Natural Scenery

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Gaya Island Resort in Malaysian Borneo

Gaya Island Resort in Malaysian Borneo

As morning broke, I headed out into a mauve and tangerine-streaked sky on an island named after Mother Earth. I spotted two oriental hornbills pecking at the roof, long-tailed macaques swinging through the trees and cicadas rattling somewhere in the canopy, as well as a monkey with a baby clutching at her underside, who accepted my gift of an apple: Malaysian Borneo’s Gaya Island most certainly lives up to its name.


Set in Malaysia’s first protected marine park – Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park – off the coast of Kota Kinabalu, this biodiversity treasure house is at the forefront of protecting the area’s significant natural riches, with marine and land conservation programmes funded by the high-end eco-resort.


Knitted into the edge of the rainforest above sparkling Malohom Bay, Gaya Island Resort’s plush wooden villas with peaked roofs are barely visible from the sea approach – via a speedboat from Kota Kinabalu – and the entire hotel is designed to merge with ancient forest.


Though hidden in the hillside, my airy suite had views worth making the dawn rise for, over the sea to the summit of Mount Kinabalu. With 3,700 acres of pristine wilderness, Gaya Island offers the perfect snapshot of Borneo’s spellbinding Sabah province.

A Canopy Villa suite at Gaya Island Resort

A Canopy Villa suite at Gaya Island Resort

On the first morning, I joined resident naturalist Haziq for a mini expedition into the interior. Climbing the steep vine-entangled path, Haziq stopped to scan the jungle at intervals, well aware that snakes could be dangling from the branches. With a loud purring call, he alerted the local long-tailed macaques or “cheeky monkeys” to our presence, though the shyer proboscis monkeys – with their Gonzo-like noses – remained elusive.


Apparently the troop prefer to remain in more inaccessible parts of the rainforest, though their numbers have recently grown thanks to Gaya’s intervention to widen the gene pool with newcomers from the mainland. One such import – Rambo – has now successfully mated and started a family on the island.


Also difficult to spot in the thick jungle, Gaya has a thriving population of protected pangolins, little armoured mammals who tend to curl up like giant woodlice during the day. Haziq showed me a photo of a rescued one on his shoulder that Gaya’s wildlife centre rehabilitated and released last year.


After an intensely humid hike through 1,000-year-old lush forest featuring Meranti – the world’s tallest tropical trees – crawling with lizards of all types from large monitors to red-bearded flying dragons, we emerged on the stunning beach of Tavajun Bay.

Tavajun Bay on Gaya Island

Tavajun Bay on Gaya Island

Sited on the sand is another of Gaya’s conservation projects, the marine centre that is currently home to three rescue turtles – Gaya, Barbara and the unfortunately named Covid, found during the pandemic. Marine biologist Dhivvian showed me how to scrub algae from their shells, and I met frisky Gaya, who is set to be released soon.


The largest of the rescues, Covid may have to stay in a sea pen as a bad case of “floating syndrome”, possibly caused by ingesting too much plastic, has left him unable to fully submerge and hunt for food.


A box jellyfish warning prevented me from swimming in the ocean that day, but the next morning I saw the real villain of the sea on a kayaking trip into Gaya’s thick mangrove system. The retreating tide had left behind a slick of plastic from the mainland, which we scooped from the water into our boats.


Mistaking the floating plastic for the jellyfish they naturally eat, frustratingly, this is the culprit for most of the local turtles’ sickness. “Although we send the packets back to the manufacturers, asking them to change, we rarely get a response,” said Haziq. “Some have put recycling symbols on the bags…”


I see the same pollution in Langkawi and there’s no greater impetus to action for tourists than seeing first-hand how a paradise like this is being trashed. But Haziq is focused on fixing the mangroves and planting seagrass in order to hopefully tempt back rare dugongs, and he showed us the nursery where saplings are currently being grown.


Though undoubtedly vital to the coastal eco-system, the mangroves have an eerie forbidden forest feel, and I much preferred the underwater garden Gaya Island is nurturing just offshore. Head conservationist Scott Mayback told me about the resort’s new initiative to nurture the house reef with the help of guests and see the corals up close.


