After a few good days at the Shangri-La Rasa Ria and some rather creepy ones on Gaya Island, it was time to hop a plane and fly across the deep jungle of Borneo and explore Sabah’s east coast. Truth be told, the east coast’s stellar diving reputation is what drew us to the island in the first place, so the first eight days we spent in the Kota Kinabalu area had us antsy for our primary purpose of the trip: underwater exploration.
We arrived in Tawau, where the shuttle to Mataking Island was waiting to drive SVV, me and a lovely Italian couple nearly two hours to Semporna Jetty. From there, we boarded the resort’s ferry that transported us another 45 minutes out into what seemed to be the middle of the ocean.
But, after 45 minutes of water and uninhabited islets, we spotted signs of civilization far ahead. They weren’t lying to us: This oasis thrown haphazardly into the wild blue yonder of the Celebes Sea does exist. Once on Mataking, the four of us newcomers were greeted with cold towels and tropical fruit juice, as we were asked to remove our shoes—a Malaysian custom—and sit for an island briefing.
I’ll be frank: Mataking was the high point of our entire honeymoon. Two minutes on the island, and we already sold that it was going to be. It’s almost a shame we didn’t end the vacation here, as we both knew good and well that nothing else would live up to this little taste of paradise.
What was it exactly? Well, that’s hard to pinpoint. To start, the room was spacious and quite nice—far fancier than anything I expected to find in this part of Sabah, which is pocked with mostly budget accommodation. The mosquito net, while necessary, gives it a bit of an air of romance, wouldn’t you say?
We stayed in a beachfront, stand-alone chalet, and during the very few hours a day we weren’t underwater, I tried to soak up as many rays as I could stand in the stifling heat from the comfort of my own lounge chair.
While Mataking itself is a pretty small slice of real estate, boasting 37 separate accommodations strewn about the island, SVV and I would go on a wander each afternoon after lunch and feel like we had the whole place to ourselves. It helped that we were traveling in mid-June, mere days before the start of high season and the invasion of Europeans on holiday, meaning most of the resorts we stayed in were hardly half full.
The island had a second, smaller isle just off its coast that was only accessible by foot during the few hours of low tide each day. We had so much fun with photoshoots out on the sandbar that I’m pretty sure it deserves an entire Photo Friday of its own in the very near future.
Activities such as night “hikes” (aka beach walks) around the perimeter of the island were offered by the resort guides each day. We saw animals like the poisonous centipede in all its armored glory and coconut crabs the size of my hand and were careful where we stepped.
And then there were the turtles…oh, the turtles!
…but I’ll leave them for another day! (Just being crafty and offering a good reason for you to stop by and visit me again.)
The clarity and rainbow of colors the ocean formed were truly spectacular. Having been on the mainland for a week where pollution is a mere afterthought—we took ferry rides where we literally were plowing discarded pizza boxes and milk cartons with our boat as we sped along—it was refreshing to finally be in a place where all you could see for miles was sunlight bouncing off shimmering turquoise.
But all the aforementioned was just icing on the cake, as the dive operation is where Mataking truly shines. Not only does it run like a well-oiled machine—you sign up for which dives you want to do the following day on the dry-erase board each afternoon and put an “x” by your name if you’re a no-go (which we never were…we definitely took advantage of the underwater time, completing 20 dives in one week)—but the divemasters are truly sensational. At least our gal Agnese is: An Italian expat with a great sense of humor and a charming disposition, SVV and I were equally smitten with her. And boy did she know how to spot macro life 75 feet below the sea.
And the underwater world was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before—this said by a girl who has dived the Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the Cook Islands and the Maldives. Stay tuned for a glimpse of what we saw…
Where to Stay: Well, that’s pretty obvious. Mataking Island! The majority of the resorts in the area occupy their own isles, and from the months of Web research I did leading up to our trip and thousands of reviews I read—I find Trip Advisor to be an invaluable and spot-on means of research—Mataking is the cream of the crop.
How to Get There: Once you’re already in Borneo, you can fly to Tawau from most other cities on the island, such a Kota Kinabalu, Bandar Seri Begawan and Sandakan. We flew Malaysia Airlines for about $60 each way; you can also reach Tawau on Malaysia Air from the peninsula (e.g. Kuala Lumpur). Air Asia is the other low-cost carrier that serves Tawau Airport.
What it Costs: Most of the resorts in the Semporna area are all inclusive, with generous buffet spreads for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Alcoholic drinks are extra (and pricey at that, around $11 a pop). All the resorts also have two types of accommodation options: the diver’s package and the non-diver’s packages. For four days, three nights at Mataking, it’s $810 a night per person for divers and $675 for non. That’s actually a pretty good deal if you take into account how expensive a hobby diving is (though do note that doesn’t include your equipment rentals, which run another $85 a day for the full diver get-up) and the fact that all meals, airport transfers and ferries are covered under that rate. Of course, for every additional night you stay, the per-day cost goes down a bit.
That said, it sure is nice being somewhere and not having to carry your wallet with you the entire time. I’ve never been a fan of traditional all-inclusive resorts—though most dive resorts are just that—but I’m beginning to see why they’re so appealing.