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The Best of Kota Kinabalu – City Guide

Kota Kinabalu is usually a stop over for travelers who are exploring greater Borneo, but this city is packed with culture, character and charm. Extend your stopover to experience the unassuming…

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Kota Kinabalu is usually a stop over for travelers who are exploring greater Borneo, but this city is packed with culture, character and charm. Extend your stopover to experience the unassuming beauty it has to offer. This comprehensive guide is ideal for newbies to KK and families looking for a short vacation.

To read the digital magazine, head over to: http://bit.ly/kk_goingplaces

For the online version of the guide: http://www.goingplacesmagazine.com/story/city-on-the-move

Note: A quick amendment to one of the points of interests at Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort & Spa. If you’re planning on catching a glimpse of the orang utans, head over to Lok Kawi Wildlife Park instead. The hotel’s Orang Utan Rehabilitation Programme has successfully come to a close and the great apes no longer roam the nature reserve. The 64-acre nature reserve, however, is still a fantastic place to explore the wild!

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Sabah: Sun, Sea & Spas

If you’re a first-time traveler to beautiful Borneo, this is your quintessential tropical island. Beautiful white sandy beaches, crystal clear waters and an endless supply of fresh coconuts. As with…

If you’re a first-time traveler to beautiful Borneo, this is your quintessential tropical island. Beautiful white sandy beaches, crystal clear waters and an endless supply of fresh coconuts. As with all holidays, especially beach holidays, it isn’t quite complete without some pampering.

I visited Mandara Spa at Sutera Harbour Resort, a beautiful spa with sweeping views of the South China Sea. The spa’s lobby opens up to an airy lounge with cascading water pools and a spiral stairway leading up to individual spa suites. The wooden interior immediately brings on a cosy feeling.

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Warm ginger tea was served with a cold face towel scented with peppermint oil. A refreshing start to my pampering session. The spa’s signature massage is the Mandara Massage, four-hand massage. Despite being a spa addict, this was my first time having 20 fingers on my body at the same time.

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The four-hand massage is akin to ballroom dancing, if I may say. It requires a great deal of teamwork and practice. Both therapists massaged me with oil from my back to my feet with smooth and deep motions that are perfectly synchronised. I was quite amazed at how in-synced they were. The pressure was equal, the circular motions and long strokes were flawlessly choreographed.   

After doing my back, I was asked to turn over and then with the same technique, I was given the best head and foot massage. To have one highly-skilled therapist massaging my body is bliss, but to have two therapists doing so at the same time is extraordinarily special.

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The rainforest sounds continue to fill the air and I sip on a glass of water signaling the end of the session. I stare out the huge window overlooking the expansive seas with boats bobbing and thought – I can definitely stay here for hours – especially since the spa suite had a wonderful tub offering the grand view.

It was time to leave – but if you’re a spa lover like me – you wished the clock stopped ticking and the blissful surrender will continue. Fortunately, Mandara Spa is offering a special spa membership with “too good to be true” freebies. See the end of this article for more details.*

The pampering wasn’t quite over yet, I was ushered to the neighbouring Chavana Spa at the Pacific Sutera Hotel, the alternative mid-range stay with magnificent views of the sea and a huge family-friendly pool. Chavana’s bright and lively interior is quite different from Mandara. This day-spa is refreshing the moment you enter in with scents of lime and lemongrass infiltrating the air.

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Another first for me – I was about to indulge in their Elemis Pro-Collagen Quartz Lift Facial, an anti-wrinkle facial using Elemis products. The British brand, Elemis is widely known as the leader in anti-ageing skin care products. Top worldwide spas use Elemis products because of its successive positive case studies. So I thought, why not give it a try! When it comes to beauty regimes, I’m very low maintenance. I enjoy the occasional facial but am mostly content with off-the-shelf products, cucumbers for puffy eyes and homemade scrubs.

