Situated on the northern tip of Borneo, the world’s third largest island, Sabah is one of Asia’s more intriguing destinations. We’ve been travelling here for more than a dozen years exploring its oceans deep and mountain high so here are our top six reasons why this equatorial eco-tourism leader is becoming a hot spot in more ways than one.
1. Soft Adventure
Leaving our shoes near the jetty, we pad quietly along the boardwalk, passing room 17 where Sir David Attenborough resided whilst filming along the Kinabatangan river. We’re at Sukau Rainforest Lodge where 20 discreet guest rooms, simply furnished in jungle retreat style, harness solar energy and capture rainwater creating a sustainable footprint. The Kinabatangan floodplain provides a unique and richly rewarding opportunity to view wildlife in their natural habitat and even though tourism is bringing more visitors to the river, there are still quiet tributaries to explore – just ask Sukau Rainforest Lodge’s knowledgeable guides. As dawn’s white veil slowly lifts, board an electric powered boat and cruise in dreamy solitude for sightings of Borneo pygmy elephants, raucous Asian black hornbills, macaques and the elusive, solitary orang-utan.
It’s estimated that 50% of Borneo’s mammals can be found along the floodplain including honking troupes of proboscis monkeys, dazzling kingfishers delicately perched on twigs and monitor lizards foraging for breakfast along the bank. In between river cruising, guided jungle treks around the lodge can reveal unexpected encounters and the bird watching is prolific.
Sukau Rainforest Lodge, Sukau, Kinabatangan, Sabah. Tel +60 88 438300 www.sukaurainforestlodge.com
2. Remote Possibilities
Do you like being the first to claim bragging rights to somewhere new? Then Kudat on the northernmost Tip of Borneo could be one for the list. This small Sabahan town offers beach holidays like they used to be: simple, rustic, memorable. Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan landed here to repair his ships during his epic 16th century circumnavigation of the world and an impressive globe commemorates that event while marking the confluence of the South China and Sulu Seas. From this exotic landmass, water shimmers in all directions. Howard Stanton is Kudat’s go-to guy, his Tip Top restaurant a waterfront mecca for beachcombers and backpackers. Stanton works closely with four local villages, profit-sharing in a number of tourism initiatives to provide a better standard of living for the local Rungus people who are amongst Sabah’s poorest. Visitors can stay at traditional Rungus longhouses, go mountain biking, join a jungle survival course or just relax on talcum-fine beaches and swim in 29 degree water. There are volunteer programs to assist local communities while Stanton’s 15 eco-chalets (think recycled timber, eco-septic system, solar heated water, medicinal planted gardens) attract everyone from professionals seeking an escape from the rat race to backpackers looking for cultural immersion.
Kudat is a 3 hour drive from Sabah’s capital Kota Kinabalu and for more on Howard Stanton’s jungle camp Tampat Do Aman in Kudat visit www.tampatdoaman.com
3. X-treme Golf
A mere chip shot from Kuala Lumpur, Sabah has a stellar collection of golf courses to suit every handicap. Perched at the foothills of Mt Kinabalu, the Robert Muir Graves-designed Mt. Kinabalu Golf Clubstands 6000m above sea level and is the world’s highest golf course. Well within driving range of Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s capital, its rarefied atmosphere seems to add meters to your hitting abilities. Surrounded by beautiful farmlands, ravines and valleys with spectacular views of Mount Kinabalu, South East Asia’s second highest mountain, you feel as though you’re tee-ing off into the wilds of Borneo. If you suffer from acrophobia, descend to sea level and try the par 72-18 hole Karambunai Resorts Golf Club designed by Ronald Freame. Flanked by a million year old rainforest on one side, caressed by the South China Sea on the other and within putting distance of the exotic Nexus Resort, this course presents as a world-class golfing holiday destination. If you’re into labels and want a signature course, then the Sutera Harbour Golf and Country Club in Kota Kinabalu is the answer. This Graham Marsh designed gem will challenge the professional and amateur alike. As host for the Asia PGA Davidoff Series and future international events, the course takes full advantage of a master players concept and feel whilst encompassing the most scenic aspects of the harbour area. Couple this with the Jack Nicklaus signature course at the Borneo Golf & Country Club located 69 kms south of Kota Kinabalu, an exotic canvas splashed by a natural lagoon and spectacular seaside setting, and golf-swinging Sabah is just the place for vacationing golf tragics!
