Prices on Pulau Perhentian Kecil are ultra affordable – a budget bungalow for two will set you back RM40-50 – leaving plenty for underwater fun. Wi-Fi speeds demand patience and while electricity at the island’s more upmarket digs runs 24 hours, you should expect limited hours at budget bungalows (upside: the fans switching off at 7am is the perfect wake-up call to get you tumbling into the sea).
From Kota Bharu, take a taxi to the port at Kuala Besut (RM40, 1hr). The 30-minute speedboat ride to Pulau Perhentian Kecil costs RM70 return. Water visibility is best during the dry season (March to October). There are no ATMs or banks on the island so bring cash and alcohol if sundowners are your thing. Check www.perhentian.com.my or other travel ideas.