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!), it’s always been a destination high on my list. I’ve been sending customers to the Malaysian side of Borneo for years, but now with our children aged 4 and 7; we thought it was high time for our own family adventure.
Much of the action is in Borneo’s north eastern state of Sabah, so our first stop was to fly into Kota Kinabalu. A key ingredient of a successful family holiday (especially long haul) is to time the flights right. We always try to avoid long connections and book a decent airline. Our personal favourite when travelling with children is to try and arrive in the early evening so that bed time isn’t far away.
My 7 year old boy is a little crazy about planes, and fascinated by the A380 in particular, so I made sure we used one. We took an excellent Malaysian Airlines flight from Heathrow to Kota Kinabalu via a short connection in Kuala Lumpur.
The new A380’s are particularly family-friendly; they’re super quiet and our two slept a good 7-8 hours each on the night flight. You also benefit from touch-screen TV’s 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 head rest by the window (need a pillow of course) if the kids want to get more horizontal. We booked the upper deck with only 10 rows in the economy cabin and 3 loos, so there was never a queue. We arrived 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 leg of our trip we wanted a great hotel to just relax, the Shangri-La is perfect for this. Lovely rooms, great pool where the kids (and adults!) can play for hours, a gorgeous beach and beautiful sunsets. It’s a larger resort with little else nearby, but with several family-friendly places to eat and drink on site, amazing service and the friendliest staff we felt like everything we needed was here. It was 4 days into the holiday before we even left the hotel!
Using Shangri-La as a base means there is loads to do. There’s a shuttle between the Rasa Ria, Kota Kinabulu and the other Shangri-La Tanjung Aru (about 1 hour), from there you can head out to the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park for more fab beaches and marine life.
In other resorts like this you can feel cut off from the local area, close the curtains and you can be anywhere in the world. In the Shangri-La however, local culture is celebrated and reflected in the menus, the evening dancers and music. The service from the local staff was impeccable; it’s comes as no surprise to find the Rasa Ria is rated so amazingly on the review sites. Their guest services manager Rosie is a shining example of this, nothing was too much trouble.
Above everything, a reason for families to choose this particular hotel is the nature reserve on site. Here live 3 orang-utans in a hillside rainforest sanctuary. We went to take a look and waited a good half an hour before one started swinging his way through the canopy, but it was far better to see them here in their natural environment than at a zoo. Our son took part in their ‘Ranger Experience’, where he got to meet ‘Ten-ten’ a 3 year old orang-utan, and helped make her milk and prepare her food. An unforgettable experience for any child!
The nature reserve at Rasa Ria serves as an orphanage for baby orang-utans. From here they’re transferred to the larger Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre which houses 60 orang-utans living free in the reserve.
When you consider there are only around 20,000 remaining orang-utans living in the wild you soon appreciate the amazing work done in these centres. Sepilok is well worth a visit (you can fly into nearby Sandakan). It’s a great starting point for Kinabatangan River, plus a bit further north you’ll find Turtle Islands Park where Green and Hawksbill turtles thrive.
Aside from the wildlife, a trek up the 4000m Mount Kinabalu (the highest peak in Malaysia) is achievable if you have a good 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.
Turtle Island is a must if you like these cute little creatures – offering a rare opportunity to view turtle landings. They hatch all year round, but the best time to visit is July-Oct when the seas are calmer.
The accommodation on Selingan Island is basic but clean and numbers are restricted to avoid overcrowding, meaning you need to book well ahead. An overnight stay is recommended so you can see more - day trips are also possible but be warned there’s little point as most of the action takes place after dusk. What the accommodation lacks in luxury is well made up for by the snorkelling and turtles!
For wildlife, Borneo is certainly hard to beat, and for a family adventure it’s perfect. Our kids were so happy and happy kids make for happy parents! Kids will find the food is a gentle intro into Asian cuisine, the Nasi Goreng (fried rice with chicken, egg or prawns) became a firm favourite with our kids.
The Shangri-La Rasa Ria do an amazing job of making things ‘family friendly’ with fantastic pools and activities, plus kids menus everywhere. Depending on the time you available, a stay in Borneo could be a great trip on its own. We actually extended our holiday with 10 days in Bali afterwards, which is easily reached via a 2 hour direct flight) It’s hard to imagine how we’ll top this holiday, but I’m already planning having a go!
If you’re thinking of planning a family adventure or taking your family to 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.