St John’s Island – Tour Singapore’s former penal settlement leading to Lazarus Island’s dreamy beach

Almost 11 months ago, I finally had the opportunity to join the NParks guided tour at Sisters’ Island Marine Park south of Singapore, after the free guided tour was first introduced in August 2014. Then, early last month, I saw TV news that NParks would be officially launching a free 90-min guided tour on the first Sunday of every month on St John’s Island, part of the southern islands of Singapore, from October 2017 as well. This time, I was fortunate to be able to grab 2 tickets to its first official guided tour.

The 2.8 km St John’s Island Trail was developed to encourage appreciation for the rich biodiversity & heritage of St John’s Island & Sisters’ Islands Marine Park. Click here for the guided tour dates by NParks if you are keen. 🙂

How We Got There

Unlike the Sisters’ Island Marine Park guided tour where participants could just gather at Marina South Pier & be ferried over to Big Sister’s Island, participants to St John’s Island guided tour were asked to meet directly at the end of the jetty on the island. Thus, we had to purchase our own ferry tickets from Singapore Island Cruises ticketing counter at Marina South Pier.

A return ferry ticket on the Southern Island Ferry costs $18 per adult & $12 per child. It doesn’t sound exactly cheap for a 30-min ferry ride to the island, but if you are thinking of island-hopping like what most travellers do when visiting overseas beach resorts, then it’s probably not that high a price to pay, as the ferry brings you to both St John’s Island & Kusu Island daily (as per schedule in above photo), hence the name Southern Island Ferry. 😉 For up-to-date ferry schedules, please refer to the Singapore Island Cruises’ official website here.

To be in time for the guided tour at 10 am, we were advised to board the ferry at 9 am from Marina South Pier as the next one would only depart at 11 am on Sunday. But luck wasn’t on our side (or so we thought), as we were told the ferry was full just when it was our time to board that fateful vessel! 😦 Fortunately, likely because of the guided tour, there was an additional ferry to send us over to the island, which departed at about 9.20 am. Phew!

The Tour Experience

Upon arrival at St John’s Island jetty, we saw a signboard indicating that the Sisters’ Islands Marine Park Public Gallery is housed on the island, a 10-min walk from the jetty. Actually, from St John’s Island, we could see Sister’s Island as it is just a little southwest from where we landed. After waiting for a short while for other participants to arrive, the NParks official told us that we could start the tour as the last 10 were not coming afterall. That meant our group led by 2 volunteer guides was like a private tour group of 3 participants! Woohoo~

The St John’s Island trail map

Our guide started by giving a brief history of St John’s Island. Previously known as Pulau Sakijang Bendera (which means “Barking Deer Island” in Malay), it was renamed to its current name during the British Occupation as the English name sounded similar to its Malay name. Most Singaporeans will know the island as a former “quarantine island” as this was what our secondary school history textbooks taught us. But maybe not as many known that it was the site where Sir Stamford Raffles first set foot on Singapore before meeting her Malay chief in 1819. In addition, from 1948 up till pre-independence days, parts of St John’s Island were also converted into a detention centre for political prisoners, including Singapore’s third president – Devan Nair.

Then, we walked along the path towards the mangrove area left of the jetty. While it is not a big area, it is home to a few mangrove species as well as the mudskipper & porcelain fiddler crab here. We spotted the mudskipper from afar but had no luck in sighting the interesting crab species where the male crab has one large claw that is waved about to attract mates.

The mangrove area

As we walked towards the gateway to Lazarus Island, we found many fat cats lazing on the pavement. According to the guide, these cats are well fed by the few Malay families who still reside on the island, as well as members from the Cat Society who visit regularly. I remember reading from other blogs that there were tons of cats around this part of the island towards Lazarus, but I think it was exaggerated. There were at most 10 cats we saw, not tons. Most of them either looked eagerly at us (for food I guess) or couldn’t be bothered to move an inch as we approached. 😅

Along this path, several casuarina trees, also known as Common Rhu can be found. The tree can reach up to 40 m in height bearing wind-pollinated flowers. Interestingly. our guide told us that the green feathery “leaves” on the trees are not leaves, but are actually branches/ twigs of the tree! The tree was originally found wild between Tanjong Rhu & Changi, hence the reclaimed Tanjong Rhu area was named after the tree.

