Welcome to summer! Just so you know, when you are in Malaysia, summer is all year round, and it’s such great news for sun-lovers. While I, personally, prefer cold to hot, I enjoy lying on the beach, enjoying some sun (under an umbrella with a breeze), listening to the sound of the waves, and doing… nothing. One of my favorite destinations to do that is Cancun, Mexico (I recommend doing that in December, though :P). Since the weather in December is really cool and the resorts along the coast are just great.
Of course, I also like going for some exciting sports like scuba diving, snorkeling, or surfing sometimes. In Southeast Asia, there are lots of beachy destinations and tropical places to go to – like Kota Kinabalu, there are a number of islands around the city that you could explore. Sabbah has been a popular vacation “hotspot”, and I once spent a few days there to visit Mount Kinabalu, and then to enjoy some beach time.
Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
Sabah, a state of Malaysia, is located in the northern portion of Borneo. The state is known for its pristine beaches, tropical rainforest, and abundant animal and plant species. Kota Kinabalu, is the state capital of Sabah.
I believe that most tourists come to Sabah for the tropical vibe, the city also offers a vibrant food scene, luxurious resorts, and something more. The city has a population of over 500,000 and it serves as a transportation hub of the region. Its international airport is only a 15-20 minutes drive away from the city center – this is where you can restock and recharge when you are going on a long journey.
If you really want to do some sightseeing, Kota Kinabalu also has some religious monuments, mosques, and temples that you can visit: like Masjid Bandaraya Kota Kinabalu, Pu Tuo Si Temple, or Sabah State Mosque.
Partially surrounded by a lagoon, this grand mosque with a blue & gold dome offers tours.
If you are staying in the city of Kota Kinabalu, the easiest way to go to the beaches is going island hopping the following islands. The first three islands are only 15-20 minutes away from the pier and they are also quite close to each other, it’s relatively easy to just spend half a day on these islands when you can still manage to spend some time in the city to sample from street food and have a night out.
Check out my day trip below and see how it fits you!
Kota Kinabalu Island Hopping
The city center of Kota Kinabalu does not directly connect to nice exotic beaches. Travelers may book a room in the resorts away from the main streets, or hop on the boat to the outlying islands. Sapi and Manukan islands are basically the most assessable with their close proximity to the city center. Ferries that travel to these islands depart from the Kota Kinabalu Ferry Terminal – “Jesselton”. The ferry terminal is at the north end of the downtown area; if the hotel you stay in is not closed by, you may need to grab a taxi to get there (Some may have shuttle services).
There were a bunch of ticket booths once we got out of the taxi and entered the hall. A great number of companies operate there but, technically, they were selling very similar “island-hopping” packages for the nearby islands including Sapi and Manukan islands. Try to bargain and they may lower the price a little bit. Generally speaking, Sapi is the hub connecting all islands and Manukan is a nearby island that is more secluded and quiet. There were a few resorts built on the island, too.
Try to pre-book a tour package during the peak season or weekends so you have peace of mind as you arrive at Jesselton Point. Otherwise, get there as earlier as possible (let say ~ 8-9 am) before the big travel groups or family travelers getting there. It’s best to be there before 9 am so you can catch the first round of boats heading out. The boats don’t have an exact time schedule because they leave on a “once the boat is full” basis. If you are traveling on a slow day, in a small group, or even solo, it would be better to follow a big group so you don’t have to wait for your boat to be filled up. (Yes, it’s only a 15-minute ride and the boat leaves when they are full, at this point, no need to stay away from the crowd.)
The boat trip is on average RM30 (US$7) with an additional RM10 for an extra island you choose to visit. Island hopping usually covers Sapi Island, Manukan Island, and Mamutik Island. Gaya Island, a bigger island in the group but they are private beaches owned by the resorts.
You will have to select which island to go to (they will give you a ticket to hop on the boats) and feel free to check out a few counters to make a decision that you are comfortable with. You may try to talk down the prices, but to be honest, you would probably get a dollar or so reduced at most and don’t ruin the fun by getting yourself into a bargaining war.
The boat operators will give you a ticket after you paid, keep the ticket safe and dry as you will need them for the whole day; the operator will usually set a time for you to return to the boat and go to the next island, or return to the city. You are free to spend your time on the island to join your watersports, to eat, or to sunbathe; but don’t lose track of time or they will leave the island without you. The last boat usually leaves the island and returns to the city by 4 pm. Don’t lose your ticket as you will also need them to get on board; but anyway, it’s just a matter of re-purchasing a ticket if you lose your ticket.
