The Malaysian island entices with an escapade filled with sun, sea and history
As a below-the-radar holiday destination, Labuan has everything going for it: Historical sites, pristine sun-kissed beaches, and abundant fresh seafood. These combine into a winning formula for turning the island territory into a paradise for pleasure-seekers in Borneo.
With a total area covering 92 square kilometres, Labuan comprises the main island of Labuan and several smaller islands, such as Burung, Daat, Papan, Rusukan Besar and Rusukan Kecil. Located six kilometres off the coast of Malaysia’s eastern Sabah state, it was established as an offshore financial centre in 1990, but money, oil and gas aren’t the only things that make Labuan tick.
Where to go
1. Historical walks
First-time visitors can delve into the Federal Territory’s rich history and culture at the Labuan Museum, which details the island’s different transition periods, from the prehistoric era up to the formation of the Labuan Corporation. It also highlights the cultural and economic contributions of the Brunei Malay, Kedayan, Kadazan-Dusun, Chinese and Indian communities in Labuan.
We were fortunate to meet local historian Willie Teoh. A font of knowledge, Teoh’s deep-seated passion and keen interest in Labuan’s early days and community affairs really help to bring the place’s historical past alive for us through his story-telling and anecdotes.
2. War memorials
In November each year, High Commission representatives from Commonwealth countries, families of fallen soldiers, and public citizens gather at the Labuan War Memorial Park for Remembrance Day to pay tribute to 3,908 soldiers from Australia, Britain, India, New Zealand and Malaysia who died during World War II.
Officiated by the Australian government in 1953, the serene memorial park is set with orderly rows of white headstones. Engraved with the name, military rank and age of each soldier, the headstones serve as a poignant reminder of the heroes’ bravery and sacrifice.
From there, head to the Surrender Point Memorial where in September 1945, the ceremonial end of WWII in Labuan took place when Lieutenant General Masao Baba of the 37th Japanese Army officially surrendered his sword to Australian Major General George Wootten.
Just a stone’s throw away stands Peace Park, which features a monument built by the Japanese in the 1970s in memory of those who perished during the war. It also stands as a symbol of peace and hope that the island would never witness such atrocities ever again.
3. The tower of mystery
Standing high in Tanjung Kubong is The Chimney, a sturdy 32-metre high rectangular structure that is wholly built from raw red bricks. Well over a century old, it is believed by some local historians to be tied to coal mining activities in Labuan between 1847 and 1911. Others speculate it was meant to be a lighthouse or bell tower.
Health and fitness buffs have plenty of activities to keep them on the go. Rent a bicycle and enjoy a leisurely cycling tour through some of Labuan’s tourist attractions, like the International Sea Sports Complex, An’Nur Jamek Mosque and Botanical Garden.
Otherwise you can hike up the 148-metre-high Bukit Kubong. A verdant trail that is relatively easy for novice hikers to attempt and navigate, reaching its peak means being rewarded with a panoramic view of lush vegetation and the beach nearby.
5. Sun, sand and sea
Go for a relaxing stroll or join the locals for a breezy picnic along the sandy stretch of Manikar Beach. You can also embark on a short boat ride to frolic amid the sunny shores and crystal-clear waters of Pulau Kuraman. Dive in for some splashing good fun before settling down for a picnic lunch. Then relax on a hammock under the isle’s cluster of shady trees before heading back.
If you wish to cart home fresh fish and seafood from Labuan, it pays to wake up at the crack of dawn and check out the spoils at Labuan Fisheries. The no-frills seafood market is at a purpose-built jetty where fishing boats land their catch, so bargain hunters can expect low prices and incomparable freshness.
Local snacks and market produce can be found at Labuan Central Market. Divided into meat, fish/seafood and vegetable sections, the market accords visitors a fascinating kaleidoscope of sights, sounds and smells.
Few visitors go home empty-handed once they pop into the One Stop Duty Free Shop at Victoria Point. Labuan’s duty-free status means more wallet-friendly prices when you purchase imported chocolates, alcoholic beverages and cosmetics.
Where to eat
Eat to your heart’s content at the spacious Victoria’s Brasserie, an all-day dining restaurant at Dorsett Grand Labuan with lavish breakfast, lunch and dinner buffets. The carvery and seafood barbecue dinner spread on Saturday is a regular crowd-puller.
Supplement cosy tête–à–tête sessions with afternoon tea − both English and Asian versions are served at the hotel’s airy Lobby Lounge. It’s also a hot spot for catching live telecasts of sporting events amid sips of beer, cocktails and other tipples. Night owls can hit the dance floor at the Fun Pub, complemented by the resident band’s dynamic repertoire, or unwind over a game of pool or darts.
For sea-front dining at its best, a 30-minute drive from the city will take you to Kampung Nagalang Seafood Restaurant. You’ll be spoiled for choice as tanks of live deep-sea fish, shellfish and crustaceans await your selection. Recommended specialities that hit the spot include stir-fried slipper lobsters with salted egg, crispy white bait, and crabs that come slicked in a caramelised coating of thick soya sauce, crushed black pepper, garlic and curry leaves.
Where to stay
Revel in the lap of five-star luxury at Dorsett Grand Labuan. Strategically located in the business district, the modern 178-room hotel is a mere five-minute walk to the financial centre, government offices and international banking offices.
Your choice of accommodation ranges from 123 Deluxe Rooms and 44 Executive Rooms to 10 Premier Suites and a Royal Suite. Furnished with all the creature comforts befitting a five-star property, it is the hotel’s unique Rest & Renewed Pillow Menu that caught our attention. Forget Mr Sandman and try being lulled to sleep by the music pillow, which allows you to plug in and play your favourite tunes. The medical stone pillow provides great neck support to ensure a good night’s snooze. Alternatively, you may opt for water, magnetic or memory pillows.