Thursday, July 10, 2014

Discovering Kota Kinabalu

The reactions and questions were identical. I had told my family and friends that I would be visiting Kota Kinabalu (commonly shortened to just KK) for a couple of days. And that hiking up Mt Kinabalu was not part of the itinerary. So what would I be doing there if not for climbing up the highest mountain on the island of Borneo? The funny thing is, I did not know either.

Well, I would be finding out myself. Together with 2 other bloggers, we were invited to experience the hospitality of KK. As we chatted over our late dinner in Cafe Boleh in the Pacific Sutera hotel, it seemed a common misconception that aside from climbing Mt Kinabalu, what else is there?

Sutera Harbour Resort, Kota Kinabalu

The Flight

Our flight to KK was an evening flight, and our trip discovery began with a fabulous start in Changi airport as AirAsia Singapore had extended their Red Carpet Service to us!  This service is available only in certain airports, and KK is one of them. We had a special check-in counter (red-carpeted of course ;) ), and our baggage tagged prominently with "Priority". During boarding, we were also given priority boarding as part of the Red Carpet service. I did not notice till boarding that we were also given seat number 1. Yes, that is the spacious Hot Seats - perfect for those with long legs (like me)! Once in the air, we were also served Hot Meals. It's not often that I have in-flight meals on low-cost carrier flights since most flights are short, but I have to admit the food taste great! I'm glad AirAsia Singapore had provided these Hot additions! ;)

Fellow bloggers on the red carpet
Boarding pass marked "Red Carpet"
We were pretty impressed then, when at the KK airport baggage claim, even before the baggage carousel started moving, our luggage were carried out to us separately from a side door! Now that's priority! :)

Priority baggage handling! Yes, all the others are not even out yet!

We were hosted by Sutera Harbour Resort, which have 2 hotels in its premises - The Pacific Sutera Hotel and The Magellan Sutera Resort. The Pacific Sutera, equipped with business suites with wonderful views, as well as access to the Pacific Club Lounge, is popular for business travelers. The Sutera Harbour Marina Golf and Country Club sits between the two with facilities like a 104-berth marina and 27-hole a golf course. Our stay for the night was at the Pacific Sutera.

The comfortable room in the Pacific Sutera hotel

Journey Back in Time & Sunset Cruise

We were introduced to the Pacific Club lounge the next morning for breakfast with Tracy Lim, the Communications Manager for Sutera Harbour Resort, and our host for the trip. Situated at the top of the hotel, the day can't start any better with such views for breakfast!

Oliver sharing his "Breakfast with a view" at the Pacific Club Lounge
Friendly staff at the Pacific Club Lounge

Our first activity of the day was a ride on an authentic steam-engined train - the North Borneo Railway. Brought back to life from a museum, the train now runs twice weekly for tourists, from Tanjung Aru to Papar. The firing of the train engine was quite a draw, as everyone clamored to see the engineers throwing log wood to feed the fire that build the steam that drives the train. It was definitely a throwback to the old days. This was not the only throwback, as the seating and service attire within the train was reminiscent of the olden days.

All Aboard! At the North Borneo Railway
An authentic working steam engine train
Firewood is still used to run the train!

Our guide Grace Leong, with over 20 years of experience under her belt, was on hand to fill in all the details of the journey. Passing through traditional villages and small towns, paddi fields and mangrove forests, the ride was really pleasant, except for the tropical heat. Through it all, Grace enthusiastically plied us with information and history on the surrounds and also Sabah in general. There were stops along the way where we could disembark for a short walk around, and the highlight for me was a visit to a local market where Grace introduced us to a local fruit - Tarap. Found nowhere else, it looks like a jackfruit but taste like soursop!

Local Tarap
Jiayu taking a snap for social media sharing

The service onboard was really thoughtful as after each outing, we were presented with this cold-pressed towel which was a god-send in the sweltering heat. To complete an overall wonderful experience, and a further throwback to old times, lunch was then provided in tiffen boxes! Cute!

