Let's go island hopping

Itching for a quick getaway from the city? Forget Batam or Langkawi - LifeWeekend gives you the lowdown on seven of Singapore's idyllic offshore islands.

The beaches of St John’s and Lazarus islands are ideal for picnics, barbecues or simply just lazing the day away.
SPH Brightcove Video
There is no need to hop on a plane to escape the city bustle; just visit one of Singapore’s many idyllic offshore islands.
The NParks’ free guided walk to the Sisters’ Islands during low tides is a good way to explore the area’s marine life. PHOTO: NATIONAL PARKS BOARD
A popular way to explore Pulau Ubin is on a bicycle.

The lush greenery of the Mount Imbiah Nature Reserve, home to more than 30 species of trees. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
The coral reefs of Pulau Hantu house creatures including the bamboo shark. PHOTO: DEBBY NG/HANTU BLOG
The iconic turtles of Kusu Island. PHOTO: ASHLEIGH SIM
Zipping around St John's Island and Lazarus Island. ST PHOTO: ASHLEIGH SIM
Join a mangrove kayaking expedition at Pulau Ubin. PHOTO: ASIAN DETOURS
Some island visitors go to Pulau Ubin to look for fresh organic durians. ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH
Cycling is one of the best ways to see Pulau Ubin. ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

Join a guided shore walk at Sisters' Islands

Part of Singapore's first marine park which was established last year, Sisters' Islands are turning into a hot spot for the adventurous.

Slots on the National Parks Board's bi-monthly free guided walk to the islands are snapped up quickly after they are released online.

Introduced in August, the three-hour tours give the public a chance to get close to marine wildlife.

The common sea star, blue-spot nudibranch, octopus and five-spot anemone shrimp can be spotted during low tide in the area.

Corals and sponges abound too, such as the mushroom coral and pink puffball sponge.

The walks are planned according to the tides. It is best to visit during low tides of 0.4m and below.

IT manager Andy Lee, 41, attended the tour with two of his sons, aged 12 and 10, last year. He says: "The tour was like an outdoor classroom for my children as they learnt that Singapore is home to all these marine animals that once existed for them only in textbooks."

Dr Lena Chan, director of NPark's National Biodiversity Centre, says more than 1,000 people have participated in the walks.

Tours are capped at 45 people to minimise the impact on the intertidal marine environment.The next available tour date is Sept 2. Registration will open on Aug 1.

SPH Brightcove Video
There is no need to hop on a plane to escape the city bustle; just visit one of Singapore’s many idyllic offshore islands.
Map of the Sisters' Islands. PHOTO: ST GRAPHICS

Dr Chan says there are plans to restore and enhance other marine habitats such as Changi Beach Park and Labrador Nature Reserve.

Other than during the guided walks, there are no regular ferry services to Sisters' Islands, which are close to 6ha in size combined.

To get there, one can charter a boat from companies such as Singapore Island Cruise operating out of Marina South Pier. Rentals start from $350 for a small boat that can take up to 12 passengers.

Legend has it that the islands were formed out of two orphaned sisters. After a pirate kidnapped the younger sister, the elder one swam after the boat and drowned. Grief- stricken, the younger sister jumped into the sea and drowned too.

The next day, two islands formed at the spot where they died and were henceforth known as Sisters' Islands.

Get rustic on Ubin

The Ubin ferry terminal. ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

Hop on a bumboat from Changi Point ferry terminal and wind up transported to a very different Singapore - where dirt paths lead to hidden shrines and green havens.

Of all the offshore islands, Pulau Ubin is the most self-contained, with facilities catering to visitors and about 40 residents.

Get off the boat ($2.50 for one-way, 15-minute ride), and find yourself on the 10km-sq island where time has seemingly stood still. A handful of provision shops, seafood restaurants and bicycle rental stalls are near the pier.

Rent a bike to ride around for the whole day (from $6; the better quality bicycles, at $8, are recommended). You can also walk around.

