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Mainland Borneo is famous for its dense rainforest & megadiverse ecosystem, but fewer travellers are familiar with the idyllic tropical islands scattered around it.

Many of these sit in what’s known as 'Turtle Corridor', an extensive and internationally protected stretch of water between the Philippines and Malaysia. It’s a critical habitat for sea turtles and a profusion of other marine life which, coupled with fantastically clear waters, makes for excellent diving. The turtles can also be spotted on land, when they come ashore to lay eggs.

The islanders take great care to protect the creatures that make them so special, & many of the islands run turtle conservation projects. While this means you may sometimes be unable to access certain beaches in the evening, you may well get the chance to watch a turtle egg-laying or hatching, under a ranger’s supervision - infinitely more magical than looking for them by yourself in the dark & accidentally trampling on a nest.

With tropical beaches to relax on and professional dive-masters on hand to help you explore the world-class waters, one of Borneo’s islands may well be that paradise you dream of whenever your attention wanders.

Mabul Island

Diving, snorkelling, beach, R & R

Mabul, about a mile off Borneo’s North-Eastern coast just below Semporna, is barely a mile long and home to 2,000 villagers, most of whom live by fishing the richly stocked seas nearby. It’s not just handy for fishermen, either; the coral reef which extends East and South of Mabul offers some of the richest diving you’ll find in the world today.

Your stay on Mabul would give you access to expert dive-masters with daily boat trips nearby and across to Sipadan, where you’ll find green and hawksbill turtles, white-tip and grey reef sharks, scalloped hammerheads, barracuda, bumphead parrotfish - just a few of the large pelagics that congregate there in vast numbers. Mabul itself is especially great for muck & macro, with an abundance of small exotics like frogfish, hairy squat lobsters, bobtail squids, pipefish, pygmy seahorses... the list goes on and on.

Dive round Mabul and pop back for a shower and a stretch in between, or make a day trip to Sipadan; whichever you choose, you can do the other one tomorrow. This ecosystem is guaranteed to shoot straight into your all time top five dives - dare we say to number one?

We favour two of Mabul’s resort options. The Mabul Sipadan Water Bungalows is a lovely little cluster of 15 stilted chalets, linked to the beach by a wooden walkway, while the Smart Diver Resort is nestled in a coconut grove looking out towards Sipadan. They’re both very much geared towards divers, though also certain to please any non-diver with a love of tropical beaches, the ocean, sea turtles and perhaps a little pampering in MSWB’s Ka’andaman spa..

Divers will be in heaven at the Smart resort; you just need to check the whiteboard each morning to see which dives are scheduled, and hop on your boat, with a few fellow divers and one of the resident dive-masters. Night-dives are possible too, and all your equipment is taken care of by the experienced staff, so you won’t need to lug heavy tanks around.

Each of the Smart resort’s 45 air-conditioned wooden chalets has an en-suite bathroom with cold and hot water (if you can bear to think about hot water when it’s 32 degrees C outside) and is sweetly decorated with polished woods and airy colours. Every Water Bungalow has its own expansive sundeck and huge French windows, which wash the rooms with natural light. The air-conditioned bungalows are tastefully decorated with white walls, pale bedding, wooden furniture and a few traditional textiles scattered around to remind you where you are, in case the gentle lapping sound beneath your chalet ever lets you forget.

Kapalai

Diving, snorkelling

Whilst not truly an island, more a sandbank-cum-man made playform, Kapalai undoubtedly deserves its place on our list. The Kapalai Sipadan Dive Resort is an astonishing resort of 42 stilted bungalows which sit on shallow sandbanks just off the coast of Semporna, near tiny Mabul island. Surrounded by some of the best diving in the world, Kapalai is only 15 minutes from famous Sipadan Island, while excellent snorkelling can be found by simply swimming from the resort.

It’s not all about diving, here - weddings are also catered for - but it is very much about the sea, with barely any land in sight and the utter peace of being out on the water. There is a mile-long sandbank, when you fancy a stroll or a little sunbathing, and the chalets have their own balconies and sundecks. Rooms are elegant & airy, each with its own private bathroom. You can rent diving gear from the resort’s dive centre, and there’s broadband if you’re itching to provoke envy amongst your friends by emailing them those dive photos. Non-divers who’d like to have a go will find PADI qualified instructors on site.

Gaya Island

Wildlife conservation, snorkelling, beach, R & R

A vibrant tuft of rainforest erupting from tropical aquamarine, Gaya Island is a stunning coral outcrop just 40 minutes from Kota Kinabalu, on Borneo’s north coast. Richly eco-diverse, it’s one of five islands comprising the Tunku Abdul Rahman NP.
Gaya’s forest is home to long-tailed macaques, hornbills & monitor lizards, while its coastal waters safely harbour 7 of the world’s 8 Giant Clam species, amidst a profusion of colourful reef-life.

In addition to the sumptuous Bunga Raya, Gayana Eco Resort and the Gaya Island Resort, the island offers fabulous diving, snorkelling, swimming, and - somewhat unusually, amongst Borneo’s proliferation of tiny tropical islets - a number of inland trails, through both rainforest and mangrove swampland. Visitors wanting to learn more about the fantastic conservation work being done should visit the island's Marine Ecology Research Centre and in addition to the wildlife trails there is also a small canopy walk.

