A Week In Kota Kinabalu – Island hopping in Sabah

ChadMalaysia, Travelogues3 Comments

Manukan Island - view from the dock
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Choosing between the hotels in Kota Kinabalu

Kota Kinabalu offers a great value as far as accommodations go. Numerous 3-4 star hotels are available for low-low prices. We ended up staying in the Oceania Hotel, a big clean property, for around $30 a night. The hotel’s only downside, the Oceania Hotel is a little far from the city center, was made up for by the complimentary shuttle rides to the city which were provided by the hotel.

If I visit Kota Kinabalu again, I will choose to spend a little more and stay in a place like the Borneo Beach Villas. These gorgeous apartments offer seclusion and relaxation that I want from Sabah. Alternatively, more pocket-friendly options are available to backpackers and those on a budget.

From one island to another – to another

A visit to Kota Kinabalu wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the many islands surrounding the capital of Sabah. If you are a savvy traveler it is possible to plan your own excursions to the island. To do this you will need to make your way to one of the docks that offer passenger trips. The most popular docks are

If you want the details to be handled by a professional you can consider joining a tour offered by one of the countless travel agencies in the area. The price will vary based on how many islands you want to see in a day and will include all fees and snorkel/life jacket rentals.

Taking the boat to Sapi Island

Taking the boat to Sapi Island

Our hotel offered a one-day island hopping trip that included snorkeling and other activities at two islands. The cost of the trip was 140 RM per person inclusive of a delicious buffet lunch. We went to sleep early that night to ensure we were well rested for our 8am departure. The guide that arrived in the morning spoke excellent English as do many people in Sabah. In fact, I have rarely had a problem communicating with people during my travels in Malaysia.


Starting the day with a visit to Sapi Island

Beautiful Sapi Island

Beautiful Sapi Island

Tours to the islands utilize speed boats to make quick trips between the islands. The journey will be fairly choppy so if you are prone to seasickness you may want to prepare some medication or consider a land-based tour.

The first place our group headed to was Sapi Island, a (relatively) small island to the east of the popular Gaya Island.  I was still sunburned from our rafting excursion so I made sure to slather on the sunscreen this time. There will be a lot of days in the sun in the week ahead and I would rather not have painfully red skin for the rest of the trip.

The water around Sapi was very clear and pretty. The first thing I did after applying sunscreen was to grab a snorkeling mask and head into the water. There was a large amount of fish visible in the water around Sapi Island, although they were a bit skittish. Some of the fish were fairly big and made for a good snorkeling experience. The water was perfectly clear and offered great visibility. It had been around 10 years since I went snorkeling last so I was pretty happy to try it again. If I go again I would be happy to spend the whole day at Sapi Island.

Sapi Island also offers a diverse range of water sports and activities to cater to the needs of tourists. For a fee you can enjoy a banana boat ride, parasailing, fly fish boat, and much more. We chose to try the Jet Ski which cost 170 RM for 30 minutes. The experience was great because we were able to operate the jet ski by ourselves. A lot of places I have visited ask you to sit in the back while the staff gives you a ride on the jet ski. That is probably safer but too boring in my opinion.

On to Manukan Island

Let's visit Manukan Island

Let’s visit Manukan Island

After eating a buffet lunch at Sapi Island our group was ready to head to the second island of the day, Manukan Island. The ride on the boat to Manukan Island was very fast as the islands aren’t too far apart. In my opinion, the island had less to offer than Sapi, an hour or two spent snorkeling here should be enough. The island itself is beautiful and, like the other islands in the area is heavily forested. The only problem was with the visibility underwater. The water around the beach was murky and made observing the fish nearly impossible. However, there was a solitary puffer fish that enjoyed following me around. We spent a few minutes swimming around with each other before parting ways. I would be interested in hearing your experiences with Manukan Island. Perhaps I went on a bad day, or maybe a swim farther from shore would lead to a better snorkeling experience?

Concluding the island hopping tour

Island hopping in Sabah

“I’d rather be island hopping in Sabah”

Many people who island hop around Sabah choose to visit the Gaya Island Resort but I’m glad we visited some of the smaller islands on this trip. Gaya Island may be the biggest, but Sapi Island and Manukan Island won us over with their charm.

In the beginning, I wanted to visit three islands in one day. I thought we should get as much done as possible since the next chance to visit Sabah will likely come far into the future. However, at the end of the day, I was thoroughly satisfied with the two-island experience. If we tried to do more, the day would be too rushed and not as enjoyable and relaxing as it was. Sometimes going slow and taking in the sights is the best choice.

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