So, what to bring? The boat operators may have snorkeling equipment for rental; lounge chairs and beach umbrellas are also available for rental on the beach. You don’t need to prepare anything for the watersport activities, the operators will have them available for you. Bring basic beach-going items: flip-flops, sunscreen lotion, mosquito repellent, sunglasses, a cap, your swimwear, towel, and a mat to sit on. For ladies, bring a batik to cover up and you can still take beautiful photos on the beach with them. To make your trip more fun, bring from packed launch (sandwiches, fruits, and drinks so you don’t have to line up or wait outside the food stalls on the island. Enjoy your lunch and have a healthy snack on the beach! Besides, the food stalls on the island are generally overpriced.
For a one-day experience, it is most common to choose 2-3 islands; arriving at the Sapi Island first – join some beach activities and then hop to another island (like Manukan Island, or Mamutik Island) after lunch. We were just going for the beach and we got to Sapi a little bit earlier than the normal crowd; we had some peace and quiet on the beach before the giant group of visitors (and kids) “occupied” the beach.
Sapi Island is a smaller island in the group. It may be a bit less popular than its neighboring islands like Gaya Island, yet this is usually where active sports take place. Most resorts have set up their franchise on Gaya Island and so many of the beaches there is privately owned. Here on Sapi, the beaches are opened to the public with a small shop and restaurant.
Signed up for one or two activities of your choice: sea walking, banana boat riding, scuba diving, parasailing to jet skiing. If you are not planning to do something so physically demanding or active, you should at least go on doing some snorkeling (the island has spectacular underwater views!). Don’t worry, the boat operators usually have you covered by having the necessary equipment for rental. It’s usually cheaper to rent this equipment from the boat operators than the stores on the island. You can carry them with you until the end of your island hopping, and the price is about RM15 for a mask, snorkel, and fins.
The beach on the south side is the best place to go snorkeling as it has the most corals in the area, and it is farther away from the water-sporting crowd. That means you should be aware of the beach boundaries that indicate the swimming/snorkeling zone – you don’t want to be hit by a banana boat floating in the open water.
Another activity that I would recommend is the zipline, Coral Flyer. It’s a 235-meter long zip line between Sapi Island and Gaya Island – you should be able to see people gliding above you when the boat approaches the jetty. Tickets are available at the reception desk on the island and the glide starts from Gaya Island back to Sapi over the sea. This is the world’s longest island zipline.
The beach in Sapi is not big, many beach-goers came here for water activities – jet ski, snorkeling, para-sailing….. etc. I had a dip in the water and saw a lot of fish in the shallow area (Some travelers stuffed bread in the plastic bottles to lure the fish but feeding is actually not permitted.) Really, it was quiet in the morning until lunchtime the entire beach area was full of people!! They were fully clothed and they were talking loud, eating around you, and we would know it was time to leave.
Sapi Island pros:
- Convenience, that explains it all, right? It’s well connected to the city center, and it only takes 15 minutes to get there.
- This is also where most of the water activities are. If you want to be active, you will need to be here at some point.
- Don’t forget to experience the thrill of flying across the ocean on the Coral Flyer – the longest island zipline in the world.
Sapi Island cons:
- It is basically the busiest island among the three because this is where most water activities take place. Families and kids are all here, and it could get quite disturbing if you hear the busy moms yelling at their children some afar as the children were running around uncontrollably.
- It’s also a mood killer when you find quite a lot of family members (like the grandmothers) are sitting not that far from you but they are still fully clothed, watching over to their grandchildren. They may stand in the shadow of YOUR umbrella, or they may block your sun if they have an umbrella.
- Water clarity could be the worst among the other island (again, due to how crowded it is), but still the water clarity is acceptable as I was also to see the bottom of the beach with a lot of small fish.
After lunch, take a boat and head to Manukan Island. Soak into the clear seawater, sunbathe, and go snorkeling for the rest of the afternoon.
Manukan Island, on the other hand, is the most developed among the islands and the most popular to visit. It is pride to be the island with crystal clear seawater. While it keeps on the active sports on Sapi, most visitors are here just to enjoy some quiet time on the beach. Due to its popularity, it could still get quite busy on weekends.
