There are days when we feel like escaping from the bustle of the city and finding a quiet spot in the countryside so as to enjoy the charm of rural life. Living in a metropolis like Singapore, that can be easier said than done. Nonetheless, we make it a point to find ways to stay in touch with nature and let our kids get up close with flora and fauna.
Other than nature reserves, there is a place that we like to visit because this island retains the rustic beauty and simplicity of a bygone era. With the last remaining villages and kampongs, it allows us to be transported back in time to 1960s and allows the kids to learn about how the local residents depend on wells for water, diesel generators for electricity and farming and fishing as a means of living.
Yes, I'm talking about the Granite Island - Pulau Ubin.
Pulau Ubin, an island shaped like a boomerang, is located just off the north-eastern corner of mainland Singapore and has an area of 10.2 square kilometres.
How to get to Pulau Ubin
It's pretty easy and convenient to get to the island. All you need to do is to take a public bumboat Changi Point Ferry Terminal which is near the Changi Village Hawker Centre. At the terminal, go down the stairs or take the lift and be sure to join the correct queue (not the one that goes to Penggerang, Johor)
Cost of bumboat: $2.50/person
Maximum number of passengers in one bumboat: 12
Additional cost per bicycle: $2
These bumboats operate from sunrise to sunset and they leave every time a group of 12 is formed. Each ride takes only approximately 15 minutes and if you are wondering, infants and babies are allowed as long as they pay!
Thanks to our friendly guide, we were able to touch, see and smell fruit trees, spices and herbs for cooking, plants used in traditional medicine and native plants of the mangrove forest. The trail also took us through the backyard planting of the Ubin village home, where fruit trees such as papaya, banana, rambutan and breadfruit were planted. Have you heard of the fishy plant or the one that is called toothache?
As always, though the plants, flowers and fruits were fascinating to a certain extent, my girls were somehow more drawn towards the creatures and bugs. Yes, I'm not kidding. Don't ask my why but anthills and spider webs just excite them.
Throw in a seafood lunch which is not only value for money but fresh and delicious too, I think I can understand why some Singaporeans love to come to Ubin for a weekend getaway. Although most people would prefer to eat at the famous Ubin First Stop Restaurant, we chose to enjoy the homeliness of the simple fare whipped up by the two sisters at Sin Lam Huat (新南发) Eating House. The steamed sea prawns were really good!
While all of our friends chose to return home after lunch, we decided to continue our day of exploration and ventured into Chek Jawa Wetlands, one of Singapore's richest ecosystems.
Visitors can either walk (just so you know, it would take over 40 minutes), cycle or hire a vehicle to get to Chek Jawa Wetlands. The first time we came here, we hired a van from the village for over $20 for a return trip. The driver will drop you at Punai Hut and you will have to walk the rest of the way in. When you are ready to go off, just give the driver a call and he/she will pick you up. We had it free and easy but for those of you who prefer to learn about Chek Jawa's natural heritage on a guided tour, you can book in advance here. Each tour takes one hour and costs $60 (maximum 15 people per group).
The intertidal flats at Chek Jawa Wetlands are most suitable for visiting during low tides of 0.5 metres and below, when you will be able to see most of the marine life. At higher tides, the area will be submerged under water. If you don't want to depend on luck and wish to avoid disappointment, check out the tide timings table when planning your visit.
I have to say we were really amazed and delighted by what we saw! Crabs, fish, mud lobsters, sea stars, mudskippers and more! If you are lucky, you might even spot sea hares, sea squirts, octopuses, sand dollars, sponges and cuttlefish. Did you know? Chek Jawa is made up of 7 interdependent ecosystems – namely, its coastal forest, mangrove forest, its rocky shore, the sandy shore, sand bar, seagrass lagoon and the coral rubble.
If you are up to it, then don't miss the over 1-km boardwalk (Coastal and Mangrove) and the climb up the 21-metre tall Jejawi Tower for a bird’s eye view of Pulau Ubin. For me, these towers are a been-there-done-that kind of thing and I have to scale them at least once, I feel.
