It's hard not to be impressed by the determination of GIR to make you feel welcome. We were met at Kota Kinabalu airport and escorted to a large Mercedes, where cold flannels and water were provided for our 10 minute trip to the harbour. On arrival, there were Kalamansi Lime sorbets to occupy us whilst the boat was readied. The trip to the actual resort lasted only 15 minutes but we were welcomed yet again with cold flannels and a refreshing drink. Escorted to our room by Celestina we found it decorated lavishly with rose-petals (I'll spare the details to avoid spoiling the surprise for others...) to celebrate our silver wedding anniversary and a bottle of chilled Prosecco awaited us on our return after dinner.
The room was a luxury Kinabalu villa but, as we discovered when we awoke, not with the good view of Mount K promised. Each villa contains 4 rooms, 2 up, 2 down: all others we looked at had rooms side to side so that both had a front balcony view of the sea. Ours, 807, was built facing other villas with at best a side sea view. Fortunately, the delightful Simona quickly retrieved the situation next morning by moving us up the hill to 826.
Each apartment is a single long expanse, broken up into sleeping, storage and bathroom areas. My wife is hard to please on the bathroom front but this had everything: big 'his and hers' wash-basins, a bath of colossal proportions into which we both fitted with room to spare, huge shower and toilet cubicles with frosted glass surrounds, mountains of towels and good toiletries. The bed too was large, very comfortable and had the requisite view looking out across the South China Sea towards Mount K. Storage space was ample, air-conditioning highly effective and a battery of lights was controlled from the bed-side.
Having spent the previous 10 days in the rainforest, it was a bit of a shock to the system to find ourselves back in what is a surprisingly large resort which, during our stay, was operating at 70% capacity. (When it comes to screeching, give me hornbills over children, any day.) Guests ranged from UK honeymooners to extended Chinese families and were evenly divided between Western Europeans and SE Asians. Apart from in the Feast Village, however, you were never aware of these numbers: there were plenty of spare sun-beds and the long, narrow swimming-pool was often empty.
The resort is also long and narrow, on a strip of land looking back to KK. Whilst in the middle distance you can pick out a few large freight vessels, it is far from being the eyesore suggested by some TA reviews. The foreground is an undeveloped part of the island whilst on the skyline, clouds permitting, you can see the crenelated summit of Mount K. There is some unsightly effluent visible at high tide but GIR staff assiduously clean both the beach and the water (by boat, obviously) each day. At night you are more aware of planes landing and taking off from KK airport and the bright lights of the city can clearly be seen.
Even in an upmarket resort like GIR the ubiquitous buffet reigns supreme if you take your meals at the Feast Village. At first encounter this eating area was like a fast-food outlet full of large and noisy families so we were grateful to find one of the outside tables free, even though later we were fumigated by a Frenchman's large cigar. (As an aside, this was the only place we visited in Sabah where you didn't notice staff smoking, some more discreetly than others. Smoking is still more acceptable here than in Europe or North America so it was a pleasure to be somewhere where it wasn't seen as the norm. A shame other guests weren't as considerate, especially the chain-smoking South African photographers on a fashion shoot, who made the pool bar so uninviting.)
Arriving after 9, it was slim pickings in the Feast Village so far as some dishes were concerned. Ingredients and cooking were good but would have been more enjoyable when first set out. We immediately made reservations for Fisherman's Cove, a small fish restaurant, for the rest of our stay. Service there was more formal and very willing although not always polished: on one occasion, pre-dinner drinks arrived just before the main course, coffee came before dessert and a succession of waiters tried to take the same order. However, this was the exception and not the norm and the choice of fresh fish (lobster, tiger prawns, red snapper, mud crab, grouper, scallops, etc) was more than compensation. After the first night, the (new) head chef created a first course off the menu for us each time we dined and on our final evening, also our silver wedding anniversary, he and the sweet young restaurant manager went to town with a celebratory menu (including a large 'plateau de fruits du mer'), a decorated cake and festive decorations.
I should add that for early risers, the Feast Village was much more tolerable for breakfast (the best we had during our 3 weeks in Malaysia) and the Pool Bar at lunch-time offered great cocktails, lime sorbets and very good (and substantial) 'light' meals, both Western and Asian dishes. After reading TA reviews before our holiday, at the last minute we switched to a 'full board' package. Despite this covering food at all outlets, including Fisherman's Cove where the cost each evening was always well over £100, looking at the 'bills' we were asked to sign at each meal my conclusion was that we probably gained very little through this arrangement. If you have a normal appetite and don't want a 3-course lunch each day, as well as 3-course dinners and breakfasts, I suspect that a la carte might prove cheaper.
We have read carefully the more measured criticisms of dissatisfied TA reviewers and recognised some truth in them. What for one person was the unhealthy proximity to mangroves, however, was an attraction for us as it would be for others. We were delighted to see a water monitor lizard near the pond as well as a long, thin snake which slithered across our path, the long-tailed macaque which made a leisurely tour of our balcony, the wild boar under a neighbouring villa and the sounds of birds and insects in the background. That the concrete in the walls and road to the rear of the villas is an eyesore is undeniable but this is still a new resort and foliage is beginning to cover it. In a few years this will not be a problem. Taking the interesting nature walk one morning with Jamie, we found that behind the resort a lot of effort is being made to ensure that the island's flora and fauna are being protected. The private beach to which boats go each day also houses a small Marine Centre where we encountered a disconsolate turtle being treated for digestive problems.
The treatments available at the Spa Village situated amongst the trees at one end of GIR were of an exceptionally high quality and of comparable cost to those in other high-end SE Asian resorts, i.e. still much cheaper than in Europe or the USA. Between us we tried the Balinese Massage, the Rolling Waves and the 3-hour Unduk Ngadau special. (Justifiable recuperation after 10 days in the rainforest.) All were excellent. You are treated to a spice-infused drink beforehand, ginger tea afterwards and the surroundings are quiet and restorative.
Whilst viewed strictly as a resort there are some areas for improvement at GIR, their commitment to good service is second to none. Every member of staff we encountered, from the managers through to the boys cleaning the beach, was smiling, polite and helpful. Many of them made our stay memorable: the staff at the spa and at Fisherman's Cove; Simona, who went out of her way to ensure we were happy with our room; Celestina, who took delight in giving our room the rose-petal treatment for a second time, arranging for a cake and sending Lampard, another member of the reception team, to KK to purchase a toy proboscis monkey (don't ask!); the housekeepers who noticed our cards and who wrote their own congratulatory note. It's people and gestures like these that will stick in our memory long after the tans fade and which explain why it's impossible to give GIR anything other than a 5* rating.
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- Also Known As:
- Gaya Island Resort Malaysia/Pulau Gaya