A little-known island gem

Larissa Ham shakes off the stress of the city and falls in love with a little-known gem.

Life is a funny thing. One day you're in the city, wedging yourself on to the same old train, with barely a patch of blue sky to be seen, let alone a horizon. And the next day, a couple of inflight movies later, you can find your white body sprawled on an island in the middle of the South China Sea.

The destination for this sun-drenched adventure is Tioman Island, named one of the world's top 10 islands by Time magazine in the 1970s.

It was also the setting for the mythical island of Bali Hai in the 1950s Hollywood flick South Pacific.

While the reasons for the prestigious Time ranking now seem to have slipped into the murky mire of pre-internet times, one can only assume silky beaches, palm trees and duty-free alcohol were involved.

Getting to the island, known locally as Pulau Tioman, is a 35-minute flight from Singapore's Selatar Airport.

The view out the plane's smudged window does not disappoint: blue sky, mountainous jungle and water inviting enough to consider a dive straight out the emergency exit.

Even the island's "airport", a single air strip, has a tropical feel to it.

Our home for the next three nights is reached by water taxi, a good chance to get a little wind in the hair after the flight.

The lovely Bamboo Hill Chalets, at the beach of Air Batang, also known as ABC, perch on the side of a hill top overlooking the blue waters.

The six chalets sit next to a fresh spring, better than buying bottles every day to avoid the potentially dodgy tap water. The company of monkeys, who can be seen regularly hopping about the rocky stairs on the way to the huts, also comes free.

While life looks pretty sweet for Roslinda (Lin) Rosli, the smiling manager of Bamboo Hill, she says the island is not quite like it used to be.

A Singaporean, she first visited Tioman 15 years ago on holiday, but relocated for good after meeting her future husband, a local.

She has since seen more development than is necessarily welcome. "I think now is different, before is much better. Before it is more like you go to the island and there's nobody there, more nature," Lin says.

Parts of the island could do with a spruce-up, mostly near the airport in Tekek and a few places where rubbish seems to have gathered behind rocks.

But when I fall asleep after a delicious seafood meal that night with the doors of our rustic wooden chalet open to the sea breeze, I can't help but wonder, has she ever been to Surfers Paradise?

Perhaps it's the fact that it's June, and it's the off-season, but it's amazing how few people are taking advantage of this gorgeous island.

And after visiting other Asian destinations such as Vietnam and Bali, I have to wonder, where on earth are all the touts?

Relaxing on the beach is thankfully just that - relaxing. After the third day though, I must admit a massage on the beach, or perhaps a hand-delivered beer, might not go astray.

Renting bikes for the day to explore further afield, we spend much of the time lugging our bikes up and down stairs that interrupt the beachside path.

Lin says a road linking the whole of the island had been proposed, "but we don't want it".

In the meantime, water taxis can take you anywhere on the island, with a couple of stops thrown in if desired.

We hopped on a little boat to Coral Island on a 32 degree day, to swim in the warm waters and get some pristine white sand between our toes. There was also a stop off at the colourful Salang village and a look through the snorkel mask at the teeming fish in Monkey Bay.

Scuba divers will also be in their element on Tioman Island, with a number of dive schools and sea wrecks, coral reef and plenty of marine life to explore.

The main diving season runs from April to October, with manta ray and whale sharks spotted between March and May.

I could have spent a few weeks on Tioman, checking out the different beaches, soaking up the sun and walking through the jungle. Not to mention spending the balmy nights drinking overpowered concoctions at the falling down, Bob Marley-loving seaside bar. However we only have 10 days, and the jungles of Malaysia and the rest of the east coast beckon.

But a place like Tioman Island has a funny way of staying in your heart, a reminder that life has plenty in store.

STAYING THERE

- Bamboo Hill Chalets are located on Air Batang, in the island's north-west. Book ahead. www.geocities.com/bamboosu/. Nightly prices range from $23 to $40 a chalet.

- For a fancier option try Japamala Resort in the island's south-west. A tree top chalet begins at $130 a night. See www.japamalaresorts.com/home.html.

- More information, see www.tioman.com.my.

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