Named after Malaysia’s first prime minister, and just a short boat trip away from KK, the five islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman Park (TAR Park) represent the most westerly ripples of the Crocker mountain range. The islands’ forests, beaches and coral reefs lie within 8km of the city, with park territory as close as 3km off the mainland. The three most often visited are Manukan, Mamutik and Sapi, and it’s easy to book a day’s island hopping. Try to avoid weekends and public holidays when facilities are often overstretched; don’t expect desert island solitude at any time.
Snorkelling is popular around the islands. Although careless tourists have damaged much of the coral, there’s enough marine life around to make it worthwhile. Scuba divers will find the best conditions from January to March, although visibility is still typically just 5m.
The site of the British North Borneo Chartered Company’s first outpost in the region, Pulau Gaya is the closest of the islands to KK and also the largest. It doesn’t feature on standard island-hopping routes; tourists can only visit by chartering a boat, staying at one of the island’s resorts, or booking a tour with an operator such as Tanjung Aru Tours & Travel (wgo2borneo.com).
If you do make it over, you’ll find idyllic stretches of sand such as Polis Beach as well as lovely hiking trails; Downbelow (t012 866 1935, wdivedownbelow.com) runs a dive shop. The eastern end is taken up by a stilt village inhabited by Filipino immigrants.
Though far smaller than its neighbour Gaya, Pulau Sapi also has trails and is home to macaques and hornbills; with the best beaches of any of the islands, it’s popular with swimmers, snorkellers and picnickers. Sapi has simple facilities including toilets, a small café (daily 8am–4pm) and changing rooms. There’s also a dive shop, 50 Bar (daily 9am–1pm; t013 854 5567), charging a steep RM250 per dive.
The park HQ is situated on crescent-shaped Pulau Manukan, site of a former stone quarry and now the most developed island. Indeed Manukan has become something of a victim of its own success, drawing hundreds of visitors on a busy day. That said, the beach is attractive, watersports are good and there’s a café serving a buffet (RM95) or à la carte meals – nasi lemak or curry laksa cost RM18. To escape the crowds, take the thirty-minute walk to Sunset Point.
Across a narrow channel from Manukan, tiny Pulau Mamutik is a snorkeller’s delight. The island is surrounded by coral gardens with the best stretch off the beach at the southwest, towards the back of where the boat drops you, but it’s necessary either to clamber over rocks or to swim right round.
Borneo Divers (wborneodivers.info) have a small dive shop, offering better prices to walk-in customers than you’ll get by booking ahead. Head out on the first boats of the day if that’s your plan; it’s much more cost-effective to do two or three dives than just one.
The last island of the group, Pulau Sulug, is the most remote and consequently the quietest, though its lovely coral makes it popular with divers. It has no facilities, and few boats visit.