All boxed up

Distributing boxes of hope to impoverished children in The Philippines


This month Hong Kong charity Box of Hope is getting stuck into the delivery of nearly 30,000 Christmas boxes of donated gifts to under-priveleged communities throughout Asia. Director Sian Trodd tells Carolynne Dear how a recycled shoebox can be a thing of joy


One minute you’re lazing happily on a junk with a sea-breeze in hand, the next there’s tinsel and mulled wine everywhere you turn.

Each year, Christmas seems to come earlier and earlier, and particularly so for Sian Trodd, the new director of Box of Hope. Now in its tenth year, the local charity has been beavering away since Easter to ensure its infamous gift boxes reach those most in need this festive season.

The charity distributes shoeboxes full of Christmas cheer to disadvantaged children throughout Hong Kong, Macau, China, Cambodia and the Philippines. What started as a mini-project at former director Nicole Woolhouse’s children’s school has now mushroomed into almost 30,000 boxes of hope being handed out to children via over 40 charities throughout Asia. Trodd and her team are effectively bringing Christmas to almost 28,000 poverty-stricken children every year.

“The boxes used to be packed in Nicole’s apartment,” explains Trodd, who took over as director in April after Woolhouse moved back to the UK. “It grew and they were offered space in the offices of lawyers Allen & Overy in Exchange Square. But when they started moving in on desk space it became evident that the project was really taking off and Allen & Overy kindly persuaded their landlord to offer a vacant space for a couple of weeks from which we could pack the boxes.”

The raison d’etre behind the project was for kids to help kids. Woolhouse’s own children, plus classmates from Kellett School, simply got some old shoeboxes together and filled them with small but useful gifts. The idea stemmed from similar projects Woolhouse had seen in action in the UK. In the first year they distributed 800 boxes to underprivileged children throughout Hong Kong.

Ten years on and the gift drive is one of the best-known events on Hong Kong’s charity calendar. Each year around 140 preschools and schools take part, along with corporate organisations, church groups and individuals. “There are a team of 12 of us,” explains Trodd. “We get together in April to talk dates and start planning, and then when everyone returns from the summer holidays it’s all systems go.”

Schools are sent stickers and instruction packs and children are invited to bring in their packed and wrapped shoeboxes full of gifts from the end of October. If schools have over 50 boxes to contribute, Trodd and the team will organise for a truck to pick up the donations – this year collections will take place between November 6 and 10. If there are under 50 boxes, the school is encouraged to partner with another school, or for a parent or teacher to volunteer to run the boxes into the packing space in Exchange Square.

Then, over the following three weeks, around 200 volunteers will open and check every single box in order for it to pass through customs.

“We say no to liquids, but yes to toothpaste,” says Trodd. “We recommend that every box contains a bar of soap, a tube of toothpaste and a toothbrush, some sort of stationery – something to write with and something to write on is a good starting point – and then a treat, such as a small toy, or some Lego, or a pack of playing cards.”

Memorable boxes include one filled entirely with the proceeds of a lemonade stall – four children organized the stand in their building so they had the funds to donate scores of filled boxes, each one lovingly packed and decorated.

Woolhouse recalls another little girl who saved up her pocket money for a year and packed it up along with a handwritten note. “She so wanted to share some happiness,” says Woolhouse. “Every year our volunteers were simply overwhelmed by the generosity, thoughtfulness and kindness of Hong Kong’s schoolchildren.”

“A huge amount of thought goes into some of these boxes,” admits Trodd. “We safeguard the integrity of the boxes as much as possible when we’re checking them, but sometimes we do have to step in. We get the odd box where someone has basically emptied the dregs of their stationery draw, stubs of pencils and so forth. We ask for everything to be new and unused, a proper Christmas present.”

Local charities Clean the World ( and Soap Cycling ( donate thousands of bars of soap, which are also added to the boxes. “One year we ran out and one of the volunteers put the word about. Lush very kindly stepped forward and a huge parcel of goods was delivered the next day. You could certainly smell those boxes arriving in the Philippines! Hopefully we’ll be partnering with Lush again this year.”