The boardwalk, which was built in 2007, allows visitors to get up close to plant and marine life without damaging the area. Special care was taken to construct the boardwalk, which is made from concrete but simulated to resemble timber. We much preferred the mangrove boardwalk to the coastal one because well, it gave the kids plenty of chances to come up close with mudskippers and fiddler crabs.
At the visitor center (House No.1), which was converted from a Tudor-style house built in the 1930s, visitors can learn more about Chek Jawa's history and wildlife. While you are there, don't forget to talk a walk down to the viewing jetty too!
Besides the marine life, guess what other animals we saw that totally thrilled the kids?
We saw these scampering around, climbing up trees and some even tried to steal whatever they could from the bicycles which were parked.
and WILD BOARS!
Wild boar piglets are distinctive animals as they have light brown fur, with cream and brown stripes that run down their backs.
Now, if you think that Pulau Ubin is only for the young, bold and adventurous, that is not true. You've seen how we survived and had a good time on the island with the kids but did you know that we also brought our parents there more than once too? I've said it before but I always feel thankful to have parents and in-laws who are not just used to our spontaneity but they join us on our quests too!
For our subsequent visits, we decided to go on exhilarating rides across the rugged terrain instead of on foot. Woohoo! For toddlers or small kids, it is safer to let them sit in front of you while the older ones can ride at the back. Rental prices for the bicycles differ but you can pretty much get a good one for just $8 an hour; try asking for a bulk discount if you are renting for the entire family.
I must tell you first that while the paths look smooth and level at the start, they can get quite rough and bumpy as you go along, especially when you are nearing Chek Jawa. There are also plenty of steep slopes to overcome so do make sure that you go slow and steady, especially if you have a child on pillion. When going downslope, there will be signboards asking cyclists to get off and push their bikes instead. Well, no one really does that and we didn't too (you will need to do it at times when going upslope, I swear), but just make sure you brake often and do not lose control of your bicycle.
It might look as if everything went perfectly for us on our visits but that isn't the whole truth. Sure, we did have a lot of fun and enjoyed the family bonding but there were little obstacles lying in our way too. I remember...
... having to cycle in the drizzle.
... dealing with hungry kids who wanted a snack and drink every now and then.
... my baby crying for milk at one point and I had to stop in the middle of the forest and breastfeed her on the bike.
... how my mum-in-law couldn't find a bike that she could ride solo and the hubby had to end up riding a tandem with her and panted at every slope.
... the toddler who amazingly fell asleep on her chair on the bike and we let her rest her head on a bag so that we could continue to cycle back.
All these made up our fond memories from our family visits to Pulau Ubin and I am sure they will remain in my heart for a long time to come.
Charming, authentic and unspoilt. I'm pretty sure we will be back to witness more beauty of Pulau Ubin soon.
Tips for a family visit to Pulau Ubin
1) Bring along enough water for the little ones. Finger food, snacks or fruits will be welcome too.
2) In case of bad weather, you might wanna carry along foldable umbrellas or ponchos.
3) Insect repellent and sunscreen are a must.
4) Wear a pair good running shoes.
5) Caps and shades come in handy too.
6) Bring a set of spare, lightweight clothes for the kids.
7) If you are planning to cycle, carry a backpack instead of a sling bag.
8) Plan your timing such that it doesn't coincide with naptimes and ensure you can complete your journey before the sun sets.
9) Take things slow and include ample breaks, especially if you are travelling with the elderly and small children.
10) Remind the children to stay in the middle of the boardwalks in Chek Jawa as the sides are not blocked.
11) Do not feed the animals or go too near them.
12) Bring along a willingness to get sweaty, an attitude to brave the wild and a heart ready to have fun! Oh, and a camera to capture those precious moments too!
To download a map of Pulau Ubin, go here. For 2015 tide timings, go here. For a list of things to do, go here.