YTL has long held a reputation for luxurious escapes in lush natural environments around Malaysia. Their latest opening, Gaya Island Resort is no different. A 15 minute transfer from Kota Kinabalu airport sets you alight at Sutera Harbour. With views of a sapphire sea and envy-invoking ivory yachts, the YTL Lounge is a white bright cool haven from the outside tropical heat. A creamy calamansi sorbet refreshes while you’re seated on couches and the friendly staff organize your check-in. Soon you’re escorted to YTL’s speedboat, and a quick hair tanglingly invigorating ride later you arrive in a Bornean paradise. Set amongst the lush forest, rather than in place of it, Gaya Island Resort is a model of friendship between the natural and the man-made. Trees protrude through walkways, mangroves encroach on boardwalks and lush gardens frame communal spaces. While minimum plant life was touched to build the resort, an assertive planting program is in place to regreen the areas that now hold artificial structures. Vines are already making their way across cement walls and up metal supports. Before too long, it will be an extensive expanse of leaves, and villas will resemble floating tree houses ascending the hills.
Glorious aquamarine waters, a palm dotted coastline and gardens that unfurl down to the sea’s edge was not what I was expecting from this well located Shangri-La property, but it’s what I found and more. Being within a few minutes of both the city of Kota Kinabalu and the airport, I was expecting more of a business hotel without too many frills, what I found however, was all you can imagine a tropical paradise could be. Ten minutes from the airport, 10 minutes to the city and 10 minutes by boat to the marine park, you can’t ask for a more convenient site. Both the hustle and bustle of the town and the serenity of nature are at your doorstep. My pick though is the great outdoors… and mountains, jungle and sea await. Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in Malaysia, is about 80km east of Kota Kinabalu, and Tanjung Aru’s sister resort, Rasa Ria, possesses its own Nature Reserve, home to orphaned orangutans and a host of native flora and fauna. For sea lovers, the Tunku Adbdul Rahman Marine Park offers five islands surrounded by glistening sandy beaches, shallow azure waters and colourful coral gardens.
Situated on the Eastern tip of Malaysian Borneo, Sandakan is quickly gaining a reputation for being the gateway to Borneo’s abundant wildlife. While its neighbor to the west, Kota Kinabalu, may have more notoriety, Sandakan’s tourism board is hard at work raising awareness of the city’s nearby gems, among them historical landmarks, the orangutan and sun bear sanctuaries and the spectacular rainforest experience. (See my upcoming post on Things To See Around Sandakan.) Needless to say, when the opportunity came for me to venture to Borneo, I was thrilled. But as much as I fancy myself the outdoor, backpacking type, in actuality I find great comfort in knowing that after a long day of adventure-seeking, I can retire to a nice hotel room where the wi-fi is fast, the water is hot, the food is good, and I can find some fun without going far. In that order. Especially when traveling with my kids! Sheraton provided all this and then some, a great place to recoup and unwind after a long, hot day in the jungle. It is the only international hotel brand in the city, elevating the hospitality industry in Sandakan, both metaphorically and literally - the hotel stands as the tallest building in the city at 27 floors.
Speaking of adventures, the hotel is happy to make arrangements for site-seeing and I’m told can often get better deals than if you go it alone. Make it easy on yourself and just drop them a line, tell them what you want to do, and let them arrange it for you. Happy eco-travels!
The freshest of local produce is unloaded as the afternoon shadows lengthen and empty stalls fill up rapidly with shiny chilies, ripe mangoes, burnished aubergines and more. A cry of ‘tuna’ catches my ear and I gasp to see a hunk of dark fish being freshly butchered.
As hungry people emerge from the day’s work, or tourism tasty local street fare is prepared and hawked all around. Smoky barbecue offers fresh and spicy chicken.
Fresh corn, nuts and chickpea make great side dishes.
Delicious looking local snacks are everywhere.
Deep fried plantain melts my resistance and I give in to this tasty bite. The Waterfront offers a range of low key eating and drinking options overlooking the harbour. It’s a great spot to soak up some atmosphere and enjoy a delightful ocean outlook.
Peppino, Italian Restaurant, Shangri-La's Tanjung Aru Resort: Winner of the Sabah Tourism awards, Peppino Italian restaurant at Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort has a reputation in the city of Kota Kinabalu for elegant dining without the snobbery. Yes please, do dress well, but relax and feel welcomed by the friendly wait staff and an adorable chef. Seating is either in air-conditioned comfort with dim lighting, wine racks and, an abundance of glass and timber or, outside in the fresh sea air. Candlelit tables dot the al fresco patio and are adorned with fresh floral arrangements. Views of the nightlights shimmering off the pool and sounds of the gentle waves lapping the shore bestow holiday resort mood. For a romantic opening, a bottle of Taittinger Brut Reserve is in order. First introduced to this French drop a few months ago, it has swiftly become one that I hopefully anticipate on a bubbly menu. Priced at RM75 a glass and RM360 a bottle, this sparkling wine is distinguished by a delicate aroma and a palate of ample profundity. Leveled with hints of honey, fresh fruit and toasty yeast, it has a long, fresh finish. Sunset Bar, Shangri-La's Tanjung Aru Resort:
Sitting on its own island, the Sunset Bar is circled by rocks and water and shaded by coconut palms. A pebble floor supports a U shaped open bar, ceilinged with a traditional carved boat. The roof is high – protecting its occupants from the weather but encouraging the ocean-cooled breeze to pass through. A wooden deck rims the outer border and is lined with a double row of cushioned floor lounges that fan out to the sea. Choose to sit here, on high stools on the grass or directly at the bar and in earshot of the barman’s tale of the day. It doesn’t matter where you settle, views are guaranteed from every angle. Finger food such as: grilled bratwurst; a local twist on the standard chicken wings with a Percik marinade; beef and chicken satay and; a Mediterranean add-on with Turkish bread and gourmet
We find that Coast has a decent wine list including a variety served by the glass. Jeremy assures us that fine wines are easily procured for the more discerning diner. Meantime, we regular diners plump for a sweet round and clean Californian White Zinfandel (RM39) and a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc with notes of lime and pepper, which proves a good choice with fish (RM40). In presentation, Chicken Terrine (from the set menu) echoes the underwater theme; a black sea anemone sits among coral tendrils. We delight in the fine moist texture, the chicken flavour full but subtle. It’s a memorable dish.Fettuccine Pasta bursts with the Mediterranean flavours of black olives, semi dried tomato, garden basil and Parmesan shavings. Capers give a zing to the dish, which is slippery and tasty and soon devoured by Jeremy (after we've had our fare spoonful). Pan fried sea bass is elegantly presented with the lemon beurre blanc served separately, by far my preference with fish. Cutting through the crispy skin reveals moist flakes with a good dense flavour. One of the best-cooked pieces of fish I’ve eaten in Malaysia, and the lemon sauce delicate and light. Delicious.
