It was surrounded by the sounds of the sea. The air reverberated with the song of seagulls as the waves gently danced on the beach humming a tune of their own. The air smelt slightly salty and the strong gust tousled our hair as the speed boat sped towards Gaya Island. In the brilliant sunshine and as the green fans of trees waived in soothing sea-breeze, we had our first glimpse of the island. We were spending the next few days at Gaya Island Resort (GIR) – a luxury pad tucked away on an enchanting island.
We have in the course of our travels stayed in several resorts over the last few years. But what makes GIR so unique is the fact that by far, this resort is completely entwined with nature providing guests a first-hand experience of what it truly means to live on a remote island. From loud chirping crickets, to roaming wild boars, shy but curious macaques and a Proboscis monkey or two, you are engulfed by the dense jungle around the villas and a turquoise sea that swats the shores.
The remote island feel is further heightened by the fact that you need to walk to and from your villas to the main recreation areas and depending on where your accommodations are located this can be really great workout as you tread up and down small hilly routes. Most often, days are generally bathed in sunshine and sounds of breeze and the cacophony of birds singing rent the air. Nights on the other hand could either be calm with some occasional animal calls in the jungle, or rife with claps of thunder and lightning as rain and sea appear to battle land till dawn.
Reception area at sunset with villas on stilts amidst the dense forest as backdrop!
The resort, dotted with luxury villas, is furnished in the local Selangan Batu wood that provides a distinctive Sabahan feel to what we shall be calling home for a few days. But get ready to walk, for you will huff and puff and get fit by the time you leave the resort.
“Are we there yet?” huffed Joseph when we took the second turn up a hill. With steep inclines and quirky bends along the way, a walk to the setting of Kinabalu Villas that boasts the best view of Mount Kinabalu and the South China Sea can be quite an intense workout.
Unlike hillside resorts that have golf buggies zooming by every two minutes to drop or pick-up guests to and from the lobby, GIR prefers that its guests discover a truly secluded island feel. We found several guests strolling leisurely from beach to villa, villa to spa and everywhere else through private gravel roads that travel parallelly beside the evergreen rainforest. This is where we also stumbled upon a troop of macaques being overly curious over a dried coconut shell.
After a few days of appreciating the hilltop view from our balcony, we moved to the Bayu Villas that reside to the right side of the lobby that sit closer to the beach and other facilities. These villas don’t allow for breath-taking sunrises but instead provide a rustic charm of being in the middle of a protected mangrove forest amidst lotus covered ponds, leaping frogs and even fireflies in the still of the night.
These 47 square metre villas feature a spacious bedroom, a writing desk, a safe-deposit box, a flat screen television with satellite channels, WiFi capabilities, a large open bathroom with an oversized bathtub and two vanity units and an outdoor veranda with day beds.
The elegant bedroom
The writing desk and walkway to the large bathroom
The balcony at Bayu Villa
Our balcony at the Kinabalu Villa at dawn…
The view from our Kinabalu Villa at sunrise with Mt. Kinabalu in the horizon…
Our romantic dinner by the water…. The Bajau Laut Barbeque.
While Gaya Island Resort has two restaurants, the best dining experiences we cherished were the ones we had outdoors. During our stay, our private picnic at Tavajun Bay and the Bajau Laut Beach Barbecue were lovely experiences.
The Bajau Laut Beach Barbecue celebrates the Sabahan cuisine of the sea-faring tribes. We reminiscence that evening quite fondly for it was truly romantic and we will remember it for a long time.
A table was set up on the beach with a telescope allowing us to explore the night in wonderment as Chef Terence Teo prepared our meal a few feet away. The sun had set, the night was clear and even the birds seemed to have settled down in their nests. The sand was nice and cool on our tired feet and the breeze first brought in the aroma of the fare that was to be dished out to us that evening. Only for the both of us!