For an hour and fifteen minutes, I was treated to delicate cleaning, cleansing and scrubbing with soothing movements on my forehead, cheeks and jawline. The lifting facial massage was most relaxing. Finally, a thin layer of mask was applied and then some serum, moisturiser with some essential oils completed the treatment. In between, my therapists gave me a relaxing shoulder and hand massage removing all the knots on my tense shoulders, often caused by bad posture and sitting at the desk for extended hours.

The Chavana Spa offers a range head-to-tow treatments for tired travellers, honeymooners or spa spa addicts like me. Their signature ‘Journey of the Senses’ is a two and a half hour session starting with a foot bath, body scrub, detox sauna, balinese massage and capping it off with an Elemis facial. 

* Mandara Spa membership: For RM399 the package includes 2 complimentary massages, 1 complimentary facial, a 50% discount voucher and a RM75 redemption voucher. Additionally, you receive a 20% discount on all treatments and other discounts throughout the year especially for spa members. Go to Mandara Spa for more details.

Note: The above treatment was offered to me complimentary courtesy of Mandara Spa and Chavana Spa. Thank you for a day of pampering!

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River Wild Along Kinabatangan

As the sun peaks over the horizon and the mighty Kinabatangan river catches the first rays of sunlight, my three-year old son, Seth keeps his gaze steady scanning the river…

As the sun peaks over the horizon and the mighty Kinabatangan river catches the first rays of sunlight, my three-year old son, Seth keeps his gaze steady scanning the river banks in a hunt to find the herd of Pygmy elephants that were last spotted a day ago grazing at the river banks. Our guide and spotter Jamil knew how much Seth wanted to see elephants and readily agreed to the elephant spotting hunt when we set off from Sukau Rainforest Lodge just before dawn that morning.

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The mist lifted from the face of the river and the riverine forest came to live. Egrets took flight in the air and the colourful stork-billed kingfisher awoke for a catch. The forest echoed a symphony of tunes from the low hum of the cicadas to the chatter of playful macaques. Then, we spotted the majestic hornbill flying overtop before perching on a faraway tree. Truly, this was the best wildlife playground for any three-year old – especially, for Seth who is crazy over animals!

The mighty Kinabatangan river stretches 560kms, starting from the Crocker Range in southwest Sabah and ending at the Sulu Sea southeast of Sandakan. It is the longest river in Sabah and is incredibly rich in biodiversity. It is perhaps the most sought after destination in Sabah to spot wildlife – more notably the Borneo Big 5; the orang utan, Pygmy elephant, proboscis monkey, crocodile, and hornbill.

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The best way to enjoy the river and her wild inhabitants is by boat. Every morning and evening we set out on safari trips in groups no bigger than 10 people. Small vessels with very quiet electric motors were used to explore the river as we snake into narrow waterways and into mangrove forests. We had cameras and binoculars ready at all times.

Our guide and boatman with laser-sharp eyes pointed to a dark speck on the big tree and through the binoculars, we saw a wild orang utan having his morning snack. Another time, our guide steadied the boat and pointed to the glistening eyes of a small crocodile. I caught a glimpse of it before it swiftly disappeared into the water.

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Traveling with a three-year old toddler and a three-month old baby was an adventure on its own. One time while on an evening safari, we felt a light drizzle starting. Within minutes, the drizzle turned into light showers and I found myself hiding under a raincoat with Seth at my side and Enya, my three-month old on my lap hiding from the rain. We waited patiently for the rain to pass and soon after we were rewarded with a scene of swinging proboscis monkeys and long-tail macaques who came out to play after the shower.

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Back at the lodge, we explored the jungle by foot on the 1,500 feet boardwalk in search of insects and small mammals. We waited for the resident orang utans to make an appearance and to our delight, we sighted two different orang utans during our stay. Our meals were served on an al fresco deck overlooking the river. It was also where new friendships were made as we exchanged notes with other guests on the day’s findings.

