3rd October 2017
Sophie Chambers and her family visit Sabah province in eastern Malaysia for excitement and indulgence in equal measures at the Shangri-La Rasa Ria
The word Borneo immediately conjures up exotic jungle imagery, though perhaps less-so a place you would necessarily think about travelling with two young kids. In my case, Arthur (five) and Mollie (two).
With an undiminished desire for new experiences and (some!) adventure, we are always on the lookout for exciting travel which will still be a holiday and meet the demands of the younger members of our family. Shangri-La Rasa Ria seemed to fit the bill perfectly.
As we fly into Kota Kinabalu along the coast of Borneo, clouds drifting below us, I can feel my excitement build as the scenery unfolds – it’s proper jungle down there! And with Mount Kinabalu just visible to the north – standing proud at over 4,000m – I can clearly see the transition from azure ocean and golden beaches to the wild interior.
Despite the stunning and wild scenery on arrival, as soon as we disembark, I realise how modern and well-serviced the area is.
KK has a large international airport and Shangri-La staff are on hand to welcome us, leading us straight to their comfortable air-conditioned vehicle, where we gratefully receive a cool towel and iced water. Rasa Ria is situated at the end of the peninsula on its own private 480-hectare reserve, an easy 45- to 60-minute drive north of the airport.
As we arrive at the hotel, we are given a wonderfully warm welcome by the hotel staff, accompanied by a traditional local gong-banging ceremony and placing of bead necklaces over our heads.
Shangri-La is family owned and, despite the fact it’s a chain of nearly 100 hotels, the staff are totally focused on maintaining the Shangri-La goal, which is to make you feel like you are home-from home. We felt this everywhere we went and experienced genuinely charming Malaysian hospitality. I can see that we are going to be right at home here.
Service levels at Asian hotels are usually very high, and Shangri-La is right up there with the best. The rooms are modern and well furnished – there are various options for upgrading, including the Ocean Wing, which comes with an exclusive pool and lots of other perks, such as complimentary pre-dinner drinks.
First things first – a swim to burn off some of the children’s pent-up energy. Rasa Ria has two big pools (one of which is reserved for Ocean Wing guests), and a brilliant feature they have is a gradually sloping ‘beach’, which is perfect for Mollie to discover a previously absent confidence in the water. In the main pool, huge rocks make up part of the structure, giving it a natural feel – swim throughs and a variety of depth sections to explore make it an alluring prospect for an adventurous five-year-old. Arthur also loves the curling waterslide, which makes for hours of slide-repeat-slide-repeat fun. I’m particularly happy with the three very attentive lifeguards at each pool. The thing you quickly learn about Malaysia is that the country is passionate about food.
And at Rasa Ria there are multiple restaurants to choose from – Tepi Laut, serving local ‘street food’; excellent Italian at Ocean; a teppanyaki eatery; an Indian restaurant; and the Coffee Terrace, with an enormous range of international and local dishes.
Lunch by the pool is equally delicious. We loved the local dishes nasi goreng and nasi lemak – a mix-your-own feast of fluffy coconut rice, egg, fried chicken, fish, and hot sambal sauce. Of course, there are plenty of kid-friendly menus for any less-adventurous younger diners (like ours). Children under 12 also eat free at the buffet in the evening, and you will find something for even the fussiest of palates. We also adored the breakfasts, which again offered a huge variety, including such exotic delights as snake fruit, dragon fruit and jerk fruit.
For those who aren’t too exhausted for a little romance, babysitters can be arranged by the hotel (at a modest extra charge per hour), and a five-course Italian fine-dining experience for two at the gazebo on the beach is a thoroughly enjoyable way to get some ‘you two’ time.
Relaxing by the pool, I found it easy to forget we were right on the border of the jungle… despite monitor lizards casually ambling past and squawking parrots flying overhead. But for those wanting to get closer to nature, Rasa Ria offers guided treks into its private jungle reserve – and make no mistake, this is the real deal, complete with pit vipers, giant insects and tarantulas. Arthur loved the adventure of the Little Ranger programme, particularly the tree-canopy walk, with its amazing views. You can even do walks at night, complete with a night vision camera – it is helpful to remember that the tarantula the size of your hand is scampering away from you in fear!
Arachnophobes might want to join me in the Sampan Bar with a sundowner instead… Rasa Ria offers a dizzying array of activities for those wanting to get active, and on the 3km-long gently sloping sandy beach, boogie- boarding, sailing, kayaking, wakeboarding, paddle- boarding, horse-riding and parascending should keep the most restless of youngsters occupied.
The resort is in the process of refurbishing and extending its kids’ club and associated activities. Key new offerings are a new jungle- and environmental-theme adventure playground with a zipline for smaller children and, for bigger kids, a thrilling 300m zipline, which will whizz guests in two sections from the top of the jungle ridge across the sea and down to the beach, open from November 2017.
For homebodies, Rasa Ria has a range of spa and massage services available, as well as an award-winning 18-hole golf course, but if you want to get out and explore, there are multiple trips available – snorkelling on the islands near Kota Kinabalu or a river trip to see the proboscis monkeys and the truly magical fireflies. Rasa Ria used to be home to a sanctuary for orphan orangutans but, given improved conservation efforts, a declining number of orphans are being found (good news), and last year, the remaining apes were moved to the larger Sepilok reserve, which is reachable via a 40-minute flight from Kota Kinabalu.
The hotel can organise a day or overnight trip for those interested in paying a visit. Meanwhile, visitors with older children might consider hiking up Mount Kinabalu, an exciting two-day trip. Malaysia is an easy place for Brits to travel to, as most signage is in English and the language is spoken pretty much everywhere. As a country, it has enough of an edge to give you an amazing sense of adventure, while being completely comfortable doing so with children, whom the Malaysians also adore.
Where to stay
Western & Oriental offers 7 nights at Shangri La Rasa Ria from £4,795 per family, based on 2 adults and 2 children under 12 sharing a Deluxe Garden View room, B&B, including return flights and private transfers. This price includes a 20% saving on accommodation if booked before 30 September 2017.
How to get there
Consider a two-day stopover en-route, which helps you adjust to the time difference. Flights to Borneo generally connect in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Brunei or Hong Kong. KL has a variety of attractions for families, from a vertigo-inducing trip up the 421m Menara tower to a trip to the limestone Batu Caves with its Hindu temples and cheeky monkeys.