Next time you’re planning a sun, sea, and sandy toes kinda vacay, don’t forget that Singapore’s closest neighbour is home to a myriad of coral-fringed islands complete with palm trees swaying in the breeze and white sandy shores gently lapped by cerulean waters. We say ditch the flight to the Philippines, Thailand, or Bali, and hit up Malaysia for your next Robinson Crusoe-style island holiday. Here’re 11 islands you need to know about.
Located just off the northeast coast of Malaysia, the Perhentian Islands are small specks in the sea that offer sugary white sandy beaches, jungle-clad hills, and relaxed vibes. The two major islands are Pulau Perhentian Besar, which offers family-friendly mid-range to high-end resorts, and Pulau Perhentian Kecil, better known for its backpacker ambience. Days spent on the Perhentian Islands consist of sunbathing, hiking tropical jungle trails, snorkelling in the shimmering waters and scuba diving to see reef sharks, coral gardens, sea turtles, and more. Sounds dreamy to us!
How to Get There: The only way to get to the Perhentian Islands is to take a speedboat or ferry from Kuala Besut. The boat ride takes approximately 30 - 45 minutes, and once on land, you can take water taxis to the different beaches and between the various islands.
For utter seclusion and serenity, Rawa Island is a good bet. This stunning isle has only two intimate resorts and is located in a protected marine park, so the waters here are crystal clear and teeming with colourful fish and corals. The white sandy beach fronting the resorts is soft and inviting, the tall coconut trees provide shade and ideal spots for hammocks, and there is a steep jungle trail you can climb to take in the panoramic views of the neighbouring islands and the expansive east coast of Malaysia.
How to Get There: To get to Rawa Island, head to Mersing and grab a 30-minute speedboat or a 1-hour ferry. During the rainy season (March to October), boats may be in short supply, so be sure to check schedules well in advance.
Situated off the west coast of Malaysia, Pangkor is part of a group of islands where you’ll find small fishing villages, sublime beaches, and calm waters. Pangkor is the main island, and it offers affordable accommodation and the two main draws of lovely Nipah Beach and Coral Beach. Adventurous types can do a 4-hour uphill trek through the jungle to spot birds and wildlife, while the more sedentary can relax on the golden sands and snorkel in the clear blue water. If you’re feeling extra posh, make your way to the neighbouring privately owned Pangkor Laut and splash out on designer digs in a luxury resort.
How to Get There: Ferries to Pangkor and Pangkor Laut leave from Lumut, and the trip takes about 35 minutes. Guests who book into the gorgeous Pangkor Laut Resort also have the option to book a private speedboat that will whisk you straight to the resort’s jetty.
Pom Pom Island
Just a tiny speck of white sand amid coral reefs in the Celebes Sea, Pom Pom is a great escape for those looking for seclusion and superlative scuba diving. You can walk around the entire island in under an hour, and as you do you’ll see empty stretches of sand, lapped by clear turquoise waves and maybe even a turtle or two as they return to the island to nest. Even better, there are no villages or shops on the island – only one tranquil resort – so you'll feel as though you have the whole place to yourself.
How to Get There: Fly into Tawau Airport on the southeast coast of Sabah, and then head to Semporna and catch a boat to Pom Pom. If you stay at Pom Pom Island Resort, they will arrange the transport from the airport all the way to the resort and back via car and boat.
Pulau Tioman sits just off Malaysia’s eastern coast and is aptly called a tropical island paradise for its lush jungles, beautiful beaches, and turquoise waters teeming with marine life. True, the island does see its fair share of tourists, but it’s big enough to accommodate them all and still have secret spots where you won’t see another soul. Outdoor types will love hiking, snorkelling, surfing, and playing golf, while those looking for total relaxation will find plenty of lovely resorts where you can recline in the sun next to the pool.
How to Get There: Getting to Tioman from Singapore is not the easiest thing to do as there are no longer any direct flights from Singapore or KL. So you’ll have to either take a private car or bus into Malaysia and then board a ferry to Tioman from either the Mersing Jetty or the Tanjung Gemok Jetty. The drive is about 4 hours and the ferry takes about 1.5 to 2 hours.
