In Kota Kinabalu, island hopping is one of the best and most exciting things to do. There are four islands near Kota Kinabalu that are popular day-trip destinations. These islands lie in a National Marine Park that draws thousands of visitors annually.
Top Kota Kinabalu Islands
- Palau Gaya – Gaya island is the largest and has the most to offer. It may feel slightly touristy if you visit during the high season. The widest range of activities and hotels will naturally be found here.
- Palau Manukan – This island has the most beautiful beaches in my opinion. Manukan Island is large enough to offer a few small hiking trails in addition to its beautiful beach.
- Palau Mamutik – Mamutik is the smallest island of the group. There will be fewer tourists here, so it makes a great place to get away from the crowds. There are good dive spots here as well.
- Palau Sapi – Sapi island is a great choice for any day of island hopping. Head here for snorkeling and beach vibes.
- Palau Sulug – Sulug, the most remote of the islands, is a great place to go if you want to enjoy some time to yourself. It’s the furthest south so it may be out of the way if you plan on visiting several islands on the same day. You won’t see much here besides unaltered natural beauty.
Choosing between the hotels in Kota Kinabalu
Kota Kinabalu offers great value as far as accommodations go. Numerous 3-4 star hotels are available for low-low prices. We ended up staying at the Oceania Hotel, a big clean property, for around $30 a night. Oceania Hotel was a good fit for us with nice, clean rooms and good service from the front desk and staff. The hotel’s only downside, which is a little far from the city center, was made up for by the complimentary shuttle rides to the city which were provided by the hotel.
If I visit Kota Kinabalu again, I will choose to spend a little more and stay in a place like the Borneo Beach Villas. These gorgeous apartments offer seclusion and relaxation that I want from Sabah. Alternatively, more pocket-friendly options are available to backpackers and those on a budget.
From one island to another – to another
A visit to Kota Kinabalu wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the many islands surrounding the capital of Sabah. If you are a savvy traveler it is possible to plan your own excursions to the islands. To do this you will need to make your way to one of the docks that offer passenger trips. The most popular docks are located around Jesselton Point. From here you can catch ferries and speedboats to numerous nearby destinations. This is also where you Kota Kinabalu island hopping tour will likely start.
If you want the details to be handled by a professional you can consider joining a tour offered by one of the countless travel agencies in the area. The price will vary based on how many islands you want to see in a day and will include all fees and snorkel/life jacket rentals.
Our hotel offered a one-day island hopping trip that included snorkeling and other activities at two islands. The cost of the trip was 140 RM per person inclusive of a delicious buffet lunch. We went to sleep early that night to ensure we were well rested for our 8 am departure. The guide that arrived in the morning spoke excellent English as do many people in Sabah. In fact, I have rarely had a problem communicating with people during my travels in Malaysia.
Starting the day with a visit to Sapi Island
Tours to the islands utilize speedboats that make quick trips between the islands. The journey will be fairly choppy so if you are prone to seasickness you may want to prepare some medication or consider a land-based tour.
The first place our group headed to was Sapi Island, a (relatively) small island to the east of the popular Gaya Island. I was still sunburned from our rafting excursion so I made sure to slather on the sunscreen this time. There will be a lot of days in the sun in the week ahead and I would rather not deal with painful red skin for the rest of the trip.
The water around Sapi was very clear and pretty. The first thing I did after applying sunscreen was to grab a snorkeling mask and head into the water. There was a large amount of fish visible in the water around Sapi Island, although they were a bit skittish. Some of the fish were fairly big and made for a good snorkeling experience. The water was perfectly clear and offered great visibility. It had been around 10 years since I went snorkeling last so I was pretty happy to try it again. If I go again I would be happy to spend the whole day at Sapi Island.
Sapi Island also offers a diverse range of water sports and activities to cater to the needs of tourists. For a fee you can enjoy a banana boat ride, parasailing, flying fish boat, and much more. We chose to try the Jet Ski which cost 170 RM for 30 minutes. The experience was great because we were able to operate the jet ski by ourselves. A lot of places I have visited ask you to sit in the back while the staff gives you a ride on the jet ski. That is probably safer but too boring in my opinion.
On to Manukan Island
After eating a buffet lunch at Sapi Island our group was ready to head to the second island of the day, Manukan Island. Our Kota Kinabalu island hopping tour was nice, but Manukan was the highlight. The ride on the boat to Manukan Island was very fast as the islands aren’t too far apart. In my opinion, the island had less to offer than Sapi but had beautiful emerald green water. If you’re in a rush an hour or two spent snorkeling here should be enough. The island itself is beautiful and, like the other islands in the area is heavily forested. The only problem was with the visibility underwater. The water around the beach was murky and made observing the fish nearly impossible. However, there was a solitary pufferfish that enjoyed following me around. We spent a few minutes swimming around with each other before parting ways. I would be interested in hearing your experiences with Manukan Island. Perhaps I went on a bad day, or maybe a swim farther from shore would lead to a better snorkeling experience?
Concluding the island hopping tour
Many people who island-hop around Sabah choose to visit the Gaya Island Resort but I’m glad we visited some of the smaller islands on this trip. Gaya Island may be the biggest, but Sapi Island and Manukan Island won us over with their charm.
In the beginning, I wanted to visit three islands on my Sabah island hopping tour. I thought we should get as much done as possible since the next chance to visit Sabah will likely come far into the future. However, at the end of the day, I was thoroughly satisfied with the two-island experience. If we tried to do more the day would be too rushed and not as enjoyable and relaxing as it was for us. Sometimes going slow and taking in the sights is the best choice.