Selingan Island

Snorkelling, beach, turtle hatchery

About an hour from Sandakan by speedboat, Selingan has the largest turtle conservation project of all the islands around Sabah. Apart from the astonishing tropical backdrop, the turtles are the main reason we visit this island. You’ve a high chance of seeing a hatching or egg-laying throughout the year, with both hawksbill and green turtles coming ashore in their hundreds to nest. The nests and eggs are protected by conservation staff, and if you visit the conservation centre you may get the chance to handle a baby turtle hatchling, just before it’s released into the sea.

Accommodation is basic but comfortable. When your primary reason for visiting is to witness magnificent turtles at night, you’re usually happy to forget the massage and pedicures, at least until you reach a luxury resort elsewhere. You won’t be allowed on the beaches between sunset and sunrise, unless accompanied by a ranger, who’ll call you to witness only one turtle laying eggs or hatching per night.

Turtles, although they’re the main attraction, aren’t the only wildlife on the island; monitor lizards thrive here too, relying on the turtle eggs for sustenance, and you may well spot a gecko wandering around near your bungalow, hunting for insects.

Please note...

...that the Foreign Commonwealth Office is currently advising against all but essential travel to all islands off the coast of eastern Sabah from Kudat to Tawau, including (but not limited to) Lankayan, Mabul, Pom Pom, Kapalai, Litigan, Sipadan and Mataking. 

Lankayan Island

Diving, snorkelling, beach, R & R

Only 2 hours by boat from Sandakan, on Borneo’s North Eastern tip, Lankayan so successfully combines subtle luxury with unspoilt natural beauty that all you can do is relax and soak it all in. Apart from the resort, the tiny island is unpopulated, covered in lush tropical vegetation & fringed by an unbroken ribbon of soft white sand.

It’s a fantastic retreat from the world, perfect for anyone who needs to fully unwind, while its diving is amongst the most satisfying available today. Bright macro & fauna, muck, wonderful wrecks, and frequent whale-shark visits (between March and May) are all minutes away.

Lankayan is also a sea turtle nesting site; guests are not allowed on the beach after 7pm in case turtles come ashore to lay their eggs, but you will be provided with a flag to hang outside your room if you’d like to be fetched to see an egg-laying or hatching.

The air-conditioned wooden bungalows, each with its own private bathroom and beautifully decorated with traditional textiles, are right by the beach. Freshly prepared meals and snacks are available throughout the day, with delicious locally caught seafood frequently featuring on the menu.

Mataking Island

Diving, snorkelling, beach, R & R

Forty minutes off Sabah’s East Coast, Mataking is remarkable - an exquisite, stylish resort, dive centre and spa, peacefully coexisting with a turtle conservation project, not to mention its pristine jungle interior. You can walk around the island in about an hour and, when the tide permits, out across a bar of tropical sand to the little wooded islet known as Kecil, which sits just off Mataking’s coast. Guests are kept off the sand overnight, as with the other islands, to protect the turtles.

The Balinese style villas, chalets and rooms are beautifully decorated, allowing plenty of natural light inside. You can watch the sea from the chalet bathrooms, while villas have their own outdoor jacuzzi, overlooking the forest. The restaurant serves a tasty menu that combines the best of international cuisine, from Thai fish to English lamb. There are also a couple of comfortable bars, for when you can’t resist sipping on a cocktail as you watch the tropical sunset and feel unavoidably pleased with yourself for choosing this resort.

There are many thoughtful touches here, like the watchtower you can climb to get a panoramic view of your amazing surroundings. The resort’s selection of activities are lovely, with guided jungle walks, coconut bowling, batik painting, cookery lessons and sea kayaking amongst the many things on offer. It’s even possible to get married here, and a good number of honeymoons are spent here too; you can even arrange an underwater ceremony, should you wish!

Pom Pom Island

Diving, snorkelling, beach, R & R

Two-thirds of a mile long and about 40 minutes North-East of Semporna, tiny Pom Pom Island is paradise in miniature, from its cheerful wooden jetty to the fabulous array of nudibranch and other colourful marine creatures that cluster round it.

An atoll topped with rich tropical vegetation and ringed with beautiful white sand, Pom Pom is ideal for diving, snorkelling, swimming and kayaking, with beach sports and a spa for anyone who feels like staying on land.

The traditionally-designed wooden villas come with a choice of three locations - right on the beach, on stilts in the water or nestled in the trees. Each has its own benefits, and it’s a hard choice to make. The beach villas let you step off your terrace straight onto the warm sand; you could lie on your water villa’s sundeck, lulled by the lapping water, before climbing down your ladder for a dip; or perhaps you’d prefer a little seclusion amongst the shady trees.

Every villa is beautiful and very nicely appointed, with polished wood, stylish bathrooms and traditional touches. An excellent range of tasty international dishes is served in the resort’s central restaurant, which is also where you can find the bar for that sunset cocktail.