With almost 900 islands – 878 to be exact – Malaysia has plenty of offshore attractions to compete with the best destinations in its peninsular mainland. West coast isles like Penang and Langkawi offer a compelling blend of cuisine, culture and luxury, while east coast ones are more rugged and remote, with diving, hiking and edge-of-the-map relaxation all vital reasons to visit.
Best for a break from the big city: Pulau Redang
Escape the urban buzz of Singapore or Kuala Lumpur with a short break on Pulau Redang. Regular ferries run to the rugged, forested island from Kuala Terengganu or nearby Merang on Malaysia’s east coast (‘KT’ also has regular flights to ‘KL’). Sunday to Thursday accommodation rates are good value for a combination of lazy days on Redang’s arcing beaches and regular opportunities for snorkelling and diving. Stay at the Redang Kalong Resort or Wisana Village to fast-track to a relaxed island state of mind.
Best for foodies: Penang
Straits Chinese, Indian and Malay flavours and culinary influences all combine on the island of Penang. Negotiate the Unesco World Heritage–listed historical centre of George Town to feast on local dishes such as asam laksa (infused with a tart blast of tamarind) or a smokey plate of silky char kway teow (noodles studded with Chinese sausage and tiny clams). Take a morning tour of George Town’s fragrant produce markets before learning local recipes in a cooking class at Nazlina’s Spice Station.
Best for jungle hiking: Pulau Tioman
Most travellers visit Tioman for its marine attractions – the island offers some of Malaysia’s most accessible diving and snorkelling – but land-based discovery of Tioman’s tangled jungle is also rewarding. Wildlife is relatively plentiful, and an island full of trails provides challenge and diversity. The meandering 7km Tekek to Juara Jungle Walk negotiates Tioman’s forested interior, while the Asah Waterfall Trek best commences with a boat ride to Mukut on the island’s southern coast. During evenings, Pulau Tioman’s laid-back backpacker vibe provides plenty of opportunity to relax and recharge after a busy day trailblazing in the island’s more rugged interior.
Best for a Robinson Crusoe–style escape: Pulau Kapas
Make the 15-minute speedboat hop from Marang south of Kuala Terengganu to the tiny island of Pulau Kapas. Settle into a rustic but comfortable oceanfront chalet at Qimi Private Bay, or chill with other hammock-loving travellers at the exceedingly laid-back Captain’s Longhouse or Kapas Beach Chalet. Look forward to a few days of beachcombing, reef snorkelling and diving on WWII wrecks, and if you can summon the holiday will, sea kayak across to even smaller Pulau Gemia (Gem Island). For the most relaxed Kapas sojourn, try and visit from Monday to Thursday.
Best for families: Pulau Langkawi
Natural scenery and wildlife are dual attractions for travelling families on Langkawi, and good beaches mean it’s also perfect for spontaneous exploration in a rental car on the island’s largely quiet roads. Spend an active day cycling, jungle walking or exploring mangroves with Dev’s Adventure Tours, or spying on flying lemurs ‘air trekking’ on a zipline through the upper reaches of the rainforest with Langkawi Canopy Adventures. For more high-level treetops exploration, catch the cable car to the summit of Gunung Machinchang (708m) and negotiate the Skyridge suspension walkway 100m above the old-growth jungle canopy.
Best for world-class diving: Pulau Sipadan
Welcome to one of the planet’s finest diving destinations, a compact ellipse-shaped islet crowning a submerged pinnacle and stunning near-vertical walls. Exploration of the gardens and forests of coral reveal whale sharks and sea turtles, and manta and eagle rays, scalloped hammerhead sharks and battalions of barracuda are also common. While Sipadan is a special scuba destination, other Malaysian islands are also top dive locations. Pulau Tioman combines historical intrigue with marine-life diversity on the wrecks of the HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales, while the sheltered and relatively shallow waters of Pulau Perhentian are a perfect place to start a journey into the underwater world.
Best for volunteering: Pulau Perhentian
Combine excellent snorkelling and affordable diving tuition with making a difference to the Perhentian Islands’ natural environment. Ecoteer supports two excellent projects around the compact duo of islands on Malaysia’s east coast. Blue Temple Conservation blends learning to dive with the sustainable management of the islands’ marine resources, while the Perhentian Turtle Project is focused on quantifying, identifying and supporting the local sea turtle population. Accommodation is in shared community houses in the islands’ only village of Kampung Perhentian.
Best for luxury: Pulau Langkawi
Escape into a luxury forest-clad villa at the Datai Langkawi, one of Southeast Asia’s premium resorts. Seen from the ocean, the entire property is largely concealed within some of the region’s oldest rainforest, and regular wildlife walks with the Datai’s resident naturalist reveal shy dusky leaf langurs and sturdy hornbills with massive shimmering beaks. The Datai’s spa is secreted around a meandering river, and private sailing trips are on offer on the elegant Naga Pelangi , the only traditional junk-rigged schooner cruising the Malay Peninsula. For an alternative Langkawi luxe experience, stay at one of Bon Ton Resort’s lovingly restored heritage villas.