May 23 2011
Continuing my exploration of Singapore’s 62 lesser-known islands, I caught a ferry at the Marina South Pier for a 15-minute ride to St John’s Island. After sailing through the busy port and getting my closest look yet at the huge container ships that dock outside of Singapore, underdeveloped St John’s Island felt a world away from the city.
Since 1975 St John’s Island has been promoted as a rustic holiday destination, but its history hasn’t always been about sun-tanning and beachside picnics. In the early 1900s the island was the world’s largest quarantine centre and housed thousands of immigrants suffering from cholera, leprosy, and other nasty diseases. The island continued to be used as a place to isolate Singapore’s unwanted and was later used as a prison for political detainees and drug addicts.
Obviously some people met an untimely demise here and many locals consider the island to be haunted — the Asia Paranormal Investigators even organise overnight camping trips to look for ghosts. The plus side of the island’s spooky reputation is it’s one of the few places in Singapore where you can truly get some peace and quiet. On a weekend afternoon I spotted a few people fishing off the pier and taking a dip in the swimming lagoon, but the outer parts of the island were people-free.
While it is possible to spend the night on St John’s Island, I didn’t hear a peep from the camp sites. Simple bungalows with a kitchen start from S$53.50 on a weekday and sleep up to 10 people. Bring your own food as there are no restaurants or shops on the island. Advance booking is required and must be done in person at Sentosa Station in VivoCity Mall.
Other than the peace and quiet, another of St John’s allures is its flora and fauna. Before the British came and changed the name to something they could pronounce, the island was known as Pulau Sakijang Bendera, which roughly translates to “island of flags and barking deer”. The deer are long gone, but if you walk around the island’s shores you’ll discover the island is home to abundant marine life. There are coral reefs offshore and patches of mangrove forests where you can spot hermit crabs, sea urchins, tropical fish, and the rare dolphin.
There are two marine research centres on the west side of the island: the commercial Marine Aquaculture Centre and the National University of Singapore’s Tropical Marine Science Institute. If you can organise a group of 15 people you can get a tour, or check their website for details about guided nature walks.
How to get to St John’s Island: Singapore Island Cruise operates regular ferries from the Marina South Pier to St John’s Island then continues on to Kusu Island.There are two departures on weekdays and more frequent service on weekends and public holidays. Round-trip fare is S$15 for adults and S$12 for children. Visit their website for the current schedule.
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