While all the charities Box of Hope delivers to are in need, some are more in need of certain items than others. “The Hong Kong kids all need stationery, anything goes from notebooks and pens to rubbers and packets of coloured pencils. In places like Cambodia and the Philippines, they’re happy to receive anything. These children have absolutely nothing. It’s heartbreaking to see them treasuring even the cardboard box.”

The delivery trucks are provided free-of-charge by Red Box Storage and Crown Relocations for a certain number of days, after which a courier company jumps in at a discounted rate.

“The boxes destined for the Philippines and Cambodia are shipped and we are currently looking for a shipping company to offer discounted transportation,” says Trodd.

Once at the destination, local charities step in and take over.

“It’s humbling to see how excited the children are to receive these gifts,” admits Trodd. “They are living in such impoverished conditions yet all are smiling, all are so happy to see us each year.”

If you, your school or preschool would like to take part in this year’s Box of Hope campaign, contact Follow the charity on Facebook @Box of Hope and on Instagram @boxofhopehk.


Support sought for Lantau buffalo

Lantau without buffalo is like Hong Kong without shopping malls – they’re a well-loved and integral part of island life, say opponents to their proposed removal


Lantau’s bovine population is again making headlines following new moves to banish the herd to the uninhabited Soko Islands.

Fed-up with cattle related issues on what is Hong Kong’s largest island, rural chiefs and the Islands District Committee are lobbying government to remove Lantau’s cattle and buffalo herds.

This is despite earlier this year the government issuing the Sustainable Lantau Blueprint which calls for the conservation of rural Lantau’s cultural heritage and more specifically for the protection of Pui O wetland, which is the home to the local water buffalo herd.

At a recent Islands District Council meeting it was argued that the cows pose a danger to the public and to traffic on Lantau’s permit-only roads. Some sectors of the community are also reportedly angered by the animals trashing farmland and gardens.

But according to opponents of the herds’ removal, accidents caused by speeding traffic is much more of a problem than cattle on the roads.

“Sure there has been the odd incident (in 2013 a tourist was gored on Silvermine beach by a buffalo),” said Merrin Pearse, chairman of Living Islands Movement ( “But I would counter that by saying what about the other wildlife? There are attacks on people involving feral dogs practically every month. So I would say while these incidents are certainly considerations, they are not issues.”

There are currently around five cattle and three buffalo herds roaming freely on Lantau. Historically, attempts to manage the population have been partially successful.

But the removal of the herd to the Soko Islands, which lie approximately 12 kilometres south of Lantau, presents its own issues for the animals which can weigh up to a tonne.  “You’d need specially designed boats to carry them, regular monitoring by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, which of course currently doesn’t exist out there,” said Pearse. “The islands are largely uninhabited, there’s limited water supply available and no wetland to support the cattle.”

In 2007, 16 buffalo and cattle died during transportation away from Lantau and in 2013 a cattle-swapping experiment between South Lantau and Sai Kung led to the death of two cows.

“We are opposed to any kind of forced removal of cattle,” said Lantau Buffalo Association in an online statement ( “It separates them from their traditional foraging trails and is psychologically stressful.”

A petition has now been set up. “With the government’s strong intentions to ‘develop’ Lantau Island, the cows and buffaloes to them are undoubtedly obstacles to be removed before any construction commence,” it states. “These cows and buffaloes are actually facing a grim future and disappearance from Lantau Island, unless appropriate conservation measures be taken.”

“It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again, with all that’s going on in Hong Kong, is a herd of cows really the biggest issue these people have to deal with?” said Pearse. “They are an important and much loved part of Lantau life. I would challenge any visitor who’s been up to see the Buddha and hasn’t come away with a picture of a cow.”

The online petition can be found at and is open for signatories until Dec 25.