Service on board the North Borneo Railway
Lunch served in original tiffen boxes, and a happy Tracy
And its really delicious!

What better way to close the day than a sunset cruise? That's exactly what we did in the evening. At the Sutera Harbour Marina, we boarded the Puteri Sutera and went cruising round the islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. I would think for group outings, these sunset cruises make excellent options. There are very little things that could beat chilling out on a deck of a beautiful boat with good company and feeling the wind massaging your face and blowing all your worries and stress away. Just before the sunset hour, some tapas and refreshment were brought out to complement the experience. We did not know it then, but this happened to be the best sunset of the few days we were there!
Wonderful company for a cruise - onboard the Puteri Sutera
Jiayu enjoying the breeze
You can't complain with the sunset
End of Day - Homeward bound


Fun-filled Day

Day 3 brought out new excitement for us as the day was scheduled to be out on a reef pontoon. Our host for the day, Mr Youngcrippen from Borneo Passages, was all smiles. We'll call him Young for short. After all, today's activities are certainly targeted for the young!

For me, I was doubly excited as the first activity was something I had wanted to do for the longest time - parasailing! As I sat on the harness of the "parachute" (known as the parasail wing), the grin on my face seemed permanent. But apparently, I realized my grin could go even wider when I lifted off into the air!  The views were amazing and it was exhilarating floating up in the air. Like I said, these activities are perfect for the young, and Mr Young was on-hand to help us take photos as well! :)

Oliver up in the air!
Exhilirating!!
Next up was something that sounded no less thrilling. The world's longest island-to-island zipline! We were brought to Sapi island where Coral Flyer, the operator of the zipline, is situated. It was a spanking new attraction, barely a few weeks old. After the formalities are done (which included the signing of an indemnity form), we were brought to the neighboring island where we would be ziplining back to Sapi. In all the excitement, I was still carrying my bulging camera slingbag! Would I be zipping through the air with my slingbag dangling by my side? The staff nonchalantly affirmed that it would be so... I wouldn't need to be worried though. The gradient of the slope was actually quite gradual, and as such, the speed was alot less than I imagined it to be. Which kind of made the activity less "exciting" to me. However, the views more than made up for it - the waters around Sapi island are out of this world!

Oliver on the zip-line
Amazing waters of Sapi island
Amazing waters on Sapi island

Back at the pontoon, Jonathan Wheeler, manager at the Borneo Reef World, gave us a tour of the pontoon, which included an underwater observatory! We had a quick lunch, cooked fresh on the pontoon, before eagerly "plunging" into our next activity. Another first for me, we got to experience a "sea/scuba walk". Essentially, we could literally walk underwater with just a specially fitted "helmet" placed over our head. We could breath normally under this helmet, and so we just concentrated at gaping at the beautiful corals and schools of fish swarming about us.

Bloggers Unite! - Underwater Sea-walk
And as if that was not enough, it was followed by a "Discovery Dive". We were given a 10-minute crash course on diving, complete with scuba gear - flippers and oxygen tanks and all. The instructors then led us on a short dive to marvel at the wonders of the sea floor.  The underwater world is a whole new world, and it was easy for me to be completely lost in it.

Colours of the underwater world
A Whole New World

Back at Sutera Harbour Resorts, we have moved to the Magellan Sutera for our stay. The hotel lobby was magnificently huge and modeled after a Sabah longhouse. They even engaged someone dressed in the ethnic tribal attire to play some traditional music during certain hours. The rooms are absolutely fabulous, as befitting a 5-star resort. Targeted towards families and couples, the decor and ambience would certainly ensure a comfortable and relaxing holiday.

At the Magellan Sutera Lobby
Comfortable airy room in the Magellan Sutera resort

Kota Kinabalu Tourism

Breakfast the next day was at Five Sails, which provided both local and international fare. Even Korean kimchi and Japanese sushi were part of the spread. But nothing beats local laksa made like what you see at the hawkers', except that well, this was in a 5-star environment ;).