Thereafter, we walked back towards the jetty to continue the tour to the right of the jetty. Along the way, the guide pointed out to us some snails perching on the rocks beneath the end of the jetty.

Spotted some sea snails perched on the rocks near the jetty

We were also shown information on the various species of coral reefs, fishes, crustaceans & molluscs. However, given it was merely theory with no life species to look at like at Sisters’ Island Marine Park, I don’t think I retained much of the information… oops…

Next, we went “hunting” for heritage trees on the island as we moved towards the public gallery, passing by the scouts campsite. Apparently, 10 trees on the island have been marked as Heritage Trees, as they each have a girth of over 5 m and/or possess special botanical, social, historical or cultural value. Heritage trees are marked with a white plate with their names on it for easy identification. There was only 1 species that was relatively easier to spot though – the Sea Fig tree. 4 of this locally endangered coastal tree can be found here. It is characterised by its strangling aerial roots that thicken, wrap around & strangle the host tree, eventually resulting in its death.

Our guide also showed us an interesting tropical tree, known as the Kapok Tree, which bear seed pods that are cotton-like. The tree is cultivated for the seed fibre, particularly in south-east Asia. We found many seed pods scattered on the grass patch beneath these trees & they really look like cotton!

Finally, it was time to head to the last stop of the tour – the St John’s Island National Marine Laboratory public gallery. The public gallery is a 10-min walk to the jetty & is open daily from 10 am to 2.30 pm on weekdays, 10 am to 3.30 pm on Saturdays, & 10 am to 5.30 pm on Sundays & public holidays. The gallery is part of the Marine Park Outreach & Education Centre, providing an overview of the Sisters’ Island Marine Park. Talks & teaching activities for schools & community groups can be conducted in the seminar room & teaching lab there too.

To both of us who had joined the intertidal walk at Sisters’ Island Marine Park before, this public gallery wasn’t too exciting a place for us, as the marine exhibits seen here are kept in tanks. 😅 But it was kind of a “refresher” for us to be reminded of the names of the fish, corals etc housed here.

It started to drizzle when we were almost done with the public gallery tour at 11.30 am. Hence, instead of rushing to the jetty to catch the next ferry out at 11.50 am, we took a pit-stop here, replenished ourselves with water & some snacks we brought. Frankly, we didn’t plan on leaving right after the tour too, as we wanted to make the $18 (ferry ticket cost) worth by crossing over to Lazarus Island. Read several blogs that showed the surreal beach on that rustic island & just couldn’t wait to check it out! 😉

Side Trip to Lazarus Island

I think the highlight of the day’s tour at St John’s Island was actually this side trip. Lol… During the tour, I had casually asked the guides if they had been to Lazarus Island as I had seen really beautiful photos of the beach there. 1 of them said the island is quite big so we should take our time to explore & not rush to board the next ferry out. Another guide didn’t sound too enthusiastic about the island though, saying “oh the waters look about the same as what you see now”. Then my friend added “those photos we saw online, probably heavily photoshopped”. So I was a little disappointed. But since we were already on the island, I wanted to still check it out with my own eyes. 😛

We had to walk past the many cats near the connecting bridge from St John’s Island to Lazarus Island again. The black cat was still sitting in the middle of the pavement, refusing to move an inch as we passed by. 😆

Views along the walk from St John’s to Lazarus Island

Somehow, I got the feel to jump as I saw the lush green view in front of us upon reaching the bridge, that was why I had a jump shot at the bottom right of the collage above. 😛 It took me several jumps before I could get the shot above, & it sort of inspired a group of Filipino (think so from their appearance & accent) ladies to do the same hahaha.

