Finding a hotel with a dive centre is an important preoccupation mostly reserved for scuba divers. Some travellers will prioritise a spa, swimming pool or kids' club. But if you want to dive, all day, every day of your holiday — like I do — then finding a dive resort that revolves around surface intervals and hot coffee is a godsend.
Borneo Divers Mabul Resort, on Mabul Island, off the coast of Borneo, is one such pearl. Blessed with healthy corals on its doorstep, the locale begs for guests to strap on a weight belt and explore the house reef, appropriately named Paradise 1, with either snorkel or scuba, just a few metres from the shore.
Paradise 2 is not far off. Dinner table-sized green turtles, cuttlefish and minute mandarin fish are all residents.
The resort, and the island, fully qualify for tropical-island-getaway bliss. Accompanying non-divers will be able to laze around the pool, acquire a hammock or chill out at the beach bar overlooking the wooden pier and jetty to watch their beloved backroll into an underwater haven.
But the bigger draw is — and has been for decades — Pulau Sipadan, another island about 40 minutes by speedboat.
Jacques Cousteau came to Sipadan, as it is more commonly referred to, and was left breathless. In his 1989 film Borneo: The Ghost of the Sea Turtle, Cousteau said: "I have seen other places such as Sipadan 45 years ago, but now no more. Now we have found an untouched piece of art."
As the dive boats approach the island, the sea turns lighter than the sky with a greenish-transparent hue, reassuring one and all that, yes, this is going to be amazing. On the white sandy beach, a young monitor lizard creeps towards the coconut palms and other vegetation swaying in the breeze for shade.
Haven of solitude
The island was declared a marine reserve in 1981 but it was not until 2004 that resorts on the island were asked to vacate in order to protect the water quality and environment further.
A permit system was introduced to limit the area to just 120 divers per day (40 ringgit or Dh50 per day for all visitors, diving or not, payable in the resort). There are no inhabitants and visiting the island is not allowed. A few military guards oversee security.
Since then, Sipadan has been referred to as a "sub-aqua Shangri-La" for serious divers in more than one travel guide. After seeing green turtles mating for the first time, schools of jackfish, barracuda and big-eye trevally and reef sharks fighting over a cave in just one dive, the statement rings true. It is also a stopover point for migratory birds and was originally declared a bird sanctuary in 1933.
One of a kind
Sipadan is the only oceanic island in Malaysia; it is not attached to the continental shelf and stands on a limestone and coral stalk, rising 600 metres from the bed of the Celebes Sea. The limestone pinnacle mushrooms out near the surface, but a few metres offshore it drops off in a sheer underwater cliff to the seabed.
At several sites, people drift-dive in the current along this coral wall which disappears into the deep. Black- and white-tip reef sharks are common, hawksbill and green turtles glide like jumbo aircraft coming in to land, troops of bumphead parrotfish nibble the shallow corals and each dive will leave you more mesmerised than the one before.
Where to stay in Mabul/Sipadan
Borneo Divers Mabul Resort situated on Mabul has 20 en-suite chalets a walk away from the beach, free Wi-Fi, offers several dive destinations every day and a specially built dive centre on the jetty for easy access. I stayed for 465 ringgit (Dh570) per night in a chalet-type accommodation on standard twin-sharing basis with attached bathroom, hot shower and air-conditioning. Rates include four boat dives per day, unlimited dives at the jetty, all food (buffet-style Malaysian meals) and soft drinks. The beach bar serves hot noodles for 5 ringgit (Dh6) late into the night. A night dive costs 50 ringgit (Dh60) per pax/per boat dive with minimum 3 pax (with a divemaster).
Full equipment can be rented in the island at 95 ringgit (Dh115) per day/per person (excluding dive computer and dive torch). Visit www.borneodivers.info for details.
FLY... Malaysian Airlines
From Dubai to Tawau (via Kuala Lumpur)
From Dubai Dh3,830 The closest airport is in Tawau, Malaysia. From the airport, your Mabul Island resort should organise the transfer to Tawau jetty by a 60-minute minibus ride. From the jetty, it is another 40 minutes by speedboat to Mabul.
— Information courtesy the Holiday Lounge by Dnata. Ph: 04 3492886