When small plates mean big business


With eight restaurants under its belt, Enoteca Group is a Hong Kong success story. It  opened its latest venue, The Picture House, in Sai Kung this month. Carolynne Dear went up for a look

Enoteca co-founder Kim Minards and Rob Cooper in The Conservatory, Sai Kung

When the sun’s shining, not much makes me smile more than a sunny terrace, a nice glass of something crisp and white and a sharing plate or two. And in an area of the world fraught with excessive rents, limited outdoor space and strict al fresco licensing, restaurant group Enoteca has done well to achieve this happy hat-trick in many of its venues.

And so on a sunny August morning I find myself in Sai Kung enjoying a flat white (it’s a little early for crisp whites, unfortunately) with Enoteca co-founder Kim Minards, chatting about the group’s latest acquisition.

A sociology graduate, she arrived in the territory as a backpacker 22 years ago but these days co-helms the expanding restaurant group as well as being mum to children Jack, eight, and Summer, six.   

“I’m British but moved to South Africa when I was seven, so I guess I enjoyed a sort of expat upbringing. After university I packed my rucksack, hit the road, and when I ran out of money, pitched up in Hong Kong.”

Pre-handover, there were no working visa restrictions for British passport holders and Minards found herself managing Stauntons in SoHo, which was where she met her husband and business partner, Rob Cooper, who was managing the (now-defunct) restaurant Bayou.

“SoHo was different then, in that there weren’t so many high street restaurants, it was more hotel dining,” she says. “When we opened our first restaurant, Enoteca, we wanted to serve good quality wine by the glass, as there seemed to be a bit of a gap in the market. We opened with 32 different wines and sharing plates of Spanish tapas-style food and it was an instant hit.”

Despite the success, Minards admits to several sleepless nights. “Oh my god, the rent! Back then we were being charged $68,000/month and we didn’t know if things would take off, so yes, I did lose sleep over it,” she laughs. Today, the rent has sky-rocketed to more than four times that amount, but despite this, she’s sleeping better.

“These days not much keeps me up at night. Fortunately the restaurants worked out” – Enoteca on Elgin was swiftly followed by The Phoenix, Bacau, Cicada, Iberico and an Enoteca in Quarry Bay – “But to be honest, I wouldn’t open another venue in SoHo now, I don’t think the rents are worth it. Even Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun don’t convince me.”

Instead, Minards’ attention has turned north to Sai Kung. Last summer the pair opened The Conservatory to great local acclaim, and have just announced they will be taking over local stalwart, Steamers.

“It’s a totally different market up here,” she admits. “The expat market is strong, and seems increasingly so with all the new schools opening.”

Locals themselves (they moved to Clearwater Bay five years ago) Minards says they are still viewed as ‘newbies’ by the local expat population. “There are a lot of old-timers up here,” she says. “We really wanted to respect the fact that they have been using Steamers for many years. Originally we wanted to re-open as The Botanist, as it sort of tied in with The Conservatory vibe, but we’ve since changed our minds. We don’t want this to become a hipster gastro-pub, it’s always been a down-to-earth ‘cold beer and pub grub’ kind of place, so we’re looking for a moniker that’s a bit more grounded and reflects this.”

It turns out the Yi Chun Street building used to be a theatre in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, but opened as Steamers in 2008 when the pub moved over the road from Sai Kung’s infamous ‘square’. Mid-twentieth century photos show the venue on the watersedge – subsequent reclamation projects now put it around 500m back from the Sai Kung waterfront.

“We were in Sri Lanka over the summer where we discovered a great place called The Old Lady By the Sea, so a name similar to that might fit the bill, but maybe something a bit shorter and snappier. It seems the building is a bit of a Sai Kung ‘grande dame’. Basically the jury’s still out, so answers on a postcard!”  

Minards explains they’re sticking with the British pub feel, but are completely gutting and updating the interior. On the day I meet with her, the builders have just gone in. The venue comes with an outdoor licence and a terrace area, adding an all-important pub garden.

“We’re keeping the pub theme, but lightening up the interiors,” she says. “We won’t be serving tapas or sharing plates, it will be proper pub food with a roast on weekends.”

