There's a bit of nice sightseeing in Kota Kinabalu. The Waterfront Esplanade, aka Anjung Samudera, is a long boardwalk where you'll find some handicraft shopping, cafes, restaurants, and bars. At the northeast end, you'll find the Handicraft Market, which is open daily from 7:30am till 7:30pm. Another popular handicraft market is the Gaya Street Sunday Market, every Sunday from early morning till about lunchtime.
Most travelers use KK as a jumping-off point to adventures elsewhere in Sabah. If you want to stay close to the town, I recommend visiting the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park (aka TAR Marine Park), a group of five islands located about 8km (13 miles) off the coast of Kota Kinabalu that have been protected since the mid-1970s. Islands like Manukan and Sapi have restaurants, toilets, some convenience facilities, snorkel gear, and watersports equipment for rent along their pretty white sand beaches, but the snorkeling isn't the best here, as these islands are the most accessible, so corals have been trampled by tourism. Snorkel rentals here go for around RM15, and parasailing charges start from RM100. There's also the novel seawalking -- donning an enormous helmet connected to the surface with a tube, which allows you to breathe underwater without tanks. This costs RM250 per person for around 20 to 30 minutes underwater (tel. 088/249-115; www.borneoseawalking.com). Tip for snorkelers: Bring cotton socks to wear under your rental fins, to prevent blisters.
Gaya, the largest and most secluded island, has two luxury resorts (Gayana Eco Resort is reviewed under hotel listings), with another two on the way. Tiny Mamutik island is the park base for Borneo Divers who arrange day trips for scuba diving in the park, as well as PADI courses. Their office in KK is at 9th Floor, Menara Jubili, 53 Jalan Gaya (tel. 088/222-226; www.borneodivers.info; RM329 day trip, including full equipment). Finally, Sulug island has virtually no development but is the best site for dive trips.
Getting to the park is an easy 15-minute speedboat ride from KK's shiny new Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal (tel. 088/243-708), which is located to the north of the town. Ferries depart from around 8:30 in the morning, with the last ferry leaving the park at around 4pm (sometimes later, but always double-check!). Round-trip fare is RM24, which includes a RM6 terminal fee; then upon arrival you'll be asked for an additional RM10 Environmental Conservation Fee. If you want to hop between islands, tack on an additional RM10 for each trip.
Sabah has many other dive sites, including sites such as Pulau Tiga, of Survivor TV fame. A couple of sites also offer wreck diving, so if you're interested, inquire when you make your booking.
Of special interest to divers is Sipadan, an island resort off the east coast of the state, which has been ranked as one of the top-10 dive sites in the world. The site is a tall limestone "tower" rising from the bed of the Celebes Sea, supporting vast numbers of marine species, some of which may still be unidentified. Since 2004, the Malaysian government revoked the licenses of the five dive operators that managed resorts on the tiny island, in an effort to prevent environmental degradation. The dive operators have since moved their base camps to surrounding islands, offering day trips to the area or running live-aboard trips.
Borneo Divers (9th Floor, Menara Jubili, 53 Jalan Gaya; tel. 088/222-226; www.borneodivers.info) was the first full-service dive operator in Borneo and the pioneering operator to Sipadan. They house divers at their resort on Mabul island, along a gorgeous sandy beach with easy access to dive sites around Mabul and Sipadan. For RM580 per night per person, you'll get accommodation, meals, and airport transfers (for Sipadan, diving the minimum stay is 5 days and 4 nights). Sipadan dive trips are RM40 per day, which includes weight belts and tanks. You'll have to pay extra for a round-trip flight into Tawau, which costs about RM455 on Malaysia Airlines, and cheaper if you take AirAsia. Sipadan has good diving year-round, but March through October has the best weather.
A newer spot, Layang Layang, located off the coast of northwest Borneo in the South China Sea, is also making a splash as an underwater bounty of marine life amid pristine deep-water corals. Layang Layang Island Resort (head office in KL at Blk. A, Ground Floor, A-0-3, Megan Ave. II, 12 Jalan Yap Kwan Seng; tel. 03/2170-2185; www.layanglayang.com) pioneered this area for divers. Their standard package of 6 days, 5 nights runs at RM1,250 per person, which includes accommodations, meals, and three dives a day with equipment. The chartered flight from Kota Kinabalu airport is an extra RM320 round-trip (booked through the resort when you make your reservation). Layang Layang closes during the monsoon season (early Sept-Feb).
Sabah's rugged terrain makes for terrific hiking, camping, biking, and white-water rafting for any level, from soft adventure to extreme sports. TYK Adventure (Borneo Travel; Lot 48-2F, 2nd Floor, Beverly Hill Plaza; tel. 088/727-825; www.tykadventuretours.com) was founded by a local award-winning tour guide, Tham Yau Kong, who also happens to hold records for the longest cultural walk (1998) and for leading the first group to circum-cycle Mt. Kinabalu (1999). They specialize in educational trips (good history tours), a range of homestays, and adventure travel; they can also organize tailor-made excursions around your plans and adventure level. Their mountain-biking half-day trips from KK tour villages, jungles, and farms in nearby Papar and Penampang for RM250 per person; the rate includes hotel transfer, mountain bike, helmet, cycling guide, and lunch.
Many come to Sabah to climb Mt. Kinabalu. It's an exhilarating trip if you are prepared and if you hit it just right, in terms of weather and timing. It can be done only on an overnight trip, which includes a 4- or 5-hour hike from the park headquarters uphill to a ranger station, where you stay the night. Groups awake at 2:30am to begin the 3-hour hike to the summit. This is not light trekking, as some parts are steep, and altitude sickness can cause headaches and nausea. Remember, you're tooling along in pitch darkness, the whole point being to arrive at the summit in time for the spectacular sunrise. Come prepared with cold-weather wear, or at the very least, a wool sweater or fleece, long pants, windbreaker, rain poncho, and hiking boots. Bring a good, strong flashlight, and pack plenty of trail mix and sports drinks for rejuvenation. And finally, there's no guarantee that the weather will cooperate with your itinerary. You might hit rain or find the summit covered in clouds. There's pretty much nothing any tour operator can do to guarantee you'll get a clear view. TYK Adventure is an excellent outfit for this tour; a 3-day, 2-night trip costs RM1,840 per person. Make sure you book early, because they need to make sure there's space available at park accommodations. The price includes transfer, lodging (in a heated dormitory), and your guide to the summit.
Monsopiad Cultural Village, a Kadazandusun heritage center with its creepy House of Skulls, is located in Penampang, not far from Kota Kinabalu. During the 3-hour visit to the village, you'll tour the place and be treated to a cultural performance. It's about the height of "touristy" Sabah but can be a fun half-day trip if you want to peep at a bit of local culture. Call them at tel. 088/774-337 to make a booking; RM100 includes transportation to and from your hotel, the tour and show, plus a welcome drink. The tour leaves daily at 9:30am and again at 2:30pm.
In 2000, the North Borneo Railway (Tanjung Aru Railway Station; tel. 088/263-933) revived the tradition of steam train travel with the launch of a 1954 fully renovated British Vulcan steam locomotive pulling six restored carriages. Traversing a 58km (36-mile) route from Tanjung Aru, near Kota Kinabalu, to the town of Papar, the train passes water and mangrove views, past fishermen and local sea crafts, through a mountain tunnel, and out the other side into a vast scenery of paddy fields. Carriages are open-air but comfortable, with soft seats and wood and brass accents. A swanky bar car and observation deck round out facilities that also include toilets. The railway has been closed for repairs and the management is unable to estimate when they will be completed, but they are hoping it will be before the end of 2011.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.