The Perhentian Islands: It's Just A Drop In The Ocean

The Perhentian Islands ... never heard of them? That's because they haven't succumbed to mass tourism, says Jack Barker. Bliss!

At Colours Bar, our waiter, Mr Wu, was most disturbed. "Every room on the island is taken," he tutted. "It's never happened before. What about the people without a reservation?"

Presumably, they'd have to take a speedboat back to mainland Malaysia. But as 20-month-old Wilf paddled in the shallows and Lucy, six, chatted manically to the barman from her perch in a threadbare hammock, I was feeling too smugly settled to share Mr Wu's concern.

The sudden rush to the Perhentians might have been caused by trouble in Thailand, struggling with an election a few miles to the north. More probably, it could be explained simply by the fact that the Perhentian Islands are such a nice place to be: the pellucid waters of the South China Sea fringing two jungled islands, ringed by beaches with small, friendly lodges hidden in the trees. No roads, no mass-market tourism - bliss.

The biggest wrench was leaving the security bubble of our self-drive car, its boot filled with the presumed necessities of travel with toddlers, which we left at the port. The ferry waived their charge for Lucy, so we bounced, cheaply and happily, across smooth waters to the two Perhentian Islands.

I had no idea where we were going to stay but my plan was to head for Long Beach, which seemed, on the map, to have the greatest concentration of lodges, and stroll along the shore to see which was best. From the speeding ferry my wife had scoped out some alternatives, so when we arrived at Long Beach in a taxi-shuttle canoe and spotted plastic chairs, she refused to disembark.

Some quick negotiation with the skipper followed and we zipped across the straights to Coral View Island Resort, a gentle growth of blue-painted roofs set on a small peninsula, sheltering a beautiful cove on one side and a broad expanse of sand on the other.

We had happened upon what must be one of the very best lodges on the Perhentians, perfectly combining character and charm. It was full, but not completely: we might have to move rooms, but for that night at least we could stay. They had a child-cot, a hand-crafted Wilf-cage, and they took Visa.

Checking into a beachfront villa, we quickly escaped from the heat into the sea. Tropical fish packed the waters and Lucy, though she could barely swim, took to snorkelling like a duck to water. Within minutes she doggy-paddled to the surface, hugely excited. "I've found Nemo!" she cried.

Wilf loved the shallows, painstakingly returning small branches of coral from the beach to the sea. While we discovered the spicy delights of Malaysian cuisine, the children never tired of fish and chips, always fresh from the sea. And if I was disconcerted by a drinks menu listing nothing stronger than mocktails, Colours Bar, serving alcohol, was within even Wilf's strolling distance.

Every morning I'd go to reception and talk to the manageress, charming and efficient under a white Islamic scarf, to find out which room had fallen vacant. Best was the executive suite, looking out over two beautiful beaches.

Nothing lasts for ever, and eventually we had to return to the mainland. Wilf was probably ready to go, as he scratched at mosquito bites, but Lucy was inconsolable. "Can we go back?" she keeps asking, only to be reminded Malaysia is very far away. But she can find it on a map and keeps looking it up. "Let's compromise," she says. "We'll go back when I'm nine."

Unusually for the Perhentians, Coral View Island Resort takes reservations, with family rooms starting at about £30 a night (00 60 9 6974276). Jack Barker travelled with Kuoni Travel (01306 740 500; kuoni.co.uk), which offers a week from £740 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights. He continued on to the Perhentians by car hire. The nearest airport is Kota Baru, from which a £10 taxi reaches the port of Kuala Besut, where three ferries a day head to the islands, from £6 return. From November to January most lodges shut and it pours with rain. For further information about visiting Malaysia see www.malaysiatrulyasia.co.uk

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