Combine jungle trekking with luxury accommodation at this exclusive retreat in Malaysian Borneo.
Who needs an alarm clock when you have a long tail macaque scratching at your window? It’s not every day you get woken by a wild monkey but then Gaya Island Resort is no ordinary retreat.
Just one of three resorts on Gaya Island, its 31 villas are perched on a hillside, almost hidden from view by encroaching jungle.
The island is one of five that make up Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, which is just 15 minutes by boat from Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Malaysian Borneo.
Since Gaya Island Resort opened in May 2012 the resort has welcomed international guests – it’s popular with honeymooners of course, as well as a surprising amount of families with older kids, even adult children.
There are three types of villas to choose from, the main difference in price being the view. But with jungle or sea panoramas to choose from, you can’t really go wrong. Come here to relax and you can while away your days napping in a hammock on the beach or swimming in the pool.
The resort overlooks the sea and a narrow beach which disappears at high tide. You can also take a free shuttle boat to its private beach at Tavajun Bay five minutes along the coast, where you can rent a kayak.
Don’t think for a minute you’ll be bored, as there’s a 24-hour gym and library stocked with board games, which is handy when it rains – and remember this is rainforest territory. There’s also a host of daily activities. Many of these are free, including paddleboarding, outdoor film screenings, yoga, meditation and stretching classes and traditional craft workshops where you can make embroidered bookmarks or beaded bracelets. You can also book snorkelling trips, sunset cruises (£51 per person) or a treatment in the spa, which has six treatment rooms – massages cost from £68 for 80 minutes.
But what makes Gaya Island stand out from other tropical paradises is its proximity to the jungle. If you don’t lock your door, don’t be surprised to see monkeys raiding your minibar – and keep an eye out for monitor lizards the length and width of your arm. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a bearded pig snuffling around on the beach.
A highlight of a stay is a one-hour guided trek through the jungle. Hot and steamy, you need to wear closed shoes and long sleeves – unless you want to be bitten by hoards of mosquitoes.
Jamie, a local guide, runs the treks every morning at 9am.
“Malaysian Borneo is divided into two states, Sabah and Sarawak,” he explains. “In Sabah, we’re not allowed to cut down any trees wider than a water bottle – so when we built the resort and our nature trek, we built around them.”
Jamie points out lizards, termite mounds and ratan plants. “Sometimes a wild animal or snake strays into the resort,” he explains. “When that happens, we capture it and if you’re lucky you’ll be on a trek with me when I release it back into the jungle.”
With no roads, the only way to get around the island is by boat – and if you want to resort hop you’ll pay hefty boat charges. That’s the only downside to the resort, as it means you’re limited to its three restaurants – the all-day diner Feast Village, the fine dining seafood restaurant Fisherman’s Cove and Omakase, a Japanese restaurant, both of which are open only for dinner. Another alternative is booking a picnic hamper with a bottle of wine (£35 per person). Just make sure a cheeky monkey doesn’t run off with your bubbly…
Gaya Island Resort, Maloham Bay, Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, 88000 Kota Kinabalu, East Malaysia
Tel: 00 6 018 939 1100
Shuttle boats run from Jesselton Point on the outskirts of Kota Kinabalu cost £12 per person one way – check the resort’s website for the schedule before booking your flights.
Type of Hotel: 5-Star Island Resort
Number of Rooms: 121 rooms and suites including complimentary Wi-Fi
Watch out for the dimly lit pools at light – kids can easily fall in.
Price Band: Medium
Reviewer’s Rating: 8/10
Sarah Riches has over eight years’ experience as a lifestyle journalist and author having been based in London and The Middle East and can be followed on @healthy_holiday
Photographs courtesy of Gaya Island Resort