Experience The Great Outdoors Of Borneo

White sand beaches ringed by blue waters and backed by thick green tropical vegetation may seem like an impossible find in any bustling Asian city. But Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo, actually begs to differ.

Beyond outdoor markets, street food galore, and a series of excellent hotels like the Kota Kinabalu Marriott Hotel, Sabah’s capital literally faces the pristine tropical islands of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park.

These five sisters — Gaya, Mamutik, Manukan, Sapi, and Sulug — lie only a few minute’s speedboat ride off Kota Kinabalu’s Jesselton Pier, the city’s main port. Here’s where to explore.

Island Hopping in Kota Kinabalu

Their proximity to Kota Kinabalu make these five offshore islands an ideal respite from city traffic, though visitors primarily flock to Gaya and Sapi. And besides perfect white sand beaches and clear, warm waters that are a delight to snorkel in, the archipelago also offers some of the most easily accessible Borneo diving.

tunku abdul rahman marine park
See the wonders of Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. (Photo: Getty Images)

The biggest and most frequently visited island is Gaya, which takes its name from the word “Gayo,” meaning “big” in the language of the seafaring Bajau people.

While Gaya is best known as Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park’s most popular snorkeling site, the island has also been a forest reserve since 1923, and its backbone of lush, green hills reaches an elevation of nearly 1,000 feet.

Sapi Island, meaning “Cow Island” in Malay, rises just off the southwestern tip of Gaya. It has one of the nicest beaches in the park and is very popular with tourists for its clear waters and sea life — ideal for snorkeling.

Diving in Kota Kinabalu

Several dive operators, such as well-established Scuba Junkie, organize day trips that leave from Jesselton Pier stopping at dive sites around the five islands.

With water temperatures hovering around 86 F (30 C) and a calm surface, the diving off Kota Kinabalu is excellent both for learning new diving skills and taking a refresher course before hitting other, more challenging Borneo diving spots like Mabul and Sipadan islands.

swim with turtles
Swim with turtles. (Photo: Getty Images)

Most of the dive sites around Tunku Abdul Rahman Park are quite shallow, with gentle slopes offering clusters of healthy corals and a sandy seafloor. To be fair, frequent downpours of rain may reduce visibility, but the volume of living corals makes up for it.

Divers can float above plateaus of staghorn, branching plate coral, and column-like bommies. In addition to spotting reef sharks and game fish like Spanish mackerel, as well as giant trevally fish, the marine life in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park is mostly smaller scale, such as nudibranchs. Arm yourself with patience and a good eye for detail to best enjoy these reefs.

Zip Lining Across Islands in Kota Kinabalu

After diving or snorkeling in the sea, you can relax and sunbathe on one of the islands’ beaches, or try the Coral Flyer — a 770-foot-long zip line stretched between Gaya and Sapi islands. Flying solo or in tandem on this double zip line, travelers can reach a speed of 34 mph and soar 147 feet above the sea.

By Marco Ferrarese and published on Marriot BonVoy Traveller

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