I came to Perhentian Islands with high expectations. I had done a lot of reading up on these two islands, Perhentian Kecil (small) and Perhentian Besar (big), which are located about 20km off the Terengganu coast of Peninsular Malaysia.
I knew they had pristine beaches, that they are relatively unspoilt and that the islands are fringed with coral (you can sort of make that out from the satellite map image above). I had heard that they were a popular stopping off point for backpackers exploring this part of Asia.
We stayed on the main beach of Besar. Besar is the more family oriented of the two islands and also favoured by scuba divers as there are some good dive shops here. Kecil on the other hand is said to appeal to budget travellers, backpackers and a younger crowd who stay up later at night.
Besar's main beach is home to a strip of modest low rise resorts and chalets. The sand is soft and white but with specs of broken coral in places. The sea is turquoise and crystal clear and a lovely temperature. Exotic tropical fish, obviously accustomed to humans, know that we are not a threat in this protected Marine Park. If you take some bread into the sea with you the fish will come and take the crumbs from your hand.
Snorkelling is great in these waters and the coral begins directly in front of the resorts along this beach. At low tide you can walk right out to it. It has to be said though that a lot of the coral is bleached white and damaged in place. Snorkellers are not permitted to wear fins to prevent people from standing on the coral or breaking it with their fin-tips.
The Marine Department is trying to regenerate growth of new heads of coral in the worst affected areas but of course it will take time to see results.
Back on land I would say that the islands are still fairly unspoilt. Apart from the somewhat scruffy row of resorts lining the beach there is little visible development further inland.
Indeed the resorts on Main Beach can feel hemmed in by the impenetrable jungle but it is no hardship to be confined to a beach like this.
We did not do a huge amount aside from swimming and snorkelling and playing on the beach. We rented ocean kayaks for an hour. We walked out onto the Marine Department's jetty to observe and feed the fish. We arranged for a fisherman to take us to the neighbouring Kecil island on his speedboat. He took us to D'Lagoon resort where there was a tank full of newly hatched turtles next to the beach. He then took us snorkelling in the deeper waters of Turtle Bay where we saw a range of aquatic life but no turtles.
The trip lasted a couple of hours and he charged us RM100 which we thought was reasonable.
Besides fish and turtles we spotted an owl, some bats, lizards and black monkeys during our stay on Perhentian Islands.
We did not try scuba diving but we were told there are good wreck sites nearby and you can encounter the local sharks which are said to not be dangerous (famous last words!).
Did the Perhentian Islands live up to my expectations?
I think Mother Nature has played her part in creating a pristine marine paradise. The humans have done less well.
What I Liked:
The weather - sunny and breezy for the whole 4 days. It rained once, an exciting tropical downpour.
The crystal clear water and soft white sand.
The snorkelling and feeding fish by hand.
The ferry trip to and from the resort.
What I Was Disappointed With:
The restaurants and food on our beach were just OK (by normally high Malaysian standards). Aside from our own hotel there were only one or two other places to eat.
The resorts/hotels on the Perhentian Islands are of modest standard and many are scruffy to look at. They do nothing to enhance Mother Nature's work.
There are about 20 resorts on Kecil and another 13 on Besar. None fall into the category of luxury.
The Perhentian Island Resort on Besar's picturesque Teluk Pauh is generally reckoned to be one of the top resorts in the Perhentians.
I stayed in Tuna Bay Island Resort on Besar's Main Beach. The chalets are comfortable and clean and located either directly facing the beach or just behind the front row.
We had a family chalet (two interconnecting rooms). It was fine. The service was not particularly warm on arrival but became more friendly the longer we stayed.
We rented snorkels from the hotel for the whole stay.
On the same beach I noticed Abdul's Chalets and Cozy Chalets, both of which looked OK.
D'Lagoon over on Kecil seemed to have very basic accommodation but they have a nice secluded location with excellent snorkelling.
The Perhentian Islands are affected by the eastern monsoon from November until February during which time the sea becomes rough with dangerous currents and the skies are overcast. This is the off season and much of the accommodation on the Perhentians is closed.
July is the busiest month and peak season rates generally apply. April to September are high season. The months of March and October are low season and often discounted rates apply.
You need to get a ferry or speed boat from Kuala Besut on the mainland to take you to the Islands. They usually charge around RM75 return and the journey takes 30 - 45 minutes. You also have to pay a Marine Park Conservation Fee of RM5.
We flew from KL to Kota Bharu on Air Asia. We arranged for Tuna Bay's van to meet us at Kota Bharu airport and transport us to Kuala Besut where we had to hang around for 20 minutes or so in an office (not sure why) before catching Tuna Bay's own ferry boat, The Tuna Express, which dropped us on the beach directly in front of the resort's lobby. The transfer fees were reasonable (van RM37 and ferry RM35) and apart from the annoying wait everything worked smoothly.
If you do not want to fly and you plan to do the long drive from KL instead (perhaps if you are touring the east coast) there are car parks available near Kuala Besut jetty where you can leave your car.