Yesterday we took advantage of an empty day with no rain to explore a couple of islands south of the “mainland”. I had never been to any of these, and Trish had not been in many, many years, so off we went, in search of a nice, quiet area where the kids could roam around and explore at their leisure, but could not escape. Small, open islands fit the bill nicely.
We didn’t have any specific preference for what islands to see, as there are around 8-10 islands that are built up for the casual visitor. After a bit of searching and asking around at Harbourfront Cruise Centre, we were directed to Singapore Island Cruise, the only company in Singapore that operates regular ferry service to St. John’s/Lazarus island, and Kusu island. They also charter boats to other islands.
They really seem to have done their research and planned the best, most enjoyable ferry schedule for day-tripping patrons. They kinda nailed it. The three islands they visit are beautiful, serene, and interesting.
You’ll need to block out a full day to visit. The boat leaves at 10 a.m. and doesn’t get back until 4:30 p.m. Plan ahead, food-wise. There are no places on either island to buy food or get drinking water. If you bring nothing, you starve (until 4:30). And you may want to learn from our slight error and stock up on eats before arriving at the dock. There are a couple of small shops there that sell food and food-like substances, but the selection is pretty limited to mostly bread and junk food. We managed to piece together a picnic of a couple of ham, egg, and cheese sandwiches, two bruised bananas, and some pretzel stick things the kids enjoy. I also bought a loaf of white bread and a jar of peanut butter mixed with chocolate spread to make more sandwiches. If bread is your addiction, then you could eat like a king from the shops there. If not, bring something from elsewhere.
The boat takes a leisurely 45 minutes from the port to St. John’s island first, giving you a nice view of Singapore’s skyline from the south. Shiloh made a game of pointing out the ferris wheel countless times, and giving us updates on how far away it was.
We went on a weekday, and the boat had maybe 40 or 50 people on it, which seems like a lot, but once we departed, everyone spread out over St. John’s and Lazarus islands (Lazarus is connected to St. John’s by a bridge), and peace and quiet is quite easy to come by. In keeping with Singapore’s notorious cleanliness, there were plenty of workers roaming around, trimming plants, picking up trash, and even clearing the beaches of seaweed. They’re pretty spotless, well-groomed islands. One exception, though, is the fact that many of the picnic tables are old and have rotted and fallen apart.
We strolled around the area, spotting lizards scurrying about. Also, there are many cats. You will likely see them as soon as you depart, and will spot them dotted around the island, motionless, until you whip out some food. They didn’t really harass us though. When we set up for a picnic, one grungy feline plodded our way to test the waters and see if we would toss her something. Once Judah became aware of her presence, he strolled over to play with her, and she scampered off in reasonable fear of the joyful screeching toddler.
After we ate in the shade, I wanted to swim with the kids, and we crossed over the bridge to Lazarus island, to a giant cove that I thought looked promising to swim in. It was a long, unsheltered walk under the merciless midday sun, and by the time we reached the cove, we just wanted to rest in the shade of one of the shelters built overlooking the beach. After some rest and more pb&c sandwiches, we decided we would rather swim at the manicured beach right next to the boat jetty on St. John’s, which at least had a few trees casting shadows over the sand at that hour. The giant cove, where several other families quite happily played and swam, had no shade whatsoever down by the water. So back we went.
We also didn’t plan ahead to check to see if there are showers on the islands to rinse off in after swimming. Thankfully, there were, in the bathrooms up on the hill to the right of the boat jetty when departing. By the time we were done swimming and showering, the timing was just right for us to climb back on the boat to leave. Then we headed to Kusu.
When scoping out the southern islands, I thought we would have to pick just one to visit, but the ferry does a loop from the dock to St. John’s, to Kusu, and back to the dock. Once I knew this, I then assumed we would just be picking people up from Kusu before heading back, but we were given nearly an hour to disembark and explore the island.