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In the dark of the night, after dinner, adventurous guests were given the option to go on another safari treat. It was too good to pass and Seth was eager as ever for another wildlife spotting hunt. The gentle motor boat sputtered on the shadowy river and our boatman scanned the jungle with his spotlight. We saw a kingfisher, a green paddy frog and a family of proboscis monkeys retired for the night. Yet, the most spectacular sight was when the boat came to a halt and the jungle stood still. The star-studded skies twinkled above as we trace our fingers across the milky way. I looked down and little Enya was fast asleep, lulled by the peaceful harmony of nature and the gentle rocking of the boat.

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After three days and two nights in this beautiful riverine jungle, we found it hard to say goodbye. Seth turned me as we were just about to leave and said, “Mom, I don’t want to go home. Can I stay?” There was good reason to stay as we did not see the elephants. In my effort to convince him, I told him – we will be back next time and hopefully, we will be able to see the mighty beast.

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Getting to Sukau Rainforest Lodge:

Treat yourself to a fine holiday at Sukau Rainforest Lodge, a member of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World. Fly into Sandakan airport and you will be transferred to the jetty where you will take a two-hour boat ride to the Kinabatangan River. This boat ride is a prelude to the adventure that awaits you. Wildlife spotting starts the minute you reach the river mouth. You will pass through small village settlements, oil palm plantations, mangrove and palm forests. The sight of proboscis monkeys is almost a guarantee.

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Malaysia: What I hope others knew

As work takes me to the interiors of Sabah every week, I’m given the privilege to reflect and experience two worlds – the urban life in Kota Kinabalu and the…

As work takes me to the interiors of Sabah every week, I’m given the privilege to reflect and experience two worlds – the urban life in Kota Kinabalu and the rural life in Kota Marudu and Kudat, that’s the tip of Borneo if you were wondering. My family and I travel two to three hours to get to these places, bunk in a hostel with bare basic amenities (fan, cold shower and toilets that don’t flush properly) and spend a few days there building relationships and mentoring youth and children.

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Kota Marudu, the second ‘rice bowl’ of Sabah after Kota Belud. Paddy fields aplenty!

As a West Malaysian, I spent most of my life living in urban Petaling Jaya where houses are neatly lined, where cars rule the road and where shopping malls sprout like fresh shoots. I was driven to school by my parents and I barely had to use any public transport until I started working. I enjoyed eating out and trying new food joints and never had to worry about my next meal. As a child I enjoyed family holidays abroad, as a teenager I had the opportunity to study overseas and as a young adult, I had enough savings to feed my wanderlust occasionally.

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One of the many hidden beaches near Kudat

While I grew up in this environment, I was never sheltered from the world beyond mine. I was actively participating in community work in remote areas, going to places where the need is undeniable and where basic necessities are not commonly met. These short trips gave me a glimpse into the rural life – the life where many urbanites don’t even know of or have experienced. And because urbanites have not seen or experienced it, it’s hard to empathise or even tell others about it.

As I travel to the village every week with my husband, my almost-three-year-old son and a baby in my belly, I’m reminded of how great a privilege we have to see and experience Malaysia as a whole and not just Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya or the big cities. It helps me to appreciate our country for what she has to offer, not just the polished side and to connect with the very people that makes this nation a multi-cultural wonder. Did you know that Sabah has over 20 ethnic groups and Sarawak over 40 ethnic groups? What incredible diversity this country has!

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Pure joy! Playing with kampung children despite the sweltering evening heat.

So as we travel weekly into the interiors and sometimes off the beaten path to explore Sabah’s hidden treasures, I hope to pass these lessons on to my children:

  • That we are birthed in a country for a reason. We are Malaysians for a purpose, find out what it is and stop looking outward for a better life, a fatter paycheck or an easy way out.
  • There will be people that have it better than us, but there are a lot more people that have it worst of – learn to appreciate what is given to us and never complain until you have tried hard enough to find a solution.
  • There is beauty in the simple life. The greatest things in life are not things.
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Beauty in the interiors – you don’t have to look hard.

