The Perhentian Islands are a small group of beautiful, coral-fringed islands off the coast of northeastern Malaysia in the state of Terengganu, not far from the Thai border. The two main islands are Perhentian Besar (Big Perhentian) and Perhentian Kecil (Small Perhentian). Perhentian Kecil, the more popular of the two, has cheap accommodation and is a bit of a backpacker party scene, while Perhentian Besar is slightly more expensive and caters more to families. The relative difficulty of access and the higher prices compared to Thailand mean that both are still relatively unexplored. The small, uninhabited islands of Susu Dara, Seringgi and Rawa lie off Kecil. All the islands belong to a protected marine park, which means that fishing, collecting coral and littering are strictly prohibited.
Due to the eastern monsoon, the season in the Perhentian Islands is effectively limited to the period between February and October. Outside this the seas can be very rough and most accommodation options are closed.
Access to the Perhentian Islands is by ferry from Kuala Besut, which is usually reached from either Kota Bharu, Jerteh or Kuala Terengganu. From the main ferry terminal at Kuala Besut there is effectively one option – small fibreglass boats with two or three outboards which take 30-45 minutes, charge RM70 per person for return open ticket and RM40 per person for one way. Expect to get yourself (and your belongings) soaked in seawater, although the exact degree depends considerably on wind conditions and how crazy your captain is. All ferries take their passengers directly to their destination, wherever it may be on the islands.
All visitors to the islands must pay a marine park conservation charge of RM5. The marine park conversation charge 'ticket' claims to be valid for a few days, but in practice it is never asked for and is valid for the length of their stay. This ticket is paid at the office in the jetty at Kuala Besut.
Aside from walking, the only means of transport are water taxis. Prices are negotiable but figure on RM12 per head for most hops from one beach to another, and a little more when crossing from one island to another. Many places on the island are referred to with both their Malay and English names. To make life a little more confusing, the words "beach" (pantai) and "bay" (teluk) are often used near-interchangeably as well, and a few English place names are not literal translations.
The Perhentian Islands offer excellent diving and draw divers from far and wide. In addition to coral and fish, the Perhentian Islands are home to sea turtles and many species of shark – none of them dangerous unless provoked though. Visibility is often in the 20 m range and no wet suit is required, although you may wish to use a dive skin for protection from coral and the occasional jellyfish. Popular dive sites include the Pinnacle (aka Tokong Laut, "Temple of the Sea"), a pinnacle jutting out from the sea bed, and the Sugar Wreck, an easily accessible 3,500-ton sugar hauler. The (more expensive) single-day trip to Redang Island offers diving a notch above the local options, well worth every dime – but be prepared for a rough ride in a small speedboat.
Competition for divers is fierce and consequently diving is quite cheap, averaging out to RM60-80 per dive depending on how many dives you do and whether you bring your own gear. All dive shops also arrange introductory dives (no training required) and PADI training. There are five dive centres on Perhentian Kecil's Long Beach – Spice Divers, Coral Sky Divers, Seadragon Divers, Turtle Bay Divers and Sunlight Divers.
All resorts rent out snorkeling gear (typically RM30 a day for mask, snorkel and fins) and arrange snorkeling tours around the islands. You can get some cheaper equipment from some local restaurant. Popular snorkeling spots on Perhentian Besar include Teluk Pauh (to the left of the beach in front of the PI Resort), Shark Point and Tanjung Basi. The best place to see sharks (black tip) is in front of an extremely small "beach", only accessible by boat, between Shark Point and the Teluk Dalam large beach. They are usually seen cruising the bottom of the reef. For turtles, best place is the middle of the beach in front of Perhentian Island Resort, where the sandy bottom is covered with algae.
The islands are crisscrossed by small paths connecting one beach to another, but be prepared to sweat and swat off bugs if you tackle any of these