Island Hopping

Fancy a breather from Singapore’s bustling mainland? The city-state’s low-key offshore islands are brimming with wildlife and culture.

As we pedal through the serene, shaded woodlands of Pulau Serangoon, or Coney Island as it’s more commonly known, memories drift back to Dino Maniam, a Singapore local. “I used to come camping here as a teenager,” recalls Maniam, my guide and cycling buddy for the day. “I remember, we caught a boat over and had to make a deal with the boat man so that he’d come to pick us up the next day. Ah, how times have changed.”

Indeed. Following a 15-month restoration project, Serangoon, one of the city-state’s 60 or so offshore islands (or pulaus), has reopened to the public as a nature park linked to northern Singapore by two causeways, just 30 minutes from the CBD. While camping is no longer allowed, Serangoon remains a cherished escape for those seeking rustic respite from the hustle and bustle of the densely populated ‘mother island’. 

Small in size - the island spans just 100 hectares, half of which is park space - Serangoon has quite a history. In the early 20th century it was a private holiday retreat for the Haw Par brothers, the founders of Tiger Balm, before being sold to Ghulam Mahmood, an Indian businessman who wanted to build a resort here (a bit like the famous Coney Island in New York). Although the plans fell through and the island slipped into government ownership, the ‘Coney’ name stuck, and on this sunny Tuesday morning, my guide and I are sharing its newly revamped bike trails with about a dozen other cyclists.

Veering off a concrete path to an earthy lane shrouded in ferns, acacia shrubs and tall, wispy casuarina trees, we pass a headscarved Malay girl with a punk-looking purple-haired companion. They’re ambling by a wooden bird hide, one of three on an island that shelters more than 80 types of birdlife (including common mynas, baya weavers and parakeets, plus endangered species such as the spotted wood owl, grey heron and rusty-breasted cuckoo). Gulls squawk, cicadas drone and butterflies flutter over our handlebars as we cycle to the narrow promenade fringing the island’s north coast.

Looking out to sea, we glimpse huge freighter ships, and the Malaysian port of Pasir Gudang in the background. (I even receive a text message from my network provider saying, ‘Welcome to Malaysia’.) I’m half-tempted to go for a swim - it’s rather hot and humid - but the water currents are strong, says Maniam. Coney’s tiny sand beaches aren’t for lazing on either. Signs by the National Parks Board, which manages most of Singapore’s satellite islands, warn of sand-flies, and we see a woman wearing shorts dashing away from the waterfront slapping at her legs and crying “sand-flies”, while her giggling friends capture the moment on their smartphones. In general, however, calmness reigns on Coney.

With their bikes parked against a bench made of casuarina timber, an elderly, lycra-clad couple have stopped to meditate to the sounds of soothing Chinese flute tunes floating from a set of portable speakers. They look as though they are totally at peace. So, too, do a group of Malay women in colourful garb, picnicking beneath another sign that urges people not to “feed the monkeys, wild boars and other wild animals. They have enough food in the forest.” The animals are in hiding today, most notably the island’s sole free-roaming Brahman bull. Maniam says no one really knows how he got here, but a photograph of the bull is probably the most sought-after Coney souvenir (another sign says to keep your distance if you encounter it). Visitors are also keen to snap the crumbling villa built by the Haw Par brothers. Abandoned in World War II when Japanese forces occupied Singapore, the derelict property is located in a mangrove area subject to rising tides. To see it, join a guided nature walk with park officials.

It’s easy to while away the hours on Coney - just hire bikes at nearby Punggol Jetty on the mainland, and bring bottled water and snacks as the island has no refreshment kiosks or hot dog stands.

Have a half-day to spare? Or better still, if you’ve got an entire day free, you should make a beeline for Pulau Ubin. Larger than Coney, Pulau Ubin sits just a few kilometres off north-east Singapore, with water taxis regularly buzzing there from Changi Point Ferry Terminal, near the international airport. For the most part, Ubin is so rustic and undeveloped that if it wasn’t for the planes soaring above, you could be forgiven for thinking you had time-travelled, perhaps back to the early 19th century when Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles claimed the kingdom of Singapura, then covered in dense jungle, for the British Crown. While modernity has crept in - the island’s energy grid is partially driven by solar power and biofuels - everyone, from Singaporean day-trippers to the 40 or so permanent residents will tell you that Ubin is like Singapore 40 or 50 years ago.

