Most scuba divers would agree travel is the part of our sport that makes it so interesting. Very few sports take us to the corners of the world most people have never even heard of, let alone, have the chance to see, in a lifetime. We tend to search out the road less traveled, the reef less seen and the places on the planet that are so biologically diverse and filled with beauty that it is hard to put into words. While it is by no means undiscovered, for us North Americans one of those places is Sipadan, an island located off the east coast of Sabah, and a seemingly “fabled” destination in diving circles.
Hours of internet research in 2006 steered Lana and Tim to read about Borneo Divers as a pioneer in Sipadan diving and an easy selection for anyone looking to visit on a moderate budget. Leading up to this 2012 trip, Lana and Tim had been to Borneo Divers on four previous occasions and their enthusiasm for the dive operation is what spurred their selection once again. In this first part, though, we will endeavor to peel the onion back on the resort operation to see what is working and what needs to improve.
While many online tour operators can assist you in booking your dive holiday, we communicated directly with the Borneo Divers headquarters in the Sabah capital of Kota Kinabalu. Lana and Tim have always booked directly with their office staff and this time would be no different. Communication is always punctual and thorough from Borneo Diver’s booking staff Ursula and Nora and with their expertise we always rest assured our dive holiday will be seamless.
We started our journey from Kota Kinabalu, where the Borneo Divers team arranged a prompt and complimentary shuttle pick up from our hotel to the airport. Checking in for the 45 minute flight was easy enough and the excitement brewed as we soared into the sky enroute to Tawau. Tawau Airport is the access point for Mabul and Sipadan Islands, which is served by Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia via Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu. Unrelated to the rest of the story but valuable information for planning a dive trip, we selected Malaysia Airlines to fly into Tawau as they provided us with the ability to check our scuba gear to our final destination from our originating carrier and take advantage of less restrictive North American baggage allowances. This provided both convenience and cost savings. Malaysia Air’s predominantly 737 fleet offers comfortable seating and the cargo hold should accommodate your scuba gear without any delay. (Note: With the exception of North American allowances, Malaysia Airlines normal baggage restriction is to 20kg / 44lb).
At the Tawau Airport, baggage claim is easy and the Borneo Divers crew eagerly awaits your arrival with your name visible on their sign. Hop in their van and you are off for a one hour ride to the Port of Semporna before you make a quick transfer to a smooth and relaxing 45 minute boat ride (weather dependent) to the resort on Mabul Island.
Upon arrival to Borneo Divers Resort, the reception on the resort jetty is always warm and inviting as staff members personally greet you and from that moment on, they make a commitment to remembering your name for the balance of your stay. A cool drink is placed in your hand and relaxation sets in immediately as the porters handle your luggage by delivering it to your dive locker and/or your room, as you choose. The transfers, porters and reception are truly 5 stars as we are settle in for the fun filled relaxing week ahead.
Once the initial euphoria wears off, a briefing of the resort was conducted by our dive master, Eljer, followed by a walking tour to quickly showcase the facilities. There are two arrival times for Borneo Divers. If you arrive in the late morning, there is enough time to set up your gear in your assigned locker, grab a quick bite to eat and then take on your first of two afternoon guided dives. The second arrival time varies based on guest arrival times, but generally, does not allow sufficient time to dive that day, however it does allow enough time to prepare your gear and get excited about the diving ahead.
Borneo Diver’s Mabul Island Staff is all about getting you in the water as much as possible while you are on your holiday. If you are ready to dive, they are ready to guide and the beautiful thing is that you can see almost anything you want while you are with the experienced local dive staff on the island (more on that in our next blog post).
As we settled in our rooms, the four of us agreed it is evident that some of the chalets are a little tired from excessive diver wear, but the staff is attentive in keeping the rooms clean and the grounds surrounding the rooms well-manicured. Inside, the chalets may be Spartan with limited amenities, but they are definitely comfortable with A/C and fans to keep you cool. Despite a water supply that can be slow to move through the system, electric water heaters provide ample warmth for a nice hot shower. The bathrooms could use a little sprucing up but, generally, everything is clean and comfortable.
According to Lana and Tim, attention to the restaurant and bars seems to have been forgotten in the past couple years. While the resort now sports four bars across the property, (jetty bar, beach bar, pool bar and lounge bar), the pool bar was never staffed (in fact the fridge was removed) and the jetty bar closed far too early to enjoy the late afternoon trade winds and sunset in a sand-fly and mosquito free zone! The beach bar seemed to be the best appointed bar and provided a comfortable atmosphere with music, waves, cool ocean breeze and some sand flies. The lobby bar was adequate but it seemed more utilitarian than inviting, with inexperienced (albeit smiling) serving staff and a limited selection to choose from. With just a little training and a better focus, Borneo Divers has a potential to be “The Place” to hang out on the island of Mabul.
The restaurant is mostly buffet style. The serving staff was friendly and served with a smile, but the food quality seemed to frustrate our Western palates. We need to preface this by mentioning our love for Malay, Indochinese and Thai food. But each meal seemed to have whitebait or anchovy in 50% of the dishes and when fish would be served, it seemed like the chicken dish and vegetables would be complemented with whitebait. It sometimes seemed like we were left with only white rice and fruits to choose from. We initially thought this was to appeal to one of the larger groups visiting from Taiwan (which would make sense), but the meals persisted (breakfast, lunch and dinner) to have a whitebait taste long after they had departed. Some of the more enjoyable meal choices we experienced during previous visits to Borneo Diver’s Mabul like an “egg station” and “pancake station” for morning breakfasts were not offered on this visit leaving us with bountiful, but somewhat uninspired meal selections.
However, we must mention that WE HESITATED TO SAY ANYTHING DURING OUR ENTIRE STAY! Had any one of us said something, we are certain the staff would have accommodated our dietary needs and requests without question. Case in point, we did make one special request on day two of our stay for afternoon French Fries and chili sauce following our dives and without further requests this became a daily offering.
Aside from the rest of our experience, the food and beverage component turned out to be such a gap in our resort experience that Tim reached out to the Borneo Divers office upon our return. We could have cowardly posted this blog, but we felt it was necessary to give them the opportunity to respond to our concerns. What did we receive? Prompt (multiple replies in less than 24 hours), courteous, attentive and apologetic, with a fierce determination to improve, and a guarantee of quality the next time we return. While the email response is too long to share, the Borneo Divers Team successfully incorporated the LAST principle: Listen, Apologize, Solve and Thank! Quite encouraging!
With all of the pros and cons mentioned above, and based solely on the resort experience, we were generally pleased with our last visit to Borneo Diver’s. But, based solely on the hotel operation, only three out of the four us would return to Borneo Divers. However, before you rush to your own conclusions, follow our blog post next week when we complete our review of Borneo Divers by focusing on the dive operation. You will not want to miss that!