First impressions of Kota Kinabalu, Sabah [population 600,000] are unexpected. In WWII Allied forces levelled the city to liberate North Borneo from Japanese occupation, leaving it with little in the way of architectural history apart from the Sabah Tourism Office and the 15.7 metre Atkinson Clock Tower, built in 1905, and still standing proudly today.
Laid back nature of the city. Unlike many frantic, frenetic Asian cities it feels positively laconic.
In town we go to a local café for a cup of ‘kopi ‘o’ [strong black coffee and sugar]. The coffee is good but I’d come back just for the name of the establishment: The Fook Yuen.
After our caffeine hit we hit the markets. And so, it seems, does half the town as well. Like most Asian markets this is the bustling epicentre of the city – relaxed, colourful, fruit filled, smoky (due to all the chicken wings cooking) and full of smiling faces and teeth, well, some teeth. The seafood section alone is the loudest and maddest I’ve ever encountered.
The markets are on the harbour waterfront, which is also the hub of Kota Kinabalu’s restaurants, bars and live music. It’s definitely a great place to hang out in the early afternoons and late into the evenings.
One of the main reasons for me being here is the golf and the state of Sabah has eight premium golf courses and 10 smaller courses accommodating all levels of enthusiasts.
Of all the courses I’m most excited about the Graham Marsh designed 27-hole championship golf course at the Sutera Harbour Golf and Country Club (part of and opposite The Pacific Sutera Hotel where we are staying).
The Sutera Harbour Resort is only a 10-minute drive from the airport and has spectacular views of the South China Sea, the resort’s 27-hole championship golf course and the 104-berth marina. With a multitude of dining options, recreational activities and renowned Mandara Spa this is a fantastic resort.
The hotel is set on 156 hectares.
The Sutera Harbour Golf and Country Club is a golfing paradise and along with its championship course the club has a two-tiered driving range, practice putting and chipping areas and is the only course in East Malaysia with a 20-hole night golf facility.
Pulau Sapi Island, Sabah
Next day we are taken on an island tour to Pulau Sapi Island in Sabah, which is one of the five islands that make up the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park and is just a 15-minute boat ride from the city of Kota Kinabalu. It’s picturesque with a main white sandy beach and aquamarine coloured water. The weather was perfect and after a few swims and a delicious buffet lunch provided by our tour (organized by the hotel).
Soon we’re back in town to begin our next adventure which takes us to another golf course the Dalit Bay Golf & Country Club.
We play a round of golf and you’d be hard pressed to find a prettier championship golf course or location. Water hazards are quite prominent and Mount Kinabalu can been seen in the distance when clouds allow. Large monitor lizards appear occasionally to check out our golfing prowess and can’t get away quick enough as their lives are in danger from my wayward golf swing.
Mount Kinabalu hidden by clouds
Our final golfing day is at the Mount Kinabualu Golf club, 1500 metres above sea level and a hilly two-hour drive from Kota Kinabalu. The course is as scenic as any golf course I’ve seen and sits in the shadow of Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia’s second highest peak at 4,095 metres.
We only play nine holes as the course is having restoration work done. Being in the mountains hazards include drifting clouds, which momentarily make visibility poor. On the first four holes you hit downhill, which means I make a few unintentional long shots in the right direction – down.
But what goes down must come up and the remaining five holes are uphill and for me the par fives are five shots too long. My playing group loves it and thrives on the challenge.
Golf isn’t the only attraction at Mount Kinabalu; you can also hike the mountain, a two-day endeavor so popular you have to book months in advance. Other mountain options available include a jungle rainforest canopy walk, which is not for everyone and requires both a degree of fitness and a lack of vertigo.
After the canopy walk we head back to town and on the way stop at the Kundasang War Memorial to pay our respects to the Australian and British prisoners of war who died in Sandakan and during the infamous death marches to Ranau during World War II. The memorial also remembers the people of North Borneo who risked their lives to help the POWs.
I didn’t know much about Kota Kinabalu before arriving but after just seven days I’ve fallen in love with Sabah, the warmth of its people, its golf courses, its beautiful wilderness and, more than anything else, those raspberry-blowing orangutans.
Where to stay
Sutera Harbour Resort:
How to get there:
Rose Bay Travel (02) 9371 8166
Words and photos Daniel Resnik