Lakesa made-to-order

Grace was again our guide as we embarked on our Kota Kinabalu City tour. We visited several sights including a "floating" mosque (City Mosque) and a "hanging" tower (Menara Tun Mustapha), but the highlight for me was the visit to the Sabah museum. It was a fascinating visit with excellent commentaries from Grace, though unfortunately, no photography was allowed. There was also a heritage village where replicas of the longhouses and village artifacts of the various ethnic groups were displayed. However, we couldn't linger long as we were ravaged by mosquitoes. Considering that more than 50% of Malaysia's mangroves are in Sabah, perhaps that's why the mosquitoes here are particularly numerous. In fact, as Grace have enlightened, there is even a mangrove reserve in the city itself. Interestingly though, Grace was unaffected by these mozzies, which led me to believe that the local mosquitoes prefer foreign blood :p

Traditional Longhouse replica in the Heritage village
Interior of a Murut longhouse
Replica artifacts displayed include liquor jars used by the tribes
Menara Tun Mustapha
KK city also boasts one of the best seafood around, particularly their huge tiger prawns. Thus, our lunch stop was a recipe for a cholesterol overdose. Crabs, prawns, mussels and cockles, it was unfortunately so so good that I had to have a helping... ;p

Fresh Seafood Spread

Sutera Harbour Resorts is also home to a 27-hole championship golf course, divided into 3 distinct 9-hole set - the Lake Course, the Heritage Course and the Garden Course. So naturally, in the late afternoon, we had a short stint at the driving range. Unfortunately, it would seem I am not cut out for golfing, with my golf balls skewing away in dangerous directions! And a blistered thumb for my efforts too :(. But it was still a happy ending, as later, we were driven around the golf course in a buggy, where we could appreciate the beautiful and thoughtful landscaping.

Beautiful landscaping in the golf course
There is even wildlife found within the resort!

It was the final night of our stay, and a farewell dinner was specially arranged for us. After freshening up (those golf swings are tiring!), we adjoined at the Ferdinand's for some fine dining. Also invited were Jason and Josephine, the marketing team from Sabah Tourism Board, who had kindly co-sponsored this campaign. In between fine food and wine, feedback and opinions were gathered and exchanged. If they had wanted to show another side of KK besides scaling Mt Kinabalu, they had certainly succeeded. During the past few days, I got acquainted with many other faces of Sabah, which I have yet to experience. In particular, the wildlife and nature within Sabah have so much to offer. From Proboscis monkeys to Orang Utans, and from fireflies to the astonishing Rafflesia, I had envisioned that a revisit would be forthcoming. 

Lovely food and presentation in Ferdinand's

To our surprise, at the end of our dinner, we were gifted with a memento - a Proboscis monkey plush toy! No doubt, this would be a constant reminder for me about my revisit to Sabah!

Our nice memento

Relaxed Departure

Next day, while we would be flying back home, it was not the end of our trip yet. The flight was early afternoon, and so we had a morning to relax by. And relax we did - in Mandara Spa. Mandara Spa is a luxury spa treatment brand, of Balinese origin and international presence - they are found in over 70 locations worldwide. Its presence certainly complements the facilities available in Sutera Harbour Resorts. I was given a choice of 6 different essential oils for my massage session and I think the whole session might have been sooo relaxing that I can't remember which of the oils I have chosen! :p

Mandara Spa
Mandara Spa

I guess a good massage is a good way to end a trip. And so, as I sat on my AirAsia flight back, I pondered - what have I discovered in Kota Kinabalu?

I have ridden on a historic steam-engine train, dived its crystal clear waters, savored its succulent seafood, zip-lined across its islands, cruised its shimmering seas, golfed its lush green courses, visited its cultural sites and parasailed its wide-open skies.