As embarrassing as it sounds, I feel that I know very little about East Malaysia (Sabah & Sarawak) – her different indigenous cultures, way of life, language and hidden paths. This has challenged my adventurous spirit to get on it and to see more. As an avid traveler, I hope to pass these thoughts on to other travelers:

  • Explore your own country at some point in life because the journey can be a real reflection of you as a citizen.
  • Where possible, travel independently – go off the beaten track into narrow alleys and dust roads. There you will see the places for what it is; exposed, as is and authentic.
  • If you’re only used to only traveling in luxury or five-star comforts, take up the challenge of going for a more rugged option. It will change your perspective on life and allow you a glimpse outside your bubble.
  • If you are traveling with children, it is your responsibility to give them the opportunity to peer into the lens of a bigger world out there. Take them on a volunteering trip or a community development program.
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Kampung children playing traditional gasing (tops)

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Coffin Cliff At Danum Valley

Climbing up the trail amidst towering rainforest trees with fig twines and epiphytes snaking on branches forming beautiful stringy sculptures, the dense canopy providing shade from the blazing heat and…

Climbing up the trail amidst towering rainforest trees with fig twines and epiphytes snaking on branches forming beautiful stringy sculptures, the dense canopy providing shade from the blazing heat and the gentle chirping of birds make an ideal jungle hike. My guide, Muhammad Salehuddin Jais, better known as Dean stopped dead in his tracks. He motioned us look up as we caught the sight of rustling leafs as the sun illuminated the red-orangey coat of a male orang utan. He was busy snacking on some young shoots and unperturbed with our presence. Next to us, we saw bushy giant squirrels hopping from one tree to another.

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This is the Danum Valley – 43,800 hectares of endless rainforest dating back 130 million years ago. Ironically, not many, not even Malaysians know about. One of only three virgin forest lands in Sabah, Malaysia, Danum Valley is home to over 300 bird species, 110 mammals, 72 reptiles, 56 amphibians and 57 fish. My second visit here has rendered me speechless (again!) as I marvelled at the serenity and beauty of how the rainforest ecosystem works – untouched of course, nature as is.

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I was on an upward trail to Coffin Cliff, where remains of an ancient burial ground is found and the highlight of this gradual climb. I arrived at an enormous limestone boulder ridden with holes on one of its surfaces and a trail leading around it overlooking the forest. This ancient burial site was discovered some 20 years ago before the only commercial accommodation was built in 1994. Borneo Rainforest Lodge (BRL) was set up as part of a commitment from the Sabah state government to protect and conserve this forest while promoting it as a nature-based haven for education and research. Although the masses know little about Danum Valley or BRL, the lodge continues to attracts the likes of National Geographic scientists and professors, well-known wildlife researchers, Britain’s Prince William and his wife Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge and even Martha Stewart.

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Staring at the hole-ridden limestone wall, I saw planks of broken wood covered with moss on a flat stone surface. I thought nothing of it until Dean pointed out that these were the remains of an ancient coffin. Several meters away from the coffin were some bones and a skeletal jaw with several teeth intact. Indeed, the Sugpan tribe that once traversed this forest considered this elevated ground a sacred place.

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The Sugpan group is a sub-ethnic Dusunic group that are nomadic in nature. They depended on the forest for food and cover and would later trade with Chinese from mainland China along the Segama and Kinabatangan River. Today, the tribe has evolved from their way of life and is intermarrying, but many still hold on to their animistic roots. Today, descendants of the tribe are living along the Kinabatangan River and are known as Orang Sungai.

“It is thought that the higher you bury your loved ones, the closer you are to heaven. The Sugpan people would carry the deceased in coffins made of Belian (ironwood) and they would find holes in limestone caves to lodge the coffins,” Dean explains. This was a baffling story of strength, tenacity and grit.

“Berlian wood is so dense that it doesn’t float in water – it sinks. It is termite free too and is known to be indestructible. I can’t imagine how they brought it up here and even lowered it into the limestone crevices,” Dean adds.

