I first heard about the Perhentians from a fellow traveler way back in 2000 and it's always been tucked away in the ever-growing mental list of "I need to go there sometime". When my boyfriend asked me where I wanted to go for my birthday, and when looking at the weather in various places in SE Asia in July, the Perhentians were an easy pick. The weather was IDEAL in July/August whereas other parts of SE Asia you risk rain or it being too hot.
Getting there was actually quite easy and my boyfriend is not a chicken-bus kind of a guy nor one to enjoy the journey of long travel days. We got a dirt cheap flight from Kuala Lumpur (like $11 each!), jumped right in a taxi, and easily got on the next boat going to the islands where we were dropped directly at our hotel.
We pre-booked our hotels from the states (everything was selling out fast). Because these birthday trips with my BF are vacations and not budget travels, we booked some rather nice (and shockingly expensive by SE Asian standards - over $100/night) hotels. Of course to appease the budget traveler in me I had to see if there were cheap options, which there were. The lowest of the lot were some rustic shacks on the North side of Perhentian Kecil called Butterfly ($15/night). We rode by them on the boat and the water looked gorgeous. Other options near where we stayed were around $40 US for a waterfront room.
Of the two islands (Kecil and Besar), we decided to stay on the less populated Besar since we were more interested in staying on the "prefect" beach than the "fun" tourist scene with restaurants and bars.
We got dropped off at the Barat Perhentian (which is where you will end up eating every meal because it far outshines anything else in the area and it's also where you can buy alcoholic drinks). Loved our one night there, the staff was awesome, and our room was a great vantage point to watch the wind, lightening, and rain from the evening storm chase the restaurant-goers inside.
The next morning we headed around the corner over the soon-to-be-all-too-familiar bridge to the Perhentian Island Resort (PIR) on the next beach and a very nice renovated waterfront room. The hotel itself is nothing to write home about. The staff is okay, the food is crap, and the common areas are in need of repair.
But the beach, jungle, sea life ... wowzers. This is what it's all about. Yes, it looks just like any postcard you might see of this beach. From the bridge we saw a small shark (harmless?) swimming in the water with a woman ignorant to its presence, we could see giant sea turtles surfacing from our bedroom, a monitor lizard visited us during lunch, monkeys played behind our room, and bats and flying squirrels entertained us in the evenings. We were at the height of the busy season but there were hardly any people on the beach.
The water is clear, calm, and warm and is full of amazing unique snorkeling as soon as you walk in the water. Everything from large rocks full of anemones and clown fish, to sea slugs, blue clams, rays, sharks, and giant trigger fish. Every single time I went for a swim (minus one), I was able to find a turtle to swim along with. And to top if all off, there was even (a small bit) of bioluminescence in the water. :) I'm a happy girl.
The far right side of the bay is where we found tons of anemones, clowns, a real asshole of a brown fish that liked to attack us, sea slugs, a titan trigger, blue clams, basically a TON of different types of sealife - some of which I had not seen before. Off to the left by the bridge are fewer invertebrates but a ton of parrot fish and other fish. We saw a few small black tip sharks and some guitar rays, too. There is a roped off area in the middle of the bay (that the boats can't enter) that has a clean sandy bottom where the turtles hang out.
We didn't venture out too much. The only village on both islands was across the way (accessible by $3 water taxi) and we went on a pretty hike to the other side of our island (where the beach was not nearly as nice as ours).
It's not the most budget-friendly island(s), but if you want one of those special "ahhh, wow am I really here?" moments, this is the place.
Buy cans of beer at the Barat and keep them in your fridge (the PIR is Muslim-owned and does not sell alcohol).
Bring what essentials you need as there are only a few small giftshops and things are expensive.
DO NOT get a massage from the guy on the bridge.
There are no ATMs.
The hotels have WiFi but it's so bad you may as well consider it for slow emergency contact only.