AQUARIUM. Fish. Into the blue. These images swim into my periphery as soon as I step into the spacious lobby area of Le Meridien Hotel Kota Kinabalu, my “home” for the weekend. Sober dark wood are combined with soothing lighting that segue from blue to pink.
With its elevated ceiling, wide open spaces, fancy architectural lighting, it’s certainly an impressive introduction to this hotel that overlooks the South China Sea which is proud to trumpet the many facets of its recent refurbishing exercise.
Glad to have found an air-conditioned refuge from the blistering sun outside, I make my way to the reception counter where I’m meeting my contact, Jacqueline, who’ll be my guide for the duration of my stay in Sabah’s bustling capital. I’m excited as it’s my first time here and although I’m looking forward to a relaxing sojourn just lazing by the pool here, said to be the longest lap pool in the city centre, with the only exertion coming from my planned food crawl of the hotel’s various eateries. I also can’t wait to see what lies beyond the walls of this hotel, which is located at the doorstep of Kota Kinabalu’s famous waterfront esplanade, bustling markets, shopping complexes and business districts.
“Miss Intan, right?” I feel a gentle tap on my shoulder. The voice, soft and tentative, belongs to Jacqueline, who smiles widely in welcome. The preliminaries all wrapped up, she invites me to join her for lunch at the hotels’ Azure Pool Bar and Cafe on Level 2.
It’s a beautiful day to be dining al fresco and looking out to the panoramic vista of deep azure waters glimmering under the sultry afternoon sun. Adjacent to the cafe is the swimming pool where sunseekers, in their various guises and comprising mostly foreigners, pay homage to Mr Sun, their already-tanned bodies glistening as they languidly unwind within the urban jungle.
“Mad,” the thought crosses my mind, as I chuckle at the folly, suddenly recalling the phrase from Noel Coward’s song (1931), “. only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun”!
Following my gaze, Jacqueline grins and asks whether I’d like to take my food by the pool area. We both laugh as it becomes obvious that neither of us has any plans to venture beyond the air-conditioned comfort of the cafe proper where smiling chefs are waiting to demonstrate their skills. “Perhaps we can hang out there in the evening and catch the sunset,” I suggest to Jacqueline, suddenly remembering that some of the most magical sunsets can be viewed from up here.
As we enter the contemporary inner sanctum of the poolside cafe, the smell of caramelised onions wafts from the direction of the open kitchen where a chef decked in his toque blanche and stripey blue uniform is swaying a pan, his body moving in synchrony with it like in a dance. A flurry of action ensues as orders are taken. “Make Your Own Burger” is the pull here where diners are invited to do just that, exercising their creativity at creating their own burger masterpiece.
My head spinning from the sheer number of options to choose from, I eventually opt for a combination of grilled chicken, cheddar, caramelised onion, zucchini, arugula, layered with guacamole and set inside a fluffy brioche.
As I tuck in hungrily into the ginormous burger in front of me, beautifully presented on a dark platter complete with my name scribbled across it, I ask Jacqueline to fill me in on what’s new about the hotel, which actually opened its doors more than 10 years ago. I guess an overhaul of sorts has been due since then.
She begins with the first point of entry — the lobby.
“We call it the Le Meridien HUB and it’s a unique lobby concept that reinterprets the traditional lobby into a social gathering place,” begins Jacqueline, as she reminds me of the spacious area downstairs that had charmed me with its design.
The HUB provides ample space — nooks and crannies — for guests to engage in conversation and stimulate thoughts through physical and personal interaction.
The moment guests enter through the doors and into the belly of the HUB, the “discovery” element kicks in, says Jacqueline. The “experience” consists of four elements: High impact arrival art; sensory experience as illustrated through the hotel’s signature scent; sound and use of light, through music by Nouvelle Vague in the lifts and candle lights in the evenings; and finally the Unlock Art programme, featuring artist-designed key card collections that provides access to a wide range of art pieces at Sabah Art Gallery, which happens to be the hotel’s local Unlock Art partner.