The starters comprising of a mango refresher, a crisp salad tossed with sweet mango, dried shrimp, crab meat, grapefruit segments and crush peanuts was a fantastic introduction to the Bajau cuisine. The barbeque featured the bounty of land and sea marinated with lemongrass and ginger, grilled to perfection on skewers over hot coals; accompanied by local vegetables and delicacies. The chicken cooked in bamboo served with a mountain of red rice, fruit pickles and hinava (raw fish marinated in citrus juice) was simply delicious! For dessert we were served with a fusion of both local and western elements.
Every mouthful was a tingling sensation of indescribable delight. The night seemed to stand still. The sound of the sea calmed our senses, the breeze caressed our brows and we felt a sense of peace engulf us. We spoke way into the night with each other and with our Chef Terence and our personal waiter for the night, Hanafia who regaled us with stories of the island and its surroundings. As the night wore on we were visited by some curious visitors from the forest. The shy wild boars that walk the beach at night looking for food hovered around the area looking for some free bites. They seemed to know Terence quite well who shooed them off but they lingered as dark silhouettes flitting in the shadows of the dense undergrowth.
Our private picnic on the other hand took place on a tranquil private beach at Tavajun Bay located a five-minute boat ride away. Our picnic was made up of single dish lunches infused with local and international influences and served from earthenware skillets. Read about it here.
Appetisers from the Kadazan Tribal Dinner that we had indoor due to bad weather.
On our second night, our Kadazan Tribal Barbeque got rained out and instead of dining outdoors again, we had to move indoors. Though the barbeque flavours were similar to the Bajau cuisine, the appetisers featured banana blossom with salted fish, shredded cucumber and baby shrimps which were a different mouth-watering affair. Traditional Kadazan cuisine is known to involve mostly boiling or grilling which employs little use of oil. It would have been a romantic night yet again, but since we had to dine indoors with the rest of the guests, the impact of the earlier experience was missing.
The buffet spread at Feast Village for breakfast.
Breakfast and the occasional lunch were at Feast Village, an interactive all-day dining restaurant offering diverse culinary dishes from the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. For lobster lovers, head up to Fisherman’s Cove and order the Lobster Thermidor consisting of a creamy mixture of cooked lobster meat, egg yolks and cognac or brandy stuffed into a lobster shell. This is served with red rice and herb salad. The restaurant offers its guests a lovely view of the South China Sea.
At the end of 2013, GIR will open their third restaurant that will focus on Japanese cuisine.
At breakfast, guests can choose their ingredients for their own version of wok fried noodles!
Lunch at Feast Village offers a fair selection of both western and local cuisine!
Their desserts are supper yummy! Loved the cheesecake to bits!
The best on the menu for lunch is their freshly made pizzas!
Dinner at Fisherman’s Cove was a treat with Lobster Thermidor on the menu!
The spa lounge where you sit and have your welcome drink made from pineapple, lime, star anis, and fresh red chilli.
The villas are cool and cosy. The daybeds are a great way to lounge lazily and watch life go by around the lotus pond. The large bath tub inside definitely helps to soak up any stress you have in your tired body and that walk up and down the resort certainly helps in blood circulation. Not to mention the crisp clean air that you breathe throughout the stay. But there are other additional options to relax as well. We pampered ourselves to a great massage and embarked on an interesting scent adventure at the Spa Village.
The Spa Village is uniquely designed within a mangrove setting offering six treatment rooms with outdoor decks dedicated towards wellness activities.
If essential oils and aromatherapy interests you then take a journey with scents with the resorts scent artist Henry. We took the same journey called the Sabah Scent Adventure at the spa where we learned about a bevy of essential oils, their potent benefits and how to custom blend these oils.
An interesting aspect of perfumery comes into play. Most often we would have chosen oils based on the labels we read and assume that we like those scents. But if you encounter scents without any labelling to guide you, you may end up actually choosing a scent that really enchants you. We generally like lavender and often choose lavender scents. But we discovered that we actually preferred Ylang Ylang and lime instead. Our noses not eyes discovered that. Ylang Ylang for the uninitiated is the floral theme that underlines the Chanel No. 5 perfume.
