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An island diving adventure on Manukan Island in Borneo

An island diving adventure on Manukan Island in Borneo

Manukan Island or Pulau Manukan is a 51-acre island, the second largest of the 5 tropical islands at Tunku Abdul Rahman Park. It takes an hour to walk from one end to the other. The island is surrounded by a coral reef and white sandy beaches; it is ideal for relaxing on the beach, snorkelling, and diving. The island is a very popular day trip from Kota Kinabalu for locals so it can get quite busy on weekends. There are a lot of activities available on the island but Manukan Island Resort is the only private resort on the island, making it the perfect getaway for a quiet weekend away as they have their own private stretch of beach that is not accessible to day trippers.

Tunku Abdul Rahman Park spreads over 4929 Ha with two-thirds of it covered by ocean. It comprises 5 islands: Gaya, Manukan, Sapi, Sulug and Mamutik, all within 3-5 Km off the coast of Kota Kinabalu. Because of its proximity, the marine park is a popular destination and sees over 300,000 visitors every year. The waters are densely populated with small reef fish, nudibranchs and sea grass. You can sometimes spot stingrays and turtles if you are lucky.

Manukan Island Day 0, Friday – Arrive on the island

7 or 8pm: Arrive Kota Kinabalu airport

Get picked up by the hotel who will take you to the Sea Quest Jetty at Sutera Harbour then board the resort boat to the island. It takes about 20-30min to the harbour then about 15min on the boat to Manukan.

Check in and freshen up when you get there and enjoy a late dinner at Perahu Restaurant

Perahu Restaurant serves a delicious spread of Western and local dishes. Try the Ayam Penyet: pulled fried chicken with rice and salad. Enjoy the live string band as you have dinner by the pool. They will play whatever song you suggest.

Manukan Island Day 1, Saturday – Diving

8am: Buffet breakfast at Perahu Restaurant

The breakfast is a variety of local and western dishes, including fresh fruit and juice. Our favourite was the Nasi Lemak: fragrant coconut rice served with egg and chilli jam, all wrapped in a banana leaf. Enjoy the quiet of the island as you sip on your morning coffee. You can also have pancakes or eggs made to order.

9am: Diving with Downbelow Adventures

There are almost 20 dive sites around Manukan Island of varying depths. There is even a wreck that sank in 2017 and which will soon open to divers. The wreck was a controlled sinking done by Downbelow Adventures in conjunction with the government to promote marine growth and provide a new attraction in the area. There used to be another WWII wreck a bit further out from Manukan but a Chinese vessel took it for spares and scrap a few years ago. A couple more wrecks are still available near the island. That means that if you are looking to complete the Advanced PADI certification, you can also do so at Manukan.

Enjoy two dives with Downbelow Adventures. Depending on the weather and the needs of your certification or interests (if you are certified), your divemaster will take you out on the boat to the right spot. Enjoy some sandy ‘muck’ diving as well as colourful coral reefs. If you are lucky, you may spot a turtle and, in season, you could even see a whale shark. The dive spots are all very near Manukan so your surface intervals will be spent on the island.

Alternatively, you can also snorkel around Sapi or Sulug island.

If you have not yet completed your PADI open Water certification, Downbelow can help you do so. We recommend you complete the theory and pool sessions in Singapore or back home and do the open water dives with Downbelow. The waters around Manukan in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park are shallow and calm and there are plenty of dive sites within the 18m range so they are the perfect spot to complete your certification in rich marine surroundings.

Downbelow is a PADI 5 Star IDC Centre with highly skilled international staff holding many years of experience under their belt. They have a passion for the marine environment in the area, spending many years photographing and studying the surrounding waters of Tunku Abdul Rahman Park. The centre keeps the diver-to-dive guide ratio low, to ensure that new divers are well looked after. The dive centre is located within walking distance from the resort, making it a convenient place to learn to dive.

12pm: Enjoy a barbeque lunch at Arang BBQ Restaurant

The Arang restaurant is part of the Perahu restaurant and is only open during lunch. They serve freshly barbequed fish and chicken with your choice of rice or noodles. The restaurant is open to everyone so it is popular with the day trippers from the mainland. The smell of grilled food will lure you in.

2pm: Chill by the beach

After lunch, unless you want to join another dive, you could chill at your villa, by the pool or on Manukan Island Resort’s private beach strip, away from the busyness at the main beach area. Of course, if you are up for it, you can also join a snorkelling trip, a banana boat ride or just swim.

4pm: Trek to Sunset Point

Discover the charm of Manukan island as you walk to Sunset Point at the tip of the island. It is 1.5 km long and takes 45 minutes. Wear appropriate footwear and look out for fallen trees. Request a naturalist from the resort to join you so that you can learn more about the island. Enjoy the view point and if the tide is low, climb down to the rocks/mangrove area below. Bring a torchlight from your hotel room as the walk back will be done in the dark.

8pm: Steamboat dinner at Perahu Restaurant

Request this scrumptious meal with the resort staff beforehand. The chef will prepare you a delicious steamboat dinner with plenty of fresh vegetables sourced locally from the city markets.

Manukan Island Day 2, Sunday – Finish your certification

8am: Buffet breakfast at Perahu Restaurant

9am: Dive with Downbelow Adventures

If you came to get certified, this will be the magic day when you complete your certification. Downbelow will take you out to some different dive spots and you should be able to complete your requirements to obtain the Open Water license. Depending on how far you came the previous day, you will be doing one, two or three dives.

If you are done with diving but are a water baby, you could go on a snorkelling trip. While you can snorkel at Manukan island beach, there is far more coral and marine life at neighbouring islands Sapi and Sulug. This is because it is not visited by many people. Down Below Adventures can take you out on boat to these islands.

