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Malaysia’s unknown Perhentian beaches will astound you with their beauty

There may have been a sign saying ‘not suitable for expectant mothers and people with heart, back or neck conditions’ — but I doubt it.

Being the wrong side of 50, I certainly wasn’t pregnant and was not aware I had a heart condition. However, it soon became apparent that the 45-minute boat ride from Malaysia to the much-lauded Perhentian Islands was not for the faint-hearted.

This was no gentle cruise across crystal-blue seas. It felt like a 50-knot marathon in this 30ft speedboat driven by a man on a mission. As the crazed craft bobbed and lurched, I became painfully aware that most of my vertebrae were being realigned.

The Perhentian Islands remain largely unspoiled, all sandy beaches edged with lush palms

The problem with visiting the Perhentians, popular with backpackers and a must for divers, is that there is no other way to approach these coral-fringed isles off north-eastern Malaysia.

The country’s main airport is a day’s drive away in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, and though there is a small airport at Kota Bharu, you can’t fly to the islands — you are at the mercy of boat operators in Kuala Besut.

This inaccessibility has allowed the islands to remain largely unspoiled; the white sandy beaches are edged with lush palms and frequented by monitor lizards, squirrels and the occasional dusky leaf monkey.

The food is awesome — and cheap as proverbial chips. You can get a plentiful meal for four for under a tenner.

This is the laid-back life. It is almost too much effort to roll out of a beachside hammock to take advantage of the fantastic diving and excellent snorkelling just yards away.

Snorkelling and scuba diving are accessible from the beach — ideal for less confident swimmers like me who hate plunging into the deep from a boat.

Swim from Flora Bay to the aptly named Shark Point to find yourself surrounded by sharks, of varying sizes, as well as sea turtles and spectacular coral reefs.

It costs a mere £13 to £16.50 per dive and the water is so warm you don’t need to wrestle with a wetsuit.

Wonderful wildlife: Dusky leaf monkeys

Wonderful wildlife: Dusky leaf monkeys

Long Beach on Perhentian Kecil is by far the busiest beach on these fascinating islands and a magnet for backpackers, who party the night away, watching fire eaters and dancing Ibiza-style until dawn.

If lazy, long, hot days and balmy, calmer nights appeal, head for Perhentian Besar.

It’s quieter, but it will mean another pesky boat ride. A water taxi costs £4.50.

Because of the eastern monsoon, the season is short (June to the end of October), but there will always be rooms if you turn up on spec.

I stayed at the Matahari Chalet (cheap and basic). If you want more creature comforts, then plan and book your trip at least six months in advance.

In my new life as a backpacker, I did feel like an ageing aunt, surrounded by all those lithe, bronzed bodies.

I couldn’t help but envy these thousands of young people, from all corners of the globe, who are seeing the world, as opposed to the inside of an office.

Mark and Jo, from Surrey, were among them when they last visited the Perhentians ten years ago. 

‘You have to return to reality eventually, but this trip is a nice reminder of all the fun times we had,’ said Jo.

This time, they had two children in tow — and grandma. It seemed I wasn’t the oldest swinger in town after all.

Travel Facts: Plan your own trip to Malaysia 

Emirates (0344 800 2777) flies from Heathrow to Kuala Lumpur from £385 return. 

From there, Air Asia flies to Kota Bharu from £11 return. 

Boat trip from Kota Bharu costs £13 return. 

The Matahari Chalet on Long Beach (006 019 914 2883) offers a two-night, dive/snorkel package from £82.