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Pulau Hantu
Photograph: Flickr/budak

The best offshore islands in Singapore to escape to

Lush flora and diverse fauna beckon from Singapore’s offshore islands – we heed the call and check them out. Photography by Donn Tan

By Sofiana Ramli and Tiffany Chow
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Spending 24/7 in the thick of Singapore city life can take a toll. Good news, we don't have to leave the country for a quick respite – our island itself is surrounded by islands that thankfully isn't as hustle and bustle as life on the mainland.

Hop on a boat to these offshore islands and breathe in the fresh air. Set up camp – or a picnic mat if you don't intend to stay the night – and relive those kampong days at these uninhabited islands that are ripe for exploration. Just don't forget to slather on the mozzie repellant and sunscreen.

RECOMMENDED: The best hiking trails in Singapore and the best nature trails in Singapore

Pulau Hantu
Photograph: Flickr/budak

Pulau Hantu

For divers and marine life enthusiasts

Pulau Hantu is made up of two islets, Hantu Besar and Hantu Kecil. The word 'hantu' is the Malay word for ghost and it was probably named after stories of ancient Malay warriors who duelled to the death on the island – and that their ghosts still wander the island. 

These days, the peaceful island is a great spot for divers and those who want to observe marine life up close. There are swimming lagoons, white sands, intertidal pools, mangroves, and plenty of reefs teeming with life underwater. 

How to get there While admission to the island is free, there are no regular ferries to Pulau Hantu. You can charter a boat from West Coast Pier to take you there. Rates will have to be negotiated with the operator which depends on their availability. and diesel prices among others. Alternatively, look out for group tours and treks to the island where you can follow nature enthusiasts as they study and observe marine life on the island. 

St John's Island

Things to do Southern Islands

For cat lovers

Forget cat cafés, St John’s Island is the go-to for friendly felines, with one sleuthing around almost all the landmarks that dot the island. Step off the boat and you’re greeted by a cat. Head to the picnic area, there’s another. Stroll around the cluster of trees and you’ll find even more. But the holy grail of kitties on the island is the quiet mosque, with dozens of them lazing around, stretching and doing other strange cat things.

St John’s Island wasn’t always a cat paradise. In the '30s, it was the world’s largest quarantine centre. Before Singapore’s independence, it was a holding centre for political detainees. Later on, it became a rehabilitation centre for opium addicts. Only in 1975 was it redeveloped as a staycation spot away from the mainland.

Other than cat-watching (not that you need to do anything else), you can take a dip in the ocean, grill up a barbecue in the picnic area or visit the Sisters' Islands Marine Park Public Gallery to check out Singapore’s efforts in preserving our marine biodiversity. Don’t want to leave the island just yet? The only way to stay overnight on St John’s is to book one of the holiday dormitories or the lone bungalow – camping is strictly not allowed.

How to get there Marina South Pier. Tickets start from $15 for a trip to the island. Take note: during the ninth lunar month, ferry services to St John’s will halt for the Kusu pilgrimage.

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Kusu Island
Photograph: Supplied

Kusu Island

Things to do Southern Islands

For heritage-rich getaways

The best time to visit Kusu is in October, the ninth lunar month. That’s when pilgrims flock to the Da Bo Gong temple to pray and throw coins at the bells around the wishing well (presumably for good fortune, and you can toss a few yourself, too). The deity, also known as Tua Pek Kong, is claimed to have transformed a tortoise into this very island, hence its religious significance. Stalls selling charms and other religious trinkets also set up during the pilgrimage, and it’s the only time food is available on the island. 

Besides the temple, there’s a tortoise sanctuary and, if you can manage the 152-step climb up the hill smack in the middle of Kusu, three Malay keramats (which broadly refer to tombs of Islamic ‘saints’) that many believe to grant wealth, health and fertility.

How to get there Marina South Pier. Tickets start from $15 for a trip to the island.

Pulau Semakau
Photo: NEA

Pulau Semakau

Things to do Western Islands

For educational field trips

Ever wondered where the waste from our city winds up? Well, the answer’s right here. And yes, you can tour this landfill without the need to pinch your nose – Semakau is surprisingly serene, clean and teeming with wildlife.

The only way to get to the island is with a permit from the National Environment Agency (NEA). Don’t worry, though. Applying for one isn’t tough. You’ll first need to book one of two tours: the landfill tour, run by the NEA, or the intertidal walk, organised by nature societies such as The Nature Workshop. Once you’ve done that, get in touch with the NEA for a permit at least three weeks in advance. You’ll also need to fork out about $400 (not a typo) for the boat ride there.

The half-day landfill tour takes you around Semakau’s operations and facilities to show you how waste in Singapore is managed. If you’re looking for a more natural experience, embark on the intertidal walk instead. On it, you’ll discover more about Semakau’s diverse marine life, whose residents include crabs, shrimp and colonies of knobby sea stars.

How to get there West Coast Pier, Marina South Pier or Pasir Panjang Ferry Terminal. Visits to the Semakau Landfill or one of the waste-to-energy plants can be arranged by sending a request to the National Environment Agency.

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Pekan Quarry, Pulau Ubin
Photo: Donn Tan

Pulau Ubin

Things to do Pulau Ubin

For discovering nature

Take a walk on the wild side as you step foot on one of Singapore’s last surviving kampongs. At a sprawling 1,020 hectares, Ubin boasts lush greenery and abundant wildlife, drawing nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts to explore the many wonders of the granite island. Whip out your binoculars to spot birds at Pekan Quarry, wander through nature trails, and hike 75 metres up Puaka Hill for a breathtaking panoramic view of the islet. 

Whisk yourself to the southeastern end of Ubin for the islet’s main attraction: Chek Jawa. The wetlands and its rich ecosystem are best seen during low tide – stroll down the kilometre-long boardwalk and keep your eyes peeled for colourful sea critters such as the peacock anemone and biscuit sea star. If you’d like to add some adrenaline rush to the trip, sign up for the island’s kayak tours ($95/person for full day) and paddle through the mangroves. You might just be able to have a close encounter with jellyfish, kingfishers and (if you’re lucky) otters.

How to get there Changi Point Ferry Terminal. Tickets start from $3 per person. 

Lazarus Island
Photograph: Supplied

Lazarus Island

Things to do Southern Islands

For pure shores

Far away from the thronging East Coast Park and manicured Sentosa beaches lies a swathe of white sand ringing clear, turquoise waters. No, we’re not talking about Boracay but Lazarus Island. One of Singapore’s best-kept secrets is its serene, undeveloped beach that you can (almost) call your own – just take the first ferry out at 9am on weekends and 10am on weekdays to claim the sands for yourself. Other beach bums descend around lunchtime with their yachts and speedboats. And don’t forget to pack everything you need – floats, mats, towels – as there are no shops on Lazarus.

Pro tip: for Insta-worthy shots, trek further inland to the reclaimed Pulau Seringat, north of Lazarus. You’ll come across a jetty – continue past it until you spot a pavilion. From that vantage point, you’ll be able to snap a panorama of the Singapore mainland.

How to get there Take the ferry to St John’s from Marina South Pier (tickets start from $15). Once you disembark, find the link bridge from the St John’s jetty. From there, you’ll reach Lazarus in about 20 minutes. And take note: during the ninth lunar month, ferry services to St John’s Island will halt for the Kusu pilgrimage 

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