Not many spas can boast their own private island. Chi, The Spa however is perched upon Pulau Bayu (“island of the wind” in Malay) a short walk from Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort. A spacious reception welcomes guests with natural breeze from fans, the tinkle of running water from the centre fountain and the delicate scents of aromatherapy oils. This secluded island sanctuary features eight island villas each facing the sea. Gardened pathways weave between the private treatment rooms and a variety of lounging, steaming and bathing facilities are dotted throughout. There are even three couples’ villas perfect for a truly indulgent stay.Tea and a scented cold towel are served while you fill out a pre-treatment questionnaire. Intended to tailor the therapy to your individual needs you’re asked to list any illnesses, injuries or sensitivities and also to state your preferences in terms of colour, taste and temperature. Finally you can request the strength and type of pressure you prefer along with body parts for focus or avoidance.
A mere 20 minutes from the Four Points by Sheraton lies the area of Sepilok, a division of Sandakan which houses several sanctuaries in the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve. The Orangutan Sanctuary focuses primarily on rehabilitation and releasing orphaned orangutans back into the wild. It is not a zoo, but a place where the orangutans roam freely. As such, it is important to remember these are wild animals, and our tour guide tells us in no uncertain terms to avoid bright clothing, lest the orangutans mistake us for a giant walking banana! Visitors are restricted to the wooden walkways that make a path through the jungle and lead to viewing platforms where we wait to watch the orangutans arrive for the 10 am feeding (there’s also one at 3pm). Seeing the orangutans is not guaranteed, but arriving during feeding time will increase your chances.
Our group arrives at the viewing platform and immediately we see two sun bears in their large forest enclosures. Before they retreat, we are quick to snap pictures of these adorable bears, the smallest sub-species. This is purely an educational visit for members of the media, and Wong is already talking passionately about the centre and his work. His excitement is contagious, and I can’t imagine these creatures could have a better spokesperson. Watch Wong Te Siew's TedxKL talk on the sun bears here. The sun bears at the centre are kept in varying enclosures based on their rehabilitation level. On his website, Wong writes, “Conservationists are nursing [the centre’s 27 bears] back to health and where necessary, educating in how to be a wild bear. The intention is then to release them into the forest.”
Only two kilometers from the Orangutan and Sun Bear Sanctuaries lies Sepilok’s Rainforest Discovery Centre, a place where one can walk beautiful trails through the forest, bird watch, and maybe even see an orangutan! Our first stop was the Plant Discovery Garden, where our guide talked about some of the amazing flora of the rainforests. I loved the orchids and the pitcher plants and was blown away by some of the biggest ferns I’ve ever seen! It was helpful and fun to have our guide, but for those going it alone, interpretive panels provided plenty of interesting information.
By far the most poignant of the sites to visit in Sandakan is the Memorial Park, the site of the Mile 8 POW camp. Being from the United States and a generation or two removed from World War II, I was unaware of the historical importance of Sandakan in relation to the war and deeply moved by what I learned here. The Japanese took hold of Sandakan in 1942 and established a POW camp there with prisoners brought from Singapore, all British and Australian soldiers, in order to build an airstrip. In 1945, after 3 years of life in horrific conditions, the surviving 2,400 POWs were marched by the Japanese to Ranau, 260km away. Those who could not make the journey were shot, and 500 died along the way. The rest perished at the camp in Ranau. Only six prisoners survived to tell the tale, two by escaping during the death march and the other four from the camp at Ranau. Upon exiting the centre, a lovely wooden walkway lead us to the former site of the Big Tree, a huge tree which could be seen from miles around. This tree was in the center of the camp, very near to the guardhouse and the site of the “cage”, an appalling version of solitary confinement. After the war, the tree was cut down and this memorial erected. I highly recommend this as the most important place to see during your visit in Sandakan. It is quite near the city and takes 45 minutes to an hour to stroll the well-kept grounds and read the information provided on plaques along the way.
A trip to Sandakan’s waterfront wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Central Market. This multi-story wet market sells everything you could need including dried fish (tons of it!), clothing, pearls, bags, produce and meats. The highlight is, of course, the fresh seafood. Early in the morning the boats dock, bringing their bounties with them to sell. It's fun just to wander through and check out the day’s catch, which the fisherman are proud and eager to show off. If you want to take some amazingly fresh seafood back home with you, the locals will pack it for you to take on the plane. Reason to Visit: Glimpse local life, grab a bite, and take home the freshest of fresh seafood.