Shortly after crossing over, we spotted a small beach area on the left of the island. The colour of the water here didn’t display distinct hues of blue like what was seen online. Only upon close observation, then could we sight vague shades of varying blue. So it somewhat proved the point of what 1 of the guides claimed…

Water colours may not be as distinctly tri-coloured as I was hoping for, but with the couple sitting side by side on the beach, it still evoked a romantic feel 🙂

Not wanting to give up so soon, we continued straight on the pavement to hunt down THAT legendary beach. The island was not as deserted as we thought though, as there were quite a number of visitors walking along the pavement like us, a mixture of caucasians, Filipinos & Chinese. Some proceeded straight along the tarmac track, while we saw a few coming out/ getting into the “bushes” on the right. So we decided to venture the more rustic-looking route through the “bushes” (well, they aren’t really bushes, more like just tall grass that weren’t trimmed for a while 😁).

OMG! This was it! 😀

So glad we chose to steer right instead of sticking to the tarmac track. So this was where that awesome beach was hiding! Unlike what other bloggers had claimed, it was filled with quite a number of visitors on the beach. They were having a picnic, playing with the sand or swimming in the tri-coloured turquoise water. We also saw 2 private yachts in the lagoon. I shall let the photos do the talking below. 😉

Too bad the sky was overcast that day, otherwise I would think the waters would appear to be more distinctly tri-coloured. But I was already quite contented with what I saw, & so did my friend. It also reminded me of the fascinating Taiwan east coast scenery that I saw during the unexpected plum rain season less than 4 months ago. 😉 We weren’t appropriately dressed for a beach outing so didn’t get up close to the water, but it was good enough to enjoy a beach that made us feel we were outta Singapore! Below is a short video clip my friend took of the sea waves:

The slight drizzle soon turned into a downpour, so we quickly went into a nearby hut for shelter. As the next ferry back to mainland was scheduled to depart at 1.50 pm, we decided to make our way back to the jetty for late lunch. If we missed this ferry, the next one would only be coming at 3.50 pm, we would probably be too starved to enjoy the surreal beach! On the way back to St John’s Island jetty, we spotted a private yacht in the earlier lagoon we saw at Lazarus Island. Seemed like there was some sort of party going on with many people having fun around the yacht.

Looks like a fun-loving party out on the yacht!

Then, as we walked on the bridge, we saw 3 men out in the sea fishing. Wow! I deliberately zoomed in with my camera to capture that moment… 😉

Look at the half-submerged men fishing in the sea!

Post Trip Thoughts

Fortunately we gave ourselves more time to wait for the next ferry at the jetty, as there was already a queue when we reached. Luckily, we could still get on the ferry successfully, although we could only find seats on the lower deck. That meant we couldn’t take any shots of the “St John’s Island” wordings from a distance as we couldn’t see much from the lower deck. But well, never mind. With no food & drinks to recharge ourselves on both islands, we just needed to return to mainland. 😆

Do take note that the ferry will also go to Kusu Island before returning to Marina South Pier. That means you will only reach mainland about 1 hour after it departs from St John’s Island jetty. So if you intend to island-hop or spend more time chillaxing, do remember to bring more food & drinks, & also be more well equipped with towels, beach wear etc (there’s no shower facility on the islands though).

Nonetheless it’s a great place to seek a quick respite from the hectic city life. Although this is still part of Singapore, I received welcome message from Indonesia telco on my mobile soon after I landed on St John’s Islands. So it’s best to simply disconnect/ switch off your phone, & simply unwind without a care hehe. Furthermore, visiting these southern islands don’t burn too big a hole in your wallet, compared to paying for that pricey overseas beach resort holiday! Probably the best time to visit the idyllic beach will be on a weekday. Bring me along if you visit please! 😉

This article was first published on 6 October 2017 after visiting on 1 October 2017.