And I have not climbed Mt Kinabalu! :)


* Special thanks to the following sponsors that have made this trip possible :
AirAsia Singapore
Sutera Harbour Resorts
Sabah Tourism Board

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Pelister National Park & Dihovo, FYROM

Visitors to the Republic of Macedonia (or Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia FYROM) would be well familiar with Lake Orhid, their number one tourist attraction. However, just about 2 hours away is another attraction well worth a visit, especially for outdoor enthusiasts - Pelister National Park.

One of the best places to stay when visiting Pelister, would be in the village of Dihovo, just at the edge of the national park. Various family guesthouses and homestays are available in Dihovo, but I stumbled onto Villa Dihovo, which happened to be what the Lonely Planet guide declared as one of the best stays in FYROM.

Villa Dihovo
 The villa is a restored traditional stone-and-wood Macedonian house. Beautifully decorated, with a wonderful lawn and outdoors area, the place will immediately make you feel cosy. But it is the hospitality of its owners that will completely make you feel at home. The highlight, undoubtedly, would be the homemade food that Petar ply you with, with most of its ingredients homegrown in the garden. The homemade goodness include the beer and wine!! To top it off, the price of the stay is "to be decided by the guests at the end of their stay"! (excluding the alcoholic drinks of course).

Garden salad, homemade sausages, dolma etc.. fantastic homecooked food

Pelister National Park is FYROM's oldest national park, and contains a diverse variety of flora and fauna. It also contains plenty of hiking and trekking trails, perfect for those on outdoor pursuits. There are trails that start from Dihovo and into the mountains in the national park. However, there is also one hotel within the park itself that you may consider staying in, especially if you want convenient access to the more popular trails. Hotel Molika may be a little aged, but the rooms are clean and facilities pretty good, and during non-peak seasons, the deals are pretty good too!

Hiking through forests

Beautiful views of the park

Beautiful nature's light

Morning mists as viewed from Hotel Molika

Getting to Dihovo or Pelister National Park by public transport is possible only until the city of Bitola. Unless you have your own vehicle, from Bitola, the easiest way to get there is by taxi. Luckily it's not too expensive - from Bitola to Dihovo is about 2.5 euros while to Pelister National Park entrance/Hotel Molika is about 5 euros.

Enjoy Pelister!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia

There are many tourist attractions in Croatia, with Dubrovnik and the Adriatic coast as it's undisputed highlights. For a national park junkie though, the highlight would undoubtedly be Plitvice Lakes National Park.


Plitvice Lakes National Park is Croatia's biggest national park, and is also recognized as a UNESCO Heritage site. The park is well organized and set up, with a range of walking trails and interesting boardwalks, all intertwined within a rich verdant stage of trees, lakes and waterfalls. In particular, the boardwalks and all built such that one would be literally immersed within the park's impressive collection of lakes and waterfalls. The walking trails are all marked, and maps placed at various points within the park. One could easily spend a whole day on the trails, which is what I did - a whole 9 hours inside the park. There is also a short ferry ride on one of its lakes, all included in your ticket to the park.

I went to Plitvice Lakes in early spring, and as such, there were less greenery from the vegetation. The colour of the lakes though, were mesmerizing turquoise green. One could imagine then, that during summer, the place would be stunning, if it is not already. I'm sure the winter and autumn sceneries are pretty impressive as well.






The park has 2 entrances, and within the park itself, there are a couple of hotels, all from Entrance 2. For those who are driving, there are some villages near the park where there are plenty of homestays and guesthouses available. For those who are taking buses, and did not want to pay for the hotel prices, the best bet is the small village of Rastovaca, just 800m from Entrance 1. Almost every household in the village provide rooms for rent.

The bus from Zagreb takes just 2.5 hours, while the bus to/from Split takes about 6 hours. Plitvice Lakes National Park can be easily fitted into your itinerary as it's on the way from Zagreb to the Adriatic coast and vice versa. For those who love greenery, lakes, and waterfalls, the national park is a must-visit!!