Kota Kinabalu doesn’t have only that aspirational mountain to offer visitors. It’s just a ten-minute boat-ride from there to the new Gaya Island Resort, as Verne Maree discovers.
I’m with a bunch of journalists invited to attend the launch of Gaya Island Resort Marine Centre, and Natural Wonders, a coffee-table book on the YTL hotel group’s various eco-friendly endeavours.
November to April is Borneo’s wet season. On Day One, I’m marking out the territory (catlike) about 800 metres from my hilltop room when I actually hear the downpour smash into the jungle canopy before it drums right through my Panama hat to run in rivulets down my face. I’m exhilaratingly drenched in 30 seconds flat.
Day Two is relentlessly rainy, but it’s rather nice to camp out on a Pool Bar lounger with a Hoegaarden, a novel and an expansive view of passing rainsqualls. And when that begins to pall, I retreat to the spa.
On Day Three, the skies clear beautifully. By now there’s rather a lot to fit in, but I do my best.
As I’m liberally basted with a mixture of yoghurt, honey and freshly ground cocoa then left to marinate gently in a hot body wrap, my mind drifts to the cannibal tribes of Borneo. Is this how they overcame any natural reluctance to eat their fellows? So tasty are the various concoctions that I swear I can hear therapist Vyea’s tummy give a little rumble, and mine gurgle in response.
But that could be down to the firewater served as a welcome drink at the spa: seriously chilli-laced pineapple, guava and lime juice. A hardened chilli-lover like me finds it delicious, but what about that pale English couple who’ve just exited the spa? I’m right, admits my therapist. They barely managed a sip of it.
The Spa Village is a delight, set amid mangroves like the rest of the resort; its expansive deck is complete with a little curtained gazebo for “pre-treatment rituals”. My two-and-a-half-hour Borneo Vanilla Orchid and Honey Cocoon experience for one (MYR655) includes lower leg revitalisation featuring a ginger, black pepper and sea salt scrub; a full body scrub using fresh coconut, vanilla and honey; a wrap; an Indian head massage and hair mask of yoghurt and honey, followed by a virgin coconut oil conditioner and finally an outstanding massage.
Finnish Monika, the current yoga instructor at Gaya Island Resort, gives a free class that’s the highlight of my day. She also does a lovely guided meditation that consists mainly of gentle yoga stretches and culminates in about 15 minutes of mindful breathing. Namaste.
Serving all three meals of the day, Feast Village has an open bakery and a variety of Asian and Western food. That’s where you head for a comprehensive buffet breakfast complete with delicious cronuts (pictured). The Pool Bar serves snacks and light meals such as pizzas and burgers. I loved the wok-fried Tuarang mee (MYR60), and the steak sandwich (MYR65) was pretty good, too.
We enjoy an exquisite seafood set dinner at the Fisherman’s Cove. Another evening, personal chef Adzrene presided over another of the resort’s fine dining experiences, the Sinigang seafood steamboat (MYR280 per person). Originating in the Philippines, it features prawns, lobster and scallops; locally caught coral trout, grouper, snapper and mackerel; plus strips of beef and a pile of vegetables. Fish and meat are first seared on a raised central grill before being dropped into a moat of stock that becomes more intensely flavourful as the grill juices run into it.
A tribal-style Kadazan barbecue is held on the beach every Wednesday and Saturday: skewered local seafood washed down with lihing, the Kadazans’ jolly-making rice wine. I suspect that the enormous lobsters served on this occasion in honour of Sabah’s minister of tourism, culture and the environment came from slightly farther afield, though.
The secret of Sabah, explains Minister YB Datuk Masidi Manjun, is the people themselves. Though there are 32 ethnic races that speak a total of more than 50 languages, he says they’re all very integrated. “My tribe alone has 18 sub-tribes, and my forefathers used to be head hunters.” According to him, the difference between the head-hunting tradition of his tribe and that of Kalimantan tribes is that his tribe did it for self-protection and maintaining its dignity, not for warlike purposes.
“A bit like Manchester United versus Liverpool,” he adds.
Speaking of warlike, after the feast of seafood, and in the glow of firelight, we’re treated to some impressive traditional dancing from the Murut tribal tradition. Guests are invited to join in, but I’d probably need another quart or so of lihing to get me up there.