FAST FACTS: Nexus Golf Club: green fees for 9 holes with buggy approx $Aust 60 per person: 18 holes approx $Aust 75 pp. Driving range and lessons available, bookings essential. For further information see www.borneo-resort.com
Mt Kinabalu Golf Club: for green fees and bookings email email@example.com or phone +60 88 889 445.
Sutera Harbour Golf Club: see www.suteraharbour.com
All golf clubs offer use of clubhouse, locker rooms, golfers’ terrace and golf cart rental.
4. Luxe Lodgings & Spa Sanctuaries
The new Ocean Wing at Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort is the kind of accommodation holiday dreams are made of. Rooms are a symphony of vanilla, white and honey tones with lime, persimmon and mandarin accents referencing Sabah’s abundant natural world.
Sliding doors lead to private terraces with gaily striped day beds for sunbathing and huge, square stone baths for star gazing. Aimed at high-end customers looking for a lifestyle ambience in a tropical climate, breakfast is an exclusive affair taken by the sea in a modern, glass pavilion while at Tepi Laut’s Makan Street (Makan is Malay for eating), hawker-style food happens each evening around the pool. Cooked to order, stalls dish up noodles and stir fries, Chinese barbecue, curries and roti. Three beach gazebos can be booked for cocktails and dinners while the stunning wedding pavilion will sweep any bride off her feet!
Just 15 minutes off the coast from Kota Kinabalu, YTL Hotel’s lifestyle resort on Gaya Island has sent the chic-o-meter off the scale. Sybarites worth their designer bathing suits know that YTL’s leitmotif is world-class solitude and tranquility overlaid with luxury. Set in the protected aquatic playground Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, Gaya Island Resort is a fast tropical island fix that feels a million miles from anywhere.
Raised above the mangrove forest to minimize environmental impact, Gaya Island Resort’s Spa Village offers a rich tapestry of local treatments and ancient healing practices. Greeted with a cool towel and fresh pineapple/guava concoction, I happily submit to Anita’s strong hands as she delivers a stress-busting indigenous massage.
Coconut and vanilla oil liberally lubricates her ministrations as I embark on one of the spa’s distinctive journeys. The service is solicitous and only the freshest local ingredients are used in rice scrubs and masques inspired by the cultural healing of Sabah’s local Kadazandusun women.
Where do you go when you want to gather the family and whisk them away for a tropical getaway? Sutera Harbour Resort complex is geared to offer activities to appeal to growing numbers of multi-generational families holidaying together and literally has something for everyone. Sutera means silk in Indonesian and the 384 acre resort compound built on a promontory surrounded by the South China Sea runs as smoothly as its namesake.
You can train for the Olympics on one of three covered tennis courts, ply yourself at the enormous fitness center, hone your squash and badminton skills at state-of-the-art courts or plow endless up and down the 50m swimming pool. Sports pros are on hand to help you lift your game to competitive levels and there are three distinctly different 9-hole golf courses to conquer plus a bowling alley and cinema. The two-storey, richly timbered Mandara Spa at Magellan Sutera Harbour Resort resembles the home of a wealthy 19th century Bornean merchant.
A grand staircase sweeps up to double spa rooms where soothing aromatherapy massages followed by a soak in an outdoor Jacuzzi elevates mind, body and spirit.