The Conservatory, rented from the owners of Big Fish two doors away and previously operating as western-style bistro Grande Restaurant, was given a clean sweep of paint before it opened last summer. Portuguese-style tiles were laid on the floor and beautiful swathes of leaf-green wallpaper fixed to the far wall. It’s light and airy and also benefits from an outdoor seating licence.

“Yes, it’s worked really well,” Minards smiles. “Again, we’re the newbies up here, but I do think Sai Kung was ready for something a bit more grown up.” It does a roaring trade in Enoteca- style tapas sharing plates and platters and quality wines by the glass for lunch and dinner and the brunch trade has also been brisk. Of course all sittings are complemented by kids menus.
“Seriously, you’d be mad in a place like Sai Kung not to offer children’s food,” she says. The Conservatory is situated on Sai Kung’s ‘square’, enclosed on two sides by casual dining venues and with a children’s play area in the far corner.

Minards also admits to recently hiring somebody to manage their social media. “Facebook comments can be harsh,” she says. “We’ve seen neighbouring venues really suffer from negative comments on local groups” (Sai Kung is home to the notorious, no-holds-barred, Sai Kung Dirty Laundry Facebook group) “- frustratingly these experiences are often not followed up with diners actually approaching the management. If they did, we could do something to rectify the problem. When we first opened The Conservatory, we were fastidious about having either myself or Rob around all of the time to efficiently mop up any problems and receive customer feedback. We couldn’t afford to let the ball drop for a minute.”

Locals are faithful in their followings, as Minards has noted. Jaspas has been operating for over 20 years in the square and is seen as something of a benchmark.

“It can be intimidating, but I think we’ve proved ourselves with The Conservatory.

“We’ve also been lucky in that we’ve retained a lot of our staff over the years, which helps us with a continuous, quality service,” Minards continues. “The children have grown up with them. When Jack was tiny he used to come to work with me in SoHo all the time, and the girls used to whisk him out for lunch and dinner. I really enjoy staff training. In the old days it was all British backpackers, but now we hire more Filipinos, Nepalese and Chinese. I also work closely with the chefs. Do I have a favourite venue? I think The Conservatory, I love the decor, although I tend to move around a lot. Iberico recently opened in Yuen Long and sometimes I go up there for a buffet lunch. I also like the Asian vibe at Cicada – when we were forced to close a few years ago (the building on Cochrane Street was being renovated into apartments) locals asked us to bring it back, so we re-opened on Elgin Street. It’s funny, it turned out it was a real favourite locally, but people hadn’t made the connection that we also owned other venues.”

It seems Hong Kongers are a loyal lot. Here’s hoping the new ‘Steamers’ will make the grade.


Art with heart

The Hong Kong Human Rights Arts Prize closes for entries on November 1. Director and former winner Katie Vajda explains what makes a meaningful piece of work

Head shot - Square copy
Award-winning photographer, Katie Vajda

The prize is a platform to host important voices working at the intersection of art, society, business and human rights. It’s open to all Hong Kong and Hong Kong-based artists who enter an artwork around the broad theme of human rights.

The prize was launched by Justice Centre Hong Kong in 2013 and it has played a pivotal role in discovering and encouraging Hong Kong-based artists to explore the state of human rights both at home and abroad. Justice Centre works fearlessly to protect the rights of our most vulnerable community members bringing their voices into the public debate. They also provide people seeking protection in Hong Kong with free and independent legal information and assistance.

Essentially, the prize offers a platform for artists to create work without boundaries and to magnify the impact and exposure of their stories.

I won the prize in 2014 with a body of work called Can you see me yet, which explored issues around debt bondage and modern slavery in Hong Kong. I have now taken on the directorship for two years and I’m striving to engage with all sectors of the community, from artists, to institutions, the education sector, media, galleries and corporates, and start critical conversations about human rights, while raising awareness and funds for the front-line work of Justice Centre Hong Kong.

