Due South: Visiting Singapore's Southern Islands

When you are short of time but want a beach vacation, look no farther than the Southern Islands of Singapore, a quick boat ride away
Jane Ng Sunday Times 6 Aug 11;

Picture an idyllic getaway with sandy beaches, crystal clear water and waves lapping gently at the shore.

Or a rustic island with lagoons to swim in, huge starfish to admire and wild dolphins to see. No, it is not Phuket or Bali. If an affordable, laid-back day-trip or overnight island stay is your thing, you need look no farther than your own backyard - the Southern Islands.

Pulau Hantu, Sisters' Island, St John's Island and Kusu Island, which are open to the public, dot the south of Singapore, just a ferry ride away from Marina South Pier. A return ticket to St John's, for example, is just $15. The island is just 8km from Marina South and the ferry ride is 20 minutes.

The islands receive a steady stream of visitors - including tourists and foreigners working in Singapore, as well as divers and fishing enthusiasts - but tend to be overlooked by many Singaporeans.

Every month, about 3,000 to 4,500 people visit Kusu and St John's. Fewer than 300 visitors go to Sisters' Island and Pulau Hantu, which require chartered boat services to get there.

These four islands are among 10 managed by tourist attraction operator Sentosa Leisure Group.

While many people take day-trips, those who are game for more can apply for a permit to camp overnight or spend a night in a rented bungalow (see other stories).

One of them is Madam Mei Puah, 45, a director, who spent a night in a bungalow on St John's Island last weekend with her husband and toddler, Annabelle.

Madam Puah wanted to go somewhere nearby with unpolluted waters and a beach for 21/2-year-old Annabelle and decided to head to St John's which she once visited when she was young. Apart from swimming in the lagoon, picking up sea shells and building sandcastles, Annabelle was also fascinated by the peacocks, cats, hens and chicks she saw on the island.

'We were awakened by the rooster in the morning and she asked me what animal that was,' said Madam Puah. She brought along pre-cooked chicken, salad and pasta for their meals and is planning to have a barbecue on her next trip.

Also a repeat visitor was Indonesian expatriate Agus Retmono, who was at Kusu and St John's Islands for a day-trip with his wife and three children aged 12 to 19.

Daughter Gustirani, 18, who is sitting her A level examinations soon, said it was a relaxing break away from the books.

'It's very windy, the beach is clean and it's not crowded,' said Gustirani who lazed on the beach while waiting for the tide to recede at Kusu in order to catch a sight of starfish.

Another islandgoer was amateur fisherman Januri Midong, 53, a supervisor at a florist, who camped out at St John's last weekend.

'It's very congested at Bedok Jetty on Saturdays. Over here, you have all the space you want. It's very relaxing after a stressful week at work,' he said.

He returned after his overnight trip last Sunday with a haul of 25 fish - and a renewed sense of well-being to see him through the work week.



In 1874, St John's Island was a quarantine point for cholera-stricken Chinese immigrants.

It later became the world's largest quarantine centre in the 1930s, screening both Asian immigrants and Malay pilgrims from Mecca. In the 1950s, it was a holding place for political detainees and, later, a rehabilitation centre for opium addicts.

About the island

Since 1975, part of St John's has been redeveloped as a beach destination. There are lagoons, picnic grounds, beach shelters and barbecue pits.

The rest of the island houses two research and development units - the Marine Aquaculture Centre, which is under the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority, and the Tropical Marine Science Institute under the National University of Singapore.

Regular visitors tell of rare dolphin sightings.

What you can do

Soak up the sun, swim in the lagoons or have a picnic by the beach. Explore the island's winding tracks and look for the peacocks, cats and chickens on the island.

Bring your own equipment and food and have a barbecue.

For overnight stays, there are holiday camps for big groups and a holiday bungalow which holds up to 10 people.

The bungalow costs $107 for the entire stay from Friday to Monday and $53.50 for Tuesday to Friday. Rates double during school holidays. For booking enquiries, call 1800-736-8672.


Basketball court, beach shelters, barbecue pits, camping grounds and public toilets.


Caretaker Supar Saman, 62, has lived on the island since 1955. His wife visits him every week - she lives with their grown-up daughter in a three-room flat in Chai Chee.

He is due to retire but wants to continue working. 'Living here is like living in a kampung. There is also fresh air and sunshine. I don't fall sick or take MC,' he said.

What visitors say

Software engineer Rahul Verma, 36, visited St John's Island for the first time last week with his wife and five-year-old son.

'It's less commercialised here. We're here for the beach, nature photography and family time,' he said.



Kusu is also known as Tortoise Island in Chinese and in Malay, it is called Pulau Tembaku.

It has a Chinese temple and three Malay shrines. In 1923, a wealthy businessman, Chia Cheng Ho, donated money to build the temple in honour of Da Bo Gong, or the god of prosperity.

There are also three kramats, or holy shrines, of Malay saints atop a hillock. The shrines commemorate a pious man, Syed Abdul Rahman, and his mother and sister, who lived in the 19th century.

