First-time visitors to Sabah, on the northern edge of the mystical island of Borneo, will be charmed by its capital city, seduced by its golden beaches… and captivated by its wildlife.
You know the hotel’s general manager is Aussie when there’s a jar of Vegemite perched on the Club Lounge breakfast bar.
“I like to look after our guests,” laughs Ballina-born Fiona Hagan, general manager of Le Méridien Kota Kinabalu hotel. She’s at the helm of Le Méridien’s 21st-century makeover. The makeover is symbolic of many subtle changes taking place in sleepy Kota Kinabalu, or KK as it’s universally called.
The old shopping centres in KK are being nudged along by the arrival of glamorous “newbies”, while sunset cocktail bars overlooking Tunku Abdul Rahman marine park’s five islands are also gaining traction. Over at the Hyatt Regency Kinabalu, the Tanjung Ria Kitchen is another first for the region, featuring cooking stations and house-made specialties, while Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort & Spa continues to rake in awards.
Golden sunsets bring out the locals who shop and eat at the bustling waterfront market or along Gaya Street, the city’s main artery. Gaya Street is a hub of kerbside cuisine for Sabahan families. New establishments have sprung up, such as Peppermint (offering Vietnamese fl avours), and the Seven Grains Café, which specializes in Ibérico pork. Be there on a Sunday and hawker stalls take over, turning Gaya into a pedestrian street market selling everything from puppies to pizza.
KK runs at a leisurely pace and the popular waterfront market’s souvenir section – nestled between jungle medicines, dried fish, fresh vegetables and men at sewing machines doing alterations for just a few Aussie dollars – makes it a must-visit.
When asked, Fiona happily shares some of her Sabah secrets. “Chilli Vanilla is a hole-in-the-wall cafe/bakery where they make divine chocolate brownies and red velvet cakes. For seafood, I always recommend Alu Alu Café near Jesselton Point, which serves sustainable fish straight from the boat and is cooked in the local Chinese style.”