Island Hopping (Singapore Edition)

The Old Jetty at St John’s Island

It’s almost the end of 2020 and international leisure travel is still not allowed for most countries. So we are all pretty much stuck in Singapore. With 5.6 million people crowded into an island city state of roughly 50 km wide by 30 km tall, there’s only so many places you can go to rediscover your local neighbourhoods. So how about going off the main island?

Most people think of Singapore as just one island, but actually there are 64 other islands that make up the territory of Singapore. The nearest and most accessible is Sentosa of course, where most tourists end up. The other off shore islands require you to take a boat, or they are are off limits to the general public due to security reasons. For this blog post, it’s all about several of the southern islands of St John’s, Lazarus and Kusu which are easily accessible by scheduled ferries.

The ferries now leave from Marina South Pier which is also easy to get to by taking the MRT to the station of the same name. Once out of the station, make your way to the counters which sell the ferry tickets. There are basically only 2 companies who operate the ferries, Marina South Ferries and Singapore Island Cruises. So just buy your tickets from either counters. Ticket prices are S$15 for an adult round trip ticket, and S$12 for children, but sometimes discounts are given. The ferry schedules are quite fixed for most of the year, except for a certain period where devotees make their way to Kusu Island and a special ferry service is set up just them.

Despite being a weekday, there was a large crowd at the pier waiting to board the ferries. Covid or not, everyone was dying to go somewhere.
The southern islands of St John’s, Lazarus and Kusu are actually quite near to mainland Singapore, lying at just less than 6km away. It’s a short 15-20 minutes ferry ride to reach the jetty at St John’s Island.
You can find sun, sand and sea here. And in my own opinion, the beaches on St John’s are cleaner and much better than the ones on mainland Singapore. Not to mention that there are smaller crowds here.
St John’s Island is really small (40 hectares) and the only permanently occupied building is the National Marine Laboratory. There are a couple of lodges and chalets where visitors can stay overnight, but they seem to be closed now due to Covid.
The island was previously used as quarantine center for immigrants in the 19th century till 1930, then later converted into a penal settlement and drug rehabilitation center (1950). You can still see the high barbed wire fences and the guard towers which have been left behind as a reminder of the island’s past.
Along the shore and next to the main jetty is this old jetty which has fallen into disrepair. I think this is an interesting shot with a drone, as you can see the seaweeds which are growing along the shore.
And here is the old jetty as seen from the shore. The wooden planks really look like they would break if you walked on it, and a section in the middle is missing some planks.
A drone shot of the jetty at St John’s Island and with the city skyline of Singapore behind, reminds us that we haven’t left the country.
The island is well maintained with manicured lawns and proper footpaths. Interesting looking trees with their buttress roots grow on the island.
There is a family of monkeys living on the island and they do become quite aggressive, especially when they saw us opening our bags to eat lunch. We had to beat a hasty retreat when the whole troop started climbing all over the pavilion where we had planned to have lunch.
There are plenty of park benches and tables scattered all over the island where you can sit down and have a picnic. Otherwise, it’s also not a bad idea to bring your picnic mat and lay it out for a picnic.
St John’s and Lazarus islands used to be separated by a narrow channel with a strong current passing through. But now there is a causeway connecting these 2 islands and making it easier to explore Lazarus Island.
There are several channels going through the causeway to allow sea currents to pass through. There many anglers fishing here waiting to make a big catch.
While Lazarus Island is larger than St John’s, it’s not as well developed with public conveniences like public toilets and shelters. But you will find the best white sand beach and lagoon in Singapore here.
You would imagine that this beach could have been in Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia. But it’s right here in Singapore and without the maddening crowds of East Coast Beach or Sentosa.
Another drone view of the lagoon at Lazarus Island. And you can see Kusu Island in the top left.

So much for St John’s and Lazarus Islands. Now onward to Kusu Island. Some of the ferries make a stop at Kusu Island after stopping at St John’s Island before they return to Marina South Pier.

Waiting for the correct ferry which stops at Kusu Island. There is another ferry which goes directly back to Marina South Pier for people who want to skip Kusu Island. It’s a short 10 minutes ferry ride from St John’s to Kusu Island.

Legend has it that a magical tortoise turned itself into an island to save 2 shipwrecked sailors, one who was a Chinese and the other a Malay. Which is why you have the Malay shrines and a Chinese temple on the island.

So Kusu literally translates to Turtle or Tortoise Island from Chinese, and you will find a turtle sanctuary here.
I presume plenty of pet turtles and tortoises got a new life here.
There is a Chinese temple here with a walkway over an artificial lagoon. In the pavilion there is also a wishing well.
The temple is dedicated to the Goddess Guan Yin and Tua Pek Gong. For around 2 weeks in November during the 9th lunar month, the island gets really busy with devotees coming to pray during the annual Kusu Pilgrimage.
Besides the Chinese temple, there are 3 Malay shrines at the top of a small hill. It can be reached by climbing 152 steps. Many couples also worship at these shrines to be blessed with children.
The garishly yellow painted rocks with scribblings of devotees all over was not really what I was expecting when I reached the top.
Kusu Island is really tiny. You could walk around it in less than half an hour. Despite it’s small size, there are still some nice sights like this lone tree along the shore.
Kusu Island seems to lie beside a really busy sea lane. I could see large ships passing dangerously close to the island like this huge tanker that dwarfs the people standing on the breakwater.
Kusu Island is also closer to mainland Singapore and we got a better view of the city along with a thunderstorm coming in from the north.
A drone view of the temple on Kusu Island and the artificial lagoon. The main jetty can be seen on the top right.
Because of the temple and hilltop shrine which attracts devotees, the facilities on Kusu Island are quite well developed. Though you won’t find any shops, restaurants or vending machines here. And visitors are also not allowed to stay overnight on the island.

The islands of St John’s, Lazarus and Kusu make for good day trip. The ferry schedule is such that you leave Marina South Pier at 10.00am and the last ferry from St John’s and Kusu leaves between 5.00-6.00pm. Do take note that there are no shops or restaurants of any kind on these islands. Even if you have lots of money, you won’t be able to buy anything. You will have to bring your own food and drinks along for the trip, and please throw all your trash in the proper trash bins on the islands.

Here’s a map of St John’s, Lazarus and Kusu Islands. Not that you need it since the islands are so small you won’t get lost on them.

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