BAREFOOT ELEGANCE

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Published on April 06, 2015 with No Comments

A laidback and sybaritic window to Borneo.

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Words ANIS RAMLI

A Brunei sultan’s concession, a strategic British settlement, a fiery end, and a local rebel posthumously declared a hero. It’s hard to imagine Gaya Island’s tumultuous and storied past has yielded to what is now part of a protected marine park, criss-crossed with boardwalks and jungle trails, replete with luxe tropical getaways for an eco-friendly Bornean adventure. The newest of which is Gaya Island Resort.

The resort, a YTL-owned property and known for its unusually high degree of bespoke hospitality, has left nothing of the naturally intervening changes, wrought from millennium ago, to chance. The protected bays with beaches warm and safe, underground gardens of exotic coral reefs, wetlands brightened by colourful birds, sheltered seas alive with gentle turtles and giant whale sharks, a virgin tropical rainforest that is a thriving ecosystem – all of these become a soul-satisfying remedy for anyone suffering from nature withdrawal.

It feels a million miles away from civilisation. Yet this serene, bucolic setting is just a 15-minute boat ride from Kota Kinabalu and a stone’s throw away from the international airport.

Here is where you’ll get an up close and personal access to a wilderness playground right at the doorstep. The waters at the jetty are famed for its multi-hued coral gardens and home to a plethora of tropical fish, easily spotted through the crystal clear waters. Above ground, rustic trails meander across swathes of pristine forest land. The resort’s resident naturalist provides a complimentary daily guided nature walk introducing you to an exhaustive range of residents – flying squirrels, pangolins, mouse deers – otherwise gone unnoticed to the untrained eye.

There is also a trail that brings you to the beguiling private beach of Tavajun Bay. Best attempted with measured optimism and a gung-ho spirit for the wild’s wicked sense of humour, those who attempt this will be richly rewarded with a bay still untouched by civilisation with a trinity of shy bearded boars, playful macaques and semi-elusive monitor lizards completing the picture. For a more leisurely arrival, there’s also a scheduled boat ride from the resort to transfer you to this slender beach strip, where a rustic outpost offers gorgeous Thai lunches. Or pack a bespoke picnic basket that can be pre-ordered from Feast Village, the main restaurant, as you laze yourself to exhaustion.

Tavajun Bay is also home to the Gaya Island Resort Marine Centre, a centre committed to actively improving turtle conservation, championing coral reefs restoration and furthering conservation through education. The marine centre’s key turtle programme includes rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing sick or injured turtles that come their way, either through the public or other conservation agencies. A turtle rescue hotline (+6013 899- 9509) lets the public report sick or injured turtles from anywhere in Sabah to allow them to rehabilitate in the sanctuary that is the marine centre under the watchful eye of its resident marine biologist.

Pulau Gaya is the largest of five cluster islands found in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. The island, together with Kota Kinabalu, once belonged to the Sultan of Brunei before being ceded to European powers that later had its early settlement established on the island. When the colonialists began imposing tax on the natives, it was then that local Bajau hero Mat Salleh began a rebellion and burned down the British base.

Today, Mat Salleh is outlined in local history books as a local hero, while the marine park, covering a total area of just 49 sqkm, thrives under the management of Sabah Parks, tasked to protect the area and preserve its fragile ecosystem long renowned for its coral reefs, wetlands and mangroves. The resort itself has an onsite mangrove nursery and is committed to sustain present mangrove areas and preservation of its vibrant landscape.

The mangrove forests in the resort are replete with various bird species including sunbirds and white hornbills. And it is amid this pristine setting sits the property’s famed Spa Village brand, internationally recognised for its treatments that honour local healing traditions. The resort’s lush mangroves provide the canvas that frames each treatment room, where floor to ceiling windows allow the expansive outdoor views in.

Pass the boardwalks and treatment rooms, the heart of the Spa Village building is the Roman Coliseum-esque Mangrove Theatre where yoga, meditation and the Sabah Scent Adventures is hosted. The scent adventure is a fun way to spend an afternoon. Guided by the resident scent artist, the one-hour programme guides you through the powerful realm of scents, highlighting indigenous oils of Borneo before you begin to identify and blend your own bespoke scents.

It seems fitting too, for Spa Village to introduce its first signature aroma oil here. Called Clear Waters, a refreshing scent of sage that reminds you of Spring and morning dew, it pairs well with the Rolling Waves massage, a beautifully choreographed experience that emulates the graceful movements of the waters at the spa’s doorstep. Meanwhile, true to the Spa Village ethos, other indulgent treatments all pay homage to local healing culture. Nuances of a complex but captivating Borneon indigenous culture are interwoven into luxurious, sophisticated programmes. The sublime three-hour Unduk Ngadau treatment is a nod to the rice harvest festival celebrated by the Kadazandusun. Locally grown red rice is mixed with corn, avocado and cinnamon for a body scrub mixture that is then followed with an indigenous massage using more rice, this time encased in convenient pouches.

Perhaps the most unforgettable treatment to have here is the Borneo Vanilla Orchid And Honey Cocoon. The body is buffed with crushed vanilla pods and yoghurt before it’s drenched in a vanilla-infused honey cacao fruit masque. The potent cocktail of scents and aromas is enough to knock you out into a deep slumber. If that doesn’t do the trick, the head massage after a vanilla honey hair masque is applied ought to do it. All in, it’s an incredible journey of delectable scents and tactile experiences, before the final massage ties the whole sensual affair together.

But it’s the contrasts of land and sea that makes this Spa Village experience truly distinctive. Don’t miss out on a treatment after or during the rain, when the mangroves magically transform into an ethereal wonderland and the air is replete with rejuvenation. Look out for the room with scrub beds placed outdoors. Persuade your therapist to allow you to have your massage here. Best time would be in the late afternoon when the mosquitoes are less likely to be a nuisance. The heady cacophony of sea breeze, lapping waves and mangrove animal cries is guaranteed to transport you to comatose comfort. You won’t ever want to leave.

The beauty of the resort can be waxed lyrical to infinity. But, at the heart of the property is the staff and its people. Guests would be humbled by their sincere demeanour, zeal for life, approach to service, and overall genuine and warm hospitality. There is eagerness in what they do: to please you, to make you feel at ease, to have you a peek into their beautiful culture. In the course of that, it is heartwarming to see their personalities unfold, only to further add substance and soul to the resort.

Finally, don’t be quick to compare Gaya Island Resort to its other sister property famed for its Emerald Bay and teary-eyed tenor. Gaya Island Resort is totally a resort of its own, that has come together on its own, and can certainly hold its own. There’s still so much potential here as to how the place will mature and grow further into its own – with time. Its energy is undeniable, its essence unrelenting. And as far as a Bornean adventure is concerned, this is one you can enjoy without having to rough it like Bear Grylls.

Royal Brunei Airlines flies Kota Kinabalu 8x weekly.

 

RESIDENTS’ PACKAGE

A special rate for residents of Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei, including its expatriates.
From MYR 689++ per room per night for a limited period

• Daily breakfast, lunch and dinner
• Return scheduled speedboat transfers to and from Sutera Harbour Marina
• Guided Nature Walk with our Resident Naturalist (subject to availability)

For more information, visit www.gayaislandresort.com

 

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