Take it slow and you have a greater chance of spotting a monkey gnawing on fruits or a baby wild pig foraging in the forest.

For the adventurous, book a kayaking tour with outdoor adventures agency Asian Detours (www.ubinkayak.com, $74.50 for four hours). Paddle along the coast and enter the mangroves dotting the island.

Nearly every inch of the rustic enclave is covered in greenery. Explore the abandoned granite quarries (Ubin means granite in Malay). At Chek Jawa wetlands, get to know natural habitats including the mangroves, coastal forest and seagrass lagoon.

Take a walk along the coastal and mangrove boardwalks. Sign up for guided tours organised by the National Parks Board and nature groups, such as the Naked Hermit Crabs (nakedhermitcrabs.blogspot.sg). Venture out during low tide in search of marine life, like the knobbly sea star and peacock anemone.

Ubin's rich history lies in wait down sandy lanes. Just before the popular Ketam Mountain Bike Park, on the western end of the island, you will find a mysterious shrine dedicated to a German girl.

Its exact origins are unknown - ask Ubinites and they will say it has been around for decades. It was erected in honour of a nameless German girl said to have fallen to her death off one of the island's cliffs in 1896.

The original ramshackle yellow hut dating back to the 1970s, which housed the urn of the girl, has since been rebuilt into a small brick-and-mortar temple.

Devotees believe the girl's spirit has special powers, which could help them strike it rich, and a few worshippers can be found every now and then at the shrine.

Ubin residents are repositories of such island legends and more.

Ms Ivy Choo, 52, who sells drinks by the road on weekends, has lived on the island all her life. She says: "It's a different feeling here from the city, so take your time exploring. Before you know it, your stress will melt away."

Explore shrines and have a picnic at Kusu

Visit Kusu Island outside of the pilgrimage period and the 8.5ha island is a quiet refuge. ST PHOTO: ASHLEIGH SIM

In the ninth lunar month each year, thousands of devotees flock to Kusu Island to pray for good health, prosperity, fertility and happiness.

They make a beeline for the Da Bo Gong Temple, which houses two main Chinese deities: Tua Pek Kong (God of Prosperity) and Guan Yin (Goddess of Mercy).

This year, the Kusu Pilgrimage takes place from Oct 13 to Nov 11.

Elsewhere on the island, a 152- step climb leads to three kramats or holy shrines of Malay saints. The site is dedicated to a pious man from the 19th century, Syed Abdul Rahman, his mother and his sister.

Popular among couples hoping to conceive, the shrines have walls filled with scribblings of four-digit numbers by devotees desperate to strike 4D.

Visit the island outside of the pilgrimage period and the 8.5ha island is a quiet refuge.

Kusu Island, which means tortoise island in Hokkien and is home to more than 100 tortoises, is among three islands - including Lazarus and St John's islands - served by a ferry service that is run by Singapore Island Cruise. The ride takes about one hour.

The ferry leaves from Marina South Pier daily. Timings vary, so check the website (www.islandcruise.com.sg) for the schedule.

Several pavilions line Kusu Island. On a Sunday afternoon, fewer than 10 groups of visitors were there. Tourists poke around the religious sites, while couples colonise the most secluded pavilions at the far ends. Families let the children loose in the open space or swimming lagoon.

Beware, though, of the island's monkeys, eager to get their paws on your belongings.

For IT manager Michael Vincent Pozon, 39, who was at the island with his wife and their two children aged nine and six for the first time last Sunday, it makes a good family day-trip destination with its many shelters and benches, and drinks for sale at the temple.

They were at St John's and Lazarus islands earlier in the day. He says: "It's too hot at the beach at Lazarus and there were no facilities. Here at Kusu Island, it is convenient to have a picnic and laze by the lagoon."

Trek nature trails on Sentosa

If you are lucky, you might spy peacocks stealthily crossing pathways at Mount Imbiah. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Ask any Singaporean about Sentosa's attractions and Universal Studios Singapore or Fort Siloso might roll off their tongues.

