Vicky Smith visits Gaya Island, Borneo and discovers an exhilarating blend of adventure, excitement and relaxation
Borneo is the third largest island in the world, but for many, still a mysterious destination. Incorporating three countries – Indonesia, Brunai and Malaysia – it doesn’t yet have the mass tourist appeal of nearby Thailand, and has traditionally appealed to a more ‘serious’ and intrepid type of traveller, attracted by the breathtaking scenery and unparalleled array of wildlife. However, Borneo can offer a more rounded experience, with the option of rainforest treks combined with luxury accommodation and an idyllic beach break too, and is fast becoming the ‘next big thing’ when it comes to long-haul holidaying.
One company heralding the way is YTL Hotels, which opened Gaya Island Resort last year. Situated on a small island about 10 minutes by boat from Kota Kinabalu on the mainland, it’s a breathtaking place, designed to complement, rather than dominate, its natural surroundings. Villas have been built into the rainforest, as has a spectacular treetop spa, and white powdery beaches give way to crystal waters and a coral reef teeming with wildlife beyond.
The ethos of the resort is to blend harmoniously with its natural environment, and they take conservation very seriously indeed – there’s a Marine Centre where we were lucky enough to see a rehabilitated turtle, Bobby, released back into the wild after being restored to health by the resort’s resident marine biologist, Scott.
There’s also resident naturalist, Justin, who will take you on a trek through the rainforest (a mere two-minute walk away from your villa) with a running commentary on the fascinating array of plants and wildlife. If you’re lucky, you might spot a proboscis monkey, the notoriously shy and rare mammal indigenous to Borneo.
The wildlife isn’t restricted to the forest, however, and you’re just as likely to wake up with monkeys hanging out on your balcony at the resort as you are to find yourself swimming next to a turtle. We spotted monitor lizards on the beach – to the untrained eye, they look quite similar to a crocodile – and there was also a family of bearded pigs who made beach home while we were there.
Away from Gaya, there’s tons to see on the mainland too. There’s an orang-utan sanctuary in Kota Kinabalu, whilst a mountain bike tour through the paddy fields is a great opportunity to spot more wildlife. Just try to keep your eyes on the road, and not on the herds of grazing buffalo (a lesson I learnt the hard way).
Riding over Indiana Jones-esque rickety wooden bridges felt incredibly adventurous, and you can take a trail through villages for a close-up view of what life in Borneo is really like. We were even invited into a home for tea, before heading into the forest to see rubber being collected from the trees – a painstaking but fascinating process.
When you’ve finished exploring above ground, make sure you take time out to see what’s underwater too – Borneo’s marine life is truly spectacular, with luminescent fish dashing in between delicate coral reefs, giant clams, starfish and seahorses.
Check out our holiday snaps
ITC Luxury Travel (01244 355 527; itcluxurytravel.co.uk) offers 7 nights at Gaya Island Resort, Borneo from £1,425 per person. Price includes accommodation in a Bayu Villa on a bed and breakfast basis, return flights with Malaysia Airlines from London to Kota Kinabalu (via Kuala Lumpur), airport and boat transfers.