I am always on the lookout for family friendly destinations that are a short flight from Hong Kong so you can maximise the fun with limited vacation days. Having traveled extensively I realised that there was one ‘Shang’ (aka Shangri-La hotel) infested destination we were still yet to visit… Kota Kinabalu! The capital of Malaysia’s Sabah state, located in Borneo. Kota Kinabalu boasts not one but two Shangri-La Hotels… the Tanjung Aru and the Rasa Ria. Lured in by water slides and the fact that the hotel is 10 minutes from the airport, we booked for a long weekend in September.
What should I know about travel to Kota Kinabalu?
- For most people, you don’t require a visa – hooray!
- Be mindful that Malaysia is a Muslim country. If you are planning to spend time outside of a resort, be sure to dress respectfully.
- Weatherwise – wet season runs September to January and dry season is Feb to August. We visited during the last week in September and had good weather – a mix of sunshine and overcast skies. Unfortunately the air was hazy due to the Indonesia forest fires.
- From Hong Kong, you can fly direct to Kota Kinabalu with Dragonair/Cathay, Air Asia and Malaysia Airlines.
Tell me about the Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru…
Built in 1983, the hotel has a whopping 492 rooms in two wings, the Tanjung and Kinabalu. Despite the large numbers of rooms, the hotel (despite running at full occupancy while we were there), never felt too busy. The place is kid heaven with large grassy lawns and water slides.
Which room should I go for?
This really depends on your family. You have two options; a room in the Tanjung or Kinabalu Wing. The Tanjung wing (closer to the pool) is slightly more expensive with bigger rooms reflecting a Borneo style with a sea view. We stayed in the cheapest room available, a Kinabalu Wing Mountain View Room. We had a King Sized bed and they converted the sofa bed for our two daughters to share. The room was fine – very similar style to other Shangri La’s I have stayed in. The balcony is a nice touch, especially when you’re waiting for the kids to go to sleep!
If you have a child who naps during the day, you might want to consider a ground floor room with the outdoor patio. There are also Suite options in both wings.
How are the facilities?
The Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru is one of those properties that you don’t want to leave. There is an enormous pool that snakes around the resort – on one side with a shallow, shaded area for kids and far on the other side is an adults only section.
There are waterfalls, steps, a jacuzzi and… WATER SLIDES!! There’s a small baby slide and then 3 slides for bigger kids/me. There is even a fun area where you can throw water balloons at each other.
There are a tonne of sun loungers and we never had trouble claiming a few for our family.
Aside from swimming & lazing around, what’s there to do?
The Leisure Centre can sort you out with golf clubs for the pitch & put, table tennis, giant chess and petanque. There are scheduled activities for all ages from towel art and cake decorating to snorkelling and step aerobics.
There is a large well-equipped gym, ample grounds for jogging, tennis court and organised activities by the Leisure If your idea of exercise is hitting the spa, CHI has a broad range of treatments available.
Tell me about the Kids Club…
The Kids Club is complimentary and runs from 8am to 8pm. Kids 4 and over can go in unaccompanied (that said our youngest was 3 at the time and they were absolutely fine with letting her play in there without us). There is a room for infants, larger room with toys and an area for arts & crafts. Kids can go in any time they like to play and there are scheduled activities such as bug hunting and mask making.
A highlight for our kids was taking part in the sunset parade where they got to dress up in local clothes and parade around the resort.
The ladies who run the kids club are fantastic and really took great care of my kids. You can also hire a babysitter through the hotel.
Is there a beach?
The property has a small beach – if lazing around all day on a paradise beach is what you’re after, then the Tanjung Aru probably isn’t for you. That said, there are gorgeous beaches a short boat ride away. The Star Marina, is located on one side of the property and runs regular trips to one of 3 islands: Pulau Sapi, Pulau Manukan and Pulau Mamutik You can rent any amount of snorkel gear and even ask the resort to pack a picnic for you. My 6yo and I had a blast visiting Manukan (10 mins away) with its beautiful beaches and clear water for snorkelling.
What are the dining options?
There are a variety of dining options onsite from Chinese at the Shang Palace to cocktails in the Borneo Lounge. Breakfast is a large buffet affair at Cafe Tatu – my attempts to be healthy were thwarted by the delicious beef randang and roti canai. For lunch we would either eat at Coco Joe’s by the sea, Cafe Tatu again (they have a decent kids menu with healthy options) or the ultimate in laziness, food delivered to our sun lounger. For snacks, there is an ice cream bar and sometimes a guy on the BBQ, cooking up burgers & sweetcorn. For dinner we visited Peppino for Italian where kids under 12 eat free. We also ventured out the hotel to a local hawker centre, about 10 minutes walk from the hotel – I highly recommend a visit here if you like sampling local food.
Should I visit the Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru?
As with other ‘Shang’ properties I have stayed in, what makes this place stand out is the staff. Despite the fact the hotel was running at full occupancy, nothing was too much trouble and everyone had a smile on their face. A special shout out must go to Paul on the Leisure Centre who even put on an extra aerobics class for me when I couldn’t make an earlier time.
The Tanjung Aru is the sort of place that makes family travel easy and it’s no wonder everyone raves about it. In fact, I have a friend who has been returning to Tanjung Aru for about 20 years! I love the little touches like a kids play area at the big dining restaurant Cafe Tatu and the fun, cultural activities organised by the Kids Club.
As a short haul destination from Hong Kong you can’t beat it – the 2.5 hr flight from Hong Kong, the relatively short queues at immigration and 10 minute airport transfer. If you wanted to spice things up, you could combine your trip with a visit to the Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria, which is about an hour’s drive away and has the orang-utan sanctuary. I’m looking forward to returning one day, hopefully as a reward to myself for climbing Mount Kinabalu….