But ask about Mount Imbiah and Mount Serapong nature reserves and you will likely be met with blank stares.

The two gazetted nature reserves span more than 40ha - making up 10 per cent of Sentosa's total space.

The island is also home to 31 Heritage Trees, a title conferred by NParks on mature trees with historical or ecological significance. Majestic beauties such as the Tembusu and Angsana trees add grandeur to the landscape.

So the next time you head to the island, add a nature trail to your itinerary.

Of the two nature reserves, Mount Imbiah is more accessible and safer to wander into without a guide. The dense foliage at Mount Serapong makes for rough passage, even for the adventurous, and it is best to contact Sentosa if you are keen to test the route at the eastern end of the island.

At Mount Imbiah, visitors can soak up the fresh air under more than 30 species of trees. Examples include the Silverback, named for its leaves with silvery undersides, and the Palaquium obovatum, not found in mainland Singapore, with its leathery leaves and reddish- brown bark.

If you are lucky, you might spy peacocks stealthily crossing pathways or magpie robins rustling the canopy.

At the foot of the nature reserve is a natural spring, Siloso Spring, one of the main water sources supporting plant life on the island.

There are two man-made waterfalls too: Tempinis Cascade and Imbiah Falls.

Along the way, next to the MegaZip Adventure Park, stands a piece of history harking back to the 1880s - the dilapidated Mount Imbiah Battery.

To get to Mount Imbiah, take the Sentosa Express and alight at Imbiah Station. Make your way to Imbiah Lookout.

Or you can also alight at Imbiah Lookout station, part of the new cable-car line, and head towards MegaZip Adventure Park to connect to the Imbiah Trails.

The Sentosa authorities decline to share more on Mount Serapong as they prefer visitors to contact them directly to check out the nature reserve.

Also known as Cement Hill because of its vast concrete surfaces, Mount Serapong once served as a military post in the late 19th century. Traces of gun batteries and underground tunnels still stand.

For senior arborist Daniel Seah, 60, who has worked on Sentosa since 1978, the nature reserves trump the island's more popular man-made sights.

He says: "I like Imbiah Battery and the Alstonia Scholaris heritage tree best, as they bring back memories of my youth when I ventured to places many have not been before."

•Go to www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle for more photos and a video of the offshore islands.

Scuba dive at Hantu

The living lagoons of Pulau Hantu where coral reefs reside. PHOTO: RIA TAN/WILD SINGAPORE

Despite its name, Pulau Hantu, which means "ghost island" in Malay, is far from eerie.

Calm waters, white sand and a rich bounty of coral reefs have made the island an increasingly popular haunt with divers. After all, it is a closer alternative to known diving spots in the region such as Tioman Island and Langkawi.

Founder of marine interest group The Hantu Bloggers, Ms Debby Ng, has been diving in the waters of Pulau Hantu for more than a decade.

Ms Ng, 33, says: "Pulau Hantu is a unique relic of Singapore's natural heritage. Since we began our work in 2003, more people have become interested in the island. We believe that people have not visited our southern shores simply because they did not know they existed."

The group also runs volunteer- guided monthly dive trips to the island that cost $150, excluding dive gear rental. Divers can sign up on its website (www.pulauhantu.sg).

Beneath the murky waters off Pulau Hantu lies more than 100 species of corals, as well as bamboo sharks, clown fishes, sea stars, seahorses and turtles.

For non-divers, the main draw would be a small mangrove area and swimming lagoons. Facilities such as toilets, shelters and picnic areas are available on the island too.

Legend has it that ancient Malay warriors once fought to their deaths on the islands and their ghosts now linger there.

Pulau Hantu is made up of two islets - Hantu Besar (Big Ghost) and Hantu Kecil (Little Ghost). Both have shelters and picnic areas for visitors, while Hantu Besar also has two swimming lagoons and a public toilet with fresh water.

