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Just back from: Malaysian Borneo

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18 January 2013 by Pete Mathers

Where are you just back from?

Gaya Island Resort, on the little-known island of Pulau Gaya off the north-west tip of Borneo, in the Malaysian province of Sabah. It's the latest resort - it opened less than a year ago - from YTL Hotels, the same luxury collection behind Pangkor Laut off peninsula Malaysia and the superbly stylish Surin (formerly the Chedi) in Phuket, Thailand.

The island itself is part of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park and the resort rests along the coast of Malohom Bay, a natural sanctuary set into the hillside of an ancient rainforest, fringed by mangroves and thriving coral reefs.

What really struck me was how easy it was to reach such a pristine environment. From Kuala Lumpur it's just a two-and-a-half-hour flight to Kota Kinabalu, where we were met by a driver and driven in comfort to Sutera Harbour Marina - which took all of ten minutes. A private air-conditioned lounge has been built at the marina for Gaya Island guests, offering tea, coffee, refreshing sorbets and complimentary Wi-Fi. From there it's just a 15-minute speedboat transfer to the island, past colourful fishing boats riding at anchor and sea gypsy villages perched on stilts above the turquoise depths.

Each of the resort's 120 villas is set into the hillside, backed by the rainforest. I stepped into mine to find a sprawling bed piled high with pillows, a flatscreen TV on the wall opposite, a dark wood floor and other earthy colours such as slate, burnt orange and chocolate brown.

Off the bedroom ran a short corridor that led to a bathroom complete with oversized bathtub, double vanity units and separate cubicles for the loo and shower. Outside on the veranda a daybed beckoned. I sat, content, gazing out across the South China Sea to Mount Kinabalu, whose dramatic bulk looms large across the water.

View of Mount Kinabalu from villa veranda

Just steps from the beach is the 40-metre pool, a length of which can be broken midway at the sunken, in-pool bar. There are also three restaurants - the rooftop Fisherman's Cove, an adults-only affair with fine views and fabulous seafood; Feast Village, where chefs fuse Malaysian, Korean, Japanese and Western cuisine; and the Pool Bar & Lounge, perfect for sundowners and light refreshments.

Last but not least is the magnificent Spa Village, set among the mangroves a short walk from the pool and restaurants. With six treatment rooms as well as outdoor decks on the edge of the rainforest, it offers an extensive range of relaxing treatments, many of which draw on the healing traditions of Sabah's indigenous people. I personally opted for a Balinese massage - 90 minutes of unadulterated bliss, followed by tea, taken on the terrace to the sound of a cicada concerto.

Pool area

What did you see and do while you were there?

After check-in it was straight into the fray, or in our case the jungle. Miles of hiking trails lead into the rainforest from the resort's main thoroughfare, and hikes are led daily by the resident naturalist, a local named Justin. As the sky was supplanted by a canopy of green, Justin filled us in on what the forest has to offer: mischievous macaques, proboscis monkeys, bearded pigs, pangolins, civet cats, flying lizards, vipers, scorpions, strangler vines and 622 resident and migratory bird species, to name just a few.

Luck, however, wasn't with us that day and neither pork nor primate were spotted on our walk, though the mournful calling of hornbills in the treetops made a wonderful soundtrack to the afternoon's amble.

That evening we were treated to a sunset cruise aboard Gaya Island's 64-foot Princess motor-yacht. Relaxing on the fly bridge, glass in hand, we motored out from the shore until nothing lay west of us but an endless parade of blue. The sun dipped and seemed to burst on the horizon, pouring its colour into the air around until the whole sky burned in a fiery, blood orange. To the east, with the light still holding, a rainbow rose from the hills on the mainland.

Sunset cruise

The night was capped by a candlelit beach barbecue laid out on the sands of Malohom Bay, comprising course after course of langoustine, sea bass, chicken, beef, mussels, scallops, rice and assorted vegetables, all cooked to perfection and enjoyed beneath the stars.

