Sabah and its Islands
Located in the northern part of Borneo, Sabah is a part of Malaysia in Southeast Asia. With a land area of 73,904 square kilometers, Sabah is one of the best holiday destinations in Malaysia.
There are many reasons to visit Sabah. It is home to over 8000 species of plants including exotic flowers such as the Rafflesia. It is also home to over 600 types of birds and 200 mammals. Sabah is also home to over 40 ethnic groups. Nowhere else will you be able to experience a mix of such different traditions and cultures, each with its own beauty.
Another reason to visit Sabah is its numerous beautiful islands. Some of the best beaches in Malaysia are found on these islands. With their sparkling clean waters, clear blue skies, green forestry and the abundance of marine life, Sabah has some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving spots in the world.
It is no surprise then that island hopping is one of the most popular activities in Sabah.
Best time in the year to go island hopping in Sabah
While you can actually visit Sabah all year round, the best time to go island hopping in Sabah is in February to May. The east coast gets a good amount of rain from October to December while areas in Kota Kinabalu gets drier. October to March are generally considered ‘low seasons’. Sabah’s average temperature is from 27 °C (81 °F) to 34 °C (93 °F).
Where can you get on the boat?
It is pretty easy to get to Sabah’s beautiful islands. All boats depart from Jesselton Point. The ticketing counters open at 8am to 6pm daily and transfer service to the island starts at 8.30am. The last transfer from the island back to the jetty is 4.15pm.
At the ticketing counter, you will be able to choose which island you would like to visit. While all counters roughly offer the same thing, you can compare prices at several counters before deciding on which ones you want to head over to.
What does it cost?
It will cost you about RM30 to head out to one island and an additional RM10 for each island you wish to visit. Tour packages are also available. You can find the list of boat service operators as well as tour operators here.
There is also a one-off conservation fee that visitors are required to pay. This fee goes towards the conservation of the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. You will be able to pay this fee at any one of the visitor centers that is located close to the jetty of each island. The rates are as follows:
For Malaysian citizens:
Children below 6 years old: Free
Children below 18 years old: RM3.00
For non-Malaysian citizens:
Children below 6 years old: RM10.00
Children below 18 years old: RM15.00
Islands in Sabah
1. Gaya Island
Just 10 minutes from Kota Kinabalu by boat, Gaya Island is about 3,700 acres. Its name comes from the Bajau word “Gayo” which means big. If you love hiking, then this is the island for you. Covered with tropical rainforest, Gaya Island has over 20 km of hiking trails that you will be able to explore.
On the northern side of the island is the picturesque Police Bay. Stretching for 400 meters, its white sand and crystal clear water makes it the perfect place for a dip in the ocean. Additionally, the abundance of healthy coral reefs at Gaya Island’s coast makes it a great diving spot.
On the eastern side of the island is Malohom Bay, home to the Marine Ecology Research Center. Here, you will be able to learn about Sabah’s marine ecosystem. You can also visit Kampong Gaya, an overwater fishing village which is just a short distance from Malohom Bay.
If you choose to stay overnight, Gaya Island offers you three 5 star resorts to choose from – Gayana Marine Resort, Gaya Island Resort (by YTL Hotel Group) and Bunga Raya Island Resort.
2. Manukan Island
Manukan Island is a favorite among the locals in Sabah. There is plenty to do on this island and on weekends, Manukan Island is usually pretty crowded.
The most developed of the islands on this list, you will be able to find everything that you need on this island. All you need to do is to have some cash on you. Just be aware that purchasing things on the island is not cheap. Facilities on this island include water sport operators, restaurants as well as shower rooms for you to change into something fresh after a swim.
On the southern coastline are some good stretches of beaches. A little off the Manukan Island are some beautiful coral reefs. You will be able to see hundreds of fish and other marine life when you go swimming, snorkeling and diving in the crystal clear waters. You can head over to the lovely shade that the forested shores offer after your swim.
Other activities on Manukan Island include sea walking, parasailing, jet skiing, flying fish and banana boat ride.
When you are tired of the water, head over to the island’s two nature trails. The first trail will bring you through the northern side forest while the second path is an easier walk that will bring you to Sunset Point on the island’s western tip. Start your walk about half an hour before dusk and you will be able to catch a sunset that will take your breath away.
