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Borneo with Kids: A Mini Adventure at Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort

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With a nature reserve, newly-built adventure playground and green initiatives (not to mention a gorgeous beach and pools) Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort & Spa is perfect for every type of family

Does your child have a favorite hotel chain? I realize this is kind of a ridiculous question – I certainly didn’t when I was 4 years old – but then again kids in Singapore generally get to experience unprecedented amounts of travel given our island’s tiny size and fantastic proximity to so many wonderful places.

Which brings me back to my 4-year-old. If you asked her, without a doubt she would tell you it’s Shangri-La. They gave her a teddy bear and toddler pajamas in Tokyo. They offer a fantastic indoor play space and the bunk beds of a child’s dreams right here in Singapore. And they did everything from take her on a ranger expedition to teach her how to make pizzas on our recent trip to Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort & Spa in Borneo.

Throw in family-friendly rooms, a pool with multiple water slides, a state-of-the-art adventure playground and climbing wall, and a wonderful nature reserve, and it’s no wonder Borneo has shot to the top of her travel list. And it’s just two hours away by air!

Getting There and Location

Borneo of course elicits visions of exotic jungles and orangutans swinging from vines but its largest city, Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia is only a 2-hour flight away, with multiple daily connections on SilkAir and AirAsia. Rasa Ria is about 45 minutes away from the city by car (its sister resort, Tanjung Aru, is closer to the city, and therefore more popular for those keen to go shopping or do more sightseeing tours). The hotel was happy to provide us with a car seat for our 1-year-old, which made things pretty straightforward. We took a 5:40pm flight and were at the hotel by 9pm, which wasn’t too bad.

The resort is surrounded by 400 acres of tropical rainforest, which was recently overhauled into a dedicated nature reserve with walking trails, a treetop walk, and more. (Until 2016 the resort was famed for its organgutan sanctuary, but due to a dwindling population and a tightening of government regulations, the decision was made to close it down and move the orangutans to another, larger sanctuary on another nearby island.) Within a couple hours’ drive is Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in Southeast Asia.

Dalit Bay Golf Club at Shangri La Rasa Ria Resort Kota Kinabalu Borneo

Rasa Ria has its own beach, a championship golf course, and jogging trails where you’re likely to spot all sorts of interesting birds and wildlife. In our three days there it never even occurred to us to leave the resort – there was simply too much to do!

Furthering its commitment to nature and sustainability, Rasa Ria has introduced a series of impressive green initiatives that really set it apart from any other resort I’ve stayed at: earlier this year the hotel went completely plastic-free, eliminating the use of straws to go with an earlier move to reduce the use of plastic bottles. An on-site water filtration plant combined with the use of glass bottles has led to the reduction of about 365,000 plastic bottles per year. The resort makes an effort to sell foldable silicone water bottles for your use during your stay, though of course you should also consider bringing your own, mama.

executive sea view garden wing room at shangri-la rasa ria resort borneo

Two Resorts in One

Rasa Ria has two wings – The Garden Wing and The Ocean Wing – which offer very different room setups and a somewhat contrasted guest experience. We actually stayed in both room types so got a good perspective on the pros and cons.

With 326 rooms, the older Garden Wing (pictured above) takes up about 2/3 of the resort’s guest rooms. The décor is “nature inspired” – mostly browns, beiges, and touches of green. The bathrooms were fine, but nothing too awe-inspiring. Despite its name, the Garden Wing does offer ocean views – on our first morning we were delighted to wake up to the sound of waves intermingled with birdsong. These rooms are comfortable and kid-friendly (ledge notwithstanding…more on that in a sec); I’d say they rate as 4.5-star.

The biggest selling point of the Garden Wing is that it features interconnected rooms that can be handy when traveling with a family. During our stay, my husband and I stayed in one room while our two kids slept next door just through the doorway. It’s also closer to the children’s pool and kids’ club (by about five minutes).

What we didn’t like, however, was that the room design features a sunken liven room that’s about a foot lower than the bed area. Our 1-year-old took a number of tumbles off the ledge and – even though we covered the floor with pillows – it was still quite harrowing. That said if you were staying with older kids or teens, it wouldn’t be a problem at all, and the rooms are actually quite comfortable.

The newer Ocean Wing opened last year, with rooms that are spacious and luxuriously appointed, highlighted by massive terraces with an enormous spa pool. When we moved to the Ocean Wing our kids basically wanted to live in the spa pool, it was a beautiful place to unwind at the end of the day while watching the stunning sunset – and if you’re on the ground floor they’re steps away from the tranquil Ocean Wing Pool. The bathrooms were equally luxe, with a huge rainshower and his-and-her vanities. The amenities in the Ocean Wing are definitely 5-star.

