Kota Kinabalu, known locally as ‘KK’, is the capital of Sabah in Eastern Malaysia. Located on the west coast and home to around 600,000 people, this small and unassuming city is perfectly placed; lots of Japanese, Korean and Chinese visitors like to make the trip here, as it’s relatively close-by and has some excellent shopping options. For long-haul travellers in search of more intrepid adventures, KK also acts as the gateway to Borneo. On my first day in KK, I woke up just before dawn, with sunlight just beginning to soak through the purple sky overhead, feathered by a thin veil of cloud. The streets outside were almost totally empty, with only a few lonely taxis taking hotel guests on their way. No residents in this sleepy coastal city appeared to be in any great hurry to start the day.
“a catch of reef fish draped like a colourful cape over his shoulder”
Down at the harbour, weather-worn fishing boats roll at anchor, bobbing on the rising tide and growing ever more listless with the arrival of the sun. A fisherman strolls past, puffing on a cigarette with a catch of reef fish draped like a colourful cape over his shoulder. “Where did you catch those?” I asked, whilst investigating a bright blue and yellow parrot pish. “Just over there”, he said, pointing to the end of the jetty, where a small crowd of Chinese tourists was gathering and putting on life jackets. “But that’s nothing compared to what you’ll see on the islands!” He smiled a big, mostly toothless grin with the cigarette hanging limply from the corner of his mouth and gave a thumbs up. We said our see-you-laters and I set off. Those islands sounded interesting.
A seven-kilometre boat ride from Kota Kinabalu takes you to Pulau Sapi (Cow Island); a 25-acre (10 hectare) outcrop of white sands and leafy forest, fringed by coral gardens in the azure ocean of Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. As I step onto the long wooden jetty, my shadow stirs a school of tiny fish from their hiding place. Thousands of them, all moving together as one like a cloud of ink, occasionally twinkling as the sunlight bounces off scales and flashing eyes. Just beyond them, the long and brooding silhouette of a barracuda; patiently shepherding its prey into the shallows and waiting for the moment to strike. I hadn’t even set foot on the island yet.
“An outcrop of white sands and leafy forest, fringed by coral gardens in the azure ocean”
Although you won’t find any cows on Pulau Sapi, the second-smallest island of the park, this secluded little patch of paradise is home to some tiny treasures. I rented snorkelling equipment from the island’s office at the end of the jetty and waded out. Just beyond the shore, Sapi’s temperate waters support lettuce and staghorn corals, along with anemones that provide shelter for the island’s resident population of clownfish. The first thing you notice is how noisy they are; these little family groups of stripy nemos chatter and click continuously, communicating to each other and staking their territory around the tubular arms of their anemone home. A short boat trip from Sapi takes us to Manukan island, where long sandy beaches cluster around a sleepy village of huts and tourist challets gathered around a football field. Just off shore, speedboats and jet skis carve foaming ripples into the sea, and snorkellers bob in the shallows above iridescent shoals of butterfly, trigger and parrot fish, sergeant major, cleaner wrasse and clownfish.
After a sun-kissed boat journey back to the mainland, we arrive at Kota Kinabalu in the late afternoon, but the nautical adventures are just beginning. Thanks to its idyllic location, nestled between dramatic mountain peaks and a coastline overlooking a protected marine park, KK is a place that is best seen from the water. To put this theory to the test, we joined North Borneo Cruises for a trip around the bay in KK, combining sumptuous cuisine, breezy sea views and live music onboard our very own cruise ship, the Luna. The first of its kind in Sabah, North Borneo Cruise disembarks from the city harbour framed by palm trees, then floats leisurely on the tropical waters of the South China Sea during a 2-hour scenic cruise, taking us past the islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine park and down the central coastline to get a view of KK’s famous Waterfront, illuminated by reflections of neon city lights in the water.
“A trip around the bay, combining sumptuous cuisine, breezy sea views and live music onboard our very own cruise ship”
The dinner cruise makes the most of ocean views thanks to its breezy open sun-deck. In the afternoon, this is the perfect place to get panoramic views of blazing sunsets over the ocean. During the evening, the view is no less colourful, with Kota Kinabalu glowing in a rainbow of electric light. On the main deck, an air-conditioned and fully enclosed buffet dining area allows us to combine sightseeing with tasty cuisine and live music from the resident band. As the evening progresses, fellow diners become friends and head to the dancefloor, or grab the mic for some live karaoke. It’s all fun and friendly entertainment, which even the waitresses can’t resist – they show us how it’s done by strutting their stuff on the dancefloor to a setlist of Asian hits and Western classics. On weekends, a bamboo orchestra adds an extra dimension to the entertainment, with a flavour of Borneo’s traditional culture to accompany the delicious array of dishes served up on the Luna. North Borneo Cruise schedules two daily voyages: Sunset Dinner Cruise, from 4:30pm - 7:00pm; and the KK City Night Cruise, which departs from KK at 7:30pm and returns at 9:45pm
After Kota Kinabalu, Panorama Destination journeyed to Poring. Click here to Travel With Us.