I actually liked Kusu the best. It’s much smaller, and the beaches are not shaded, but there are lots more interesting things to see there. The ferry schedule gives you the chance to lounge and picnic and swim on St. John’s for four hours, and then takes you to Kusu for sightseeing for 50 minutes. It’s just the right amount of time to experience both places the way they should be experienced.
As soon as everyone got off the boat, they all headed straight for the temple, so I headed off in another direction to let them all clear out of the temple before I went through. As soon as we got off the boat, both the kids fell asleep in the stroller, and Trish wanted to just relax anyway, so she laid out on a bench near a statue of two big turtles while the kids napped in the shade. I explored.
Adjacent to the temple is a turtle sanctuary, which amounts to little more than a concrete pit with a small covered pool and a few shelters in it, and dozens and dozens of turtles. There were numerous different species lying or floating around, including a few pretty big ones. Legend has it that once long ago, a giant turtle turned itself into Kusu (turtle in Chinese) island to save a couple of shipwrecked sailors. Also, Chinese lore holds turtles in high regard, as bringers of good fortune. So the terrapin pit on Kusu holds double significance. Cute little buggers too.
The entire island is flat, save for one steep, rocky hill to the south. On top sits the Keramat, a cluster of shrines to Muslim saints. The whole place is doused in a yellow motif, and some of the rocks at the top are painted in thick yellow paint, with all kinds of writings scrawled on them, asking for various things, or praising God or Jesus. I can also confirm the existence of at least one monkey on Kusu, which I spotted outside the Keramat. The island is far too small and landscaped for a wild population of them, so I’m guessing he was probably a pet. There could be a few more though. I didn’t want to find out. I will say this as diplomatically as possible: I do not like monkeys.
Finally I strolled through the Chinese temple. It’s a nice, well-kept temple, with a covered walkway overlooking a sheltered lagoon below. Very picturesque. It was nothing too spectacular as far as Chinese temples go, but it was cool.
By the time I wrapped that up, I found Trish and we strolled around a little more before the very punctual boat left right on time back to the ferry terminal.
How to visit
All three islands are very kid-friendly and have ample paved or brick walkways for strollers. The boat staff is all too happy to help the kids get on and off the boat safely. We encountered several families with kids of all different ages spending some good old fashioned family time together.
As stated before, get your food before arriving, unless you really love bread and Doritos. Drinks are easy to get at the shops there, though, including big bottles of water. Bring much more water than you think you will need. And it’s probably best to bring some kind of big mat to either put on the ground for a picnic, or to put over the picnic tables, to protect from the ants and dirt from the tables. It should be obvious to bring sunscreen, but it is also wise to bring bug spray. Mainland Singapore has done such a good job at eliminating mosquitoes, you may find yourself forgetting they even exist. Well, they exist on these three islands. Bring something to keep those blood-sucking hellions off of you.
The ferry terminal is located at Marina South Pier, immediately next to the exit of the Marina South Pier MRT station, and as such is extremely easy to get to. Our taxi driver knew right where it was too. It’s to the immediate south of Marina Bay Sands, next to the Marina Bay Cruise Centre.
It’s $18 for adults and $12 for kids 1 to 12. The boat leaves promptly at 10 a.m. and reaches St. John’s at 10:45. You then have four hours to explore before the boat leaves St. John’s at 2:45 and heads to Kusu, arriving there at 3:10. On Kusu, you have 50 minutes to explore before the boat leaves at 4 p.m., and arriving back in port at 4:30. They’re very good at keeping time. I never saw them do a head count or check tickets other than when first departing, so pay attention to the time, lest your leisurely day turn into a one night Lord of the Flies experience. Toilets are available on all three islands, and St’ John’s has a shower. Kusu I would imagine has one as well, but I didn’t check.
It’s a full day adventure, but if you’ve got the time to spare, it’s well worth it to see such a calm, beautiful, and unique side of Singapore. It’s a world away from the rest of the country.