Before ferry services started in 1975, devotees made their way there in sampans.

About the island

Thousands of devotees throng the island in the ninth lunar month to pray for good health, peace, happiness and prosperity. It has ornate pavilions, beach shelters, a wishing well and turtle pond.

What you can do

Climb the 152 steps to visit the shrines, which are popular with childless couples who pray for children. Swim in the lagoon, have a barbecue or visit the wishing well and turtle pavilion. Overnight stays are not allowed.


Beach shelters, barbecue pits and public toilets. Drinks are sold at the temple.


Mr Sharul Bai Shamsudin, 47, who works at the Malay shrines, speaks fluent Hokkien to the devotees, blessing them with phrases such as peace and prosperity.

He sees a range of people, including childless couples praying for a baby and punters hoping for a lucky windfall.

'I also speak Thai and Filipino. We meet so many people every day, we have to learn their language so they understand the blessing,' he said.

What visitors say

Ms Zin Thwe Mon, 28, an account executive from Myanmar who works in Singapore, visited with her family and friends.

'I heard the view is nice so we organised an outing. Singapore is very crowded and noisy. Over here, it is quiet and not crowded,' she said.



Two great warriors fought in the sea, disturbing a spirit called Jinn, who sucked them into a whirlpool to their deaths. The gods were angry with Jinn for interfering in mortal affairs. Remorseful, he converted two boats into the island.

About the island

This tranquil, well-kept island is the farthest of the four, being about 45 minutes by ferry from Marina South Pier. Coconut, sea almond, casuarina and yellow flame trees line footpaths on the island, making it shady and picturesque.

It actually consists of two islands - Hantu Besar and Hantu Kecil - separated by a lagoon. At low tide, you can walk from one to the other.

What you can do

Explore its swamp and spot hermit crabs. It has two swimming lagoons and, depending on the tide, you can wade or swim in them. Divers like the clear water and marine life around the island.

Overnight camping is allowed. For approval, e-mail administrator@sentosa.com.sg or fax 6275-0161 with your name, contact number, camping dates and number of campers.

Regular visitors tell of businessmen who moor their yachts there on Sundays to picnic and play mahjong.


Beach shelters, barbecue pits and toilets with showers attached. There is no power supply on the island.


An assistant manager from Sentosa's Southern Island management unit, Mr Goh Soon Huat, in his 50s, has been tending to the island for 30 years. He visits it twice a week as part of his job and has enjoyed watching the trees grow over the decades.

He says: 'I love my job. The lagoons look different depending on the tide. It's never boring and you won't get sick of it.'

What visitors say

Businessman Davy Ong, 37, was out on a friend's fishing boat last week and took a lunch break on Pulau Hantu, barbecuing the fish his party had caught.

'We caught more than 80 sagai that day but released most of them. We just wanted to get away from city life for a day,' said Mr Ong, who goes fishing near the Southern Islands at least twice a month.



A girl called Lina caught the attention of an orang laut chief. When she was forced aboard a boat, her sister, Minah, ran into the waves while Lina flung herself overboard. A storm began. Two islands stand where the sisters perished.

About the islands

Really two islands separated by a narrow but deep channel, they are unspoilt and house a group of monkeys which feed on fruit and leaves from trees including sea almond and jambu. There are also casuarina and sea hibiscus trees. Beach huts by the shore provide a shady, scenic view.

There are four lagoons for swimming and the waters are clear for snorkelling. There is a nice view of the Singapore skyline at night.

What you can do

Swim in the lagoons, laze on the clean beaches or have a barbecue. Overnight camping is allowed. For approval, e-mail administrator@sentosa.com.sg or fax 6275-0161 with your name, contact number, camping dates and number of campers.


Beach shelters, barbecue pits and toilets with showers attached. There is no power supply on the island.


Arborist, or tree doctor, Daniel Seah, takes care of the trees and plants on the islands. He visits the islands weekly, treats sick trees and follows up to make sure the treatment works.

'I feel happy looking at the trees and seeing how healthy they are. I'll fight with people who want to cut down trees for development,' he said.

What visitors say

Mr Francis Yeo, 32, who owns boat company Dolphin Explorer, went diving off Sisters' Island last year. 'The current there is strong but there are very nice corals and a good variety of fish such as grouper and snapper,' he said.

Getting to the islands

A regular ferry service runs from Marina South Pier to St John's Island and Kusu Island.

Singapore Island Cruise and Ferry Services is the official appointed operator for the Southern Islands. Its ferries loop round St John's and Kusu before returning to Marina South.

They run from 10am to 4pm on weekdays, 9am to 4.30pm on Saturdays and 9am to 6.15pm on weekends. Buy tickets - $15 for adults and $12 for children - at the pier. There are also individual boatmen who might take you there on an ad-hoc basis. Visitors to Sisters' Island and Pulau Hantu need to charter their own boats.

For details, call 6534-9339, e-mail enquiries@islandcruise.com.sg or go to www.island cruise.com.sg

More about our wild shores on the wildsingapore website.

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