Sun, sea and skyline: the view from Kusu
Header: IN SEARCH OF ISLAND LIFE

Whether you want to bike through rubber plantations, sip cocktails on the beach, eat fresh chilli crabs or walk along deserted shores, there are half a dozen offshore islands less than an hour away from Singapore's shopping malls and skyscrapers.

Glitzy Sentosa is the closest, connected to the mainland by a 710-metre causeway just southwest of the city centre. By 2010, its Underwater World, pink dolphin show, two golf courses, Merlion statue, and luge will be joined by a new casino. Despite its big ticket attractions, it's still home to some surprisingly quiet beaches and interesting sights.

In the westernmost corner lies the ex-British Fort Siloso, now restored to tell the story of the 1942 fall of Singapore.

For a more natural island escape, Pulau Ubin offers a slice of Sixties Singapore. Still home to a few old-style kampung (villages), it is 10 minutes by bumboat off the northeast coast. Larger and less developed than Sentosa, the boomerang-shape island is known for the freshness of its chilli crab, one of Singapore's national dishes, and durian - the pungent, spiky, national fruit.

Apart from eating, renting a bike to ride through plantations and alongside mangrove swamps is the main activity. Hikers can pitch tents or stay in huts. Look out for wildlife such as Singapore's only native hornbill, and two species of otter.

Even more back-to-basics are Kusu and St John's islands, south of Sentosa. The tiny island of Kusu (which means tortoise) has two temples which attract pilgrims praying for wealth and fortune each October. Otherwise its lagoons and picnic tables are used mostly by weekend fishermen. Bigger, lusher, St John's Island, once a quarantine station, is also shop and car-free. Its white sand beach has views over to Singapore's skyscrapers, and there is one bungalow available for overnight stays.

For an almost guaranteed island-to-yourself experience, Pulau Hantu and Sisters' Island are off the ferry routes. Groups keen to picnic, snorkel, or dive can charter a private boat.

Alternatively, if you prefer company, there are beach resorts and mega malls on two nearby Indonesian islands, just 40 minutes away. The larger of the two, Bintan, has more upmarket resorts and spas than Batam. You can also take a boat tour of the magroves, where you may see snakes, pythons, kingfishers, monkeys and monitor lizards. Both islands are so popular with Singaporeans that a weekend on either can - almost - be counted as another Singapore island escape.

GETTING THERE

Sentosa

Cable cars run to Sentosa from Mt Faber or Harbourfront shopping mall. A monorail connects the island to the Vivocity shopping mall, and vehicles and pedestrians can enter the island over the causeway. Island entrance is S$3, (£1), and gets you free use of three colour-coded bus lines running between the attractions, hotels and resorts (www.sentosa.com.sg).

Pulau Ubin

Wooden bumboats cost S$2, (65p), and take 12 people at a time from Changi Point Ferry Terminal in the east of Singapore. The journey takes about 10 minutes.

Kusu and St John's

York Launch Service runs daily ferries stopping at Kusu and St John's for S$15 (£5) return. Ferries leave from Marina South Pier (www.yorklaunch.com.sg). Sentosa Leisure Group owns both islands, and bookings to can be made on its website. The 10-sleeper holiday bungalow costs S$107 (£35) for a weekend. The island's massive ex-detention centre camps can also be blockbooked by groups of 60 or more. Click here to find out more.

Pulau Hantu and Sisters

Island Several private charter boats operate out of Marina South Pier. Seating 12 they offer trips to Pulau Hantu and Sisters Island for around S$150 (£50) one way.

Batam and Bintan

Three companies run frequent fast, 40 minutes to an hour, ferry services to about six locations on the islands, leaving from the Singapore Cruise Centre at the back of the Harbourfront shopping mall. Tickets S$30-$40 (£10-£13) return, not including the threeday US$10 (£5) Indonesian visa. More ferries set out from Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal on the mainland's east coast (www.singaporecruise.com; www.brf.com.sg). GILLIAN MURDOCH

For more information about Singapore go to www.visitsingapore.com