Borneo goes boutique: a five-star island retreat in Sabah

by Jon Bigg

Tucked away on a coral island near Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, and surrounded by the azure waters of the South China Sea, Gayana combines tropical island simplicity with 21st-century luxuries.

It wasn’t the most glamorous of starts. We were perched amidst vegetable sacks, beer crates and even a few building materials, having hitched a ride on the early morning staff boat. But our compensation would be an extra six hours in paradise.

That paradise was to be found just 15 minutes by boat from Kota Kinabalu at the Gayana Eco Resort. From its luxuriant backdrop of pristine tropical rainforest right down to the manicured and freshly swept shoreline, every inch is a carefully thought-out symphony of five-star indulgences blended into the most tranquil island setting imaginable.

As our boat drew near, a welcoming committee formed on the jetty. Our appointed hostess curtsied as she hung hand-made bead pendants around our necks before leading us to an expansive sofa, where we sipped fresh mango juice whilst a scurry of smiling staff saw to our luggage and attended to the formalities of checking in.

The resort is built on the traditional water-village model. Each villa is raised above the sea on stilts, and the gentle lapping of waves provides a soothing prelude to sleep. Wooden walkways connect each villa to the main facilities: restaurants, spa, infinity pool, dive centre, boutique shop...

Our first stop was the marine ecology research centre. If you’re not too squeamish, you may touch or even hold a variety of sea creatures. Our children stroked a shark, held sea cucumbers and starfish, fed turtles and were delighted to find a tank full of Nemo fish!

Out in the bay, marine life is plentiful - the staff will point out the best spots, which vary with the tide and time of day. As we swam, the children’s excited fingers pointed this way and that as they spotted each new and enchanting sight: brightly coloured fish and shoals of better camouflaged species flitting between the corraled, wooden struts of the walkways and villas; the gaping mouths of clams scattered amidst a garden of red, green and blue anemones on the sea floor; clown fish (the ubiquitous Nemos!) darting between poisonous tentacles.

Dinner that evening was nine courses of gourmet heaven. First, on an enormous plate, came a bite-size pyramid of rice and two delicious but tiny gratings of glazed beef, daintily garnished with a single, curled slice of fresh cucumber. Six similar masterpieces of minimalism followed, each one scaling new heights of culinary brilliance. Unfortunately, after an active afternoon we craved plates loaded with carbohydrates and the tiny portions succeeded only in sharpening our hunger.

The next morning, we proceeded to breakfast with mild apprehension. Gayana’s isolation is one of its attractions but it also makes it impossible to order a pizza or pop out for a plate of mee goreng if you’re not satisfied after your meal. Fortunately, the lean-cuisine extravaganza was a one-night-only affair. That night we indulged ourselves at the world’s best buffet and each morning we were treated to an excellent and bountiful breakfast.

Whilst we ate, we watched a pair of hornbills flitting through the trees, the female playing hard to get. On the beach, a monitor lizard made its way from its night-time lair to its daytime haunt beneath one of the walkways. Macaque monkeys were also abundant and we were lucky enough to catch sight of a snake, safely out of reach but clear to see.

We spent our day alternating between the pool, the beach and the sea. The beach is small but our children had it to themselves, unless you count the myriad tiny sand crabs that scuttled back into their holes away from them. The pool area was also quiet with plenty of comfortable, well-spaced sun loungers where my wife relaxed whilst the children and I explored the far reaches of the resort.

All non-motorised water sports are included in your room rate and we embarked on a fanciful adventure, zipping across the clear, blue waters of the bay in a kayak. We explored the mangrove swamps before running ashore on a tiny beach completely hemmed in by dense jungle. Here we became pirates and buried our treasure before returning to the 'high seas'. With squeals of delight, the children flung themselves overboard to snorkel and swim, scrambling back aboard when they fancied a rest, but the water was enticing and they would dive back in almost as soon as they had been hauled out.

Three days wasn’t long enough to enjoy all the excellent facilities. If we’d stayed longer, we might have pampered ourselves in the Solace Spa, ventured on a guided jungle trek or made use of the fully equipped dive centre. There’s also a seafood restaurant, where your dinner is cooked to order after you have selected it from one of the many tanks.

Our trip began with the warmest welcome aboard the staff boat and finished with friendly farewells two days later. The staff were affable and helpful; always close at hand but never encroaching. You can take worries with you to Gayana but you can't hold on to them while you're there.

Getting there

Well over a dozen airlines serve Kota Kinabalu (KK), including AirAsia, Malaysia Airlines, SilkAir, Dragonair and Tiger Airways, providing frequent connections to the regional hubs of Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong (read the simonseeks expert review of Hong Kong).

It’s a short ride from the airport to the centre of KK. Taxis use the pre-paid coupon system common throughout southeast Asia – pay for your cab at the counter after immigration and take the ticket to one of the drivers waiting outside.

If you arrive late and need to spend a night in town before heading out to Gayana, head for the Hyatt Regency Kinabalu for five-star luxury. Its central location is ideal, the breakfast buffet is superb and the views across the South China Sea are fantastic - but avoid atrium-view rooms at the weekend, unless you plan on staying up late or are able to sleep through the live music in the foyer!

Further afield

If you desire nothing more from your holiday than plush, idle days by the pool, look no further than Gayana. If, however, just a couple of days' indulgence is enough, Sabah offers a rich diversity of adventures; my other guide, Sabah: mountain high to ocean deep in Malaysian Borneo, reviews a selection of the top attractions.

The bottom line

Published prices start at US$264 (RM 900, £170) per night for Jungle View Villas and gradually increase as you work your way up through Lagoon and Mangrove View accommodation. For the rich and famous, top-band Ocean View Villas, at a more exclusive $514 (RM1700, £320) per night, have private verandas with steps straight down into the sea.

However, off-season rates and promotions will chip away at these prices; a buy-one-night-get-one-free offer brought our Jungle View villa (just before Christmas) down to around £100 per night (RM 540, $165) for a family of four, including breakfast and boat transfers. Meals and drinks added about £50 per day to the final bill.