The brief is for artwork around the theme of human rights. There are 30 articles in the United Nations ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ which range broadly from, ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights…’ , to ‘Everyone has the right to education’ and ‘No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.’  With all nations involved in the drafting, the Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948.

Being artist-run for the first time this year, we are excited to open up the call for entries to all mediums. We have an incredible judging panel this year, made up of leaders in visual arts and culture. They will be looking for an artist’s ability to powerfully translate and interpret the theme into a fine art context through their chosen medium.

Importantly and in line with our commitment to diversity and inclusion, the judging will be conducted blind, meaning there will be no mention of name, gender, nationality, age or experience – the competition will be judged purely on the merit of the work.

The winner will be announced on December 9 and will receive $35,000 and an exclusive trophy by artist and judge, Kacey Wong. There are also two runners-up prizes and a Director’s Choice award. All shortlisted work will be exhibited at our event partner’s contemporary art space Blindspot Gallery,, from December 9-16. Follow the prize and behind the scenes action @hkhumanrightsartsprize


Danish delights Asia-side

Despite initial fears, Legoland Malaysia won us all over in the end.
We turned up for our two-night, mid-week mini-break with the thirteen-year-old muttering darkly about “totally lame holidays”, the eleven year old plugged into Minecraft, and me, well, let’s just say after a sweaty August afternoon battling the crowds at Ocean Park one year, theme parks these days are locked firmly away in my “room 101”.
The reason for the trip were my two littlies, aged eight and six, and both big Lego fans. They were bursting with excitement and eagerly descended on the huge bins full of Lego in the reception area.
The park was opened in Jahor, Malaysia, in 2012, boasting a 249-room hotel and theme park with over 40 interactive rides, shows and attractions. The adjacent water park opened its doors the following year.
We had booked an “Adventure room” (the alternative was a “Pirate room”) which was decked out in a castle theme, with flaming scones on the walls, a four-poster double bed with a coate of arms hanging over it and various other castle-like details. Little touches like lego shaped bars of soap and a lego treasure hunt leading to a goodie bag in the safe when we first checked in took it to the next level for the kids.
The room itself was entirely practical for large families – there was a lounge area, two sets of bunk beds with pull out trundles, two bathrooms and a separate double bedroom. There was also a travel-cot neatly stowed in one of the wardrobes.
Further attractions include an open air pool on the roof and restaurants. Unfortunately we never got to use the pool – after a full day in the park and dinner, everybody was more than ready to hit the hay.
The restaurants comprised the Bricks Family restaurant, the Skyline Bar (which with four kids in tow we never got around to using), and the Di Mattoni Restaurant. The Bricks Family restaurant was buffet style, but rather bland for adult tastes. The Di Mattoni Restaurant on the second night was more of a hit. There is also a small shopping mall adjacent to the hotel which did a good line in cafes, sandwich shops and waffle bars.
However, the highlight of the hotel were the lifts, which boasted spinning glitter balls and piped disco classics (Village People, anyone?). By the third consecutive ascent/descent I feared we were never actually going to reach the park.
The park itself is divided into several areas – Lego City, Imagination, Lego Technic, Miniland, Lego Kingdom and so on. Mid-week the crowds were non-existent and we barely had to queue all day. There was enough to keep all ages satisfied, with Project X (an aerial roller coaster) in Lego Technic the overall favourite.
We had pre-bought two-day tickets, so having nailed the theme park on day one, we used the second day to explore the waterpark. This has been imaginatively constructed, with big foam lego bricks to build your own raft on the lazy river, and a lego boat construction area with water feature for racing the finished vessels. This kept the six-year old fully engaged for almost an hour. Again, there were enough thrill rides and flumes to keep the older kids happy, too.
By the second night I was feeling a bit lego-ed out, but the kids were now hooked, all four of them happily adding bricks to a huge Lego mural on the wall of the Italian restaurant.
“Actually, it was pretty cool,” admitted the 13-year old in the car back to Singapore, before plugging herself back onto Instagram. High praise indeed.