The new space, adds Jacqueline, is also where the gastronomic epicentre is located. Called Latitude 05, this coffee bar draws guests to the sights, sounds and smells of a bustling bar where skilled baristas add much life to proceedings as they craft their coffees. Don’t leave without trying the selection of eclairs here — it’s Latitude 05’s piéce de résistance!
Meanwhile, Latest Recipe, Le Meridien’s signature restaurant, an all-day dining outlet that offers an amazing selection of food, holds court in one corner. With its high ceiling, geometric-design wooden flooring, bronze-mirrored columns, dark wood panel walls and sparkling chandelier, it’s a theatrical dining space where food, inspired by a passion for seasonal ingredients and Sabah’s rich culinary heritage, is showcased.
Take a wander around the cooking stations that offer Tampatan (local), Chinese, Indian, Western and Japanese cuisine. “Our chef Rondy, a Kadazan and considered somewhat of a celebrity chef here, is amazing with the local cuisine. He’ll curate a special selection of local gems for you during your stay,” says Jacqueline, enthusiastically, as I down what’s left of my watermelon juice to join her for a quick tour of the rest of the hotel.
Have the rooms here had the Midas touch too, I ask Jacqueline, as my mind travels to the space where I’ll be able to rest my weary body for the night. Her eyes sparkle in response.
As she flings open the door to one of the rooms, I gasp in pleasure as I note the ocean view from the oversized windows. There, in front of me, the waters sparkle and little stars dance daintily on the surface of the deep azure waters. Modern and chic in concept, complete with all the amenities you’d expect to have in a luxury hotel, the spacious abode looks inviting.
Prior to the refurbishment exercise, Jacqueline informs me that the rooms had a more traditional feel, with plenty of dark wood used and a more sombre colour palette. “Our upgraded rooms have the sweeping ocean view and guests staying in this category of room can access the club lounge too,” she adds, noting my approving look.
The Club Lounge, she adds, has also enjoyed a facelift. Daylight filters in through the oversized windows that line one side of the lounge, basking it in a magical glow. Grab a comfy seat by the window, a drink in hand and lose yourself in the view of the South China Sea in the distance. Adorning the walls are carefully selected works of art, mostly from local artists, whom the hotel is working with. “A percentage of the money gained from the sale of a piece of art we channel to charities,” shares Jacqueline.
Leaving the lobby behind, we start making plans for dinner. Jacqueline is keen for me to check out the hotel’s intimate Italian restaurant, Favola, located at the lobby level. The name “Favola” means “fable” in Italian, and as Jacqueline enthusiastically regales me, offers the amazing flavours of Tuscany.
“Favola features modern Italian cuisine. The focus is very much on fresh ingredients, meats and produces,” says Jacqueline, adding: “We have some great pasta selections and also the best quality steaks and fresh fish. And if you have a sweet tooth, don’t leave without trying our brownies!”
Excited at the prospect of a hearty dinner, I ask whether I can take a walk first before facing all that food. Jacqueline chuckles and tells me that the location of the hotel is so strategic that I won’t have far to go to amuse myself. A pasar malam is already morphing right next to the hotel and then of course there’s the famous Filipino Market across the street, where you can get your stash of knick knacks, salted fish, handicrafts, vegetables, fish and so much more.
“Tomorrow we’ll get our ‘Go To’ person and Le Meridien specialist Rodney O’Brien to take you down to Gaya Street, one of the oldest streets in KK. He’ll be able to answer all your questions about the locale,” says Jacqueline, smiling, before leaving me to my own devices to explore.
Stealing a quick glance at my itinerary for the weekend, a sense of excitement begins to well inside. The list reads: Mari Mari Cultural Village — a place to enjoy the real soul of Sabah, followed by a visit to a Rumah Terbalik, the first upside down house in Malaysia, and one of only five in the world. I recall visiting one in New Zealand a few years ago and I can’t wait to see whether the KK version is as impressive.
So much to do, so little time. How I wish I could stay longer to explore the wonders of the Land Below the Wind. Next time...