With a mid-term break looming, an easy week in the sunshine was just what our family was looking for
It was that time of year again. The kids were heading towards mid-term break and with four children aged between eight and 14 to entertain, plus septuagenarian Nanny and Grandad visiting 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 Kota Kinabalu airport to the hotel).
But 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 in the past, 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 a much larger pool. It’s also quieter than the Garden Wing with a surfeit of loungers (no sneaking beach towels onto beds before breakfast) and plenty of staff on-hand with complimentary fresh fruit treats, cooler boxes of water bottles and poolside menus, we soon relaxed into our break.
One issue we have had with the hotel over the years was its relatively isolated location. The draw card for many used to be the adjacent orangutan reserve, however the lease on the reserve has now expired and the orangutans have been moved to a larger park on the far side of Borneo.
However, since our last trip about three years ago, the hotel does seem 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 (think gentle staff plus lots of games and fun activities around the resort), 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 tennis courts and myself and my husband did indulge one evening with a massage at the spa. If you’re travelling with tiny tots, bear in mind that the kid’s club only takes children aged five and over independently, under fives must be accompanied by an adult – babysitters can be booked through reception.
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 – gleaming, but without the high-end glitz overkill that is so often the case in Hong Kong. We shopped pocket money favourites including H&M, Cotton On, Esprit, Victoria’s Secret, Uniqlo, Giordano, various sporting franchises, plus Boost Juice for the bus-ride home.
While we were gone, my husband had taken my young 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.
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 rambunctious 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.
In between lounging by the pool and shopping, we also booked a lunch trip on the North Borneo Railway and a day’s snorkelling in the marine park. For the more adventurous among you, or those with older children, other activities include a 250m inter-island zipline in the and Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, and of course Mount Kinabalu, a two-day climb.
An early morning bus sped us to our dive resort in the marine park. Speedboats leave early – 7.30am – from Jesselton Pier, Kota Kinabalu (close to the airport) – arriving at your dive island within the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park around twenty minutes later. We’d opted for a snorkelling day which we’d booked through our hotel.
Our guide, a likeable English chap on a gap year, spent an hour or so at the tiny island resort showing the kids how to adjust their snorkels and what sort of fish they were likely to spot, and then we were in the boat and off to the first of our four dive locations around the reef. There were around ten people in our group and our guide was very patient, providing buoyancy aids for our youngest two so they could float quite happily while gazing at the marine-life. After completing two “dives”, we headed back to the resort for lunch and a rest. The kids had fun playing on the beach and chatting with the rest of the group. The second two dives were equally spectacular, but we really lucked out at the last site of the day when a beautiful turtle floated right past my 13-year-old, rendering her momentarily speechless.
It was a long day – we arrived back at the hotel around 7pm – but one that had everybody talking. And I really felt I deserved my lounger the following day.
Nanny and Grandad decided to join us for our lunch on the North Borneo Railway a couple of days later and we set off again, this time for the station at Tanjung Aru. We had booked this independently of the hotel through the Sutera Harbour Resort which owns the railway, and used the hotel to book taxis into and out of Tanjung Aru.
Friendly staff ushered us into our extremely comfortable carriage, complete with bathroom and our own waitress who worked tirelessly bringing us drinks and food throughout the day. With a toot and a whistle and a great puff of smoke, the British ‘Vulcan’ steam locomotive rolled out of the station. The kids were kept busy waving at the locals waving back at them as we steamed our way to Putatan and then to Kinarut.
Construction of the historical railway started in the 1880s, in an effort to pave the way for the opening up of the untapped natural resources of Borneo for commercial cultivation. Naturally the scheme was dreamt up by those sturdy Brits, who never knowingly let a hot and humid jungle get in the way of a trading opportunity.
And so the director of the British North Borneo Chartered Company, a William Clark Cowie, initiated the building of the first railway in Sabah. In 1903 the rail-link was extended 90km to include Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu). Land between here and Beaufort was cleared of forests for the cultivation of rice, tobacco, sago, tapioca, soya beans and pineapples. These crops were then hauled down by rail to the port at Jesselton and exported, no doubt for the delectation of all those Downton-esque Lady Crawleys the length and breadth of Britain. One can only guess what they made of the first pineapples to be off-loaded.
Unfortunately the entire railway system was paralysed during World War II under Japanese occupation, when rails, bridges and locomotives were all damaged. A programme of reconstruction was implemented post-war, when North Borneo became a Crown Colony.
After Malaysia was formed in 1963, the railway service was managed by the Sabah State Railway Department, with diesel quickly replacing the steam engine. The North Borneo Railway was thankfully re-launched by Sutera Harbour Resort and the Sabah State Railway Department, initiating what is today a delightful experience.
A nice touch was the ‘passport’ we were given on departure, and our waitress rushed around to ‘visa’ stamp it every time we passed through a station. En route we enjoyed a delightfully presented brunch of curry puffs, toast and coconut jam, steamed cassava parcels and a local cake made of rice flour and coconut milk. It was all very convivial.
We disembarked at Kinarut for a quick tour of the local Chinese temple, and then it was onto Papar, passing through jungle, fruit orchards and the odd herd of water buffalo. We had a 20 minute stop at Papar and a wander around the local markets while the locomotive was de-coupled and the train turned around. When we re-boarded, it was rather gorgeous to discover the tables had been neatly laid for lunch with tiffin tins containing fish curry, steamed vegetables, chicken fried rice and fresh fruit.
We puffed our way back to Tanjung Aru, arriving mid-afternoon. It had been a thoroughly enjoyable day, which kept four kids entertained and four adults very happy while soaking up a bit of the local culture. The trip lasts around five hours.
Book it up
Diving the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park was booked through the hotel, departing from Jesselton Pier, Kota Kinabalu (near the airport). It’s a twenty minute speedboat ride out to the school, located on one of the islands in the park.
The North Borneo Railway operates on Saturdays and Wednesdays. Bookings should be made through the Sutera Harbour Hotel, suteraharbour.com
Coral Flyer, Borneo’s longest island-to-island zipline from Gaya Island to Sapi Island (250m). Managed by Ropeskills Rigging. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or coralflyer.com.
We stayed at Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort, www.shangri-la.com.