At low tide, it is possible to walk across the lagoon between the two islands and some of the corals can be seen too.

Check the National Environment Agency website for tidal predictions before setting off.

There are no regular ferries to the island so the best way to get there is to hail a boat from West Coast Pier.

Prices vary, depending on the cost of fuel, but expect to pay at least $17 for the 45-minute journey.

The boat will pass through an immigration checkpoint, so identification is required in the form of one's identity card or passport.

You can also charter a boat if you prefer a cushier ride. Prices start from $400 for a boat that can hold up to 12 passengers.

Chill at St John's, Lazarus


Formerly a quarantine centre for cholera-stricken immigrants in the 1870s, St John's Island, 6.5km south of mainland Singapore, has been transformed into a place to escape the city bustle.

With its swaying coconut trees, swimming lagoon and grassy knolls for picnics or beach barbecues, the island - an anglers' favourite - offers a rustic getaway.

To get to the 39ha island, take a ferry from Marina South Pier, which also stops at Kusu Island. A round trip costs $18 for an adult and $12 for a child.

Holiday bungalows and camps are available for those who want to stay overnight. Managed by the Sentosa Development Corporation, a night's stay starts from $53.50 during non-school holidays.

Do not expect first-class amenities at the island, however. The toilets and showers, for example, are spartan.

Connected by a short causeway to St John's Island is Lazarus Island, a hidden oasis for beach junkies.

The beach extends towards the southern end of Seringat Island, although to a visitor's untrained eye, it is one long stretch of sand.

The 47ha island is a 10-minute stroll from St John's. There, young people somersault off yachts docked at sea. Couples snuggle close to each other on the sand. Families with pets in tow gambol on the near pristine sand.

In the late 19th century, the island housed several inmate confinement sheds, only to be abandoned after a prisoner escaped. It is unclear why it was renamed Lazarus Island from Pulau Sakijang Pelepah, or Island of One Barking Deer and Palms.

A regular to the isle is Mr Kevin Steppe, 40, who discovered the sanctum eight years ago when he went for a sail on a friend's yacht. He now sails to the island nearly every month in his sailboat.

The Singapore Management University lecturer, who teaches information systems, says: "My friends and I used to be the only ones here. Nowadays, there are easily 10 other groups on weekends."

According to Sentosa Development, which manages the islands, annual visitorship has doubled since 2010, to 40,000 last year.

Be warned: There are neither toilets nor dustbins in the area, so visit the loo and discard any rubbish at St John's before you stroll to Lazarus Island.

Ms Valencia Chia, 21, who was at Lazarus Island for the first time on Sunday, says it is a better alternative to the beaches on Sentosa or at the East Coast.

The university student, who was there with a friend, says: "It's much more peaceful here as not many people know about it yet."

Her only gripe? "The ferry ticket prices are quite steep, compared with those to Pulau Ubin."

Explore in comfort

Dress comfortably

Keep cool in T-shirts, tank tops and shorts. Take along a cap and sunglasses.

Wear sturdy walking shoes and have a pair of flip-flops for the beach.

Pack the necessities

Take along water, tissue paper, wet wipes and insect repellent . Slap on sunscreen. You may want to pack a picnic basket as with the exception of Pulau Ubin, the islands have few eating stalls.

Plan in advance

Check ferry schedules for trips to and from St John's, Kusu and Lazarus islands to avoid long waits at the pier or being stranded after the last ferry has left. Check the weather forecast before heading out.

Throw a yacht party

Charter a yacht, berth at an island and spend the day there or onboard. Operators that offer charters include SingExperience (yachtrental.com.sg), Yacht Charter Singapore (www.yachtcharter.sg) and MarineBookings (www.marinebookings.com).

Rentals start from $590, depending on the size of the boat (10 to 150 people) and which island you are going to.Some operators offer extras, such as rental of fishing and kayaking gear, or karaoke.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 03, 2015, with the headline Let's go island hopping. Subscribe