Booking details for Legoland Malaysia are at
The park can be reached by flying to Singapore, from where a Legoland car can be booked to meet you from the airport.

Racing the sun


Running legend Scott Jurek (right) with Moontrekker founder, William Sargent.

Scott Jurek, one of the world’s greatest runners, has just landed in Hong Kong from his home in the US. He’s here to take part in this coming weekend’s Moontrekker event, a 43km overnight trail run from Mui Wo to Pui O beach. The aim of the game is to beat the sun.

A running dynamo, Jurek’s credits include the 153-mile Spartathlon, the Hardrock 100, the Badwater 135-Mile Ultramarathon and  – his signature race – the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run. He also recently completed the Appalachian Trail, running around 50 miles a day over 46 days – “I did have a bit of a rest after that,” he admits. Basically, he’s a running phenomenon.

First up, he loves Lantau. “I first came to Hong Kong fifteen years ago (to take part in Oxfam Trailwalker) and was amazed by the mountains here. It’s quite special.”

He claims he will be running Moontrekker “for fun”, not for speed. But somehow I feel he won’t have any problems beating that sun.

As for advice on tackling the 43km overnight challenge, he says lighting is a good place to start.

“You’ve still got time to sort your lighting out,” he advises, as we tuck into a delicious afternoon tea in SoHo’s Grassroots Pantry. “I’m a big fan of getting the brightest headlamp possible. And I always use lithium batteries because they’re nice and light – don’t forget to make sure you have brand new ones. I’ve been there with the fading beam, convinced that the batteries would be good for another hour or so.”

In terms of energy, he reckons you don’t need to break out the caffeine until three or four hours into the race. “I know it will be dark, but the start is still within a time when most people would normally be awake. Save the caffeine gels for a few hours in. During the run, you need calories, so make sure you’re eating something – gels, energy drinks, etc. – every thirty minutes or so right through to the end.

“I also try and set goals along the way, other than just completing the course. This keeps me motivated. There will be challenges – bad weather, injury, whatever – but I always think it’s at these points we grow the most. Embrace those tough times – and believe me, I’ve had a few. Trail running is all about being adaptable.”

Post-race, Jurek admits to enjoying a bit of “comfort” food. “I kind of feel I deserve it. A beer can be good, although maybe not at dawn. I do hear a breakfast will be laid on, though?”

A committed vegan, he enjoys a varied, plant-based diet, although warns that this doesn’t mean low calorie. “With any kind of sport, if you’re burning energy you need calories to increase muscle mass. If you go too low fat, your energy ends up being low. I love a good salad, but you need more than that to keep run-fit. After every run, you should be looking to consume carbs and proteins within 30 minutes of finishing.”

He experimented a lot in the beginning, did a lot of reading, and it took around a year and a half for him to become completely vegan. “I did it gradually, which worked for me. I think people can be very hard on themselves, a change in diet like this is a big thing and not everybody has the personality to persevere with such a change all in one go. Don’t be too hard on yourself.”

At the end of the day, he says, enjoy it. “To be out on the trails, enjoying the environment, with a bunch of like-minded people, that’s what I love about this sport.”


While Jurek talked, we enjoyed delicious sharing plates of Smoked Carrot Toasties, Popcorn “chicken” (Hedgehog mushroom in BBQ Amino sauce), Coconut Sugar Cannoli and Macca Pudding pots. Grassroots Pantry is at 108 Hollywood Road, Central.

Find out more by reading Jurek’s best-selling memoir Eat & Run, and international best-seller Born To Run. A third book, focusing on his experiences on the Appalachian Trail, is due for publication next year.

Moontrekker takes place on the evening of 14 October,

Happy days with the kids in Kota Kinabalu

It’s that time of year again. The kids are on mid-term break and the cooler weather has ushered in “Granny season”. So with four children aged between eight and 14 to entertain, plus septuagenarian Nanny and Grandad from the UK, the Shangri La Rasa Ria resort in Kota Kinabalu was looking like a no-brainer.

