Kota Kinabalu, capital of Sabah in Malaysia, at the north of Borneo island, makes the most of its waterfront location. The city, commonly referred to simply as ‘KK’, makes good use of it’s location fronting the South China Sea. With picturesque islands a short boat ride away and rich fishing grounds within easy reach, there’s lots to do and eat. The beautiful waterfront location serves up a perfect mix of sea sun and seafood.
Sea sun and seafood
Sabah, located at the northern end of Borneo island, is surrounded on three sides by water and blessed with some of the world’s best diving spots including Sipadan in the East, near Tawau.The waters around Sabah are well stocked with fish, lobsters clams and other seafood and support a thriving fishing industry. Close to Kota Kinabalu, the sea is an integral part of the city. As you fly in you’ll land at Kota Kinabalu International Airport, situated beside the beach so you really can’t miss it.
Early morning at the Waterfront
There’s very little difference in the length of the day in the tropics, close to the equator. In Kota Kinabalu the sun rises between 6am and 6.30 am, and sets between 6 and 6.30pm. This makes it fairly easy to plan your early morning visit to the waterfront to catch the fishermen preparing their boats for the day. There are usually a few locals trying their luck with a fishing line over the railing near the big Marlin statue in front of the roundabout . And if you’re lucky, you’ll catch a spectacular sunrise behind the city skyline.
Island hopping is relatively easy for the independent traveller, you just need to buy a ferry ticket and hop on and off as you prefer. Do check first though, as Covid-19 has played havoc with availability.
There are five islands off the coast close to Kota Kinabalu that make up the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. Gaya Island is the largest and is home to a large mostly illegal immigrant population from the Philippines. These are a couple of resorts on the island, but book these directly and use the transport provided. The island was designated a forest reserve in 1923 and it’s home to a Marine Ecology Research Centre and a number of resorts and eco-tourism activities. Tourists aren’t advised to make visits to the rest of Gaya Island.
Sapi is close to Pulau Gaya (Gaya Island) and is also worth a visit. The other three islands, Manukan, Mamutik and Sulug are grouped fairly close together and likewise easily visible from the city. Fast speedboats depart to the islands in the park at regular intervals from Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal in Kota Kinabalu at the northern end of the city proper. Manukan is the largest of the three and the boats stop here first. Currently this seems to be the single stop, but best to check before you buy your ticket. There is accommodation available on Manukan, but you’ll need to have a prior booking.
Boats depart hourly between 8 am to 4 pm every day and life jackets are issued. You must choose the correct size and wear it before you board. Because you’ll need it on the return trip, you’re expected to carry it with you all day. We couldn’t find any lockers when we arrived at Manukan island, and everyone else was carrying their own. Different companies have different colours, so it’s easy for them to identify you on the way back without collecting your ticket. The last boats from the islands back to Kota Kinabalu are around 5pm.
Ticket pricing[table style=”table-striped”]
|Boat ticket (Return fares)||RM 23||RM 18
|Terminal Fee (Jesselton Point)||RM 7.63||RM 3.82|
|Tunku Abdul Rahman Park Conservation Fee
(paid once at first island visited)
|RM 20||RM 5||RM 15 (below18yrs)
RM 10 (below 6yrs)
|RM 3 (6-17 years)
Below 6, Free
Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park Islands
Manukan Island is the second biggest island in this park after Gaya Island and is the recommended island to go for snorkelling, diving and swimming. There are many coral reefs and a wide range of colourful fish to make snorkelling fun especially if you’ve brought children along with you. The water is quite shallow, with small ripples. Do remember to wear a safety vest to enable you to float if you’re not a confident swimmer. You can rent one at the beach.
The seasport shop is on the beach side of the snack bar. They are a good place to rent snorkelling gear and safety vests if you need them.
Given the current Covid-19 restrictions, with boat routes curtailed, you’ll most likely have to be happy with spending the day at Manukan Island. There’s actually more than enough to keep you busy. There are plenty of picnic tables and shady casuarina trees to make a picnic an option. Bring your own, or get simple food, dinks and ice creams from the small snackbar. There are also two restaurants.
The public shower, toilets and change rooms are located about half way along the beach. Turn inland at the rack holding a few (deactivated) World War 2 bombs. It’s close to the snackbar and restaurants. A little further in, there is a small Marine Education Centre with various of the local wildlife on display. The Centre is open every day between 8am and 3pm. It’s closed between 12 and 2pm on Fridays but open until 4pm. Entry is free, though we couldn’t find any staff around to explain some of the displays as there is almost no information shown. While the centre is clean and the occupants appear healthy, we were disappointed at the number of displays and the lack of information and assistance.
There are around 20 dive sites around Manukan Island of varying depths. The best dive site is said to be the submerged Mid Reef. It is being flagged as temporarily closed, but do check if the status has changed. It’s a great place to enjoy several types of hard coral, sponges and anemones. Look out for the rare Panda clownfish, found only at the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park.
Make sure you’re back at the jetty well before the time you want to leave, especially if it’s the last service of the day. We had enough time to head off up the walking track, though we only made it to around 100m, because the path was blocked by fallen branches. There is a 1.5km jungle trekking trail that heads off uphill just before this, and an entrance to accommodation, which overlooks the sea.
Check out the day’s catch
While you’ll have a wider choice of cooking styles at restaurants in town, you might like to join the locals at the Todak Waterfront night seafood market. There’s a huge selection of fish, shellfish and various other sea creatures including bugs and lobsters. We were fascinated by some, like the zebra sea snail (Melo melo). In the end, we decided to go with a barbequed flatfish, washed down with an avocado shake. The fish was delicious, and it can stand well on its own, especially if you have a plate of vegetable to go with it. If you don’t want the sauce, just ask the cook to leave it off.
Prices were reasonable, though certainly not ‘cheap’ The prices, per 100gm are posted above the seafood on display.
Enjoy the sunset
A KK sunset is worth finding a good spot to enjoy the view. Especially if there’s just the right amount of interesting cloud. You have the perfect blend of water, sky and some well placed islands. Some great places to get a good view and some spectacular photos include Signal Hill Observatory Tower (see our story coming soon), the Waterfront or if you’re lucky to have a sea facing room in your accommodation, you’re in business. If you have wheels, another great place is the beach at Likas Bay, just north of the city, along Jln Tun Faud Stephen. This location also has a jogging track and is a very popular hang out place for locals. Definitely a great destination to enjoy their sea sun and seafood.