FAST FACTS: Gaya Island Resort, Malohom Bay, Pulau Gaya, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, East Malaysia. www.gayaislandresort.com
Sutera Harbour Resort complex is located 10 minutes from Kota Kinabalu International Airport. www.suterahabour.com
Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort, Pantai Dalit Beach, Tuaran, Sabah is around 45 minutes from Kota Kinabalu. www.shangri-la.com/kotakinabalu/rasariaresort
5. Take a Walk on the Wild Side
A wooden platform encircles a tall ironwood tree. Suddenly, there’s a rustling in the forest and the rope slung between the feeding platform and trees tenses as a female orang-utan, her baby clinging to her back, swing in for a fast food fix. Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre’s 4,294 hectare protected lowland forest has been home to Sabah’s dwindling orang-utan population for 50 years providing a second chance of survival and rehabilitation into the wild.
The public are allowed access to watch them feed morning and afternoon and as we share 96.4% of our DNA, the curiosity is mutual as we encounter some adolescents on the boardwalk. The visitor information center, created by Aussie volunteers, gives an overview of these wonderful creatures, their consuming passion (food) and their habits while staring into a mirror inside a box poignantly answers the question : what is the orang-utans main threat?
Nearby, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, which opened last year with the help of 800 volunteers, provides a haven for the Malaysian sun bear aka Winnie the Poo! The world’s smallest bears with glossy black coats and unique chest markings (one looked like the Google logo, another Batman) their sharp claws will shred bark to get the honey sap. Like the orang-utan, the sun bears’ habitat has been cleared for palm oil plantations making the conservation work of both rehabilitation centers one of education, research and ultimately habitat acquisition.
To find out more and get involved go to www.bsbcc.org.my and www.orangutan-appeal.org.uk
www.travellersworldwide.com organises international voluntary placements and work experiences.
Sepilok is a 45 minute flight from Sabah’s capital Kota Kinabalu.
Stay on the edge of the rainforest at Sepilok Jungle Resort, a 5 minute walk from the rehabilitation center. www.sepilokjungleresort.com
6. Dive Right In
When the late Jacques Cousteau first saw Sipadan, he described it as an untouched piece of art. With a coral wall that plunges to a depth of 600m, it shot to fame overnight and for almost 30 years, dive enthusiasts have flocked to swim with sharks, manta rays and spiral through a vortex of barracudas.
Sipadan, Kapalai and Mabul form Sabah’s golden diving triangle, often listed amongst the world’s top ten dive spots. However, unlike Sipadan’s Imax-like wall, Kapalai, sited on a shallow reef in the exotic Sulawesi Sea, offers an unparalleled macro diving experience. Here it’s personal as dive masters take small groups to explore the 28 nearby dive spots, home to brilliantly conspicuous reef inhabitants including cardinal fish, angel fish, leaf fish, very shy frog fish, garishly coloured cuttlefish and nudibranchs. Accommodation is in the sublime kampung or water village where 59 wooden chalets offer twin and triple share accommodation, tropical sunsets and endless water vistas to lull you to sleep.
A tiny jewel in the Sulu Sea, Pulau Langkayan is a green top knot of tropical vegetation anchored by swaying Casuarina trees. Pandanus palms line beach the colour of clotted cream, their spindly trunks straining to capture the sun’s rays. Hidden behind, 23 simple wooden guest chalets wear the patina of salt and sun. At just thirteen acres and one kilometer in circumference, Langkayan is more than a tropical island dive destination. It stands as a testament to corporate responsibility, environmental planning and is the cornerstone in the development of a significant marine conservation area.
Dive sites are right on the doorstep boasting a colourful macro world of hard and soft corals, fascinating wrecks and the reef’s smaller denizens. There’s seasonal whale shark sightings and the island is a nesting place and feeding ground for sea turtles.
The Sipadan-Kapalai Dive Resort is located off the south coast of Sabah and is accessed in just 40 minutes from the bustling fishing port town of Semporna. Pulau Langkayan is a 90 minute power boat ride from Sandakan on Sabah’s north coast.
FAST FACTS For accommodation and dive information go to www.sipadan-kapalai.com
Don’t Forget to Pack….
Hat, rain jacket or poncho, sunscreen, insect repellent, absorbent body powder, leech socks, torch, passport and visa, binoculars, camera, medical kit and update your travel shots.
For more: www.sabahtourism.com