Ask Lonely Planet: Underworld of beauty in Malaysia

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Sabah, in Borneo Malaysia, is a diver's paradise. Photo / Supplied
Sabah, in Borneo Malaysia, is a diver's paradise. Photo / Supplied

My husband and I would like to take our two teenagers (15 and 17) to Asia. We all like snorkeling, rafting, treks, etc, and my husband and I both scuba dive and the kids are interested in learning. I am thinking about going to Sabah in Malaysia but there don't seem to be any cheap flights or holiday deals and from what I have read you need to take an expensive tour to go to all the attractions. I am also not sure if this is a great place for teenagers who will probably want a bit of nightlife. Mainly we all want good memories from this trip as it is likely to be our last family holiday overseas. Should we go for the less touristy Sabah or stick to the tried and true Koh Samui or Bali. Can you help?
- Toni Lexmond

Lonely Planet's Sarah Bennett & Lee Taylor write:

The Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo is a fantastic place to visit, with some amazing natural attractions. Regular flights connect Kota Kinabalu (the state capital) to major South East Asian hubs and while it is a pricey route, there are some relative bargains to be had.

From KK, a web of flights criss-cross the state, with buses filling in most of the gaps.

Sabah is a diving paradise, with the island of Sipadan regularly ranking among the world's top 10 dive spots. Only 120 Sipadan dive permits are given out daily, so it pays to book well in advance. Most dive companies operate out of Semporna but if you're looking for a nice place to hang out while your children get certified, consider splurging on the island accommodation nearby.

Access to Sabah's myriad national parks and conservation areas is limited and you will inevitably have to use tour companies at some point. It is possible to travel independently, but we can't stress enough the importance of advance planning. If you want to climb Mt Kinabalu, for example, you should organise it months beforehand.

Sabah's nightlife and other entertainments are limited. Lonely Planet's brand new Borneo guidebook gives you a detailed run-down, and there's some really good traveller tips on the Thorn Tree traveller forum.

If it's hassle- and permit-free travel you're looking for, with an abundance of nightlife as well as wildlife, then Bali or Thailand may be more suitable.

There are shoals of reliable dive schools dotted all around the coastlines of Bali and Thailand. Top sites in Bali include Pulau Menjangan and Tulamben.

If you decide to head to Koh Samui, then you may want to consider staying on the island of Ko Tao, a great place for first-time divers.

Self-drive in Greece

We will be travelling to Greece in December-January for around four or five weeks. We are interested in ancient sites with perhaps particular focus on the Peloponnese, Athens, and as far north (yes, we know it's winter, but we don't have any choice) as we can get, but including Meteora and perhaps Thessaloniki. What do you think of self-drive tours? Can you recommend any companies that will help us see what we want, yet give us all the time we need to fully appreciate it? What are the special considerations of travelling in Greece in winter?
- Scott Crawford

Self-drive tours will make life easy, as operators handle all transport and accommodation bookings. However, they charge for a service that you could quite easily handle yourself, particularly if you invest in a Lonely Planet guidebook and make use of internet booking.

Creating your own itinerary and organising your own bookings will provide the most flexibility, allowing you to get off the beaten track and stop for longer at places you really like. Greece is less busy in winter, so you'll be able to tweak your plans on the road or wait until you get to your destination before choosing a place to stay.

Major car rental companies are found in most tourist destinations, but you can get a better deal with local companies as their rates are generally lower and they're often willing to bargain, especially out of season. Check the insurance waivers carefully, ask about breakdown assistance, and let them know if you intend to take the car on a ferry.

Exploring Greece by car is fun, but bear in mind that the country has one of the highest road-fatality rates in Europe. While it sometimes appears that there aren't any road rules, you are apparently supposed to drive on the right and overtake on the left. It's also compulsory to wear seatbelts, but you'd never know it.

Winters are quiet in Greece (hooray), but can be surprisingly cold and wet (boo). Snow is common on the mainland, and Athens occasionally gets a dusting. The sun does shine though, and many prefer the tranquillity that reigns at this time of year. Be aware that the islands and much of their tourist infrastructure go into hibernation during winter months.

* Scott Crawford will receive a copy of Discover Greece ($55) for his letter.

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