Kota Kinabalu (KK) won’t immediately overwhelm you with its beauty, but you’ll soon notice its friendly locals, breathtaking fiery sunsets, blossoming arts and music scene, and rich culinary spectrum spanning Malay to Japanese, Western to Cantonese, street food to high end.
Looking out across the teal-blue Bay of Sandakan dotted with Chinese trawlers and distant isles, it's hard to believe its population was once composed of such an exotic cast of foreign interests; German traders, Dutch and Chinese planters, Arab and Indian traders, and pearl divers.
If you've ever wondered what a cross between a duty-free airport mall and a tropical island would look like, check out the federal district of Pulau Labuan. Some call this Sabah's Vegas, and in the sense that Labuan offers both duty-free sin and tacky family fun, we agree. By the way, everything here is duty free, because politically, Labuan is governed directly from KL.
Mt Kinabalu & Kinabalu National Park
Gunung Kinabalu, as it is known in Malay, is more than the highest thing on the world's third largest island. And it is more than scenery. Mt Kinabalu is ubiquitous in Sabah to the point of being inextricable. It graces the state's flag and is a constant presence at the edge of your eyes, catching the clouds and shading the valleys.
The northwest coast of Sabah is criminally underexplored. The A1 runs north from KK to Kudat and the tip of Borneo past wide headlands, rice paddies and hidden beaches. This is a good area for renting a car or motorbike – the roads are pretty level, and public transport links aren't reliable for getting off the main road.
Sabah's interior constitutes some of the wildest territory in the state, and the best place for accessing this largely unexplored hinterland is via the southwest part of the state. The landscape is dominated by the Crocker Range, which rises near Tenom in the south and runs north to Mt Kinabalu.
You won't be using your camera's memory-card up in the town of Semporna, which but for its mosque, is not immediately captivating. There's a wet market and some pretty stilted water-hotels, but little reason to extend a stay beyond dumping your bags and going for a chat with one of the many dive companies – all conveniently located in the same street.
With its sunburnt stilted buildings, fishing boats out in the bay and slow tropical pace, there's a dreamy, end-of-the-world feeling in Kudat that will soon grow on you. Believe it or not, sleepy Kudat used to be an important trading post and capital of Borneo back in the late 19th century.
This little coastal town has a fish market, dry goods market, wilting sun-scorched buildings and very little else to keep you here. Travellers wishing to visit Tabin Wildlife Park and the Danum Valley – if they haven't already booked – arrive in town, head to the respective offices and stay a night before leaving for the jungle the next morning.
A visit to the world's most famous place to see orangutans in their natural habitat just became even more compelling thanks to the addition of an outdoor nursery for youngsters in the same complex, and the nearby, excellent Sun Bear Conservation Centre. On top of this, there's a stylish new restaurant and cafe that's recently opened.