By: Jess Smit
We’re at that precarious stage where we could ask nicely and squeeze the whole crowd into a single room when we travel, but the downsides of this with three children are many – including having to spend Happy Hour navigating our way around cots, pull-out beds and play mats while we’re supposedly on holiday.
And so, having decided that only two bedrooms would do, we hit “Book” straight away on spotting Bunga Raya Island Resort & Spa on Gaya Island, just off the coast of Sabah’s capital city Kota Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo.
The spaciousness of the family suites means no having to read by bathroom light once all the kids are tucked up for the night – and the short-haul flight from Changi is a clincher!
Bunga Raya Island Resort & Spa
Bunga what? Named after the Malay word for hibiscus, the country’s national flower, Bunga Raya is in Polish Bay on Gaya Island, the biggest island in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. Expect an exquisite stretch of white-sand beach, centuries-old rainforest behind it, and a coral reef that’ll have you grabbing your snorkel before the speedboat from Kota Kinabalu’s Jesselton Point even moors on the jetty.
The laid-back boutique hotel has 48 timbered villas built in traditional Bornean-style, either set into the sloping hillside or right on the beach – think one-bedrooms with plunge pools, two- and three-bedroom suites with outdoor balcony living spaces and awesome views of the South China Sea, and a royal villa with a designated butler, chef and housekeeper (oh, and a private beach)!
We got settled into a sleek two-bedroom deluxe suite with separate king and twin bedrooms within a single villa, boasting a cool dark-wood interior, Frette linen, Thann toiletries, stunning batik-printed ceilings and a complimentary mini-bar (in no order of importance).
Fortunately, we had plenty to fill our days, even with 6am starts (ahem). Ours roped the staff into building them an epic sandcastle complete with drawbridge, swam themselves silly (a perfectly positioned tree over the infinity pool providing a lovely shady spot for little dippers), and then there was the nature walk to the sky-bridge. Circling around four huge dipterocarp trees, it’s basically a super-scale version of the Jacob Ballas Children Garden’s wibbly-wobbly bridge, but with phenomenal ocean views and sightings of piqued hornbills, long-tailed macaques and monkeys. On the way back down, our four-year-old son Benjamin spotted the zip-line, and that was that. Our guide Hedros called in support, kitted him up and off went the little guy, now known as “Batman” (self-proclaimed), sailing solo high over the Bornean jungle without a moment’s hesitation!
Of course, tropical islands and spa treatments go together swimmingly, so Paul and I snuck off post-bedtime one evening to Bunga Raya’s Solace Spa, crossing the suspension bridge into a sanctuary of spa suites and all the Asian and Western massages, scrubs, facials and more that you could wish for. Add a jungle soundtrack and natural products from Kerstin Florian, and I reckon we would’ve booked them up every evening of our stay if we didn’t think at the same time our offspring were giving the babysitters a run for their money!
Back to reality (tropical island reality, that is), our stay revolved around mealtimes, so we very quickly made friends with the dining staff. Good job we did, as they were amazingly flexible at pandering to our children’s rather interesting requests – “rice and cheese, please”.
We were always the first ones to hit up the waffle station and smoothies at The Longhouse’s buffet breakfast each morning, where this mama would filch a load of house-made custard and choc-chip biscuits for later (that’s allowed, isn’t it?). With a few snacks thrown in, this would almost keep us going till happy hour at Pantai Grill. You couldn’t get a restaurant closer to the beach if you tried, and the children would tear around on the sand, leaving us free to enjoy as quiet a cocktail as we ever get. Cheers to that!
Gayana Eco Resort and MERC
Another day, another coastal resort – this time the gorgeous Gayana Eco Resort, Bunga Raya’s sister property on the other side of the island in Malohom Bay. Our speedboat arrived just in time for the daily feeding of resident groupers from the jetty: chumming them with fish-heads was a touch more dramatic than chucking crumbs at the catfish in the Botanic Gardens!
Then Paul headed off to explore pristine dive sites with Gayana’s PADI-certified dive masters, while I took the children for a tour of the Marine Ecology Research Centre (MERC), the resort’s marine conservation facility that’s raised over 3,000 endangered giant clams from seven different species since it opened in 2007. It’s no mean feat for the team of marine biologists considering they need to clean, nurture and feed the young clams for up to three years before they’re able to survive on their own in wild coral reefs.
MERC is fantastic for families: older kids can become marine biologists for a day, while the younger ones get a kick out of touring the aquarium, holding the sea creatures in the touch tank – the blue starfish were a big hit with ours – and planting coral (which little guests can even snap up a personalised certificate for doing). These planted coral fragments would then spend a year in the ocean nursery before being transferred to the seabed – though we of course just had to check on Benjamin and Rosie’s contributions the very next day!
We had big plans to get in some snorkelling and mangrove kayaking during our day trip, but the pool and the fare from Macac’s pizza oven kept our team more than content, so we’ll just have to return and maybe check into one of Gayana’s stunning overwater villas while we’re at it – next time sans children, perhaps?
AirAsia and SilkAir fly direct from Changi to Kota Kinabalu in under two-and-a-half hours – then it’s just 20 minutes or so by taxi to Jesselton Point and a speedy 15-minute speedboat ride from there. Visit bungarayaresort.com or gayana-eco-resort.com for details on accommodation.
This story first appeared in Expat Living’s June 2015 issue.