Just to the right of the resort’s private jetty is what they call the house reef. No individual snorkelling is allowed here because it’s all very new and vulnerable, and for the same reason no one except your guide is allowed to wear fins in case they kick the coral to death. So how do you get to see what’s there?
The answer is simple: I don mask and snorkel, hold onto a lifebuoy and let Eric – assistant to Scott McKay, the resident marine biologist – tow me around. Eric is inordinately passionate about sponges. After kindly explaining that they’re not really much like Spongebob Squarepants, he reveals that if you take a sponge home, whizz it around in your blender and put the resulting mush back into water, you’ll see it starting to grow again. What’s more, he says, research scientists are looking to common marine sponges for the next generation of antibiotics: they contain a chemical called germacin, which can reprogramme antibiotic-resistant bacteria to restore their vulnerabilty to antibiotics.
Visibility is poor after the rain, but we do manage to see through the murk various corals, clownfish and anemones, and a giant clam recently saved from the curry-pot. The unhappy proliferation of spiny sea urchins is due to overfishing of the surrounding waters, Eric explains, which has decimated the sea urchin’s natural enemy, the parrot fish.
Being within the extensive Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, you’d expect the ecology to be well protected, but that’s not the case. Unscrupulous fishermen still bomb the coral – though not in this particular bay, of course – in order to get at the big fish, like grouper, that hide beneath its branches. Equally surprising is the amount of plastic flotsam and jetsam that floats in the sea beyond the resort and washes up on beaches.
There’s a lot of interesting reef life in the waters directly in front of the resort, as I find when I wade out there alone; but it’s too shallow for snorkelling – today, anyway. Another option is the Gaya Island Resort-owned private beach called Tavajun Bay, just a few minutes’ boat ride away. It has a nice stretch of white sand, good swimming and snorkelling, they say.
A PADI scuba-diving and snorkelling programme is available, offering a variety of underwater experiences for both novice water-babies and the more experienced.
There are a couple of proboscis monkeys in this forest, says resident naturalist Justin Juhun, but they’re too shy and retiring to let us see them. You’re far more likely to see a bearded pig.
All the YTL resorts we’ve visited have excellent guides to help you make the most of your visit; in Malacca, for example, an erudite historian leads informative cultural walks through the old parts of the city. And here, like his counterpart at the Cameron Highlands Resort, it is Justin who guides us through the resort’s various and generally steep forest trails.
You do need someone knowledgeable to point out flora and fauna of interest. We’re relieved to hear that it’s not pit viper season. Apart from one painted bronze-back snake – and one snake is plenty for me – it’s lizards that are the most ubiquitous species, from a nastily ferocious variety of gecko to skinks, monitor lizards and the Bornean angle-headed lizard, variously scurrying, swimming, mating and moulting.
Our guide is puzzlingly keen on flatworms, too. These carnivorous creatures wrap themselves around their prey and eventually digest it with their slime.
Mushrooms and other fungi abound, along with spiky rattan palms and strangling figs that eventually kill their host trees. It’s a jungle out there. One of the merantis was 350 years old when it finally gave up the arboreal ghost. Also of interest is the curculigo, whose fruits are used in Ayurvedic medicine to cure a host of common ailments, from runny noses to impotence.
Back in the mangroves at the foot of the jungly hill, Justin describes his efforts to bring back the mangrove life that was destroyed during the development of the resort. Though the forest looks fairly established to the uninformed eye, only one of the original mangrove trees remains.
The lovely rooms are all identical, so it’s up to you and your legs whether you opt for one at sea level, surrounded by mangrove forest and close to the facilities, or one higher up the hill. I’m allocated one right at the top of the steep, winding slope, because “journalists always opt for the room with the best view”. And no, there are no buggies: “This is a walking resort,” we’re told firmly.
The rooms are beautifully appointed, each with its own terrace and a magnificently massive bath. However, the settings on my hot-water tank need a couple of adjustments by the friendly handyman before it delivers enough hot water for a properly luxurious soak.
SilkAir’s 8.50am flight gets you to Kota Kinabalu at 11.20am, where you’re met and whisked to the ferry terminal in 15 minutes. Make sure you choose one of the direct flights, rather than one that tiresomely touches down along the way in Phnom Penh. A fun speedboat ride brings you to Pulau Gaya and Gaya Island Resort’s private jetty.
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