Written by Beverley Lennon
Having moved to the busy city of Kuala Lumpur from the island paradise of Mauritius, sometimes the inner island-girl in me does miss basking in white-sand beaches and crystal clear waters, so I’m always looking out for a short escape to paradise during the long weekends!
I’ve been to several islands off Kuala Terengganu and those closer to KL like Pangkor, but I find it difficult to escape the crowds. I recall some years ago, it took us over 10 hours, stuck in the worst traffic jam, to get back to KL from the ever-so-popular Perhentian Islands.
Most of them have clear waters, yes, but usually it comes with many families and couples who are also on their weekend vacations, so finding somewhere lesser-known has long been on my ultimate bucket list.
Little did I know (or it took me about 5 years) to realise that there were more islands just a 4-hour drive away – whether you’re coming from KL or Singapore! Those pristine untouched islands are located off Johor – more precisely in Mersing.
You gotta trust the island connoisseuse in me – here’s where you can really find copious amounts of white sand, crystal clear waters, sun loungers and beachside stays!
Cafe hopping in JB: 13 Unique themed cafes near shopping and dining hotspots (City Square, KSL, Mount Austin, Bukit Indah)
1. This island has an insane waterslide that lands you into the sea! – Pulau Rawa
Now, this island right here is a tad special to me as it is Number 1 on my ultimate “long-weekend getaway bucket list”.
Pulau Rawa is set a short 20-minute boat ride from Mersing and is exactly where you go for white-sand beaches and rustic-chic beach shacks, but that isn’t what it is about – see that giant orange waterslide that lands you smack bang into the ocean! If that isn’t insane?!
You’ll find only two small resorts on the island and, truth be told, this is probably what keeps it so untouched as you’ll be sure there won’t be much of a crowd.
While the epic slide (which is free of charge by the way) is located at Rawa Island Resort, I personally love the Santorini-like beach bungalows at the other stay – Alang’s Rawa.
Besides daily dips in crystal clear waters and ultimate fun on the waterslide, there’s also a short hike to the hill that you can take to bask in spectacular views of the ocean from the top (though it’s a short 20-minute hike, I highly recommend you to bring your sport shoes as it is quite rocky!).
Frankly, there isn’t much to see and do apart from several water activities or working on your tan – but that’s the beauty and charm of Pulau Rawa! No wait, did I mention the waterslide? I did? Oh right, but WATERSLIDE you guys!!
2. Stay on an island that is part of a marine park! – Pulau Babi Besar
The coast of Pulau Besar (not to be confused with Pulau Besar in Malacca), is lined with swaying palm trees and its waters are known to hide some of the most vibrant ecosystems so it is no wonder that the island has been deemed as a marine park, attracting those who enjoy the underwater world more than ever.
To reach this paradise on earth, you’ll have to hop on a short 30-minute speed boat ride from Mersing Jetty. Once there, Pulau Besar lets you enjoy the pleasures of simple island living. In fact, the island is so special that it has previously attracted filmmakers from overseas!
Spend the day exploring the quiet beaches around it or tire yourself with some exciting water activities (provided by your resort). There are also rugged paths to follow for some jungle trekking or simply laze on a hammock to enjoy the relaxed way of life and natural wonders right in front of you.
3. Not only private but sustainable too! – Pulau Babi Tengah
One island. Eight beaches. Need I say more? Plus, it is just a 20-minute boat ride from Mersing!
Pulau Babi Tengah boasts white sandy beaches lapped by striking blue waters and dense lush forests. It is also known to be the breeding ground for leatherback turtles and you’ll find a conservation centre too.
The island is developed enough to be comfortable, yet underdeveloped enough to still have a rustic charm. It features one and only one accommodation stay – Batu Batu Private Island Resort, but if you ask me, this would still be my ultimate choice even if there were 100 other options.
The resort at Pulau Babi Tengah takes over the crown – it offers different types of villas ranging from jungle to ocean views and follows a strict sustainable concept. They offer transformational travel experiences that bring you closer to nature and conservation; you can support the turtle conservation, donate for coral reefs plantation, take part in beach cleanups and so much more!
Now if you want to immerse in nature by helping to save the environment, all the while enjoying relaxing times by the beach or in the comfort of your villa, then this is a good option to consider for your next island getaway!
4. Dip in a natural cave pool and the clearest of waters – Pulau Harimau
Pulau Harimau might not be the most popular option when it comes to island-hopping off the coast of Johor, but it’s still pretty special. What sets it apart is firstly its shape – it looks like a tiger and that’s what its name means (Harimau means Tiger in Bahasa Indonesia).
And this island is rather rugged – it is best for the most spectacular views from atop its hill, and you might even almost feel as though you’re in Komodo Islands in Indonesia!
Besides, the island also hides a secret natural pool with clear emerald waters, surrounded by stunning rock formations. With no accommodation on the island, this also means that you get to enjoy the most untouched scenery. Down the hill, you will find a beautiful stretch of white-sand beach outlined by calm turquoise waters to dip in, perfect for snorkeling too!
With the island being close to Pulau Rawa, your best option would be to spend the night at the latter and hop over to Pulau Harimau for a day trip – why visit one island when you could see more of the surroundings?
5. Discover an island owned by royalties! – Pulau Mensirip
The beautiful and untouched Pulau Mensirip is part of the paradise island chain of Seri Buat. Its beaches are one of the most beautiful around the area. Pulau Mensirip is not only privately owned by the Sultan of Johor who has great interest in nature conservation, but it is also uninhabited so you are guaranteed with pristine natural wonders.
