After a great day of diving or snorkelling, you’ll be looking for a bit of sustenance. What you’ve been feasting your eyes on all day is on the menu too—however we do question the sustainability of some of what’s on offer.
The Semporna seafront comes to life at night, and you’ll have to fight for space with the Chinese families packed in like, well, sardines at one of the dozens of Chinese-style restaurants. Most evenings a live band belts it out on the esplanade, adding to a festive buzz. The seafood is so fresh it’s still swimming in tanks. Point and pick, but ask the price as it’s sold by weight. Or you can order smaller set meals from the menu. Be responsible with your seafood choices, and please don’t eat the endangered species! You can download this handy fish guide produced by WWF to help you.
Very few of these establishments sell beer, however most allow you to buy from the few (one?) that do. We enjoyed a selection of the set seafood—fish, prawns or squid—then picking a cooking method for 7 ringgit at Chrystal Jubilee 2 although service was a bit slow. We also tried seafood from the tanks at Seaview Cafe, who also have a branch near Seafest Hotel, although without a sea view. Slightly cheaper than the seafront restaurants and definitely less crowded, Then Wang Restoran a block back behind Pacific Inn, is no lower in quality. You can still pick from the tanks, but you won’t enjoy a sea breeze with your meal.
If you’d rather watch than eat the sea creatures, several Malay restaurants serve the usual fried noodles, roti and curries. Restoran Nasi Kandar Al-Farisha under Seafest Hotel make the best roti, and if you get peckish at odd times, they’re open 24 hours.
Amazing Island Cafe and Ice Castle, next door to each other at the seafront, both make excellent fresh juices (4-9 ringgit) and icy desserts. If you’re a mango fan, don’t miss the mango ice with ice cream at Ice Castle—it’s literally just ice with sweet and succulent sliced mango and a scoop of ice cream, but boy is it refreshing.
As of 2016, most of Semporna’s old bars have closed, or have turned into local (alcohol-free) restaurants. The once popular Scuba Junkie Bar is now Family Cafe, and along with delicious looking Malaysian food serves the old Scuba Junkie menu of Western favourites. We’d suggest you stick with the Malay food though; we ordered a salad (how can you go wrong), but it was disappointing to say the least, and one of the more expensive meals we ate in Semporna. They no longer serve alcohol. If you do enjoy a drink after a day in the sun, head to the fourth floor of Seafest Hotel’s Boutique Wing to Skyline Sports Bar, a terrific rooftop position for watching the sunset (large Tiger beer 20 ringgit). If you have access to a fridge where you’re staying, Giant supermarket sell warm beer, wine and spirits.
Day trips from Semporna mostly include lunch. To reduce plastic rubbish, Sabah Parks have requested operators supply your lunch in paper, banana leaves, or hard plastic containers, however we found this to not always be done; we were given polystyrene boxes one day. For an additional tasty snack to take on your trip, or a good breakfast option, pick up a nasi kuning sold in banana leaf packets from street vendors near the port and be treated to flavourful yellow rice with spicy fish and veggies.
If you’re staying on Mabul Island, there’s no decision about where to eat as the dive resorts operate on a full board basis. You’ll get three buffet-style meals per day and all the Sabah tea, instant coffee and filtered water you can drink. Expect a mix of simple Malay and Western dishes, like noodles, chicken curry, fish and stir-fried veggies. You’ll leave with more fond memories of the diving than of the food. Fresh seafood can be purchased from local fisherpeople, and the kitchen staff at most lodges will cook it up for you for a few ringgit. Again be responsible with what you choose to eat; recent incidents of shark finning on Mabul have made headlines. Many homestays don’t sell alcohol for religious reasons, but Mabul Beach Resort and Borneo Divers Resort have fully stocked bars.
Amazing Island Cafe: Seafront New Township (waterfront).
Chrystal Jubilee 2: Seafront New Township (waterfront); T: (0168) 121 169; open daily 11:00-01:00.
Family Cafe: Seafront New Township (next to Scuba Junkie).
Ice Castle: Seafront New Township (waterfront).
Restoran Nasi Kandar Al-Farisha: Jalan Kastam (under Seafest Hotel Boutique Wing); open 24 hours.
Seaview Cafe 1 and 2: Seafront New Township (waterfront) and Jalan Kastam (under Seafest Hotel Boutique Wing).
Skyline Sports Bar: 4th floor, Seafest Hotel Boutique Wing; T: (0128) 633 993.
Then Wang Restoran: Seafront New Township (behind Pacific Inn).