Two mamas, six kids, and one villa add up to the perfect no-fuss long weekend break from Singapore on Tioman Island. Ghillie James explains how to unplug.
Off the south east coast of Malaysia are a group of 64 islands, the biggest of which is Tioman. My kids and I joined forces with another mum and her gang and took a trip there, visiting for a quick half term getaway of sun, sand and snorkelling… without the dreaded iPads!
If you have three or four nights free over the school holidays, then a trip to Tioman is the perfect place to spend your time. We were all exhausted after a full on few weeks and with Dad at work we wanted to find a place that didn’t require flights, hefty spending, or too much travel. We just wanted to kick back and relax, old school style, but with enough for the kids to do that we didn’t hear ‘I’m bored!’ or ‘Can I play on my iPad?’. Tioman hit the spot.
As part of a marine park, the island, which is just 32km long, offers crystal clear waters, with an incredible array of beautiful coral and abundant sea life, which are perfect for safe snorkelling and diving. The island itself is a tranquil sleepy place, with the fabulous contrast of pretty beaches but also mountains, waterfalls and lush rainforest all within a short walk from the shore. It’s unchanged, undeveloped in comparison to some of the other islands around — and we found it delightfully old fashioned.
Where to stay
There’s a variety of accommodation on offer, from the luxy Japamala (adults only) to serious backpacker style huts on the beach. A friend recommended that Minang Cove would be a good base to stay – a happy medium which offers enough comfort but without a crazy price tag – after all we had to get this one past the dads!
Minang Cove is a small, four-star resort and spa, which has been owned by a British Malay couple for the last 25 years. The delightful owner, Tony, told stories of camping near the shore as they gradually developed the resort over 10 years, bringing up their kids there whilst the resort took shape. Now Minang offers a variety of sea facing villas for groups of two to eight. The staff were very friendly and helpful and it was small enough that I felt I could let my kids wander safely without any worries.
Our 3-bedroom villa accommodated two mums with their six kids perfectly, with aircons and hot water as well as a pretty balcony for a gin and tonic post showers, whilst watching the sun set over the sea. Top of our list of ‘likes’ was the lack of WI-FI, which allowed the adults and children to RELAX! The Monopoly game we brought with us came out as well as plenty of card games, and we allotted one pre-downloaded movie per night for the children to enjoy each evening.
What to bring
One top tip would be to pack snacks! There was a handy fridge in our little kitchen, which held our supplies of snack bars, M&S hot cross buns and wine! Obviously as you are coming by ferry you can bring a cool bag full of supplies. With all the sun and sand, we all found it useful to dive into, and also helped to keep the kids from getting hungry en route on the early ferry journeys.
What we ate
Breakfast at the resort was great, with a selection of egg dishes, toast, cereals and decent teas and coffee – all that we needed. Lunch was as expected, too – fried rice being the best option we found. Another option for lunch was Tunamaya two resorts down the beach from Minang (a lovely 20-minute stroll). Though more expensive, our scuba instructor told us about their kids’ menu, which was impressive. All the food there seemed to be made from good quality ingredients – decent burgers and homemade pasta sauce and it was generous enough to suit everyone. So we all had delicious cheeseburgers there one day and a swim in the pool. It’s also the one place close by which offers a quick WI-FI fix, too – just to check nobody was panicking about whether we’d arrived safely (no one was!).
Afternoon tea is also served at the Minang Cove; it was a lovely surprise and got the kids off the beach for a five-minute hydrate and piece of homemade cake. A lovely touch.
Dinner is buffet style and as well as the breakfast, and the tea it is included in the room rate. Though I’m all in favour of going local, the Malay food on offer for dinner was, for want of a better word, challenging – which was a real shame. I have been informed however that, since our visit, Minang has been making some changes to their menu to improve the selection. After busy days on the beach, nothing too fancy is required – spag bol for the kids, some of the amazing freshly caught fish simply prepared, a barbecue or a decent beef rendang or chicken coconut curry would have been just what the doctor ordered – so fingers crossed for our next visit because that really would be my only criticism of the whole brilliant holiday!
The Beach and Water Sports
What absolutely makes Minang Cove is its gorgeous little beach, which is literally on the reef, but with a natural pool surrounded by rocks for shallow play. Even teeny tinies can don their goggles to paddle out and find Nemo!
There are comfy loungers you can take into the beach, with swimming towels and water provided. The jetty was also a winner for the slightly older kids as they spent hours jumping in from the end, under the watchful eye of one of the staff members who showed off some daring dives himself! After dinner the jetty also serves as a feeding station for some of the larger sea life in the neighbourhood – in particular some lengthy looking black-tipped sharks. Those who dare can actually watch from a few metres away in the water – the elder kids loved to dare each other in and it made for some hilarious stories afterwards – one shark apparently had 8-year-old Amelia’s toe in its mouth! I preferred the above water view (well someone had to make sure the little ones didn’t fall in!).
Snorkelling and diving trips are highly recommended. We spent a fabulous afternoon at Renggis (a 20-minute boat ride away) with two of us Scuba diving and the rest snorkelling. It’s an extraordinarily packed place beneath the waves – we saw turtles, fish worthy of a Disney film, cuttlefish, rays and a couple of those black roped sharks again (it’s a scary fact that my 11-year-old son is now officially braver than me!). The resident dive instructor at Minang was fabulous with the kids and they can happily offer anything from a bubble maker shallow dive right the way through to a Padi course — at really good prices. It would get my vote as a perfect spot for learning to dive near Singapore.
There are also some fun walks you can do all over the island, from a scenic trip to a waterfall, which we all swum in to a longer hike, which I’m sure promises some pretty spectacular views!
How to relax
There’s a simple but affordable spa at the resort. The two girls LOVED their heavenly kids ‘facial’, with cucumber masks and lots of delicious smells. For $15 it was a wonderful special treat to give them. We also tried out their massage and reflexology, which really was excellent, and good value for a spot of post-beach relaxation. The therapist has even got chilled Aloe Vera to rub onto your back post massage if you’ve caught the sun (as I had)!
How to get to Tioman
So how to get there. Monsoon season in that area restricts visiting a bit, so ideal times to go are between March and October. Our trip from Singapore to Tioman took 6 hours door to door: Leaving home at 7am (in hindsight perhaps cutting it a bit fine!), we crossed the border at Woodlands (please get the best jam app to avoid queuing. Tuas is also a good option).
We then whizzed up clear roads up to Mersing. There is the option for those who aren’t seafarers to get a faster cat, but you have to travel a further 40 minutes for this. The Mersing-Tioman boat isn’t grand in any way, but the time passed easily with a puzzle book and some bags of popcorn! Minang greeted us and transferred our luggage to a smaller boat we travelled a further 15 mins to the resort.
I will certainly be back for more!