Lankayan island: Borneo's hidden treasure

by Heather Chesley

We had some amazing experiences during our honeymoon in Borneo - but the undisputed highlight was our stay on Lankayan, a bona fide tropical island paradise

The phrase ‘tropical island paradise’ is overused - but how else do you describe a tiny island with white sand and turquoise sea, spacious, secluded beachfront bungalows, 50 different types of tropical fish within metres of the shore, and an atmosphere so friendly you feel like a long-lost member of the family?

Lankayan, an hour and a half’s speedboat journey from Sandakan on the northeast coast of Borneo, was the highlight of our honeymoon. In our travels across Sabah (one of the two Malaysian states of Borneo), we'd gone from slumming it in the rainforest on the trail of proboscis monkeys in Sukau to soaking in the two-person tub on the balcony of a luxury Ocean Wing room at the Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort, but nothing we experienced could beat Lankayan for jaw-dropping scenery and pure relaxation.

When I first heard we’d be travelling to the island from Sandakan jetty by speedboat, I had visions of myself in a Bond-girl type get-up, nonchalantly sipping a martini as we sped across a calm sea in a gleaming white boat. The reality was somewhat different. Safely inserted into a fetching orange lifejacket, I, along with my husband and the other six passengers, focused all my energies on holding on and trying (but failing) to dodge the regular dousing of salt water each time we hit a particularly big wave.

Arriving at the jetty, however, all was forgiven and forgotten, as we were welcomed to the ‘paradise island of the Sulu sea’. If we hadn’t already fallen in love with the island during our walk from the jetty to the beach - crossing clear, shallow waters teeming with huge shoals of fish - then we would have done when we saw our chalet.

We had been allocated number six (apparently, number six is always given to honeymooners - hence the knowing looks we invariably received when signing for our purchases in the shop) and it was perfect. All the windows had their shutters flung open, allowing a light breeze to cool the room (although there is also aircon for the less romantically-minded). The bedroom was extremely spacious and in the luxurious bathroom the rain-head shower was perfectly positioned to allow you to watch the sun setting as you rinsed away the sand and sun lotion each evening. The two-tiered terrace led directly onto the beach, metres from that beautiful turquoise sea.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that although all the 30-odd chalets have a sea view (difficult not to really, when you’re on an island that can be circumnavigated at a gentle stroll in 10 minutes), ours was on the sunny side of the island, whereas some of the others didn’t get the sun in the early morning and evening.

Lankayan is essentially a dive resort, but don’t be put off if you don’t dive. My husband went diving and did enjoy it (especially seeing a leopard shark, a bamboo shark and a turtle), but as a non-diver, I certainly didn’t feel at a disadvantage. With many people out diving during the day, I had the beach practically to myself and when my other half joined me snorkelling one afternoon, he commented that you could see almost as much as they’d seen during the dives.

All the meals on Lankayan are served buffet-style in the main building, which overhangs the sea. As soon as we walked in for our first lunch, we could almost feel the waves of contentment radiating off our fellow visitors. As a Londoner, I found the experience akin to going for a country walk back in the UK - you find yourself initially surprised that everyone’s smiling and saying hello. The atmosphere is one of a community of friendly, and very relaxed, individuals. The staff are equally welcoming, if not more so, and it does feel genuine: there are none of the automatic smiles and greetings you get in some hotels and resorts.

The food itself is very tasty: a mixture of local-style curries, rice and vegetables, along with the odd potato dish thrown in to appease any homesick Westerners and/or their children. If I had one criticism, it would be the ubiquitous melon for dessert after every meal - but we found this to be the case throughout Sabah. Soft drinks with meals are free, or you can buy beer for around £3 a can. The wine is expensive (again, the same applies throughout Sabah), starting at around £25 per bottle.

During our two-night stay on the island, we were lucky enough to see some baby turtles who had just hatched being released into the sea. As the bucket was tipped out onto the sand, most of the tiny little creatures flapped and slithered eagerly into the sea. One or two, however, headed in different directions; along the shoreline or back up the beach. Someone beside me remarked that they seemed to have lost their bearings, but we knew better. These baby turtles were the canny ones who, like us, had no intention of leaving Lankayan until they absolutely had to.