Labuan...a surprisingly boring place…but not in a bad way.
Labuan was not a destination that was on our bucket list but having to go there for essential business travel earlier this year meant that we were thrilled to be able to get back on a flight again after such a long time sat still.
After the PCR test back in January being very traumatic especially for our 7-year-old, we opted for a private doctor to come to us to administer the test this time.
We all had to have the antigen test, even Avery.
The doctor was so professional and completely relaxed all of us. The test was super quick, and we had our negative results within just a few minutes.
Matthew got the police permit from the police station, essential to cross state lines here in Malaysia and we were good to go.
Labuan is a small island around 8km from Borneo, East Malaysia.
Side note- Borneo is very much on our wish list, if you have been with kids please drop us a comment about your experience.
From our home in Penang, we opted to take a taxi to Kuala Lumper. In hindsight, we may skip this step out and fly in future as my plan was to sleep on the journey, avoiding the 10-hour layover in the airport.
The kids luckily slept soundly, but Mum and Dad did not.
When we arrived at KLIA at around 3am, the kids snuggled onto a bench and went back to sleep. Mum and Dad just looked longingly at Costa coffee which did not open until 7.30am, at which time we were boarding our flight to Labuan.
The flight was a smooth 2.5 hours, but was full, which we did not expect, as KLIA was completely deserted and mostly closed. Labuan airport in comparison, was bustling, all the shops were open and there were plenty of people milling about.
We were however coming from Penang in CMCO (conditional movement control order), Labuan was in RMCO (recovery movement control order) which meant covid restrictions were much looser.
As we had no idea what to expect, we were maybe reassured to see a Starbucks and a McDonalds, which always indicates a little bit of familiarity.
As we got a grab and headed towards our hotel, we started to notice that the landscape was vastly different to West Malaysia. Sure, it was lush and green and of course hot, but the first thought was…where are all the buildings?
As we made our way to the very North of the island, we started to see the beautiful coastline, fisherman villages and so many boats. #
For our 6-night stay, I chose the Palm Beach Resort and Spa from a list of only 4 hotels in Labuan on booking.com.
It was the only hotel on the beach, I could see it was on the other end of the island, in the Tanjong Batu area but I figured it was a small island. It boasts 245 spacious, comfortable rooms with many facilities, on 17 acres of private beach and attractive tropical gardens.
On arrival, we could see it was a very sizeable, somewhat grand hotel.
The beach vibe reception area opens out onto the pool, which is straight onto the beach. It gives this amazing sweeping view, the instant you step into the lobby.
Our room was vast, exceptionally clean, and well equipped with a desk, bath, tea making set up and a large balcony. The style was old fashioned but grand.
The staff were friendly enough but there seemed no inclination to go a little further to make the stay wonderful for guests. On the flipside, we were left to our own devices and felt free to do what we wanted.
Throughout our stay, which unexpectedly, ended up being 3 weeks, we saw around 3 other guests. A few locals use the pool at the weekend, for a small fee, but apart from that, from morning till 6pm we were alone.
We had to take several trips back into the town, and on the first attempt we realised our first mistake.
Grab Car did not service that far out, so it was very difficult to get about. The hotel staff helped to organise cars through Maxim for us. Coming back to the hotel was fine but it is something to bear in mind if you choose this hotel.
Grab Food also did not service this area, and there was nothing near the hotel at all. When you were in town you could order grab food BUT the main two restaurants were the before mentioned Starbucks and McDonald’s.
It seems the airport lulls you into a false sense of what is to come because beyond that there’s really not much to be had in terms of the recognisable.
Island culture was prevalent here, and there are some things that you must lower your expectations on.
Number 1 is timings; everyone was late to everything, and no one seemed to apologise.
For us, with several immigration appointments to attend, it became stressful.
In restaurants, do not assume the order in which you will get your food. For example, they may just bring the dessert first and the restaurant staff see no issue with this.
It was Ramadan during our stay. Every night our hotel was putting on a Ramadan buffet.
So, at 6pm over 300 people came and enjoyed a huge feast, with stands set up all around the pool, restaurant and beyond.
Due to the current restrictions in Malaysia, the police came often to the hotel to check the SOPs were being followed.
This meant that from around 12pm all the hotel staff were busy preparing the buffet and the hotel for the busy night ahead.
It made it tricky to get anyone’s attention to order lunch and dinner, which given the lack of other options was frustrating.
Often, we would order pizza (one of the main perks was a gorgeous outdoor pizza oven) to be told “Pizza finish now” even though we could see them cooking pizza for the buffet.
