The jewel of Gaya

  • Travel
  • Saturday, 17 Nov 2012

Under the sea: A magnificent view beneath the water includes an array of organisms such as sun corals (left), seahorse and nudibranch.

YTL Hotels recently unveiled its highly anticipated development, Gaya Island Resort, in Sabah.

YTL Hotels has done it again. It has opened yet another potential winner to add to its fleet of luxury resorts across Asia and Europe.

Located off the coast of Kota Kinabalu and set on the shores of Pulau Gaya, the Gaya Island Resort is fashioned very much like Pangkor Laut Resort, but with a distinctive style of its own.

Opened in July, the group’s latest offering is every bit as luxurious and offers vistas of mountains and tropical rainforests. On a clear day, the silhouette of the majestic Mount Kinabalu can be seen.

It was a dreary, rainy day when I stepped off the ferry and walked into the resort last month. The smiley staff made up for the damp weather and escorted me with a huge umbrella into the lobby. My shoes were soaked and with the rain showing no sign of letting up, I sat to read through my itinerary.

As soon as the rain stopped, I ran to my room, dumped my backpack and was ready to explore. I wanted to experience as much as possible during my stay so my days were packed with activities. One I missed out on due to weather was the paddleboat surfing.

Whether you choose to lie in a hammock and watch the sunset (hey, that’s an activity, too!) or do a sunrise power walk or learn some craftwork, snorkel or dive, an assortment of activities awaits the traveller.

Designated snorkelling paths are located along Malohom Beach fronting the resort and at the soon-to-open Tavajun Bay, the resort’s private beach area. Resident marine biologist Scott Mayback is busy surveying the area to set up coral reef restoration and turtle rehabilitation programmes.

“We hope to put in three state-of-the-art coral growing tanks which will expedite the speed of coral growth so we can replant it in the sea,” says Mayback, who oversees all aquatic operations and activities at the resort.

Besides the complimentary snorkelling exploration that is offered daily, diving buffs must check out some of the dive sites (read: Island allure, on the next page) in the area.

One evening, I was treated to a sunset cruise aboard Lumba-Lumba, the resort’s 64-foot private luxury yacht. Together with the delightful Tracy Khee, YTL Hotels’ director of public relations, we gingerly got into the vessel and took our positions on the open deck. The rest of the guests decided to sit on the covered upper deck to enjoy the canapés and to keep dry as it was drizzling.

With the wind in our faces and the choppy waters of the South China Sea, balancing a glass of champagne in hand required much effort. Keeping your butt glued to the deck was a greater challenge.

If you’re lucky, you can spot hornbills and fish eagles circling in the skies. We got a stunning view of the sunset for a moment before it disappeared behind the clouds. By the time the clouds passed, the sun had gone down and the cruiser lumba-lumba-ed back to make it before the downpour.

When it’s cold and windy, there’s nothing better than a hot pot of soup. Foodwise, there is the Fisherman’s Cove, serving the best, freshest catch of the day and the all-day-dining Feast Village. A signature at the former is the Sinagang Steamboat, a mouth-watering fish broth blended with lemongrass, chillies, tamarind and ginger flavours loved by the Kadazans. You can opt for your own private space on the pristine beach or at the rooftop of Fisherman’s Cove and embark on a romantic dinner under the stars featuring a uniquely crafted menu by your personal chef.

The fare looked delectable and inviting but lamentably, I wasn’t able to sample much due to dietary restrictions. Still, the chef would come over daily to offer suggestions and whip up a special meal for me. I would definitely have to make a return trip to savour the rest of the food.

For lighter refreshments and sundowners, one can try the Pool Bar and Lounge, a contemporary, casual poolside lounge with a floating upper-deck platform overlooking the lap pool.

No visit to any YTL hotel is complete without trying out their award-winning spa treatments. From the specialised rice scrubs and masques of the Kadazandusun to the age-old practices of the Bajau sea nomad, Spa Village Gaya Island is uniquely rooted in ancient tradition.

Set amidst lush mangroves, the facility is a 10- to 12-minute uphill walk from the lobby and no, there is no buggy to take you up. In fact, because the resort is on a hilly terrain, guests also have to walk a bit of a distance to their rooms, which augurs well for the “healing” tradition. Walking does wonders for wellness.

Back at the spa, my treatment started with a lower leg revitaliser where my Kadazan therapist Angela scrubbed and cleansed my legs until I felt like a plucked chicken. Then I was led into the waiting room and introduced to Noney, my masseuse, who was to take me on my next voyage by giving me the Urutan Pribumi (indigenous massage).

Traditionally used to restore mobility and flexibility on paddy planters, farmers, seafarers and warriors, emphasis is on the manipulation of the superficial and deep layers of muscles and fascia of the spine. Noney is a stout woman with strong arms and a pleasant disposition.

The massage was akin to Malay traditional massage. Using a blend of island spice aromatic oils, Noney used her forearms, elbows and fingers to knead my tension spots and realign my muscles. I felt lighter, relaxed and wished it went on longer.

I also signed up for the Spa Scent experience led by Balinese yoga instructor Pradnya. Basically, participants were asked to smell 13 different essential oils without knowing what they were. Select your favourite aromas (up to six), blend them together and you have your personalised, mini bottle of oil you can pop into your handbag.

If you favour one more than another, alter the ratio by adding more drops of it. I couldn’t find more than two so my picks were sweet orange and lavender – both of which have calming properties.

After a full day’s activity, I’d look forward to going back to my comfy room. The ancient rainforest and protected mangroves surround the 121 idyllic villas and suites. My four-day stay was at the Kinabalu Villas, which apparently provides the best views in the resort. The only drawback is that there’s a 15-minute uphill walk to reach your room. I had no issues and was more than happy to greet the friendly staff, monkeys and birds that crossed my path. Some guests have seen a family of proboscis monkeys along the way but I had no such luck.

A conservation fee of RM20 is applied to each guest, including children, for every night of stay by Sabah Parks, an organisation set up as the caretaker of Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park conservation triangle. The conservation fee is contributed to Sabah Parks in support of their efforts to continue to preserve the most unique animal and plant species in this area.

Getting there

Related Story: Allure of Pulau Gaya

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