Kota Kinabalu isn’t just about the mountain. This area offers a rare mix of jungle adventures, paradise islands, and luxe resorts on the doorstep of a rapidly transforming city – and one that’s made for shopping. Whether you’re spotting orangutans or sipping cocktails on a backdrop of fiery sunsets, every day is cause for a celebration on a girls’ getaway to ‘KK’.
Stay at Shangri-La Rasa Ria
Borneo’s tropical wilderness is at your fingertips at Shangri-La Rasa Ria. The sprawling resort is wrapped between a 400-acre nature reserve, an orangutan rehabilitation center and the shimmering waters of Dalit Bay. While the velvety sand might beckon relentlessly, this self-contained haven offers plenty of luxurious pursuits to enjoy in between Sabah adventures, all within a 30-minute drive from KK town.
Laze by lagoon-inspired swimming pools, play a round of tennis or hit the watersports center for kayaking or paddleboarding. Indulge in relaxation at The Spa with a treatment enhanced by traditional Malaysian techniques and natural herbal products. When it’s time to eat, try a chicken satay at the open-air Tepi Laut, sashimi at Kozan or cocktails and snacks at Sampan Bar. As for the sumptuous rooms, toss a coin to choose between ocean or rainforest views to go with daybeds, plush bathrobes, and all the mod cons you could ask for.
Short boat trips whisk you away to Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, with five picturesque islands to explore. Whether you visit one or snorkel around all of them, go on a weekday to avoid extra-large crowds of daytrippers. For diving, sheltered reefs offer great beginner conditions and plenty to see for pro divers, with turtles, rays, scorpionfish and blue-ringed octopus contributing to the underwater magic.
Manukan Island’s sweeping beach is perhaps the most conducive to a lazy day on the sand, spliced with easy snorkeling in calm, cerulean waters and a walk through the interior rainforest. Spot bright clownfish from the pier and monkeys in the jungle on Gaya Island and fly over to Sapi Island on a zip line. To escape the crowds, charter a boat to tiny Sulug or Mamutik.
Climbing Mount Kinabalu is a bucket list venture, but if scaling Malaysia’s highest peak isn’t on the agenda, UNESCO-listed Kinabalu Park offers mystical jungle trails for a nature fix. Among over 4,500 species of flora and fauna, watch out for the world’s largest flower, the Rafflesia.
On a hot afternoon, take a short drive and hike through the jungle to Kiansom Waterfall Park to cool off with the locals in glistening, multi-level cascades. Whether it’s for exercise or to see panoramic views of the city and neighboring islands, the Bukit Padang loop is also a favorite with locals and those training to conquer Mount Kinabalu’s summit.
Drinking and Dining
KK’s dining scene is a diverse blend of Malaysian favorites and tasty bites from just about every corner of the globe. Stretched across the city’s famous sunset beach, the Shangri-La Tanjung Aru Resort is a complete dining experience in itself. Enjoy fresh seafood from a private beach-dining platform at Coco-Joe’s Bar and Grill, and try the Kota Kinabalu Fruit Punch at the Sunset Bar.
When only Italian will do, sample the flavors of Tuscany in elegant surrounds at Favola Restaurant. A sophisticated collection of Italian and international wines accompany local produce, juicy steaks, signature homemade breads and innovative pasta dishes. Vegetarian dishes aren’t often easy to find in Malaysia, but the ever-popular Ferdinand’s serves them up among a range of European delights and exquisite service.
Expect to leave this girls’ getaway with more than a few extra bags. From haggling for authentic handicrafts in markets to designer boutiques in sparkling mega-malls, KK is an underrated shopping destination that deserves attention. Suria Sabah dominates a waterfront location in the city center and makes for a relaxing outing to pick up a varied range of fashion, jewelry and shoes.
Get set for the long-haul at Imago, one of the largest and newest malls with four levels of everything from designer brands to cinemas and karaoke. For unique souvenirs and treasures, head to Borneo Trading Post with high-quality arts, crafts, antiques and paintings showcasing Borneo’s culture. However, if you can’t wait to get into the haggling spirit, check out the Gaya Street Market on Sundays, if only for the sheer chaotic fun of it.