At the watersports kiosk, we sat in the shade “using superglue and concrete to fix the reef”, as Scott put it, with the group taking it in turns to select a live coral clipping from a bowl of water and glue them to a concrete base. Once completed, I followed Scott into the water where he swam down to place the board on the seabed.


A solid shelf of pink, orange and purple hard coral hugs the shore, and I spotted anemones and an attendant clown fish – the largest I’ve ever seen – among its fluorescent inhabitants.

Rescue turtle Gaya at Gaya Island Resort's marine centre

Rescue turtle Gaya at Gaya Island Resort’s marine centre

From kayaking to snorkelling, most activities and excursions at Gaya are nature-based, with the exception of perfume-making and cookery classes, which are still firmly rooted in the locale.


In a spacious temple-like pavilion, I spent an hour’s mind-freeing meditation session with Katie from Cyoga, and met resort mama and perfumer Irene, who leads the group in a Sabah Scent Adventure class to create our own fragrance using only natural essential oils such as lavender and clove. 


Later, senior resort chef Wana, who leads the team at the elegant Fisherman’s Cove restaurant, taught us how to cook simple, mouth-watering local dishes such as Piaren Ah Manuk with simmering coconut and spices.

Private oasis

I had arrived in Kota via a domestic flight from the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, a buzzing Asian city of modern skyscrapers and culture where shiny malls and sizzling street food sit side by side. The slick Ritz-Carlton Kuala Lumpur provided the perfect respite after a long flight with high-ceilinged rooms, huge king-size beds, an impressive library and, most importantly, a tranquil spa centre, where Sabah native Elvita treated me to a jet lag-busting Malay aromatherapy massage surrounded by cool pools and palms.


Well-connected via reliable domestic flights, Kuala Lumpur is the gateway to the country’s uncrowded tropical islands – some of which make a great alternative to Thailand’s.


A soul-soothing sanctuary tucked into Langkawi’s rainforested slopes, Ambong Ambong is the ideal private oasis for wellness seekers, close to Cenang’s creamy bays. Its eight pool villas with views of the ocean are secluded and calm, and its yoga retreat offers a flow- inducing balance between nurturing personal wellbeing and connecting with nature.


After a peaceful morning of movement and meditation with expert instructor Sal on an open forest deck, our excursion to clean the castaway shores of Kilim Karst Geopark was a real highlight of my trip. The hazy green hump-backed bays have an attention-grabbing beauty akin to the famous Halong Bay or Phi Phi marine parks and required silence to digest as I zipped across opal waves towards a dark purple sky, and right into a storm. 


After collecting plastic from a desert island, we were stranded for half an hour while a boat tried to reach us, sheltering under a wide sea grape tree with the elements stirring up all around.

Ambong Ambong overlooks the shores of scenic Langkawi

Ambong Ambong overlooks the shores of scenic Langkawi

As part of Ambong’s green ethos, the boutique resort has a farm in Langkawi’s lush north bursting with a cornucopia of tropical produce. I joined chef Amen of Ambong’s popular Rimba restaurant for a cooking class under a canopy in the garden to rustle up a delicious lunch of spinach soup and coconut fish curry. Noticing my interest in the weird pink ginger flower, the chef presented me with sorbet made from the sweet, sharp fruit for dessert.


One of Malaysia’s most densely forested islands, my second moment of monkey magic came in Langkawi after being caught in the tropical storm. Soaked through and warming myself in a steaming outdoor bath, I spotted a giant flying squirrel clinging to a branch above the infinity pool as a troop of cute dusky-leaf monkeys arrived for a frolic overhead.


Unperturbed by my presence, they peered down at me through wide white- rimmed eyes as I looked out to the ocean. After a balanced trip of Zen wellness and mindful adventure doing my bit for nature, I finally felt like part of the serene scenery.

How to book it

Audley Travel offers an 11-day trip to Malaysia including seven nights at Gaya Island Resort and three nights at the Ritz-Carlton Kuala Lumpur staying on a B&B basis with flights, transfers and excursions from £2,115pp. The Ambong Ambong yoga retreat costs from £85pp; pool villas from £324 per night.

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