The island has changing rooms and shower facilities, and it is also a great location to do some snorkeling or diving. If you want to have a little bit more time there, the island has an Island Resort by Sutera Sanctuary lodges – a world-class resort to get you pampered.
Manukan Island pros:
- Visitors enjoy a little bit more peace and quiet to stay away from family travelers, and watersport goers.
- The Island is bigger than Sapi with more pristine beaches to chill and relax.
- There is a world-class resort and a few restaurants nearby. The island has better dining options.
Manukan Island cons:
- If you are looking for fun rides, this island has fewer choices and it doesn’t sound so fun where you can’t share the joy with a bigger group, Sapi Island would be more suitable for you.
- Still, there are so many more “secluded” beaches along the coast of Sabah and if you are looking for total privacy, the beaches on Manukan could be crowded during peak seasons and on the weekends.
After a day on the beaches, head back to the city and enjoy a refreshing drink at the KK CIty Waterfront while looking at the sunset. At night, venture to Gaya Street for some delicious Malaysian cuisine like laksa, char siew, seafood, and bak kut teh.
To go even further, pack your bags and take a hike in Mount Kinabalu. The mountain is the tallest in Southeast Asia. The hike usually requires at least 2 days to complete and hikers can experience a diverse flora and fauna. Stay overnight in a lodge at the peak and wake up early for the sunrise, the breathtaking view is something that you will never forget.
Mamutik Island is the smallest island among the group, and it’s an even better choice for those who enjoy a bit quieter time just sitting on the beach for some sun. The beach offers cooling shades under the Casuarina trees, while you can catch a glimpse of parasailer gliding over the ocean in their multi-colored parachutes.
Take a walk along the jungle trail in the north of the island through the forest ridge for a little bit of adventure, or if you want to grab a bite after a morning on the beach, there is a restaurant located at the jetty on the island. I found this island the best place to take nice photos with the perfectly blue seawater, and a lesser crowd. Just explore the different spots on the island and search for your favorite photo-taking spots.
Mamutik Island pros:
- The island is quieter, and visitors may have a more “cozy” and “intimate” moment on the beach.
- It is a great place to take nice photos on the beach without much disturbance.
Mamutik Island cons:
- It is the smallest island of the group and so there are not many places to explore.
Dinawan Island is on a different side of the city and it’s 25-minute away from the Marina Sutera Jetty via speedboat. it is a private island owned by a resort, meaning that visitors enjoy a more private time on the beach and nature.
Dinawan Island pros:
- The island is privately owned that offers a higher level of exclusiveness and privacy.
- It’s not within the island hopping group of islands, but it’s still easily accessible from the city of Kota Kinabalu.
Dinawan Island cons:
- You cannot exactly go “island-hopping” if you decide to visit Dinawan Island, it is in another location.
While Mantanani Island was once named a “diver’s paradise” or a “hidden gem” in Kota Kinabalu, for those in the know would say “it’s not true!” – just because now tourists are flooding in after the island is heavily promoted through media and it gets famous.
While those “in the search” are probably moving further away from the city to even more secluded and hidden locations, I think Mantanani Island is now sitting somewhere in the middle for those who want to get away from the crowd, but still don’t have to go “that” far.
Don’t worry, while it is not as “hidden” as it used to be, Mantanani Island still has its own tropical beauty. The island takes about 3 hours from the city center to get there, and it worths the time, as I could clearly see that the island the water is even more clear, and the beaches are nicer.
We joined a local tour that basically took care of the transportation, we visited the island as a group with lunch included. We arrived at the dock after a 2-hour drive from the city center and there was another 2-hour drive to the island. On the boat, we look back and we saw the entire Mount Kinabalu!
Once we arrived on the island, we settled down on the small lodge built on the sea. People then scattered to take some pictures of the bluish sea. The water was so clear that we could see the coral and fish in the sea – it was amazing. Then the groups were separated – snorkeling, swimming, scuba diving, etc. All necessary equipment like snorkeling masks, swim fins, floaties, and life jackets are available for borrowing on the boat. If you want to take pictures of the underwater world, don’t forget to be a waterproof phone case, or go pro.
You can continue on snorkeling or diving after lunch, or if you have had enough in the morning, take the boat and head to an island, just to take pictures and relax on the beach. We were taken to a nearby backpackers lodge and the facilities were for people to take lessons for their driving license. If you enjoy such an environment, it would be nice to stay a couple of days away from the bustle of city life and embrace the ocean.