To have a hornbill land on the balcony whilst you’re kicking back on your daybed or lapping up spa pampering verges on the magical. But that’s just one of many wildlife encounters guests at Gaya Island Resort are likely to experience.
A rare combination of palm fringed beaches, captivating underwater scenes, jungles and the indulgences of a luxe resort, Gaya Island is an uber-relaxing microcosm of Borneo’s attractions. Remarkably, this rain-forested island is just a 20 minute boat ride from Kota Kinabalu, capital of the ‘Malaysian Borneo’ state of Sabah. The air here is thick with birdsong and gigantic butterflies and chances are you’ll spot an exotic character – such as curious macaques- even if you’re just walking along the boardwalks to the beach-embraced dining areas. Entire, deeply contented days could be spent lounging around the spacious villas and revelling in the fact that a big bonus of visiting Malaysia is the delectable and varied cuisine.
But if you’re feeling active, options include diving, snorkelling at nearby islands accompanied by oversized clownfish, kayaking in the mangroves, guided nature walks, sunset cruising and yoga. Hop on a boat for a few minutes and you’ll end up at tucked- away ‘Private Beach’.
Back on the mainland, there’s plenty to do around Kota Kinabalu. This compact, low slung city offers buzz– think Sunday markets, shopping temptations (locals recommend Centrepoint and Suria Mall) temples and irresistible eateries -amidst a chilled setting.The Le Meridian at Kota Kinabalu provides a personable and homely base for exploring this walkable city. Recently refurbished rooms overlook a harbour sprinkled with traditional timber fishing boats, making for sensational sunrise views.
There are beautiful coffee-table books on Borneo in the downstairs lounging area come library, whilst the Club Lounge features artwork from Sabah Art Gallery (guests get free access to the city gallery) and panoramic sunsets. There’s a lot to look forward to at the interactive breakfast buffet, where staff soon get to know your whims and go out of their way to conjure a meal exactly as you like it. Across the road is the handicraft market and a waterfront boardwalk, and, still close to town but offering a longer walk, is the Kota Kinabalu Wetlands Centre.
World Heritage listed Mt Kinabalu – the highest peak between the Himalayas and Papua New Guinea - is a biodiversity hotspot hosting flora and fauna found nowhere else on earth. To take the overnight climb up into the lichen –draped cloud forest is a rewarding exhilaration, but if a daytrip is more your style, Kinabalu Park has many shorter walking trails as well as nearby hot-springs.
Several times a week, the restored Heritage Railway departs ‘KK’ and chugs through picturesque rural areas and villages of traditional timber houses. After exploring, the Le Meridian’s large pool and snoozy daybeds prove a treat. The east coast city of Sandakan is the gateway to iconic jungle experiences.
At the nearby Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, boisterous adolescents can be watched swinging and playing in the new ‘nursery’. Walking through the glossy rainforest in the gilded afternoon light, there’s a delightful frisson to knowing that orangutans may appear at any time.
Less crowded but also engrossing is the Bornean Sunbear Conservation Centre, where rescued sunbears forage right under the elevated walkway. Whilst just down the road, the Rainforest Discovery Centre has a long ‘skywalk’ suspended amidst the gargantuan trees as well as tracks through ancient rainforest.
Cruising along the Kinabatan River to the swampy jungles at Sukau, the trees look as if they’re about to get up and walk. These jungles are home to abundant wildlife – think Asian elephants, proboscis and silver leaf monkeys, jungle cats, gibbons, mouse-deer and countless exotic birds. Even underwater, Sabah’s wildlife puts on a stunning show, boasting thriving reefs and large schools of fish. It’s hard to imagine a more dreamy way to wind up the journey then to get up close with the turtles at Selingan Island.
Feature image courtesy of Getty.