The Scent Adventure – notice the scents aren’t labelled with their relevant names…
Joseph pampered himself with an Urutan Pribumi (Indigenous Massage). Drawing inspiration from the culturally rich and diverse ethnic groups that reside in Sabah, this treatment is a compilation of age old healing traditions from multiple tribes. Traditionally used to restore mobility and flexibility for paddy planters, farmers, seafarers and warriors, great emphasis is placed on the manipulation of the superficial and deep layers of muscles and fascia of the spine. Aided by Gaya Island Resorts’ signature blend of Island Spice aroma oil, circulation is improved and countless therapeutic benefits are unleashed through digital, palmer and forearm pressure.
Here guests are introduced to the local Sabahan feet ritual before the massage.
The private spa rooms.
Apart from these, for the fitness fanatics there is a well-equipped gym set in a fabulous setting and for those of us who love reading there is a reading room which is decently equipped with some books. Most books or novels are left behind by visiting guests for the reading pleasure of those coming in. We hope that this library may increase for nothing beats the luxury of reading a book while lounging on a hammock on a secluded beach. Imagine!
The beautiful outdoor setting of the spa!
This is where Joseph spent most of his time – the library!
The gorgeous lap pool!
A small creek that opens up into the sea with Mt. Kinabalu in the horizon
Some of the other things to enjoy are the sunset cruise around the bay, snorkelling amidst the corals to watch the delightful colours of the sea and of course the deep sea diving. We were able to partake in two of these activities and will always cherish those moments of enjoyment for many years to come. Read about them in the links above.
As our short and delightful trip came to an end, we were sad to leave for we truly enjoyed the island and the hospitality of the people who run it. We will of course miss those smiles and we will miss the jungle and its sounds. Our travels may lead us somewhere to some other piece of paradise but we will not forget this place. The resort reminds us of human endeavour to create something beautiful in harmony with nature and philosophically opine that there is still hope for the blue planet.
- If you prefer easy access to the beach instead of a mesmerizing sunrise view, ask for a villa that is located closer to the lobby.
- GIR will be installing an elevator to ease passageway to the hilltop villas for those who like a quicker way up. The elevator should be ready by end of 2013.
- Get a weather prediction before booking your outdoor private dinner as getting rained out can put a damper on the experience.
- If you smoke, make sure you bring enough packets as they run out quite quickly at the store in the resort and heading back to mainland to get some wouldn’t be ideal.
- The Bajau Laut Beach Barbecue costs approximately USD108++ per person
- The Private Picnic at Tavajun Bay costs approximately USD78++ per person
- The Kadazan Tribal Barbeque costs approximately USD 77++ per person
- The Urutan Pribumi (Indigenous Massage) costs approximately USD110++ per person
- The Sabah Scent Adventure costs approximately USD78++ per person.
- For Villa rates, click here.
There are also many daily activities scheduled, so don’t forget to check the board!
Gaya Island Resort rests along the coast of Malohom Bay, a natural sanctuary nestled in the hillside of an ancient rainforest with a stunning outline of Mount Kinabalu on the horizon. For more information on accommodation, dining and activity rates, call Gaya Island Resort at +65. 6836.2455 or email them at email@example.com The nearest airport is Kota Kinabalu International Airport and land transfer is approximately 15 minutes from the airport to Sutera Harbour Marina. The journey time from Sutera Harbour Marina is approximately 15 minutes by speedboat.
Read More about our experience here:
- Picnicking on a Private Beach in Borneo
- Sunset Cruise along Malohom Bay, Borneo
- Gaya Island Resort – A Snorkellers and Divers Paradise
Disclaimer: We thank YTL Hotels for inviting Travel and Beyond to an exclusive stay at Gaya Island Resort. However, as always all opinions expressed are exclusively that of the author(s).