27 May 2024

Lap of luxury: Infinity pool at Gaya Island Resort
Jungle adventure meets tranquil luxury
From tip-toeing past pit vipers and enjoying edible frogs to experiencing Asia's top spa and having a five-star cookery lesson - Sarah Oliver and family finds Borneo has it all
See our offers to Malaysia
View our hotels in Malaysia
o you think, whispered my red-headed son Rufus from behind his hand, they reckon we’re descended from orangutan gods? As he and his little brother Felix were engulfed by a crowd of Kota Kinabalu hipsters taking selfies with these other ginger members of the great ape family, I was sorely tempted to say yes.

For even in the 21st century the name Borneo still conjures images of headhunters and white rajas and dark-hearted jungle pierced by venom-tipped palm darts. Actually that’s why we’d gone: to encourage our boys - eight and four - to flirt with adventure. We wanted to show them shrunken heads and how to fire a blow-pipe, to see orangutans in the wild and to trek into the jungle and sleep beneath its sweltering canopy.

But with my Army officer husband about to return to Afghanistan, a deployment which would see us separated for almost a year, there was a need to snatch some precious family time too. Borneo, once the prerogative of backpackers and hardy wildlife enthusiasts, is gaining a reputation in the luxury holiday market making it the perfect place for a holiday of two halves.
Blissful views from Gaya Island
See the birth of baby turtles at the turtle hatchery
The resort is a twinkling harbour across the bay from Borneo’s capital Kota Kinabalu, 120 villas rising from jungle and mangrove swamp in front of an immaculately groomed beach. Seen from afar they reminded me of the verdant floating worlds in the Hollywood blockbuster Avatar, a tangential idea the constant presence of wildlife - monitor lizards, wild boar and macaques - did nothing to dispel.
On the road for a week we’d slept in a tribal longhouse, under canvas and in a basic home stay. We’d eaten foraged food, barbecued frog and platefuls of sweet Sabah veggies. We’d nailed jungle adventure and it was time for a bit of what the Army calls R and R, rest and relaxation. We found it at Gaya Island Resort, a high end hotel where Borneo’s fierce natural spirit burns brightly.
"The hotel prides itself on its ecological principles."
The hotel prides itself on its ecological principles, running a mangrove nursery, a turtle hatchery and a small marine conservation area. Its resident naturalist has carved a series of jungle trails in the hills behind the resort and within minutes of leaving its five star comforts you can see, as we did, a lizard craft a series of decoy holes before finally laying her eggs in a hidden one or tiptoe past a green pit viper snoozing in a tree.

Our days slipped by in a series of waterborne pleasures - Gaya Island is in the Tunku Abdul Rahman marine conservation area. We snorkelled on the house reef and kayaked in the bay and along inland waterways. When we fancied a change of scenery we hitched a free speedboat ride to the hotel’s second beach at nearby Tavajun Bay.
"We found rest and relaxation at Gaya Island Resort, a high end hotel where Borneo’s fierce natural spirit burns brightly."
Beauty beneath the waves off Gaya Island
For the more adventurous a dive school is available. Gaya Island is peaceful and private. It offers free guided meditation and yoga from expert teachers, a spa which is one of the best in Asia and even an open-air library. I enjoyed a 150-minute signature Borneo Vanilla Orchid and Honey Cocoon massage which was heaven. Gaya is a noted honeymoon destination but its interconnecting double villas, movie nights under the stars and barbecues on the beach also make it a good choice for families. Marine biologist Scott took my boys to see his turtle hatchlings and naturalist Justin had them trekking back into the jungle in a flash.

There are art and craft activities but no formal kids' club - it is not a resort for adults who want part company from their children. Well, not unless you book a table at the Fisherman’s Cove fine dining restaurant, in which case you might arrange a babysitter! Set upstairs with stunning views across the bay to the indigo peak of Mount Kinabalu, it was the backdrop to a memorable and romantic fish supper. Family food is served at Feast Village, with European and pan Asian food. Options range from a private dining Sinagang Steamboat where meat, seafood and vegetables are cooked to order, to a picnic packed for you to take to the beach.

But it was a morning in a the kitchen which was to prove the unexpected highlight. Chef Wanna taught the four of us to make Borneo ceviche (spicy raw fish) and chicken coconut curry after which we retired to a cabana to eat them. It was the perfect moment to reflect on a holiday which had begun with the bare necessities for survival and ended in rustic luxury. Would I go back? In a heartbeat because Borneo is extraordinary - and whether you’re sipping Sabah tea by a camp fire or a glass of wine by Gaya’s infinity pool, it really is still a jungle out there.

Original article published in Sep 2015. All info and prices correct at time of publication.
Enjoy a drink by the pool at Gaya Island
0330·100·2220i 0330 calls are included within inclusive minutes package on mobiles, otherwise standard rates apply. X 0330 calls are included within inclusive minutes package on mobiles, otherwise standard rates apply. X