Gaya Island Resort: A Luxury Retreat in Borneo

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Someone once told me that luxury is all about the senses. I woke up on my first morning at Gaya Island Resort to exactly that: a sensory overload.

I have not had a full night’s sleep since days before I hopped onto an AirAsia flight to Kota Kinabalu, and the short, speedy trip gave little opportunity for a quick doze. And so when I beheld the villa at the resort, the expansive king size bed with the softest down pillows and the crisp, 400-thread count sheets, I knew exactly what to look forward to. Laying my weary head against the pillows, I let my eyes wander around the room.

The villa was designed to give maximum attention to the outdoors; sliding doors revealed floor-to-ceiling glass windows that opened to the beauty of Gaya Island (Pulau Gaya, as it is called here; “Gaya” or “Gayo” being the word for “large”). To my right was a view of Malohom Bay, above it a blue sky littered with slow-moving clouds, and beyond it the peak of Mount Kinabalu. Directly in front of me were tall dipterocarps, surrounded by younger fig trees and thick vegetation. I inhaled deeply and even within the villa I can smell the green forest and the fresh sea. Overhead, the large ceiling fan lazily spun its wooden blades and sent cool air around the room. Beyond the fan, I mused on the dark, heavy wood that made up the high vaulted ceiling and admired its beauty. I was told the timber used to build the resort all came from the forests of Borneo, fabled for its strong, sometimes fragrant timber and long ago the stuff of legend. Slowly I exhaled the tired, old city air and with these thoughts I fell into a deep sleep.

A Monkey On My Veranda

Waking up to see a monkey sitting on the ledge of your veranda is not, shall we say, an everyday occurrence. Not for city folk, anyway. I am told it is quite common at Gaya Island Resort. The small primate on my veranda was a macaque, probably of the long-tailed variety (Macaca fascicularis) which is quite common in Borneo’s primary, secondary and mangrove forests. It must have suddenly seen something more interesting in the forest down below because it scurried away before I can examine it more closely. The forest around the villa was alive with sound. Tidings of Oriental magpie robins (Copsychus saularis) sounded their wakeup calls, their incessant melodious whistle amplified and echoed by the forest, punctuated by the chirping of smaller birds and an occasional shriek from an excited monkey.

Mornings are gorgeous on this side of Pulau Gaya: the rising sun paints an ever-changing palette of grays, blues, oranges, yellows and reds on the horizon, framing the magnificent peak of Mount Kinabalu in the distance.

On the study desk, I espy a bottle of prosecco — Italian sparkling wine — cooling in a bucket of now-melted ice. “A welcome drink,” I recall the charming resort guide Letitia telling me when I arrived yesterday. I remember planning on having a few before I retired for the night, and I also remember eschewing that plan once I shed my shoes, felt the cool, smooth billian wood on my feet and lay down on the welcoming bed.

Distinctively Borneo

Billian is Borneo ironwood, famous the world over for its strength and widely believed to be more expensive than concrete. The choice is only fitting as YTL Resorts, developer and owner of Gaya Island Resort, wanted the destination to be “Distinctively Borneo.” Pulau Gaya hosts two other resorts; it is the largest of a group of islands comprising part of the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park off the coast of Kota Kinabalu, on the Malaysian side of the island of Borneo.

“Each [YTL] property has a uniqueness in where it is located,” said resort manager Kirinjit Singh. He explained that Pulau Gaya did not have a luxury resort; all the luxury properties are located on the mainland at Kota Kinabalu. To establish a resort within the protected area, YTL entered into a stewardship agreement with the Malaysian government that allows it to operate there for 100 years.

The villas of Gaya Island Resort reminded of Agnes Keith’s rumah in Sandakan, on the opposite side of Malaysian Borneo. Keith is famous for making Borneo famous, having authored the 1939 autobiographical novel Land Below the Wind about her life in the former British colony. Like her rumah, the villas here have high ceilings and all are designed to maximize vistas of what is outside. The architecture is Bornean, with tall, sloping roofs and verandas wrapped around the structures.