While Ocean Wing rooms do not have interior doors to connect them, there are a limited number of rooms with a separate exterior entrance; basically from the hallway you enter one large, main door, then enter a private vestibule to enter each of the other rooms. This setup worked well enough for us, especially since the rooms were easily accessible from their ground floor terraces.

shangri la rasa ria resort ocean wing terrace pool
The Ocean Wing also has its own pool, and a buffet restaurant – Oceano – that’s only open to Ocean Wing guests (whereas Ocean Wing guests can eat at the Garden Wing buffet restaurant, Coffee Terrace). The latter was a bit noisier and more chaotic in the morning, with more of a self-serve setup (and, my husband observed, signs instructing guests that they couldn’t use their hands to take food).

premier ocean view room ocean wing shangri la rasa ria resort borneo

On the one hand, the Garden Wing is a place where you won’t feel embarrassed if your kids make a mess or are noisy at the breakfast table (although honestly there were plenty of kids at breakfast in the Ocean Wing). On the other hand, the Ocean Wing (pictured above) feels substantially more luxurious, and made for a really special stay. For comparison’s sake, Garden Wing rates start at about $227 SGD per night, while Ocean Wing rates are about $100 higher per night. Well worth the upgrade, in my opinion, given the expanded dining and pool options.

shangri la rasa resort overview amenities

Resort Amenities

I cover the resort’s myriad kid-friendly highlights below, but there is plenty for grown-ups to do too, mama! For starters there are the two large swimming pools and massive beach (with free kayak and boogie board rentals!). The shallow water was crystal clear with a wide sandy area and gentle waves – perfect for playing with small kids.

My husband enjoyed his round of golf at the picturesque Dalit Bay Golf Club, which is set against the backdrop of Mt. Kinabalu. At the golf course restaurant we also took a really fun cooking class with the resort’s Executive Chef, who’s regarded as a master of Malay (and in particular Sabah) cuisine and travels all over the world doing demos and representing Sabah. While most of the ingredients were fairly familiar and similar to what we have here in Singapore, I was amazed at how the techniques and flavors seemed to differ. It was definitely a fun way to spend a couple hours out of the hot midday sun.

Another definite highlight was my massage at The Spa, which focuses primarily on local techniques and ingredients (in contrast to Shangri-La’s typical house brand, CHI). There’s nothing like a massage to cap off the day after hours spent in the surf and sun.

One of my very favorite parts of the resort – and certainly one of its most unique selling points – is its Rasa Ria Nature Reserve, which was first established in 1996 and updated this past year with walking trails, a treetop walk and a Discovery Centre. With lots of exhibits on local floral and fauna, videos, and all sorts of specialist tours, the Discovery Centre is a destination unto itself. I did an early-morning trail walk (with baby Tad in tow!) and as we walked to the resort’s beautiful lookout point the ranger pointed out special plants unique to the area (he also told us when certain sounds were most likely snakes in the jungle – yikes!). One of the resort’s most popular activities is “Breakfast with a View”, where guests hike up to the lookout point and enjoy breakfast with a sunrise view of Mt. Kinabalu. Hilariously, the day we went the breakfast had been interrupted by a band of hungry monkeys!

Kids’ Activities

This resort is SO MUCH FUN for kids of all ages. Maggie, who is 4, had the busiest schedule of all of us, whether doing the Junior Ranger program (she got to see a snake, and learned about other nocturnal wildlife in the nature reserve), making pizzas on a rainy afternoon, repeatedly going down the two water slides in the big family pool, or spending hours on the incredible Adventure Playground (more on that below).

The spacious kids’ club features a full-time staff along with all sorts of LEGOs and Duplos, puzzles, books, art supplies and a ball pit (this was Tad’s favorite activity – he happily spent hours playing in the ball pit when it was raining outside). There are tons of outdoor (sports, dancing, pool games) and indoor (face painting, movie nights, pirate hat making) activities on offer to keep kiddos active. I seriously had to drag Maggie away when it was time to leave for dinner!

But the best attraction of all – and something I’ve never seen at a resort before – is the brand new Adventure Playground. There’s everything from a zip line to myriad slides, swings, rope ladders, and sand pits. Maggie spent a good two hours running from one attraction to the other with a friend she made, while Tad was happy to play in the sand pit and occasionally swing on one of the tires. There’s also, for an additional cost, a rock climbing wall (this one’s for grown-ups, too), which I’d imagine offers stellar views of the nearby ocean and nature reserve from the top. We’d hoped to get to this but unfortunately it rained when we were planning to go. Oh well, next time, I suppose!

In short, for this mama who’s all about wildschooling and risk taking, Rasa Ria is an excellent place to take your kiddos!

I haven’t even gotten to the resort’s excellent food (omg there’s an ice cream stand! And fresh coconuts by the beach!), but honestly it’s the gorgeous location and outstanding kids’ activities that truly set it apart. This, paired with the warm and friendly staff, made this one of the most memorable holidays our family has taken. It was one of those trips where we got back and I was so excited to tell everyone about it, because I really can’t recommend it highly enough. This is the perfect resort for nature lovers and action junkies, and yet you could just as easily go to relax by the pool or on the beach. Just go, mama!

Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort & Spa, Pantai Dalit, Tuaran, Sabah, 89208, Malaysia, Tel: (+60) 88 797 888, www.shangri-la.com/kotakinabalu/rasariaresort

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