Coming from my inner island-phile though, I can tell you that it’s worth the journey for its white-sand beaches and turquoise-clear waters. These are home to a vibrant underwater world and I completely understand why it has been crowned as a marine protected area!
No prizes for guessing that there’s no accommodation option here so you’ll only be able to drop by on a day trip. But first, you will need to be granted permission before stepping foot on the island – this is usually sorted out by your tour company or hotel if you’re staying at a nearby island like Pulau Rawa.
6. Could this be the Maldives of Johor?! – Pulau Dayang
Ever wondered what paradise on earth looks like? I’m not talking about the glitzy overrated Maldives right now but rather somewhere rustic and untouched like Pulau Dayang right in Malaysia. Where has this secret little island been hiding for the past few years I have been in Malaysia?! I mean, look at those waters!
Then again, you could only expect that when it comes to the island that’s located the furthest from the mainland of Malaysia. Pulau Dayang is located right next to Pulau Aur, which tends to be more popular among travellers. But little do they know that the real paradise is just another boat ride away!
But there’s more to Pulau Dayang than just its clear waters and snorkelling opportunities. You can also go for a short 40-minute hike to Letak Semalu which is a must-do! Make sure to bring along hiking shoes as you’ll be literally hanging on ropes to reach the top and it doesn’t get easier going downhill. But I can promise you this – you won’t be ready to forget those magnificent views!
7. Come and watch turtles hatch – Pulau Tinggi
Sometimes, you need an island getaway. But not just any island getaway. I bet at some point of the year, when you start getting sick of routine, you’ll be in need of an escape to a paradise like Pulau Tinggi – one of the most laid back island off the coast of Johor where you can go to fix that mid-year slump.
Pulau Tinggi is the highest among its surrounding brothers; in fact, it is even home to an extinct volcano Mount Semudu, which you can of course hike if you have 3 hours (per way) to spare!
Rather than being only a sandbank-looking island, there’s much more to do at Pulau Tinggi than you could ever think of. But though inhabited, Pulau Tinggi is far from buzzing – no massage parlours, nightlife or traffic. After all, you’re here to unplug completely.
Like the surrounding islands, Pulau Tinggi is also blessed with the most amazing clear waters and vibrant marine life. The island also homes a turtle hatchery which you are more than welcome to visit.
Besides, there’s also jungle trekking on offer – hike to the waterfall or if you’re staying overnight, you can opt for a boat tour around the mangroves to spot fireflies!
8. Time to get your diving license for cheap – Pulau Tioman
So you want to get a diving license but the prices around Indonesia and Thailand are making you think twice? I give you Tioman Island – some of you have probably heard of it but you have to know that the island offers unique diving experiences and sites that are ideal for you to get your license.
But before we go any further, let me emphasize that both boat transfer services and resorts on Pulau Tioman only operate during the dry season from March to September and close again in October due to the rainy weather and rough seas. But other than that, with the island being overly popular among Malaysians and Singaporeans, you might well want to skip the holiday seasons.
Unlike other surrounding islets, Pulau Tioman is one that’s bigger in size – in fact, there are even a few villages around the island with various beaches, as well as a waterfall to explore!
At the northwest of the island, Salang Village sees a lot of party-goers, with hostels and budget stays aligned, so it’s the perfect spot to settle down if you’re keen to mingle with the young backpacking crowd.
To get in touch with the local way of life, you could explore Tekek – this is where most of the locals reside and work. It is also the ‘capital’ town of Tioman but does not feature nice beaches.
But for really nice scenery though, you should definitely head over to Juara – it’s the best option too if you’re looking for quiet beaches and peaceful stays. Plus, you can always head to the party areas with the local 4×4 taxi services!
Best time to visit
If you want to avoid Malaysia’s rainy season and rough seas, the best time to visit islands off Johor is between March to September. During those months, you are more likely to have warm days and calm waters to make the most of your island getaway!
Getting to Mersing
From Kuala Lumpur
From KL, you could opt to drive over to Mersing Jetty or simply choose to go by bus.
The buses depart on a daily basis from Terminal Bersepadu Selatan (TBS) to reach Mersing Bus Terminal. The journey takes between 4 to 5.5 hours.
There are various bus companies covering the route from KL to Mersing but the most reliable one would be Transnasional and you can get tickets for less than RM 35 (approximately S$11.40).
From there, you can simply take a short 10-minute walk to Mersing Jetty or if you have luggage, just opt for a taxi service for as low as RM 10-15 (approximately S$3-4.90).
From Singapore, you could take a fun road trip to Johor Bahru to chill at some unique cafes before heading over to Mersing Jetty.
Or if you’re more comfortable with taking the bus, the best option would be to head over to Golden Mile Tower as the StarMart Express bus brings you directly to Mersing Jetty for S$35 (approximately RM 107). The journey takes between 3.5 to 4 hours.
Please note that most of the buses may only wait up to 20 minutes at the immigration checkpoint. Please remember to take your luggage with you as they need to be scanned at the immigration clearance process.
Getting to the islands
While most islands have accommodation options, some of them are uninhabited and only good for a day trip. If you’re staying at one of the island, chances are that your accommodation offers boat transfers but if you would like to hop from one island to the next, we recommend you to check out Bluefin Island Trip for your day tours.
Alternatively, there are plenty of other boat and ferry companies at Mersing Jetty that are ready to take you to the specific island so all you have to do is pack your bags and head there!
Now that you know what to do during the long weekends, tag your island-hopping buddies below and let them know where you’re heading to next!