I know for any business during covid times, balancing the books is tricky but the nightly buffets took precedence over hotel guests every day.
We chose not to eat at the buffet as it was relatively expensive and so, so busy, after a year of social distancing, it felt almost uncomfortable to be around so many people.
This may sound like the stay was negative but far from it.
I merely want to report an honest account of our experience. The plus sides of the hotel hugely outweighed the negatives.
The pool was colossal, it was warm, it was clean, and it was utilised by us to its full potential.
Epic water fights every day, diving lessons and eventually paddle boarding.
We spent almost every day in and around the pool. In the evenings when it cooled down, we headed to the beach.
It was stunning.
It was clean, with not too much litter on the beach, and the water was crystal clear and warm.
We also got the most magnificent pink and orange sunsets to the sound of the call to prayer coming across the breeze every evening.
The beach was soft, and the children loved building sandcastles and drawing in the sand. We could take long walks and look for crabs and shrimp in the rockpools. There was so much peace there for us at the end of each day.
When we weren’t swimming, we were at Jabatan Imigresen Labuan, our 6 day trip turned into 3 weeks as things unfolded at immigration.
Palm Beach happily extended our stay as we needed to. We started to venture more into town to do laundry and grocery shopping. We found good ice cream milkshakes and cakes at Cucina de Olive and a mamak with good roti canai.
We enjoyed walking around the town.
Again, we observed hardly any high-rise buildings, houses were one level bungalows with gardens and chickens. This is vastly different to our experience of west Malaysia.
Locals were friendly and enjoyed stopping for a chat. The overall feeling, we got, was that tourists were not the norm but they welcomed visitors.
With only the pool and beach to occupy us at the hotel, we decided to check out the famous sights of Labuan. Namely the Labuan Bird Park and Chimney Museum.
They were a few minutes’ drive from our hotel in the north of the island and walking distance to each other. The Bird Park offers refuge to a wide range of species (580, apparently) in three geodesic domes, and a swath of rainforest. When we visited, though the park was in disarray, with broken play equipment and seemingly abandoned areas.
The birds did not look healthy. Again, its hard to judge, as covid has made things almost impossible for businesses and I’m guessing they are struggling.
The chimney museum was the opposite, nicely maintained and gave interesting facts about the area and the mysterious chimney. The museum consists of seven galleries and one discovery room, including the history of coal mining around the world, coal mining locations around Malaysia, and the processes, and methods in coal mining.
You can go inside the chimney and walk around the grounds. Overall though the whole thing takes less than 30 minutes. Spoiler alert- the ending is disappointing as they reveal the chimney is not even a chimney.
Matthew took his paddleboard along for the trip which was the perfect way for him to unwind after various immigration appointments.
The ocean was clean, but Matthew did not see anywhere near the amount of sea life that we had read about. Avery often joined him as he explored further round the coastline. After a few days we started to paddle board in the pool too, it was large enough and there were no other guests to disturb.
Dexter built up a lot more confidence this way.
We did not get the opportunity to experience any snorkelling or island-hopping trips due to covid again, understandably many businesses were just not able to be open.
The best food we found was at the Living Room restaurant, situated in the Dorsett Grand Hotel. They had a huge variety of Indian food and cocktails too. The service was slow, and sporadic (read above about lowering expectations) but the food was delicious and worth the wait. It is more like a trendy wine bar with a really relaxed ambience.
For the last few days of our trip, there was rumblings of a lockdown coming.
The Ramadan celebrations throughout Malaysia had caused a spike in covid numbers, which we saw coming, and the country was on the verge of a big problem.
The hotel informed us that they would be closing the pool, beach, and restaurant immediately. This led us to make the choice to move into town as there was simply no reason to stay so far out with no facilities.
We checked into Labuan Point, a business style hotel, just walking distance from the Financial Park Mall.
This certainly made our appointments easier to keep and we were super close to the airport when it was time to leave. The rooms and beds were tiny though.
The best thing was the Labuan Point had a rooftop restaurant bar. 30 metres up with full glass structure, the spectacular Sky Garden Bar offers views across the Labuan town and far beyond. This made for a great location for a celebration when we finally got our Visas signed off. The view from there was stunning. I would recommend it if you ever visit Labuan.
After 3 weeks of limbo we flew back into KLIA and then flew onto Penang. By the time we arrive we were back into a lock down again.
We were just about able to move into our new apartment and we will now wait out the next steps. Although, lockdown will be a little more fun with our duty free Dissaronno.