The staff are mostly locals and the food is signature Sabahan cuisine, reflective of the many ethnic groups that make up this diverse region. It is a happy meeting of the flavors and spices of Borneo, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. What is a must-try in these parts is the seafood. Here, it is marinated in a savory mix of ginger, garlic, chilies, citrus, salt and sugar, then grilled over hot coals; or served as a ceviche, cooked only in vinegar and citrus and spiced with chilies, shallots and ginger. A dip of roasted belachan (dried shrimp paste) and calamansi is the best accompaniment to the grilled seafood dishes.

But before dinner, try the signature cocktail at the resort’s pool bar and lounge. The Gaya Dream contains lihing, the native rice wine of Sabah, spiked with vodka and spiced with pineapple juice, strawberry syrup and Angostura bitters.

A Nature Resort

The forest on Pulau Gaya is secondary growth, with some species probably originating from Borneo and transplanted here via the land bridges that used to connect most of Australasia. So far, there are 276 tree species that have been documented on the island, with an unusually high number of dipterocarps. There are no endemic species here, although it has several species of mammals, snakes, birds, insects and lizards that are usually found in dense tropical forests. There are only about 20 similar islands in the world with such a high concentration of flora and fauna.

Gaya Island Resort tries to keep things as close to nature as possible. A tall order, if you consider some facts. Although the resort is within the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, it is quite close to the border of the park and near unprotected waters. Justin Johon, Gaya Island Resort’s resident naturalist, said that the island’s proximity to the city is one of the major threats to the delicate balance. There have been incidents of poaching, logging and dynamite fishing within the park. By Malaysian law, a third of the land is to be left untouched and its wildlife left intact. In the case of Sabah, said Johon, half of the land is to be preserved. “Right now, we are at still at 75 per cent,” he said.

The park itself covers more than 4,000 hectares, with Pulau Gaya accounting for 1,400 hectares and the resort only four hectares. Still, the resort has made it one of its duties to rescue and rehabilitate injured wildlife that come to their care. Just weeks before my visit, a proboscis monkey (Nasalis larvatus) was found struggling to stay afloat on the waters off the resort. It appeared to have been driven off the island and had tried its luck on the open sea. It was so tired it readily climbed aboard the resort’s shuttle boat once it came near enough. On another occasion, a turtle had been found with some minor infection in its internal organs and a pangolin (scaly anteater) was also taken in for rehabilitation. Rehabilitated animals are released into the wild once they recover.

Maximum Luxury, Minimum Impact

Of course, having manmade structures and several visitors on this part of the island will itself have an impact on the ecosystem. Johon and Singh say that the resort has adopted several practices that aim to minimize the resort’s effect on the environment; these include using only eco-friendly products and processing wastewater into gray water before being used on the landscaping. Johon said they never fog to control the insects and they spray pest control above ground and only into the structures.

Singh said they never ship in fresh water; instead, the resort has its own water filtration and purification system using a reverse osmosis process to make drinking water out of saltwater. Most garbage is sent back to the mainland and incinerated, and no laundry is done on the island. “It is not cheap to run this resort,” Singh said.

The fact that the fish served on the resort are line-caught is manifested in the menu of the resort’s seafood dining restaurant Fisherman’s Cove. Every day, the restaurant advertises on a chalkboard the various seafood caught that day, and these are the only ones on offer to diners. Which is not a bad deal at all because, as any seafood lover will tell you, nothing beats the sweet taste of fresh, succulent seafood.

Guests are constantly reminded never to feed the animals (this might alter the animals’ behavior) and movement is confined to areas where marine biologists or wildlife guides can supervise interaction with the flora and fauna.

Clearly, the effort and resources that have been poured into preserving the natural attractions of Pulau Gaya, and by extension, the mythical island of Borneo, is not lost on the guests who are giving Gaya Island Resort a high average occupancy rate, even on the lean season and only barely on its second year of operation. “When you come here, we give you Borneo,” said Singh.

The air on the welcome pavilion is softly scented as I walk through to the pier. I decided to have a picnic on a white sand cove not two minutes’ boat ride from the resort. The staff had packed a lunch that included a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, some cheeses, dried fruit and fresh fruits. The pandanus leaves at the roundabout have recently been cut, releasing their sweet, green smell. By the entrance, where flowering vines have all but covered the trellised walkway, large bees are busy hopping from bloom to bloom. Their buzz is quite audible, as is the chirping of garden birds that flit through the welcome pavilion. The sun is out and the sea is inviting. On the day that I decided to experience Borneo, I am glad it was with all its attendant sensory pleasures.