There’s something to please everyone on Langkawi, as this beautiful west coast island has a good mix of natural and manmade attractions like long sandy beaches and jungles, posh resorts and spas, seafood restaurants, duty-free shopping, and fun activities for kids at the aquarium, bird park, and eco-park. Be sure to take a cable car up Gunung Machinchang to see incredible views all the way to Thailand, and get off the beaten path to see waterfalls, mangroves, and traditional villages.
How to Get There: There are daily direct flights from Singapore to Langkawi with AirAsia, Tigerair and Silkair. The flight takes about 1.5 hours and lands at Padang Matsirat where you can get car rentals or book taxis to destinations around the island.
Life is laid-back on Pulau Sibu, a small island just off the southeast coast of Malaysia. Besides a few smattering of resorts around the north and a traditional village in the south, Pulau Sibu consists of mainly white sand beaches and tropical jungle. Many people come just to lie on the beach and soak up the sun and serenity, but you can also head out for snorkelling and diving trips, trek around the island pathways that snake their way through shady groves of trees, or explore tiny deserted islands just a short boat ride away.
How to Get There: Pulau Sibu is about 3 hours from Singapore. To get there, make your way to Tanjung Leman jetty about an hour from Johor Bahru. There are no direct public transport routes to Tanjung Leman from Singapore, but many resorts can provide pick-up and shuttle services from Singapore.
Fringed by white sand and cloaked with jungle, Redang Island is the biggest island in the Redang archipelago, a group of nine islands off Malaysia’s northeast coast that make up the Terengganu Marine Park. The snorkelling here is simply superb, as the waters are protected against fishing, jet skis, and water skis, so you can encounter colourful fish and corals just a few metres from the beach. While there is accommodation to suit all budgets, Redang is best known for its upscale luxury resorts.
How to Get There: The easiest way to get to Redang is to fly to Kuala Terengganu and then find transportation to the jetty in Merang. From there the ferry takes about 40 minutes to Pasir Panjang, the main beach on Redang.
If diving is your passion, then Mabul Island is a must. Located off the east coast of Sabah, Borneo, Mabul is one of the best places in the world to see small exotic marine life like frogfish, scorpionfish, and bobtail squid. The neighbouring island of Sipadan also offers world-class dive sites with all manner of reef life including barracudas, leopard sharks, and sea turtles. Most of the resorts on Mabul are dive lodges and they tend to get booked up fast, so it pays to make reservations well in advance.
How to Get There: Fly into Kota Kinabalu, then either rent a car or hire a driver to take you to the town of Semporna about one and a half hours away. From Semporna you can catch a fast boat to Mabul that takes about 30 minutes or go by slow boat, which takes about one and a half hours.
For a completely switched off escape, Kapas Island is a little piece of paradise off the west coast of Malaysia. You won’t find fancy five-star resorts here, instead just a few small hotels offering both budget and mid-range accommodation and chilled-out beach cafes serving seafood and cold drinks. The electricity and Internet can be spotty; great for those who want to leave work behind. This is also a good option for budget travellers as there are plenty of affordable guesthouses plus a campground where you can pitch your tent right on the sand.
How to Get There: Fly to Kuala Terengganu and take a taxi or drive to the Marang Jetty. Kapas Island is about a 20-minute boat ride from the jetty.
Secluded, serene, and boasting spectacular white sand beaches, Lankayan Island is popular with honeymooners and divers who want a scenic base to explore the incredible coral reefs in the Sulu Sea. The resort is located off Sandakan in Sabah, Borneo and it has only one resort, the Lankayan Island Dive Resort, which offers 16 luxury beachfront chalets and nine rustic-chic rooms constructed with natural materials. The resort can arrange dive trips and snorkelling excursions and can provide gear on request.
How to Get There: Most people who stay on Lankayan Island catch a plane to Kota Kinabalu and then take another short flight to Sandakan. From there the resort staff will pick you up, register you, and take you over to the island by boat, which takes about one and a half to two hours.