12pm: Have a picnic by the beach

Contact resort staff, they can organise a lovely picnic for you anywhere on the beach. The picnic basket will be filled with handpicked fresh treats. Wine, beer and soft drinks are also available. The basket costs Rm120 per person.

2pm: Beach, relax, read or trek

You should take some rest unless you have more diving scheduled. If you wanted to do something more active you could go snorkelling again, cover the hour-long jungle trek that goes to northern tip of the island (an alternative path to the sunset point one) or join in on any of the sea activities available like banana boating. A book is always a good alternative.

5pm: Board the Amazing Love Sunset Cruise

If you want to splurge, the resort’s catamaran takes you on a breezy cruise through Tunku Abdul Rahman Park. The Amazing Love boat is complete with saloon seating, entertainment and ensuite bathrooms. Enjoy the large spread of artisanal cheeses, local fruits, cakes and mouth-watering satay specially prepared by the chef. All this while watching the sunset over the ocean. On a clear day, you might be able to see Mount Kinabalu in the distance. Contact resort staff to organise this.

If Amazing Love is out of your budget, enjoy a sunset drink from the island’s jetty. Once all the day trippers have left between 3 and 4pm, the island is a quiet paradise. Order a drink from the bar and take it with you to the jetty from where you can see a lovely sunset on the northern tip of the island. At sunset, the area around the jetty fills with nurse reef sharks that come to feed, don’t miss the chance to spot them. They will glide below the jetty. Spot other fish as you return after the busyness of the day on the jetty.

7pm: Enjoy a dinner on the beach

If you are celebrating a special occasion, tell the chef and team and they can prepare a romantic setup on the beach or a pool cabana. You could spend an hour counting stars from the beach loungers but beware of the sand flies and cover up with clothes and repellent.

Manukan Island Day 3, Sunday – Return home

Enjoy an early buffet breakfast at Perahu restaurant. Order a coconut for that extra dose of island paradise.

Spend the last hours on the island relaxing at Tambun beach, the resort’s private strip for in-house guests only.

12pm: Depart for Sutera Harbour and onwards to the airport.

Singapore n Beyond was a guest at Sutera Sanctuary Lodges which is a member of the Secret Retreats collection. As always, all opinions expressed in this article are our own. 

Places to Stay in Manukan Island

There is only one accommodation option on the island: Manukan Island Resort, managed by Sutera Sanctuary Lodges but owned by the Sabah government.

Manukan Island Resort is made of two types of accommodation: hilltop villas and beach villas. Both offer the same level of comfort inside but differ in their location and views. In both cases, the layout can be single storey or duplex. Sizes are the same in both cases but the duplex has the bedroom upstairs while the lounge is downstairs.

The beach villas are located near the restaurant and the main beach area. They are more affordable and are in the middle of everything, making them easily accessible and convenient. Because Manukan is very popular with daytrippers, the beach area can be quite busy on weekends. Hilltop Villas are the premium option. They are located further away from the main beach and are elevated, providing beach and sea views from your bed and lounge. They are reached via a steep short path followed by a network of wooden boardwalks and stairs. Because of their location, they offer a more peaceful vacation and have direct access to Manukan’s private beach area. The duplex hilltop villas are the most premium option.

Manukan Island Resort has two restaurants and several food stalls selling food during the day. The main restaurant offers a variety of local and international set dishes with favourites like club sandwiches, fried rice or roasted chicken. Everything is flavourful and indulgent. Breakfast is served in the other restaurant which turns into a grill at lunchtime and is open to the general public. For breakfast, there is a range of choices from pancakes and eggs made to order to nasi lemak or curries. There are also fresh fruits, yoghurts and cereals as well as breads, pastries and other sweets. Coffee is properly made with a coffee machine. The island is full of hawker center type stalls set up by locals selling snacks and meals throughout the day. These are very cheap but not of the same quality as the resort’s options. There is also a bar by the pool to enjoy some drinks. Manukan Island Resort has a long cocktail menu and a few wine choices. Service at the resort is always friendly and helpful.

Hillside Villas cost between SGD 360 – 410 per night and Beach Suites start at SGD 280 – 320.

Downbelow has diving packages including nine dives for 4 days and 3 nights starting at SGD600 per person sharing.

Getting to Manukan Island

There are 2 direct flights departing Singapore daily operated by SilkAir and AirAsia. Both depart in the evening, and arrive in Kota Kinabalu city at night. AirAsia flights depart at 17:35 and arrive Kota Kinabalu Airport at 20:00, flights cost between SGD70 and upward. SilkAir flights depart at 16:25 and arrive at 18:50, and cost SGD200 and up. You can have the perfect getaway on a Friday evening and arrive back in Singapore on Monday evening. 

From here, you will be transported to Sea Quest Jetty at Sutera Harbour, where you will board the resort boat to Manukan Island.

Getting around Manukan Island

Most of the amenities on the island are within walking distance of each other. It takes at most an hour to walk from one end of the island to the other.

Other important notes

Things to bring

  • Sports shoes for the sunset point walk
  • Beach wear and any diving equipment you use
  • Sunscreen, essential as the sun is strong
  • Insect repellent for the sand flies
  • GoPro if you want to take underwater photographs, don’t forget the red filter for diving

Best months to visit

February to April is the best time to visit, as they are non-monsoon months and rainfall is scattered. Avoid October to January as it brings frequent, heavy rains. Whale Shark season is between January and April.

Useful numbers

Ambulance/Police: 999

Fire department: 994

Airport: 088-238 555

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