Sun, beach, wildlife and a great pool are my ingredients for a fantastic family holiday, but how on earth do you choose? So off went the TV, out came the atlas and the idea of Borneo family holiday immediately drew me in.
Famous for its orang-utans (or ‘big ginger monkeys’ as our kids call them!), Borneo has always been a destination high on my list. I’ve been sending customers to the Malaysian side of Borneo for years, so with children aged 4 and 7; we thought it was high time for our family adventure.
We always think hard about planning our long-haul flights with kids and try to book the most convenient flights for us. For starters, we always try to avoid long connections and we always book with a decent airline. Our tried-and-tested formula when travelling with the children is to try and arrive in the early evening so that bedtime isn’t too far away.
This time, we flew with Malaysian Airlines from London direct to Kota Kinabalu, in the state of Sabah in northern Borneo. We didn’t include a stopover on the way out, but it’s easy to add a night or two stopover in somewhere like Kuala Lumpur to break the journey and get some snaps of the famous Petronas Towers - we can recommend some convenient hotels in KL.
My 7-year-old boy is a little crazy about planes and fascinated by the A380 in particular, so I made sure we were flying on one. We took an excellent Malaysian Airlines flight from Heathrow to Kota Kinabalu via a short connection in Kuala Lumpur.
The A380 is particularly family-friendly; its super quiet and our two kids slept a good 7-8 hours each on the night flight. You also benefit from touch-screen TVs with the latest movies, classic video games and plenty of space.
On the economy upper deck of the A380, there’s a useful side-storage bucket for all your in-flight bits and bobs, which doubles up as a headrest by the window (need a pillow of course) if the kids want to get more horizontal. We booked the upper deck with only ten rows in the economy cabin and three loos, so there was never a queue.
We arrived in Kota Kinabalu in the evening and after being picked up at the airport found ourselves at the magnificent Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort.
As Borneo was the first destination on our three-week trip, we just wanted a great hotel and somewhere to relax - the Shangri-La is perfect for this. It has lovely rooms, a great pool where the kids (and adults!) can play for hours, a gorgeous beach and we had beautiful sunsets every night.
The Shangri-la is a large resort with little else in the vicinity, but it offers several family-friendly places to eat and drink on site, fantastic service and the friendliest staff we felt like everything we needed was here. It was four days into our holiday before we even left the hotel!
We were able to use the Shangri-La as a base because they operate a shuttle between the Rasa Ria, Kota Kinabalu and the Shangri-La Tanjung Aru (about 1 hour away). From these hotels, you can venture out to the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park for more fantastic beaches and marine life.
In some resorts, you can feel cut off from the local area and once you close the curtains and you can be anywhere in the world. But in the Shangri-La, local culture is celebrated and reflected in the menus, the evening dancers and music. The service from the staff was impeccable; it comes as no surprise to find the Rasa Ria is rated very highly in reviews.
At the time we stayed at the Rasa Ria, there was an on-site nature reserve and orangutan sanctuary, which was one of our main reasons for choosing the hotel. My son was able to join the ‘Ranger Experience’ and meet the orangutans, which was terrific. More recently, the orangutans have moved to the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre which houses 60 orang-utans living free in the reserve. We can easily add a visit to Sepilok into your Borneo family holiday plans.
When you consider that Orangutans are a critically endangered species, you soon appreciate the fantastic work done in these centres. Sepilok is about a 30-minute drive from Sandakan airport, so it’s easy to reach.
This whole area is a great starting point to explore some of the Kinabatangan River, plus a bit further north you’ll find Turtle Islands Park where Green and Hawksbill turtles thrive.
Just a 45-minute morning flight from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan will bring you close to Turtle Island - a ‘must-see’ if you like these cute little creatures. The airport is a ten-minute walk from the port, from where you can jump on a boat for the crossing over to Turtle Island. We can book this for you as a one-day or overnight side trip, with all flights, transfers and any accommodation included, to make everything simple!
In this conservation area, you’ll have a rare opportunity to see turtle landings. The turtles hatch all year round, but the best time to visit is July to October when the seas are calmer, and it’s easier for them to come ashore. You’ll likely see Hawksbill turtles and Green turtles – and this kind of up-close experience is one-of-a-kind for the kids – ours loved it!
You can stay overnight on Selingaan Island; its basic but clean and they restrict overnight visitor numbers to avoid overcrowding, so you’ll need to book ahead. What the accommodation lacks in luxury is well made up for by the snorkelling and turtles!
Although day trips are possible, I highly recommend staying over, as most of the action with the turtles take place after dusk, which you’d likely miss on a day trip.
If you’re planning a trip with adventurous teenagers who are up for this – you could consider one of Borneo’s other big drawcards – a trek up Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in Malaysia. This guided trek 4,000m up to the summit is achievable if you have a reasonable level of fitness – see my colleague Chris’s Borneo blog if you fancy trying this climb!
If you don’t fancy trekking it, (it isn’t practical with smaller children), there are various sunrise hikes and viewpoints you can visit to catch a glimpse of the mountain.
If your kids love wildlife, Borneo is hard to beat. You can see all types of monkey from orangutans to cheeky macaques to the odd-looking Proboscis monkeys which are native to Borneo. There are bearded pigs, (elusive) pygmy elephants and more birdlife than you can imagine, to name a few!
For a family adventure, Borneo is an affordable Asian destination with a good range of accommodation choices at every level, meaning it’s not too expensive to upgrade and treat yourselves. The Shangri-La Rasa Ria do a fantastic job of making things ‘family friendly’ with fantastic pools and activities, plus kids menus everywhere.
Kids will find the food here is a gentle intro into Asian cuisine, the Nasi Goreng (fried rice with chicken, egg or prawns) became a firm favourite with our kids. Our kids were so happy and happy kids make for happy parents!
Depending on the time you have, Borneo is an excellent single-destination trip, but it’s also incredibly easy to build a multi-centre holiday with other places in Malaysia and elsewhere in south-east Asia.
We twinned our time in Borneo with another ten days in Bali. At just a 2-hour direct flight from Borneo, why not experience a little of Malaysia and Indonesia in the same trip? It’s hard to imagine how we’ll top this holiday, but I’m already planning to have a go!
If you’re thinking of planning a family adventure in Borneo, Travel Nation can help. Many of our staff have young families and are used to planning trips which take into consideration kids’ interests and abilities. For more advice on suitable trips and to book yours, call one of our travel specialists on +44 1273320580 or request a quote by email.