Okay, so you’ve done your bit of shopping at the Filipino Handicraft Market, tried freshly-made ice cream in Kundasang and maybe even headed out to Kinabalu Park for a refreshing hike… So what’s next on the agenda?
Island-hopping, that’s what!
You might think that you’d need to go on a long, arduous boat ride in order to get to the idyllic beaches of your dreams, but there are actually a handful you can head out to that will take you no more than 15 minutes to reach. These sandy white beaches surrounded by clear blue waters can be found within the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, which stretches across islands and seas. Take your pick from:
1. Gaya Island
The biggest of the islands, Gaya Island, is home to three 5-star resorts: Gayana Eco Resort, Gaya Island Resort and Bunga Raya Island Resort. So you can actually enjoy a luxurious stay on the island and take your time appreciating its natural beauty.
Covered in dense rainforest, there are over 20 kilometers’ worth of hiking trails for you to explore, and if you’re curious about Sabah’s marine ecosystem, you can learn more about it at the Marine Ecology Research Center on the east side of the island in Malohom Bay. Nearby, you can also visit the thriving overwater fishing village of Kampong Gaya, which faces Kota Kinabalu.
Enjoy some privacy on Police Beach, said to be Gaya Island’s most picturesque beach, as it’s on the northern side of the island facing the open ocean. Here, guests of Bunga Raya Island Resort have the crescent-shaped beach all to themselves. So you can relax on the beach or go snorkeling, as the crystal clear waters allow you to see the vibrant underwater life in all its glory.
2. Manukan Island
Manukan Island is the most developed of the islands, making it the most popular one to visit. It can get pretty crowded on weekends, but if you happen to visit on a weekday, you can see why it’s a favorite – there’s plenty to keep you busy.
The island hosts changing rooms and shower facilities, a couple of restaurants, and several water sport operators, if you’re keen on snorkeling or diving. Accommodations-wise, there’s Manukan Island Resort by Sutera Sanctuary Lodges, a luxury resort offering a world-class stay.
There are also two nature trails – one which goes through the island’s forested northern side, while the other is a paved path that will take you to the island’s western tip, known as Sunset Point. As the name suggests, if you make the 20-minute walk just before sundown, you’ll be able to catch a fantastic view of Sulug Island and the golden sphere of the sun as it sets over the sea.
3. Sapi Island
Slightly less teeming with tourists, yet still popular is Sapi Island, which is separated from Gaya Island by a small channel that’s just over 200 meters wide. In fact, during low tide, a sandbank appears, allowing you to walk over to Gaya Island. Although there is no accommodation on the island, you can camp on the beach and there is a restaurant and small convenience shop.
There are many water sport activities available on Sapi Island, including parasailing, banana boat ride, snorkeling, scuba diving and sea walking. For snorkeling, your best bet is the southern side of the island, as that’s where the highest concentration of corals is located. Swim further out from the beach for the best visibility (but stay within the boundaries, which indicate where it’s safe to snorkel and wear a life jacket to help you float).
If you want to try something different from the typical beachside activities, fly through the sky on the Coral Flyer, a 235-meter-long zipline between Sapi Island and Gaya Island. Purchase your ticket at the reception desk on Sapi Island, and you’ll be taken to Gaya Island for your thrilling ride over the sea back to Sapi Island. The attraction is open from 10am to 3.30pm and costs RM68 per ride. Due to its popularity, you may want to book your ticket ahead of time to avoid disappointment.
4. Mamutik Island
Though it’s the smallest island among the lot, Mamutik Island was one of my favorites, as it’s more for those who wish to relax on the beach. Under the cooling shade of the Casuarina trees, you can watch the multi-colored parachutes of the parasailers gliding over the open sea.
If you’re crowd-averse, walk down to the far end of the beach towards a rocky outcrop, where there are fewer people and you can get nice photos of the island. Explore around the island and you’re bound to come across more secluded beaches.
There’s a restaurant and small convenience shop if you’re feeling peckish. On the northern side of the island is a forested ridge, where you can walk along a short jungle trail. There are a lot of mosquitoes though, so insect repellent is a must.
5. Sulug Island
Looking to avoid beach-going crowds? Then the uninhabited Sulug Island is the one for you. Unlike the other islands, it doesn’t have any hotels, resorts or facilities to speak of – just a lovely, sandy stretch of beach that’s perfect for those who want to enjoy some peace and quiet.
Due to its lack of infrastructure or water sport activities, most boat operators would ask you why you would even want to go there. But just tell ‘em that you have a book you’ve been meaning to finish, and this is the place where you’ll finally be able to get some reading done.
Tips & Things To Note
- If you haven’t pre-booked a tour package and plan to purchase your ticket at Jesselton Point’s Ticketing Hall, be sure you’re there bright and early, especially on weekends. The ticketing counters open at 8am, so any time before 9am is best, as you can still catch the first round of boats heading out.
- If you’re traveling solo and it’s a slow day, it’s a bit trickier, as you’ll probably have to wait for others to fill up the boat first before heading out.
- The base price for heading out to one island is around RM30, including terminal fees. For each additional island you wish to visit, it’s another RM10. For island-hopping, the boats will take you to all islands except Gaya Island, and you’ll have to chose which islands you want to visit at the counter, so feel free to enquire and compare at several counters before deciding.
- If you’re planning on doing some snorkeling (and you should – the islands have spectacular underwater views!), ask your boat operator whether you can rent the necessary equipment from them, as it’s cheaper compared to renting from water sports operators on the islands and you can take them with you from island to island. It’s usually around RM15 to rent a mask, snorkel and fins.
- Boat operators will usually set a time for when they’ll pick you up to take you to your next island or back to the city, so don’t lose track of time or you may get stranded! The last boat back to Kota Kinabalu leaves around 4pm.
- Hold on to your ticket and keep it someplace safe (and dry), as boat operators will check your ticket before allowing you onboard.
- Save money by bringing along pre-packed, picnic-friendly food and drinks, as it would be more expensive to eat at the restaurants and food stalls on the islands.
- If you plan to lounge on the beach, don’t forget to bring something to sit on – I brought a kain batik, which is lightweight and easy to fold. A foldable umbrella would also be handy for when it gets too sunny. Otherwise, you may have to pay to rent a lounge chair and beach umbrella.
- Remember: “Take only photographs, leave only footprints.” Help keep the islands as pristine as you found them so that others after you can appreciate them, too!
Visitors to the islands will need to pay a one-off conservation fee to support the marine park’s conservation efforts. You can do this at any of the visitor centers connected to the jetty of each island.
Children (below 18 years old): RM3
Children (below 6 years old): Free
Senior Citizens: RM3
Children (below 18 years old): RM15
Children (below 6 years old): RM10
Senior Citizens: RM15
With such gorgeous tropical paradises so conveniently close to Kota Kinabalu, you can’t pass up this opportunity – so quick, book your island getaway on Traveloka today!