From the cabin of a Bell 206 Jetranger helicopter, a vista of Kota Kinabalu and its outlying islands unfolds like a screensaver (remember those?). Captain Nazeem of the Layang Layang Aerospace gently banks right and the city coastline swings into view, backgrounded by the majestic Crocker mountain range and its most famous feature, the iconic Mount Kinabalu.
For many who are familiar with the city of Kota Kinabalu (which draws its name from the mountain), the destination is synonymous with seafood, its islands and nature reserves. However, a new breed of hotels and its owners are now working to realise the potential of Kota Kinabalu, a long-favoured holiday destination in the region, to scale up its touristic value.
Among them is the Kengo Kuma-designed Hyatt Centric Kota Kinabalu, which opened its doors in late 2022, and in the process becoming the first Hyatt Centric in the Southeast Asian region. According to Ruben Schrijver, the hotel’s General Manager, the Hyatt Centric DNA serving as the launchpad to a destination naturally lent a certain mission to the property. “We want to forge a real connection with our guests—the ones who feel a bit more adventurous and, for the millennials, the ones who prefer the easy-going lifestyle.”
Ultimately, that anticipation of discovery and of seeing Kota Kinabalu with new eyes becomes a thrilling prospect for guests checking into the Hyatt Centric Kota Kinabalu. “It’s really great that we see a varied guest profile coming into the hotel and the market is still developing,” Schrijver adds. “We see tourists coming for the nature and islands, but we also have the corporate-types who visit because of their investments in the state.”
Here at the modish, design-led Hyatt Centric Kota Kinabalu, the undeniable impact of the Kuma’s vision is reflected in a constant and ever-dynamic play of light and shadow, with the hotel’s design intended to incorporate elements of nature in the living spaces and across all of its 222 rooms. Case in point: each and every room has a balcony that either faces the lush forests or the cerulean horizon. The 1,500 sq ft Sea View Deluxe Suite is the pick of the bunch, with a generous balcony for continuously evolving views of both sea and sky from the 21st floor.
At the very top, the hotel’s show-stopping double-infinity pool is dappled with sunlight peeking through louvered slats. Meanwhile, a sense of zen pervades the lobby and at the restaurant’s dining venue called ON22, where bamboo gardens add a calming presence to check-in and during meals. ON22, which serves breakfast and long lazy lunches (till 5.30pm), also becomes one of the city’s most elegant dining rooms in the evenings thanks to its grand ceilings, as well as a menu inflected by Asian touches and elevated with cooking techniques. The hotel’s executive sous chef Ho Jun Yip proposes a medley of satisfying dishes such as lamb shank rendang, grilled chilli lobster pasta, salmon laksa, curried cauliflower and Brussel sprouts with Szechuan sauce. An appetiser course of smoked duck comes with smoky flair from under the cloche, adding theatre to your dinner.
In the same way, the hotel becomes a place for locals and guests to uncover their inner artist. A weekend programme combines either wine tasting or coffee with painting sessions guided by expert artists. Artistic touches also abound across all 23 storeys, with the lobby displaying a grand hand-carved wood sculpture of rare Rafflesia flowers by Malaysian artist Anniketyni Madian. Throughout the property, the artworks range from a philosophical musing of stacked teapots at the hotel’s conference rooms to seashell-encrusted wall panels and a multitude of butterfly shaped paper cuts and prints by multidisciplinary Tokyo artist Raku Inoue.
Just a floor up from the butterfly prints, you find bar manager and Sabahan Kenneth Klassen working on unique elixirs and ingredients such as smoked tuhau, a local wild ginger. These concoctions make an appearance on sultry evenings when ON23 Sky Bar comes to life with an effervescent band and paired with one of the best views of the city. The cocktails are a speciality here, with Klassen able to customise one to suit your every mood, even using local spirits such as lihing and montoku as a base.
So much of what Hyatt Centric Kota Kinabalu can be is the realisation of the city and state of Sabah’s potential. The ability to discover everything and everywhere at your leisure comes with the uncomplicated and friendly service from hotel staff who are eager to offer their own take on what they find most interesting of the hotel, and of the neighbourhood around it. Recommendations abound from the lively Sunday morning markets of Gaya island and local shops to favourite eateries and not-to-be-missed dishes.
The hotel’s continuously expanding range of offerings means that guests can have their pick of exploring the city in any way they choose. Helicopters take keen golfers to the highlands of Kundasang for a round of 18, shortening a three-hour road journey to just 30 minutes by air, and chartered jets whisk guests to Semporna island and its world-class dive sites beyond. Nearby jetties and marinas also enable you to embark on a sunset cruise, to enjoy a wine and cheese board while swathed in the kaleidoscopic colours of the famed Kota Kinabalu sunset with all its magical hues of pink and gold.
Back in your room and winding down from a day of activity, you can then enjoy any of a number of books thoughtfully curated by the hotel to reflect the destination in which it finds itself. From cookbooks to intriguing accounts of colonial-era Sabah, the literature adds yet another dimension to the always surprising spate of discoveries that guests and travellers will make at the Hyatt Centric Kota Kinabalu, stepping into a city that is easy to love and hard to leave.
Photography: Hyatt Centric Kota Kinabalu