I examined the skeletal remains and Dean tells me that according to carbon samples, the remains were at least 250 years old. “So do you know if this is a male or a female?,” I asked. “This is definitely a male. It is told that within the Sugpan tribe, male hunters would pull out their two front teeth to gain more force and precision when using the blowpipe to hunt. ” Dean explains. “Apparently, the Sugpan ladies find it very masculine when men lose their front teeth,” Dean supressed a laugh as I chuckled at the thought of a tooth-less hunter.

DSC_5932DSC_5922More was promised on this trail. We walked around the boulder and on a narrow trail along the ridge. There lying on the sandy ground were huge blocks of wood, one as a base and the other a cover. The wood was in better condition than the first plank we saw on the limestone platform. Its grains were so defined and its patterns so intricate. Perhaps this chunk of wood was strategically positioned to receive sunlight thereby preventing rotting moss. It also commanded unobstructed views of Danum Valley.

DSC_5972DSC_5962I was told that the coffin was that of the chieftain’s. His family carried his coffin up to the ridge and placed it there together with his blowpipe which is still seen inside the coffin. They later removed his body and sat him on top of the coffin so he can oversee his village below the cliff, where the lodge is.

DSC_5892Suspended coffins are not unusual as people continue to discover and visit hanging coffins in Philippines, China and Indonesia. The coffins in Danum Valley was only discovered some 20 years ago and it proves to show that this natural haven is not just for environmental and wildlife protection, but to preserve a culture and heritage that otherwise would not have been told.

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Family Beach Getaway at Nexus Karambunai

The Karambunai coast in Malaysia’s eastern state, Sabah is rich in history with strong ties from her neighbour Brunei. History tells of an ill-fated journey along the coast of Karambunai…

The Karambunai coast in Malaysia’s eastern state, Sabah is rich in history with strong ties from her neighbour Brunei. History tells of an ill-fated journey along the coast of Karambunai resulting in a ship wreck and later an unrecovered ship at the bed of the sea, hence its name ‘Karam’ which means sinking ship and ‘Bunai’ referring to Brunei.

nexus karambunai 1Today Karambunai is home to two local villages and a few notable island resorts, one of which is the massive Nexus Karambunai with an 18-hole perfectly manicured golf course. Situated 45 minutes from Kota Kinabalu’s (KK) airport, the resort has a range of accommodation options suitable for honeymooners, families, groups of friends and even big corporate groups. Away from the KK buzz, Nexus offers the idyllic snappy beach holiday with loads to do around the resort such as water skiing, kayaking and trekking or simply settle into one of the many beach chairs and laze the day away. The beach is private for the resort’s guests’ and my 18-month old son absolutely enjoyed sinking into the sand while the waves lapped on him. Private beaches are quite a luxury for resorts nowadays, especially when it is somewhat of a quiet coast with a backdrop of palm forest and rolling hills.

nexus karambunainexus karambunai 2The hotel’s nature guide, Leroy tells us that there used to be a trail at the end of the beach climbing up the hill, swinging round the jagged cliffs leading up to a vantage point with unobstructed views of the great South China Sea. However, for safety reasons, the trail is no longer accessible. Instead we headed off on another trail into the palm forest just behind the resort. As we entered in, Leroy warned us of mosquitoes. Those blood suckers came in all directions, and the warning was a good caution for preparation. We went in covered with a layer of repellent and was mosquito free. The quiet under grove had plenty of diversity from pitcher plants to the local traditional aphrodisiac, tongkat ali. The trail continued to climb up until we reached Pangiran lookout point. The view was spectacular with nothing but ocean and forest to behold. We descended after 40-mins and returned to the resort by van.

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Arriving back at the entrance of Nexus, I get a sense that the resort’s interior is a reflection of the Malay traditional kampong grandeur. Furnished with dark wood, the high A-framed entrance etched with floral carvings opens to a spacious lobby with a spiral staircase at the end leading to the pool and beach. The rooms have the same rustic Malay traditional design with a minimalist approach.