Before You Go:

For budget travelers, especially those traveling within the region, the short trips actually make it possible to splurge on resorts like Gaya Island Resort. Save on the airfare by taking Air Asia flights, which are only a short hop away from major Asian destinations. Low season rates at Gaya Island Resort start at RM810 and can go up to RM1,100 during the peak season.

Gaya Island Resort has three villa choices, depending on your preference. Some villas (the Canopy and Kinabalu) are quite a hike up a winding road, but are vastly rewarding in terms of sensory treats (the sight of Kinabalu in the morning, the cacophony of birds singing at dawn and dusk). If you’re not much for hikes and are more of a beach person, choose the Bayu villas. Large parties can reserve the two-level, 188-square meter Suria Suite, which has its own pantry, living room, two suites and an outdoor bath that opens to a private balcony that has an uninterrupted view of the sea.

In love with Mt. Kinabalu? Reserve in advance the Kinabalu villas. My favorite is Villa #852, whose location allows you to choose if you want to stare at the sea or look at the forest while lying in bed.

When to visit? It really depends on what you come here for. Peak seasons are, as expected, during major holidays like Christmas until the Chinese New Year. After that, it’s pretty quiet up until June comes around and the diving is at its best until about August. Birdwatchers might want to visit around October to November when the mangroves come alive with more avian life than usual.

Wild Borneo

There are many ways for guests to enjoy the natural attractions of Pulau Gaya. Everyday there is a guided nature walk that takes guests through established trails through the forest. There are four trails running through the island, classified based on the flora and fauna found on the trail. There are fringing forests thick with dipterocarps, bushes and ferns; there is a dipterocarp trail dotted with towering trees; there is a coastal mangrove trail; and finally there is a monkey trail that is frequented by proboscis monkeys. These guided walks can be quite challenging as the trails are quite raw and trees are usually left where they fall. They are, however, not impossible for people with steady legs and are an absolute treat for those who enjoy terrestrial plants and animals.

For those who are more into marine life, there’s snorkeling in the house reef. On a clear day, the reef rewards visitors with colorful corals and an abundance of reef fish. Whale sharks are said to pass through the bay, as do the occasional pod of dolphins. Richer snorkeling and dive sites can be found throughout the park, and for a fee of RM30, boats and dive guides can take guests for a day trip.

This is not to say, however, that to enjoy the company of Pulau Gaya’s plant and animal life requires organized activity. Hornbills (specifically the Asian black hornbill, or Anthracoceros malayanus) are a common sight around the fig trees, as are majestic raptors like the white-bellied sea eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster) and Brahminy kites (Haliastur indus). Sometimes, a herd of Bornean bearded pigs (Sus barbatus) comes through the gardens, and of course, mornings are never complete without a troop of noisy macaques making themselves at home wherever they felt like it.

Spa Amidst the Mangroves

The Spa Village at Gaya Island Resort is an oasis of calm. Set amidst a mangrove forest, the structures are built on stilts, connected by wooden walkways that meander through palms, vines and mangroves. Outdoor cabanas and lounges are free for guests to use, whether to have a relaxing foot massage or simply meditate to the sound of the wild birds that visit the mangroves.

Local culture figures prominently in the Spa Village. The herbs and oils used in the various treatments, for example, also reads like the spice selection for Sabahan cuisine: ginger, salt, red chili, lemongrass, rice, tamarind, the list goes on. The Tadau Kaamatan signature couples’ treatment is based on a Kadazandusun legend, central to which is rice.

The treatment starts with an outdoor saltwater bath, followed by a foot scrub using ginger, peppercorns, red chili and cinnamon bark. Then it’s on to a rice body scrub, an avocado and coconut oil hair masque, a honey facial, and then the traditional Urutan Pribumi massage.

The latter consists of long, deep pressure with emphasis on the superficial and deep muscles along the spine. It is based on traditional techniques used to restore mobility and flexibility for rice paddy farmers and fishermen.

The couples’ massage costs RM1,555 for a three-hour experience, while the standalone Urutan Pribumi massage costs RM355 for an eighty minute treatment. Resort guests, however, are free to visit the Spa Village at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays to join yoga sessions and guided meditation.

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