Although most visitors come to Borneo for the biodiversity in the rainforests and coral reefs, the beaches can still be an enjoyable part of any trip. Some of Borneo's best beaches can be found just outside of major cities, while others are offshore on small coral islands reachable only by speedboat.
The Malaysian side of Borneo is home to the most accessible beaches. Along with mangroves and rocky shores, Sabah’s 1,083-mile-long coastline is blessed with a scattering of sandy beaches. To the south, the 470 miles of coastline in Sarawak are also home to some beautiful beaches, both public and hard to reach.
Tanjung Aru is Kota Kinabalu’s nearest beach and only 15 minutes southwest of town. The wide strip of coarse sand stretches over 2 kilometers and remains lightly developed. That could change as the government has been considering improving the promenade and adjacent Prince Philip Park to make them more attractive.
You won’t encounter many swimmers and sunbathers at Tanjung Aru, but there’s plenty of room if you so choose. Instead, the beach livens up every evening as residents finish work and come to socialize while enjoying a spectacular sunset. Hawker carts in an outdoor food court provide snacks, and buskers bring the entertainment. The big fountain in nearby Perdana Park lights up every evening with a musical show.
Choosing the best beach from the five islands in Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park isn’t easy. Fortunately, the islands are close enough together you can enjoy more than one! Gaya, the largest island, is home to Police Bay. The short strip of pristine sand is only a quarter of a mile long, but it certainly qualifies as one of Borneo's best beaches. Manukan, the second largest island, is also home to some beautiful beaches. Mamutik, the smallest island, is rustic with more driftwood than infrastructure—but that’s a good thing.
Greatly adding to the appeal of Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park is its easy accessibility. You can sneak out of Kota Kinabalu to enjoy white sand, snorkeling, and diving in 30 minutes or less.
The island of Pulau Tiga in Sabah was yanked out of obscurity and into the world spotlight in 2000 when it was chosen as the setting for the first American rendition of "Survivor: Borneo." Even if you didn’t watch, you can imagine why the undeveloped, 1,500-acre island was chosen for a survival show: White-sand beaches, jungle, and active mud volcanoes add exotic appeal.
Pulau Tiga is one of three islands (tiga means “three” in Malay) that make up Tiga Island National Park. One of the other islands is Kalampunian Damit, a mating location for some of the world's most poisonous snakes. Reach Pulau Tiga by taking transportation two hours south of Kota Kinabalu to Kuala Penyu, then a 30-minute speedboat to the island.
Pantai Dalit (Dalit Beach)
Although swimming too far out isn’t recommended at Pantai Dalit due to dangerous currents, the rounded strip of coastline is certainly one of Borneo's best beaches. Dalit Beach is home to the 5-star Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort that also includes an educational discovery center and nature reserve with five miles of jungle hiking trails.
Pantai Beach is dreamy and well-groomed, but there aren’t many facilities outside the grounds of the Shangri-La. Get to Pantai Dalit by driving an hour north of Kota Kinabalu.
Affectionately called “Hawaii Beach” because of the beautiful setting, Bakam Beach is only a 30-minute drive from Miri in Sarawak. Locals enjoy Hawaii beach for picnics (there are some tables and facilities), but the wide beach remains undeveloped and lightly used for the most part. You’ll have to take food and water with you or buy it in Bakam village.
Hawaii Beach is palm-lined and idyllic, but it suffers from the same scourge as other beaches that aren’t regularly cleaned up by resorts: plastic rubbish. Bins are often overflowing; pack trash out with you.
Most visitors to Mabul spend more time beneath the turquoise surface than they do appreciating one of the best beaches in Borneo. The area is a dream for divers, particularly macro enthusiasts. For surface time between dives and snorkeling, the beach on Mabul is stunning. Speedboats get parked along some stretches, but the sand is soft, and the water is clear enough to see marine life while standing on the beach!
To reach Mabul, go overland to Semporna on the eastern edge of Sabah, then take a 30-minute speedboat to the island. Resorts on the island provide boat transfers.
Remote Islands in Borneo
If you’re willing to invest the effort, Borneo is home to scores of small islands with lovely beaches. Some of these islands have only one or two resorts on them; many remain undeveloped. Like Mabul and Sipadan, divers are mostly attracted to these islands for their underwater treasures, but the beaches are breathtaking.
- Mantanai Islands: Divers come for the World War II wrecks, but the white-sand beaches are lined with trees and thatched bungalows.
- Lankayan Island: There’s only one choice for resort on this tiny island, but you can enjoy the perfect beach when not chasing whale sharks in the blue water.
- Derawan Islands: Over on the Indonesian side in East Kalimantan, many of the 31 Derawan Islands are home to some of Borneo's best beaches. A few of them are only accessible with day trip excursions. Maratua and Derawan are the only two inhabited islands.