Hikers and cyclists enjoy the undulating trails of this boomerang-shaped island and there are wheels available for rent from Ubin Town, the jetty-side settlement sprinkled with Chinese grocery stores, temples and casual seafood restaurants.

“For those who would like to see what Singapore looked like in the past, Pulau Ubin is the place,” says Tony Loo, whose company Biking Singapore runs twice-daily tours of Ubin. “Riding through the island, you can enjoy the tranquillity of nature impossible to find on Singapore Island itself.”

While peace and quiet pervades Ubin for most of the week (the weekends are more popular with people visiting from the mainland), every now and then something will pierce the serenity: maybe a wild boar shuffling about in the lush undergrowth or a long-tailed macaque swinging between branches groaning with durian, jackfruit and coconuts.

For (virtually) guaranteed wildlife encounters go to Chek Jawa Wetlands, a reserve on Ubin’s south-eastern edge built to preserve the area’s six natural ecosystems. Treading palm-shaded boardwalks above mangroves and lagoons, we spot scurrying crabs; mudskippers and shrimps, then go to look out for birdlife from atop the 21-metre forest canopy viewing tower. Straw-headed bulbuls, oriental pied hornbills and collared kingfishers have all been sighted here, but you’re just as likely to see an airbus rising from Changi Airport. (Incidentally, Chek Jawa’s eye-catching visitor centre is set in a 1930s mock-Tudor cottage that was built for colonial Singapore’s chief surveyor.)

Later, we pedal by other blasts from the past including traditional Malay-style kampong (village) buildings, the Wei Tuo Fa Gong Temple, which overlooks a small pond filled with carp and turtles, and several abandoned quarries that are left over from the area’s thriving granite mining industry of the 1800s (indeed, ubin means granite in Malay). These days, most Ubinites earn a living from subsistence farming, fishing and tourism.

Back in sleepy Ubin Town, with sunset looming, I refuel at one of the little seaside eateries. Revelling in the placid ambience, with steamed sea bass, salted egg prawns and a chilled Tiger beer for company, I glance at my phone. I reckon I’ll have time to enjoy this feast before boarding the last boat back to Singapore

 

Stay

Sentosa excluded, accommodation is sparse on Singapore’s islands (though there’s camping on St John’s). Your best bet is to do day trips from the mainland. Bed down at Parkroyal on Pickering, a 367-room oasis situated between Chinatown and the Colonial District.

The hotel has lots of eco-friendly features (such as the use of rain harvesting to save water). The fifth-floor pool area has cosy cabanas shaped liked giant birdcages and awesome views of Singapore’s skyline.

 

See & Do

Five islands to visit off southern Singapore.

Sentosa

Reached via monorail or cable car, Sentosa is one of Singapore’s most developed outlying islands. It boasts five-star hotels, luxury apartments and family-friendly entertainment including water parks, Universal Studios and one of the world’s biggest aquariums.

Hantu

Bamboo sharks, turtles and seahorses swim in the reefs around Pulau Hantu, a dive hotspot that translates to ‘Ghost Island’ in Malay. Legend has it that the spirits of ancient Malay warriors wander the isle. You can book dive tours with GS Diving.

St John’s

Once a quarantine site for cholera and leprosy sufferers, then a prison for political detainees and a rehabilitation complex for opium addicts, St John’s is today popular with outdoorsy types who come for picnics and woodland strolls.

Lazarus

Singapore isn’t renowned for its beaches, but little Lazarus, which is linked to St John’s by a causeway, has photogenic white-sand bays, lapped by calm emerald waters.

Kusu

Kusu means ‘tortoise’ in Chinese and you’ll spot a few of these shelled reptiles on the island. It’s also a spiritual destination, with the Da Bo Gong Temple drawing about 100,000 devotees who come on an annual pilgrimage to pray for good fortune.

Quick Facts 
Population 3 million
Area 712 km2
Time Zone GMT + 8
Languages Malay, Mandarin, Tamil and English (official languages)
Currency Singapore dollar (SGD)
Share this article 
facebook Twitter Pinterest Google
Related Articles 
Insider's Guide: Honolulu, New York, Paris, Singapore
Explore these cities like a local with expert tips from people in the know.
Welcome to Singapore 2.0
The island nation is shaking off its reputation as a stopover, and making a name as a food and arts destination in its own right.
Singapore Style
A paragon of efficiency it may be, but Singapore has a seductive soulfulness underneath that squeaky clean surface. We dish the dirt.