With paradise views and clear waters that make you want to skinny dip right in (no? just us?), it’s easy to be seaduced by Borneo, as the island has so much to offer. We made Kota Kinabalu our base for the last leg of our two week trip to Malaysia and Singapore so here’s what you can expect , for a minimum 4 day stay:
Island Hopping: Tunku Abdul Rahman Park
Tunku Abdul Rahman Park: A national park consisting of five islands off the coast of Kota Kinabalu.
Seaduced by Borneo: Pulau Gaya
Pulau Gaya, the largest of the islands, and it neighboring Pulau Sapi – connected by a zipline the more adventurous might find appealing (though I wouldn’t necessarily say it warrants the cost: 20$/zipline ride).
A trip from Kota Kinabalu to the Gaya island takes about 10 minutes and costs about 10 eur for a round trip.
My favorite things on the island? The wildlife encounters. There are 2-meter-long monitor lizards, otherwise known as varans, macaques and wild pigs.
Although the locals seemed completely unfazed by the animals’ presence, they still manage to make quite an impression on tourists like us.
In hindsight, I wonder how I worked up the courage to go in the water & snorkel, with these big bad boys around! It must have been the herd mentality – there were plenty other snorkelers in the water.
Or perhaps I subconsciously decided I trusted the good work of the 70-year-old lady sitting by beach bar, slingshot in hand, killing time by keeping the lizards away from the sandy beach, all the while listening to hard rock tunes on her smartphone.True Story!
Though you won’t necessarily find secluded beaches here – obviously, you’re not the only one that finds beaches a 15min boat drive away convenient – I liked Gaya island for its authentic local vibes, surprising animal encounters and yes, the views.
Note that you will still have to deal with the daily (yet short-lived) hordes of tourists that pass by Gaya, as part of their snorkeling packages. The blaring Chinese music quickly became annoying once we came back from the water, but the beach bar management was courteous enough to lower the volume (then stop the music altogether) after one of our friends pointed out that the music was really ruining it for us.
We spend a good half day on the island, hiding from the midday sun under the beachside trees, enjoying the perfect silence that settled once the snorkeling tours left – silence only interrupted by the friendly water ripples, lapping at the sand.
TIP: get the first boat out, leaving from the Jesselton Point jetty at 9 AM.
TIP: If you’re travelling in a group, rent out an entire boat. For a group of 9, the split costs were roughly the same as for an individual ticket, with the main advantage that you can decide on the pickup time, as opposed to having a fixed departure time from the island.
We were happy to pay the 5 extra ringgits and have the flexibility to come back when we pleased, before 4PM. Also, you’re sure to have some extra space on the speedboat, which can otherwise be carrying up to 20 passengers.
Seaduced by Borneo: Pulau Manukan
Pulau Manukan: a smaller, more coquettish beach, without the noisiness byproduct of Gaya’s large crowds attacking its shores as part of snorkel day trips.
If it’s real snorkel that you’re after, be warned that you’ll have to go beyond the TAR Park , and perhaps as far as Mantanani island.
Snorkel in Gaya and Manukan was quite basic. The experience you’ll have really comes down to your own point of reference: if you’re a newbie snorkeler, you’ll still enjoy Manukan’s shallow shores, with almost no current, as well as the still thriving leafy corals and the occasional anemones.
Note that the months of March to June is officially jellyfish season, and box jellyfish have been reported in the waters around Kota Kinabalu. We made sure to plan in advance.
Also beware of the biting fish. The unassuming grey and pink fish the size of my palm were angrily chomping at anyone who was hovering for more than a few seconds , and my husband got quite a bite.
Best Stay: Hyatt Regency Kinabalu
If you’re looking for a good stay in Kota Kinabalu, I recommend you check out the Hyatt Regency Kinabalu hotel. For our group of 9 people, Hyatt was a great combination of location, comfort and reasonable price. I personally chose this hotel because they were very prompt in answering to my food allergy inquiry, and I wanted to make sure I had at least some of my meals covered.
The swimming pool is gorgeous, the rooms are spacious, the breakfast is impressive, and the onsite restaurants provide lots of options.
If you’re looking for something with a bit more exotic vibe, and you have more to spare in your travel budget, check out Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort & Spa. We went there for drinks and the place looked stupendous. My only caveat is that you’d end up spending all your time by the hotel’s many swimming pools – and why would you want to do that, when the islands await!
Tip: If you’re looking for a quick, safe and cheap way to travel in Kota Kinabalu (and Malaysia in deneral) , download the Grab app. Grab and Go – Mobility in Asia.
Best Eat: Nagisa Japanese Restaurant @Hyatt
Obviously, as with any personal travel blog with no interest in promoting a service or place they haven’t tried or liked, there will always be a certain degree of subjectivity involved.
I am subjectively saying that Nagisa Japanese Restaurant @Hyatt was the best eating spot in Kota Kinabalu. For Me. Because:
- 1. they gave me the comfort that I could safely eat there, given my food allergies,
- 2. we ate there for 3 evenings in a row, and
- 3. I love Japanese food, and this one was legit.
Best View: Sunset Bar at Shangri La Tajung Aru
Sunset Bar at Shangri La is a prime spot for watching the sun set over the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park islands, and between the hotel’s guests and the numerous outsiders, the bar gets packed fast.
While the views here are amazing to say the least, I have to warn you: you won’t be impressed by the bar’s offering (or skills in mixology) , so better to just grab a beer than risk dissapointment.
Tip: If you’re just in it for the view and a believer in BYOB (bring your own beer, of course) , grab a Grab and head over to the neighboring, public Tanjung Aru Beach. You’ll be as seaduced by Borneo there as on a fancy beach bar.
This post is by no means a summary of all things good in Kota Kinabalu, so please treat it as such.