ANTHIA CHNG reviews two island resorts in Malaysian Borneo, where the rainforest meets the sea in spectacular fashion. Malaysia is great for a short break from Singapore – ideal for when you feel the need to get into nature. There are outdoor activities, kid-friendly options and environmentally-friendly elements to discover too, so read on!
Known for pristine beaches and crystal clear waters, Gaya Island is located just off the Borneo coast. The island is home to a handful of upscale resorts, including the secluded Bungaraya Island Resort, which I had the recent pleasure of reviewing. Sitting on the hillside overlooking Polish Bay, the five-star property gives you the best of both worlds: jungle surrounds and seafront living.
After landing at Kota Kinabalu Airport (2.5 hours by plane from Singapore), I was welcomed by the friendly Echo Adventures staff for the easy 30-minute car ride to Jesselton Point. This is the main jetty for speedboat transfers to and from Gaya Island. Return-trip transfers are included for those staying in Bungaraya or sister resort Gayana Marine Resort, which are just 10 minutes apart by speedboat. If you’re a guest at either property, you can make a quick day trip to the other any time you like!
A comfortable 15-minute boat journey later, I found myself in tropical bliss, greeted by the bright blue skies and shimmering, see-through waters. No wonder Gaya has been touted as the “Malaysian Maldives”.
There are 48 timber villas at Bungaraya, all decorated in traditional Bornean architecture, and suitable for a variety of travellers, including honeymooning couples, solo adventurers, and families with kids. My home for the night was a Deluxe Villa, equipped with a generously-sized living area and a bedroom upstairs. Right outside the bedroom was a balcony, which became my favourite hangout spot. There it was a case of nature at its best: a beautiful composition of the sound of crashing waves merging with the chirping of the birds and insects inhabiting the surrounding forests.
Whether you’re seeking a romantic retreat or a family getaway, there’s plenty to do at Bungaraya. Take advantage of the free kayaking and snorkelling activities, for example, and, with the right weather conditions and currents, you may be lucky enough to spot a manta ray or sea turtle! A visit to the Marine Ecology Research Centre (MERC) at Gayana Marine Resort is another must-do, especially if you have kids in tow. I had an insightful experience during the tour, learning about the centre’s efforts in conserving endangered giant clams.
Nature lovers can take to the jungle, following trails of varying lengths. There’s a canopy walk and a zipline through the forest, too, which were a highlight for me – thankfully not too scary and definitely kid-friendly!
If you’re one of those who enjoy doing not much at all on your holiday, a relaxing treatment at the Echo Wellness Spa will be right up your alley. Built within the embrace of Mother Nature – with treatment rooms shaded by rich foliage and walkways connected by towering trees – the tastefully rustic spa was the hidden respite I never knew I needed. Spoil yourself with a well-deserved massage or try the “Bungaraya Regime”: this hour-long session begins with a sauna and cold room treatment, followed by a eucalyptus black soap scrub to purify and cleanse the skin. I walked out feeling like a whole new person.
If you love your cocktails, you have to visit Pantai Restaurant and Bar for your nightly fix. Each guest is entitled to a free drink from 6pm to 7pm at the breezy, semi-alfresco lounge – the Caipirinha was one of the best I’ve tasted! After you’ve soaked in the amazing beachfront views, head up to the dining area for a feast of fresh seafood, premium steaks and kid approved picks like pizza.
Alternatively, for a more unique dining experience, I’d recommend checking out the resort’s main dining venue, The Longhouse. There you’ll be treated to a splendid spread of authentic local fare, along with an impressive wine list from the restaurant’s award-winning cellar just downstairs.
If you’re out to splurge, Borneo Eagle Resort is a great pick. It’s located on isolated and idyllic Tiga Island, a little further off the coast, around 50km southwest of Gaya. After a two-hour drive from Kota Kinabalu Airport to Pulau Tiga Park Jetty, the resort is reached via a 30-minute boat ride – and getting there is a breeze with free transfers taken care of by the hotel.
Opened in 2018 by Echo, the same hotel group behind Bungaraya and Gayana Marine Resort, Borneo Eagle consists of just 13 one-bedroom villas sprawled across a stretch of beach, each offering uninterrupted views of the South China Sea. This is no run-on-the-mill destination; we’re talking villas from S$1,000 a night, so it really is an exclusive escape reserved for special occasions.
Unsurprisingly, as soon as I’d stepped foot onto the property, particularly my 171-square-metre Pool Villa, I was won over. The massive open-concept space features a long dining table, a mini-bar, a cosy living area, a king-sized bed overlooking the ocean and a bathroom half the size of my flat! Just when you think that’s all, separated by a door is a sprawling balcony with a private pool casually planted right in the middle. Not just any pool, mind you, but a rockpool filled with specially filtered saltwater that boasts skin-smoothening properties. (I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking!)
Fun & Fuel
When you’re stranded somewhere as beautiful as here, it’s tempting to stay in all-day-long. But there are plenty of relaxing things to do in the vicinity, from getting a tan on your sundeck, to strolling along the coast via the resort’s direct beach access. Should you wish to venture further afield, I recommend hunting down the resort’s all-natural mud volcano through the hour-long guided trek. Rumour has it that the mud is a great top-to-toe mask for brighter and clearer skin; I really need to make a second visit to this fountain of youth! The next day, after waking up from one of the deepest sleeps I’ve had in a long while, I chose to enjoy my breakfast in the villa. This was efficiently arranged by my private butler with a ring on the villa phone. Fullboard dining is included in your stay, and the food – think stunningly presented, multi-course meals – is no less than excellent, whether you have it in your room, or in the open-air restaurant, The Eagle’s Nest.
Eco at Echo
All three Echo resorts – Bungaraya, Borneo Eagle and Gayana Marine Resort – practice a farm-to-table philosophy using organic farmed fish and pesticide-free veggies from their private farms in Tuaran, 30 minutes from Kota Kinabalu. On top of that, the resorts have also made the switch from plastic to reusable water bottles in the rooms, which guests can take home as a souvenir.
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