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Imprinted with the 80’s glory days of big resorts, the Nexus Karambunai has a choice of eight eateries to choose from. Unfortunately, during my visit, two of the main restaurants were closed for refurbishment. Noble House, the resort’s only Chinese restaurant is as Chinese as you can get, with its interiors lined with intricate embroidered-designed wallpaper, hanging lanterns and tall slender wooden furniture with circular marble top tables. Food at the Noble House is uncompromised, with the freshest seafood coming from the coasts, the menu offers a range of famous Chinese dishes such as herbal soups accompanied with fresh seafood, Peking Duck wrapped in rice paper rolls and dim sum.

Perhaps what I appreciated most about the resort was the friendly staff. They were at our service anytime of the day with a big smile and a hand across their chest as a gesture of welcome and respect. Stepping into Nexie Club, their indoor kids recreation area, I get a sense that many little people have stepped into the room busying their hands with arts and craft, watching cartoons and listening to stories. The murals on the wall suggests that the resort has had at least two decades of visitors streaming in – donald duck, lion king and mickey mouse.

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Back in the room, our retreat continued. Our Ocean View Room boasts of spanning sea views along the coast lined with swaying pine and coconut trees. The spacious room with wood panelled flooring has undergone some maintenance but still manage to maintain its simplistic charm with every bit of modern facility needed for a comfortable stay. Vacationing at the Nexus reminded me of days when my family retreated on beach holidays to Penang and Port Dickson, the kind of family friendly resort with expansive ground to explore.

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Grandis, Kota Kinabalu: A City Hotel With A Grand View

With a weekend in Kota Kinabalu (KK) city, I was looking for a hotel that’s close to the city buzz without compromising on KK’s coastal beauty. Grandis Hotel was the…

With a weekend in Kota Kinabalu (KK) city, I was looking for a hotel that’s close to the city buzz without compromising on KK’s coastal beauty. Grandis Hotel was the perfect find and it also happened to be the new kid on the block. Perched along the harbour front, Grandis boasts of sweeping views of the vast South China Sea with the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park Islands dotted in the horizon.tunku abdul rahman islandSince I had just travelled from Battambang, Cambodia’s countryside, I was still recovering from city shock and KK was the perfect place to acclimatize. The hotel is conveniently linked to Suria Sabah, a shopping mall and within walking distance to KK’s famous tourist strip, Gaya Street. On Sunday morning, Gaya Street comes to life with stalls lined up from the front of Jesselton Hotel to the city’s municipal building. Join in the festive atmosphere and shop till you drop. I found vendors selling everything under the sun, from local drinks and food to pets to traditional herbal aphrodisiac! The morning market is also a great place to buy local souvenirs, antique china and all sorts of collectibles.

Gaya street morning market

I explored KK for a day and retired back in the hotel in time for the anticipated sunset. I had gotten word from some local friends that hotel Grandis is the place to watch the sun go down. The swimming pool with an open deck offers unobstructed views of the ocean and the comfortable circular pool beds are ideal for lounging. The sundown show was nothing less than spectacular as the sky turned amber and slowly merged into the grey seas.

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Breakfast the next morning was at hotel’s Rosea Café with ceiling to floor windows overlooking the ocean. The modern interior of the café is made more contemporary with a centrepiece of hanging bulbs atop a wooden bench table and boxed stools around. The breakfast spread boasts of local and international flavours and the food offered was exceptionally fresh.

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I meandered to the Piano Lounge for some quiet contemplation after a heavy brekkie and found the lounge to be the ideal solitude. Decked with classy embroidered arm chairs and dainty coffee tables, plush sofas and sleek modern lamps, the lounge felt just like the kind of living room you can stay all day in. I imagined dawdling over tea with some friends while the pianist played at the grand piano.

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The weekend in KK was sublime bliss, with a tinge of city life and a whole lot of comfort, thanks to finding the right hotel in the heart of the city.

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