The Manukan Island Resort is the main accommodation on this island. A world class luxury resort, it has 20 beautiful chalets, as well as 2 restaurants that offer local and international cuisine.
3. Mamutik Island
At 15 acres, Mamutik Island is the smallest among this lot. This simple yet mesmerizing island just 3km from Kota Kinabalu.
There is plenty to do at Mamutik Island. Take a relaxing walk along the 200 meters of white sandy beach or just rest under the cooling shade of the trees. You will also be able to see parasailers gliding in the sky as well as a beautiful view of Kota Kinabalu from the beach. If you want some time alone, head over to the rocky park on the far end of the beach.
You can head over to the water for some snorkeling or scuba diving. One of the best spots for snorkeling is the front side of the coral beach. You will be able to see many types of fish here. Another spot that is good for snorkeling on this island is near the rock beach. There is also a diving school where you can take scuba diving courses on Mamutik island. Snorkeling and diving equipment can be rented at the island.
Another activity on this island is jungle trekking. There is a 385 meter trail on the northern side that will take about 30 minutes to complete. If you are lucky, you will come across the Philippines Megapode, an odd looking bird with a stunted head.
Facilities at Mamutik Island include public toilets, changing rooms, shaded picnic spots, tables and benches. There is also a café as well as food stalls where you can grab a bite. You can also find a grocery and souvenir shop on this island where you can purchase swimwear, t-shirts, towels, snacks and drinks.
4. Sapi Island
Separated by a small 200 meter channel from Gaya Island is the equally popular Sapi Island. This island offers you an amazing experience from the minute you arrive. You will be able to see hundreds of fishes from the jetty itself.
There are many activities available on Sapi Island. Water activities include snorkeling, scuba diving, banana boat ride, sea walking and parasailing. The best location for snorkeling is at the southern side of the island where there are plenty of corals. Do stay within the boundaries, wear a life jacket and keep your eyes on your children as certain areas have a sudden 2 to 3-meter incline.
If you are more adventurous, there is the Coral Flyer. The 235 meter long zipline allows you to fly through the sky from Sapi Island to its neighboring Gaya Island. Tickets for the Coral Flyer can be bought at the reception desk. This is a popular attraction and you might need to book your ticket in advance to ensure that you get a spot.
Facilities at Sapi Island include public toilets and changing rooms, benches, grocery shops and shelters. There is no accommodation on this island but camping is allowed. However, you will need to obtain permission from the Park Warden before you do so.
5. Sulug Island
Sulug Island is the least visited island of this lot. It is the furthest from Kota Kinabalu and at 20 acres, the second smallest island in the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. This uninhabited island is not developed and the perfect place to head over to if you do not like crowds. However, there are no facilities available on this island so you will have to bring your own food and drinks if you plan on staying more than a few hours.
A lovely island with a lovely stretch of beach, Sulug is a very quiet place. There is nothing much to do on this island except for snorkeling and diving. There are two good diving spots – Keramat Reef and The Tyers. The Tyers is a man-made reef made out of old tires.
Island Hopping Tips
- Be sure to arrive early at Jesslton’s ticketing hall especially if you want to visit the islands on weekends. You can pre-book a tour package to avoid disappointments.
- All islands mentioned here have public toilet and shower facilities where you will be able to change out of your swimmers into a dry set of clothing.
- As Malaysia is a Muslim country it is wise to have something to cover your body. While swimwear is not frowned upon, always remember to respect the local culture.
- Try your best not to lose track of time or you might have to get ready for some nighttime adventure on the island! The last boat usually leaves at 4pm.
- You will be able to visit a minimum of 3 and a maximum of 5 islands if you set out on the first boat and return on the last boat.
- While there are restaurants and food stalls on the islands, packing your own food and drinks will save you some money.
- Bring sunscreen! Malaysia is on the equator and the tropical sun can get really hot in the afternoons.
- Bring mosquito repellent if you plan to explore the jungle trails.
- Keep your tickets safe as you will be required to present them before boarding the boats.
- It’s likely that your boat operator will also have snorkeling equipment. Renting from them will be cheaper than renting from the water sports operators that are on the islands.
Island hopping is one of the best fun adventures to undertake while you’re in Sabah. You can do it alone for some refreshing ‘me time’ or create some memories with friends and family. Either way, island hopping will enable you to experience the natural wonders of beautiful Sabah.