Hubert Burda Media

Beyond The Kota

Long have we heard of East Malaysia’s beauteous ecological grounds. We discover an untouched boating haven east of paradise.

A golden stone statue of a gargantuan bird-of-paradise has a panopticon view of the entire expanse of Sutera Harbour, the crown jewel of a marine property here in Kota Kinabalu. 

Vacationers know it as a vacation destination of 384 acres (155 hectares), housing both The Pacific Sutera hotel and The Magellan Sutera Resort, with a total of 956 rooms. Hobbyists will know it as a country-club playground with an award-winning championship golf course designed by Graham Marsh, a 12-lane Brunswick bowling alley, a 100-seater cinema, and tennis and squash courts.
However, to avid boaters, this is the gateway to the under-explored waters of the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, a huddle of islets where deep waters dwell and coral reefs thrive, ideal for deep-sea diving and exploratory sailing.
We arrived at Sutera Harbour, a mere 10-minute drive from the airport from one end and another 10 to the city centre of retail and commerce.
In the beginning, Sabah’s state capital Kota Kinabalu was called Api Api (the Malay phrase for “fire, fire”) and later renamed in 1899 as Jesselton. Only in 1967 did it come to be known as Kota Kinabalu, after its majestic mountain located 50km northeast inland. To allude to its historical pedigree, all of Sutera Harbour’s top spots are named after attributes of Ferdinand Magellan and his maritime conquests in the 1500s — the Italian restaurant, Ferdinand’s, incidentally, was also where Prestige Malaysia first held its East Malaysia Ball some years before; the Silk Road, a Chinese fine dining outfit, being one of its most popular restaurants; and The Magellan resort, designed with longhouse elements of Rungus (an indigenous Sabah culture) architecture.
At about two in the afternoon, we sailed on-board the catamaran Puteri Sutera, towards Pulau Manukan, the only Sutera Harbour affiliate resort property offshore. The other Sutera Sanctuary Lodges on the mainland, include the Mesilau Nature Resort, Laban Rata, Kinabalu Park and the Poring Hot Spring.
We sailed north, pulling away from Sutera and the southern locale of Pulau Tiga, which, as the captain pointed out, had earned its place in pop culture history as the very first venue for the Survivor reality television series in 2000.
The Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park is known for many things, both factual and fictional. For instance, locals here believe that Hong Kong star Andy Lau owns a bungalow on one of the islands. Or that an inlet at Mamutik Island is haunted by a sea deity that appears only at dusk.
More factual is the reality that the marine park is also a veritable diving paradise, especially the chasm of water between Manukan and Sulug Island, with ample marine life, coral gardens and reef ecology to see.
Of the islands — Sapi, Manukan, Mamutik, Gaya and Sulug — the largest is Gaya, home to the ecological Gayana Resort, residing by a bay of intense green waters, dark even by the beach shoreline because waters there reach depths of 24m.
Soon, just as the sun nears dipping point into the ocean, we reached Manukan Island, where some of the resorts are built on stilts situated some ways from the coconut tree-lined beaches. Each week, 220 tonnes of water have to be shipped from the mainland via a barge, as the natural water drawn from the island wells is too saline for consumption.
We soon settled into a barbecue dinner, prepared beneath an expansive tentage perched right on the beach. The dishes, all grilled a la minute by an attentive chef, comprise butterfly chicken, jumbo prawns, fish and lamb chops.
From waters afar, we spied fishermen returning home from a day’s hard labour. Water villages, in this part of the South China Sea, are an uncommon sight, as are one of the world’s more spectacular sunsets that boast colours unseen anywhere else. Lilac and tangerine cumuluses and sirruses are usual fare here. But clouds as impossibly green as zucchini flowers? Breath-taking.
We took the Puteri Sutera back to the mainland on a night cruise right after dinner last night. After all, if the track up Mount Kinabalu is to be accomplished, we need all the hours of the day we can possibly get.
We set off early morning towards Kinabalu Park, the resort grounds at its base. The presidential suite here is the Rajah Lodge, which had previously hosted Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean (when he was still the country’s Minister of Defence). Malaysia’s Minister of Defence Hishammuddin Hussein and Prime Minister Najib Razak have also been guests here before. Presiding over the chateau is a huge painting of the slipper orchid, referencing the extremely rare bloom found only in the riverine forest located at Mount Kinabalu’s lower mountainous region.
We spent the night at the Garden Lodge, an A-frame chateau with a garden, frequently visited by long-tailed yellow thrush and iridescent teal monarch butterflies. Bedtime has to be earlier than usual because the call-time the next day is 5am for us to head further up the terrain to catch the legendary Kinabalu sunrise.
Some 2,000m above sea-level on the East Ridge of Mount Kinabalu, we are at the Mesilau Nature Resort, an area so rich in biodiversity it has a somewhat superstar status among the world’s top naturalists and scientists.
During our visit, a team of botanists have flown in from the Czech Republic to study the nepenthes rajah, the world’s largest pitcher plant found only in Mount Kinabalu (and Mount Tambuyukon in Sabah). The rainforest here is also home to the kerosene fruit, which resembles an olive and contains an oily sap that burns when lit. The region attracts the world’s most ardent birdwatchers too.
And don’t bother about Instagramming your exploits here — there is zero cellular reception in Mesilau. Nestled within the nook of the horseshoe-shape that is the impenetrable Mount Kinabalu mountain range, all satellite signals are naturally cut off.
This is also where you can find Kota Kinabalu’s best-kept secret: The jungle durians, much eaten here by locals but very rarely written about.
We were told that in older days, Singaporean businessmen (such as Bobby Kwan) used to organise what they called “durian cruises”, where yacht convoys depart from the Republic of Singapore Yacht Club to explore various Malaysian islands, not for the sheer adrenaline of sailing, but to sample durians from different islands. Some are as tasty, if not more delectable, than your usual Mao Shan Wangs and D24s. We just had to try it for ourselves.
We sampled one that has a husk as yellow as sunflower, with a starchy, almost-buttery taste. Another small compact one with curly green thorns contains seeds with dark yellow flesh, a smoky flavour with a lemon-grassy base note. A third species we sampled further along our drive down Mount Kinabalu’s winding mountain roads has red-tipped thorns. And the taste? Orgasmic, much akin to the most aromatic pandan, with pale flesh almost as white as snow.
We were invited to take Dato’ Peter Yong’s Ferretti 96 out for a leisurely spin in the nearby waters. Well, actually, the prospect of being able to paraglide attracted us to the sail more than anything else.
Still, his boat is something to reckon with. A sharp engine all of 96ft, this Ferretti was launched only last year at the Cannes Boat Show and only one of eight produced. Dato’ Yong’s is hull number one — all rather fitting for the barrister-at-law, who is also oft-lauded as Kota Kinabalu’s number one lawyer. Yong is also the former director of Sabah Finance.
Dinner at Silk Garden was hosted by Sam Goi, executive chairman of GSH, the parent company of Sutera Harbour. Over a seafood dinner of Wrasse and Wok-fried Chili Mud Crab, and Atlantic Hybrid Grouper Broth, no politics nor business was discussed. Instead, jokes abound, with Goi displaying a wickedly humorous side of him rarely seen in public.
Sailing life does have its privileges.