The following few days saw both the mind and body tested, with an hour well spent making colourful handicrafts and a wonderful excursion to mainland Borneo for a mountain biking tour. The tour is one of several trips offered by the resort to help guests see more of Borneo. Both the bikes and the guides were terrific and the route followed paths past grazing buffalo, verdant paddy fields, forests, rivers and local villages, where stops were made to meet the families pioneering new homestay projects, which aim to raise money through sustainable tourism. One village chief even led us through his fields to the rubber tree forests where tappers were hard at work, scraping at the bark for the milky latex that goes into making our trainers and car tyres.

Buffalo at a local village during mountain biking tour

What was the highlight of your trip?

The sunset cruise, mountain biking, elegant villas, wonderful food and friendly service - they all speak volumes. Style and luxury have arrived in Borneo, there's no doubt about that. But for me the highlight was the guided snorkelling on the island's house reef. And the approach the resort has taken to helping guests get the most from the underwater world while protecting the reefs that lie within the park.

With increased shipping, coastal development and the bleaching effects brought about by El Nino, the planet's coral reefs need greater protection than ever before. One way to help is to cordon them off, and the healthiest section of reef at Gaya Island has indeed been cut off from fishermen and boat traffic.

"In just the short time since we roped off the reef," says resident marine biologist Scott Mayback, "we've seen a healthy resurgence in fish and coral, with turtles returning too in greater and greater numbers."

View of Gaya Island from above the house reef

Tourists, likewise, can cause damage to the corals they're hoping to see. One misplaced kick of a flipper and there goes decades of careful coral growth. But rather than deny its guests access to the reef, Gaya Island Resort offers two snorkelling trips a day, in the morning and afternoon, guided by Scott and his team of biologists. The guides keep the guests from trampling over corals while answering their questions, identifying fish and pointing things out that may otherwise go unnoticed. Best of all, these guided sessions are absolutely free - the marine equivalent of getting free game drives on a trip to South Africa.

If you're thinking that limits your snorkelling time, the rules only apply to the roped-off house reef. In fact, equipment can be borrowed - again for free - at any time of day for snorkelling elsewhere.

To me, this strikes a wonderful balance between marine conservation, guest enjoyment and value for money. And what a world it is that Scott invites you in to. Clusters of anemones hide tiny clown fish that dart between their brightly coloured tentacles, giving everyone a chance of ‘finding Nemo'. Others are less shy, like the male and female spine cheek anemone fish that rushed from their home to eyeball me through the glass in my mask. Equally curious were the juvenile golden trevally who insisted on swimming right in front of my eyes as I snorkelled back to the jetty.

Others, thankfully, were not so attentive, like the poisonous puffer fish that Scott pointed out, hidden among the coral. There were angel fish and needle fish, forests of sea urchins, corals stacked together like towering skyscrapers, bulbous brain corals hundreds of years old and colourful coral gardens than ran towards the shore. Never before have I seen such a rich diversity of corals and marine life so close to a city.

Relaxing on the beach

Did you have any disappointments?

Personally no, though guests should be mindful that the resort is newly opened and that certain areas are still being polished up. To build the spa, for example, an area of mangroves had to be cleared around the base of the building, which is raised on stilts to the height of the forest canopy. It will naturally take a while for the mangroves to grow back, though when they do, this hidden spa village will look as wonderful from the outside as it does from within.

What would be your top tip for visitors?

I don't know about a top tip as there's so much I'd recommend. For starters, ask for one of the villas further up the hillside. All are identical in terms of features but the higher you are the better the views of Mount Kinabalu - and there's nothing like rolling back the blinds in the morning to see a clear blue sky surrounding the frame of Malaysia's highest peak.

The sunset cruise is exceptionally good value and runs every night, weather permitting. And according to the captain, the colours are almost always as good as those we witnessed.

There are more activities available than the ones I tried, such as cookery classes, morning yoga, deep sea fishing, scuba diving, paddle boarding and boating excursions to other islands in the park - so speak to the staff about tailoring your stay.

Veranda view of jetty and Gaya island's luxury motor yacht

Why should someone travel here?

Luxury accommodation, fantastic food, great service, a wide range of activities including pampering spa treatments and complimentary snorkelling tours, an ancient rainforest right on your doorstep, and all reachable in less than 30 minutes from Kota Kinabalu airport.

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