The immediate reference at the mention of the Malaysian state of Sabah is altitude. From the lofty 4,095m peak of Mount Kinabalu, the lay of this Bornean land and the South China Sea unfolds. Weather permitting, you may also be able to spot Pulau Gaya, the largest island just off the coast of Kota Kinabalu. There is treasure over there. For as much as mountains dominate the popular image of Sabah, it is in its seas that great riches awaits.
Sabahan tides bring this oceanic bounty to one place: Pulau Gaya Resort. The best way to appreciate this is with the Deru Laut Spa treatment at the Spa Village. Inspired by the culture of the seaborne Bajau tribe, centuries of marine properties are infused into this ritual. Like a silky wrap of sea bird’s nest, harvested from collagen-rich coral seaweed. Or Sabahan sea pearls, crushed into facial compote. And gamat oil, containing the regenerative properties of sea cucumbers, that accompany the dextrous, almost tidal, Rolling Waves massage.
The treatment leaves one suitably serene, which is the best state of mind to appreciate the resort. Set on the western curve of Malohom Bay, the YTL Hotels’ property opts for elevation instead of sea level: the 120 villas and suites are perched on sheer hillsides, ascending upwards with sweeping aerial views of the mangrove jungle, sapphire bay and, weather permitting, Mount Kinabalu. Sandwiched between ancient rainforest and vast ocean, the rooms include local Sabahan elements – textiles and timber – understated in the modern tropical chic vibe.
From the villas, the tropical interior of the island is accessible: marked trails wind their way into the pristine rainforest, with the resident naturalists are on hand to point out birds, beasts or, if you’re lucky, a rare proboscis monkey. Or head down the slopes towards the beach, where guests gather to sup, sip or sunbathe in a cluster of buildings designed with cues to Sabahan tribal longhouses. Dining starts with Feast Village, serving breakfast and a buffet lunch/dinner, with other options being the raised Fisherman’s Cove where fresh seafood takes the spotlight and the isolated Omakase, showcasing Japanese teppanyaki, shabu shabu or nabe. The Pool Bar & Lounge encircles the pool, serving tidbits and drinks, and one can venture slightly further (a five minute boat ride to be exact) to Tavajun Bay, where a daily lunch is served, occasionally with wild boars and monitor lizards as guests.
It would be criminal not to venture into the water here. And there are plenty of options for a variety of skill levels. Snorkelling in the resort’s house reef reveals a kaleidoscope of hard corals, while the watersports centre provides paddleboards for the calm bay and kayaks to explore the mangrove forest nearby. Going deeper is possible. It isn’t Sipadan, but Pulau Gaya and the surrounding islands of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine National Park has some great spots to appreciate marine magnificence. There are enough activities on offer that one might need another Deru Laut Spa treatment to recover.
Some tropical resorts can veer too far into anonymous luxury that it could be anywhere in the world, while the ambition of others can turn it into a cultural village. Pulau Gaya Resort is one that manages to strike a wonderful balance. It is never overt, but it always manages to bring a little bit of Sabah into the experience. From fresh fish to marine materials, from aquatic activities to island interiors, Sabah’s waters are a treasure trove. And you can find a little bit of all of that at Pulau Gaya Resort.