We’ve been enjoying short breaks at this beachside hotel since 2011, so knew what to expect. Great pool – tick; good quality on-site restaurants – tick; plenty of “cocktails with sunset” opportunities – tick; kids club – tick; short flight – tick (it’s just 2hrs30 from Chek Lap Kok, although a fifty minute shuttle bus run from KK airport to the hotel).

The tranquil Ocean Wing pool.

This time we decided to upgrade to the Ocean Wing, and wow, it was worth it. Although we have loved our little holidays in the Garden Wing, the kids have grown over the years and a water slide and proximity to the kids club is no longer such a priority.

The Ocean Wing is a separate wing, boasting bigger rooms, huge balconies complete with spa baths, a separate reception, and much larger pool (trying to stay on top of my training game for a half marathon in December, I was delighted to find the Ocean Wing pool complex incorporates a 30m laned-section of pool, not to mention a spotless, pretty much deserted gym).

It was also much quieter than the Garden Wing, which was looking pretty full given it was Golden Week. With a surfeit of loungers (no sneaking beach towels onto beds before breakfast) and plenty of staff on-hand with complementary fresh fruit treats, cooler boxes of water bottles and poolside menus, we soon relaxed into our break. Abiding by granddad’s strict “beer in hand by midday” holiday rule, we spent many happy lunchtimes gathered around tables at the poolside cafe. As a mother, it was a joy to see all four children conversing happily with their grandparents over those holiday favourites – Aussie burgers, salads, fries and pizza.

One issue we have had with the hotel over the years was its relatively isolated location. However, since our last trip about three years ago, it really seems to have upped its game in terms of activities. There is now a climbing wall, horse riding on the beach and a teen activity programme. The gorgeous kids club is still very much there, although we didn’t use it this time, and we still love the huge games room with Mahjong, pool tables, ping pong, Jenga, backgammon and chess (not a computer game or screen in site, which makes my heart sing). There are also regular shuttle buses running into the most popular shopping spots in Kota Kinabalu. I took this option one morning with my shop-starved teenage girls – the drawcard was a Sephora and Bath & Bodyworks – and contrary to my expectations, we did spend a very happy morning in the brand new mall at Imago Times Square. It was similar to Singapore’s Vivo City – gleaming, but without the high end glitz overkill that is so often the case in Hong Kong. We shopped H&M, Cotton On, Esprit, Victoria’s Secret, Uniqlo, Giordano, various sporting franchises, plus Boost Juice for the bus-ride home.

Decision, decisions. A walk to the beach, a swim in the pool, or order another beer at the poolside cafe?

While we were gone, my husband had taken my son “adventuring” to a beach adjacent to the resort, made a bivouac with driftwood, clambered through a patch of jungle and discovered two snakes. “Best day ever!” said my son.

During the week, we also independently booked a trip on the North Borneo Railway (see previous Blog Post), and in the past have tried snorkelling in the marine park (this involves a bus into KK from where a boat speeds to you to a dive resort in the park – one of my best memories of Kota Kinabalu, and the day finished on a high with my eldest daughter spotting and swimming with a turtle). A massive zipline has also been erected between two islands in the marine park, but unfortunately we ran out of time – the kids were keen, so maybe on our next trip.

I am also happy to report that the orang-utans that used to occupy the reserve adjacent to the hotel are gone. Not that I didn’t think the reserve was doing a great job doing its bit towards the preservation of this gorgeous species of monkey, but since our last visit the government has been busy buying back tracts of Sabah rainforest to save it from further deforestation, and the orang-utans have been successfully breeding back in the wild. There is still a reserve on the other side of the island, but at an 18-hour drive or flight away from the Rasa Ria, a visit was sadly not feasible.

All in all, the holiday went better than expected (after 15 years as an expat entertaining various visiting family members while balancing the needs of my four boisterous children I am nothing if not a realist when it comes to “luxury” and “breaks”). We ate well, had a lot of fun and returned home with another stash of great family memories.