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The Islands & Beaches of Kota Kinabalu

By Pamela Fletcher
Images by Sabah Tourism Board

Snorkeling off the islands

The coral islands just off the coast of Kota Kinabalu have been attracting visitors to its shores for centuries. From wandering fishermen in the past to sun seekers and water sport buffs of today, the islands continue to captivate with its clear waters, underwater life and sand beaches.

Mamutik, Manukan and Sapi are the most popular islands in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, about 15-20 minutes by boat from the city. A clear day will afford gorgeous views of the forest clad islands as you approach them, and towards the city, views of Mt. Kinabalu in the distance.  Picnic tables and tented dining areas for larger tourist groups line the beaches while water sport centres offer a host of activities from snorkelling to diving, parasailing, windsurfing and banana boat rides.

Wet, wild and wonderful

Day trippers throng the islands during peak tourist season and school holidays so if you want to get away from the crowd, spending the day on a pontoon is just the ticket. Borneo Reef World ( operates the largest pontoon in South East Asia, and the second largest in the world. They offer a range of water sports like snorkelling, kayaking, jet skiing, banana boat, sea walking, scuba diving and parasailing.

Banana boat ride
Walking on the sea bed

Sea walking is a novel way to explore the underwater realm, especially for non-swimmers as no swimming skills is required. With a helmet securely fastened over your head to keep you dry from the neck up, you are lowered to the seabed where you can take a walk while being surrounded by amazing marine life. It’s the absolute freedom of not having to worry about breathing underwater, or messing up your hair, that is quite surreal. It’s a great family sport that anyone from the age of 10 and above can do safely.

The flourishing coral reefs in Sabah waters

The pontoon has an Underwater Observatory Aquarium which gives you the extraordinary experience of being underwater as schools of fish swirl about or dart in and out of the coral reefs while up above, the Fish Education Platform showcases the ocean’s big fish and brings home a message to viewers on marine conservation in a bid to promote awareness on sustainable seafood.

Zip line on Pulau Sapi

Take a break from soaking up the sun on the beach and enjoy panoramic views of the islands from above. At 250m long, the Coral Flyer ( is the longest island-to-island zip line in Borneo and is an exhilarating ride between the islands of Sapi and Gaya.  A short jungle trail leads you to the take off platform on Gaya where you gear up in safety equipment before zipping over to Sapi. Be sure to keep your eyes open so you don’t miss a thing.

Cruise into the sunset

The North Borneo Cruise on a sunset ride along the city’s famous Waterfront

The islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman Park are beautiful by day and night. The recently launched North Borneo Cruise ( is a 2-hour scenic cruise past the islands of the marine park and down the central coast gliding along the city’s famous Waterfront. Take your pick of a sunset cruise (4.50pm-7.00pm) or an after-dark soiree (7.50pm-10.00pm) and be dazzled by the natural hues of sunset and twinkling city lights. On the main deck, an air-conditioned—fully enclosed and unimpeded by weather—buffet dining area combines sightseeing with on-stage live performances including a Bamboo Orchestra performance on weekends.

Island sojourn

The Fisherman’s Cove at the Gayana Marine Resort

Once the day trippers have left, Manukan Island will slowly ease into tranquillity and you can enjoy all the comforts of the Sutera Sanctuary Lodge Manukan ( amid the soothing sounds of the sea and views of the setting sun in the horizon. While over on the other side of Gaya Island behind the sprawling water villages is Malohom Bay and Polish Beach where the luxury island resorts of Gayana Marine Resort (, Bunga Raya Resort ( , and Gaya Island Resort ( offer privacy and exclusivity with breathtaking views of the South China Sea from their beachside and hillside villas.

Tropical paradise comes pretty close to describing the island resorts of Gaya as you will be truly pampered with spa treatments, delectable cuisine, luxurious accommodation and endless ocean views with gorgeous sunsets to end each day.

This article first appeared in the July-Sept 2017 issue of Borneo Insider’s Guide magazine.