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.
Wow, that’s paradise indeed! The water color is absolutely beautiful!
That picture of you in the red dress has to be one of the most beautiful pictures I’ve ever seen!!! What absolute paradise!!!!!!!!!!!! Reminds me a lot of New Cal. Can’t wait to see more posts on this place. I’m hooked! 🙂
Gorgeous photos! (As always!) I just wanted to let you know that I love the addition of the ‘where to stay’, ‘how to get there’ and ‘how much it costs’ sections on each post– very helpful information!
Looks lovely! I can’t wait to see the dive photos. I’m jealous that you managed 20 dives. Lucky you.
Red dress photo = stunning! I can’t wait to hear more about the turtles and diving, and I think you and SVV may have set a new standard for honeymooning.
What a drop dead beautiful place. I love your red dress contrast to the sea, and the turtles. Look forward to more.
I want to go to there. And look as pretty as you do, or at least try. 🙂
I’m officially adding Borneo to my list of places I MUST visit. SEA TURTLES. (I’m so excited for Hawaiian sea turtles right now, too.)
Is that you in the red dress? What a fabulous photo!
My friends were just in Borneo and couldn’t stop talking about how amazing it was. I can’t believe how clear the water is. I got that close to a turtle on land… a bigger one, but something about it being in the water kinda creeps me out!
You make this tiny island sound irresistable! And I love the photo of you standing in the water. It looks like the cover of a travel magazine!
Stunning photos, as always! I’m glad you found your perfect paradise!
Wow…just simply. Wow.
Lucky ducks. 🙂
duuuuhhhh…my mouth is still open. What a spectacular honeymoon experience! That picture of you in the red dress is simply stunning.
I must appreciate your travels 🙂
Loved your photography too 🙂
Gorgeous. Also, baby turtle!
Absolutely stunning!! Your photos are amazing. Such a cool couple that would do this for their honeymoon. 😉
Amazing photos! It looks like you guys enjoyed your time in paradise. 😉
Ahhh just left KK after three cloudy days. Nothing like the first time I went last year when the skies were clear, the sunsets were beautiful and Sapi Island was the best place to escape.
Navy NCIS will not let us go to Gaya Island. What was it like there?
I would like to come back to Borneo without the Navy and explore the island and outer islands. I hear that the south part of Borneo is the best for scuba diving. Thank you for the great information. The pics are amazing!
Fidel, it actually was only so-so. We stayed at the only resort on the island, and it was a bit creepy (I blogged about it here: https://www.camelsandchocolate.com/?p=3488). And the foliage was so thick, you really couldn’t go exploring the island yourself.
BUT I really loved the islands off the east coast in the Semporna area. That’s where the diving’s so great. We stayed at Mataking and Mabul, and if I were ever to return to Borneo, I’d skip the KK area entirely and spend my time there and in Sarawak.
Thank you for the link.
I just posted a blog about my day volunteering in KK.
I would skip KK too. It’s sorta like Manila, just an intl airport hub that you take to get to Borneo and then hop in smaller planes to go to where you really want to explore.
Did you climb Mt. Kinabalu?
Wow, gorgeous pictures! It looks like you really enjoyed your trip to beautiful Borneo!
I’ve loved traveling to Borneo vicariously through your photos and words. I’ve been dreaming about this mysterious corner of the planet since I was a small child through my father’s tales of when he worked there and met native tribes. Now that I’m living in Asia I’ll certainly organize a trip there.
Great info here. I’ve been to Kota Kinabalu for Mt Kinabalu trek. But I remember many folks in our hostel were headed for dive sites around there. I’m sorry I missed such a special place when we there.
Lovely shots indeed. It does seem a bit more remote, and Borneo is a destination I wasn’t prepared to associate with underwater diving. But who knew?