I'm pretty sure the cheeky grey monkey at my front door wasn't a part of the package … but considering the scene laid out around us – jungles behind, sea view before us, and the thick hum of the early morning birdsong vibrating through the air – this little guy wasn't out of place at all. We watched as he and his family rummaged around the fallen leaves, finding their breakfast, playing chase and just doing what monkeys do before they made their way back into the forest, laughing as they went. Time for the humans to come out to play, and as we made our own way down the winding hillside path towards the beach I knew those macaques were still watching, as curious and amused as we were.
We had arrived at Gaya Island Resort on Pulau Gaya the previous afternoon, travelling by water transfer from the mainland of Kota Kinabalu, whizzing across the harbour past huge cargo ships, colourful houses on stilts and the canoes of fisherman out for the daily catch.
It was quite the memorable arrival, with an approach that took in a vista of crystal-clear water, pristine beaches and lush green rainforest hugging the elegant white villas that dotted the hillside. I'd long held fantasies of a wild adventure holiday in Borneo, imagining challenging hikes through humid jungle, mountain climbing and visits to ancient head hunting tribes. And though, clearly, this wasn't roughing it by any means the offerings of our island destination were not solely relegated to pampered pleasure. There's also a real focus on adventure and activity to be found on Pulau Gaya … even if it is served up with a side dish of luxury.
Kota Kinabalu, or KK as it is affectionately known amongst locals, doesn't hold much sway in terms of urban tourism – unlike its nearest Malaysian metropolis, Kuala Lumpur, it doesn't boast amazing shopping or world-class restaurants. It does, however, have some amazing resorts, and some thrilling expeditions that lie within easy reach of the city centre. And if you can take off to a nearby island and get some beach time in amongst your jungle fix, all the better for you.
Gaya Island Resort is one such place, designed for a sophisticated global traveler who embraces exotica as much as they do indulgence. It's got a beautiful sense of escapism, with the architecture blending harmoniously with the natural environment and incredible view across the water to the soaring peaks of Mount Kinabalu. Sunrise and sunset, the colours that spread out across that sky range from dusty pinks and vivid orange in the morning to red and lilac after the afternoon tropical showers welcomed the balmy night, and the sounds of the wild are a constant soundtrack to your stay. Naturally, relaxation follows suit.
I'm always drawn immediately to the spa when I travel, and the Spa Village is tucked away in its own private corner of the resort to provide a tranquil hideaway where we could relax and unwind in luxurious surroundings, sampling the menu of holistic treatments, like the amazing Urutan Pribumi massage I had that uses all local ingredients and the cultural healing traditions of Sabah's many indigenous people. We also made good use of the resort's PURE activities, from early morning yoga to snorkelling and stand up paddle boarding, while afternoons were usually spent toughing it out by the pool on one of the floating daybeds (exhausting!). But all the while there was no forgetting that this is Borneo, and the great wild beyond was calling.
We didn't have to go far. Gaya Island Resort has its own naturalists on hand in the incredibly knowledgeable (and absolutely delightful) Justin Juhun and his team mate Jamie, who guided us on our explorations into the ancient forests of the island where we learned about the native vegetation and natural forest medicines, searched out peekaboo lizards and termite mounds amongst the monolithic trees and vines, and stealthily tracked the elusive Proboscis Monkey. These odd looking primates, endemic to Sabah, might have skipped out on that morning rendezvous but a quick and easy boat ride back to the mainland gave us access to all the excursions we could fit into our week-long holiday, including a guided boat journey through the mangroves forests and waterways of the Klias River that finally uncovered whole families of them (we had Gaya Island Resort book our tour guide and organise transfers for us). Sabah seems to be a natural breeding ground for such naturalists, which explains the plethora of professional guides you can find, both independent and through established companies like Borneo Adventure, Borneo Eco tours and Wildlife Expeditions.
Our stunning Kinabalu Villas was situated right at the top of the resort's long and steep winding pathways, with views to die for over the South China Sea and the soaring peaks of Mount Kinabalu beyond and a spacious, contemporary interior (plus the biggest bathtubs we've ever seen … it took ten minutes just to fill it!). To minimise the carbon footprint within its environment, Gaya Island Resort is doesn't offer vehicle transport, so if an uphill hike doesn't appeal to you opt for the lower level villas by the beach.
We never had to leave the resort, thanks to the aptly named Feast Village where buffet breakfast and a la carte meals are served up, as well as the pool bar and lounge where we could sip on cocktails and munch on light refreshments throughout the day. For more intimate dinners, head up to the resort's rooftop to Fisherman's Cove where you can dine on exquisite fresh seafood with a breathtaking view of the sea.
Dive deep into the amazing underwater realms of Sabah's best diving spots - several of them rated amongst the top ten in the world by diving enthusiasts! - and see endangered sea creatures such as the green and hawksbill turtle, giant clams and rarities like the mimic octopus. If you're not yet certified, you can get your qualifications through Sabah's many dive resorts, like Dive Down Below or Sabah Divers.
A visit to one of the Orangutan rehabilitation sanctuaries. Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre is the largest and best known, but was a six hour drive north of where we were staying. Instead, we headed to the Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort, a nature reserve that helps facilitate rehabilitation programmes for endangered species of Sabah, for an up close and personal encounter with the orphaned baby Orangutans. The centre runs a great foster programme where visitors can donate a sum of money each year to go towards their Orangutan's food, health and general care, and we fell so madly in love with the cheekiest of the lot - a little one called Itinban - that we took on role of foster parents of him. So we came to Sabah as a couple, and left with a new addition to the family!
Couples Will Love
Enjoy a sundowner like no other while you cruise around the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park aboard Gaya Island Resort's own private uber-luxe cruiser Princess, complete with chilled wine, nibbles and, if you're lucky (as we were) a rare sighting of jumping marlin against a stunning tangerine sunset.
Malaysia Airlines has connecting flight to Kota Kinabalu from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.