I do hope for the sake of the fantastic staff of this high-quality resort that it overcomes its teething problems and succeeds, but I think for some visitors there are negative environmental factors that cannot be cured so easily. We booked on a special offer, knowing that the resort only opened in August, and becoming aware that mixed reviews were appearing on TripAdvisor. My advance concern was that, having looked at the satellite imagery on Google maps, Gaya island is home to extensive stilt-villages, home to 6,000 people, only a couple of kilometres from the resort. I just couldn’t imagine that these boasted anything more than basic gravity-driven sewerage systems (and have since read this is the case). Landing at Koto Kinabalu (KK) airport is from over the sea, and the impression is not of crystal blue waters. KK appears to have a mixed industrial economy and several container ships were at anchor in the bay. On arrival by launch on Gaya island I noticed a guy with a wheelbarrow and shovel working his way along the resort’s small beach; there is a little tide, which was out, and the exposed sand was muddy with wormcasts and in places had a light coating of green algae. The water at the pier wasn’t exactly opaque, but certainly not transparent. This confirmed my expectation that I would avoid the sea, although during the week several people we met said they successfully snorkeled and saw plenty of marine life from the resort beach. Later in the week we went on a snorkeling excursion around the more distant side of the island. Here the waters were pretty clear and there were lots of attractive fish, although I wasn’t convinced that the coral reefs were at their most healthy – generally they were a sandy brown colour, and again I have since read there is some sediment damage to these reefs. We had lunch at a local beach restaurant; the shoreline was littered with domestic rubbish, notably crisp packets and plastic bottles. I found the same situation exploring the resort’s beach: just yards beyond the line of the last villa the flotsam and jetsam was in plentiful supply. Again, it made me wonder that, if this sort of stuff is floating around the island, what else is? The hotel has a flag system for water quality; during our stay it was always a green flag for ‘low hazard’. Within view of the resort’s beach, at one point a large barge was anchored at the pier used by the staff boats. It seemed to be collecting the last of the building rubble and waste from the development. It wasn’t a pretty sight, nor is almost exactly 50% of the view from the beach: across the channel to what must be the northern suburbs of KK, where several tower blocks are visible (not unsightly as such, but not a tropical paradise view), and most days 5 or 6 large container ships at various distances. The other 50% of the view is made up of the wooded curve of the island and neighbouring Gayana resort – perfectly idyllic.
At all times, everywhere in Malaysian Borneo that we went, the welcome from the people was astoundingly friendly and gracious, and the staff at the resort were no exception – 100% perfect. On arrival at reception we were checked in and guided to our allocated room. The villas are built in blocks of 4, two above, two below, set upon concrete stilts (presumably reinforced) against the steep forested hillside. You reach them by a combination of boardwalk at beach level, and a concrete access road (also on stilts) that winds up and across the back of the villas. The highest balconies must be a good 40 feet above the forest floor. Because the buildings are new, there are masses of exposed concrete stilts and superstructure. This looks unsightly. They are training fast-growing creepers to cover these, but it will obviously take a few years before the impression of a building site is disguised. The raised roadway has only a knee-high concrete wall at either side, and 20-40-foot drops into the jungle below. You wouldn’t let your kids out alone, nor walk back to your villa unaccompanied after too many shandies. I imagine a European Health & Safety person would have some concerns in this regard. I’m wondering if they’re planning to finish this ugly concrete with some more attractive rendering and whitewash, and put in place safety rails at all appropriate places.
On walking to our villa, as well as these impressions, there was a lot of bare ground where nothing yet seems to be growing, and various unfinished structures that might be beach barbecue or shower places. We passed a rather unsightly pond with murky water and green weed, and a half-hearted fountain. This aspect worsened when we reached our villa. You enter via the balcony, so the balcony view was the first impression: here was another pond, about ten feet below, much worse, stagnant-smelling and scattered with litter and building detritus, more unpleasant-looking pondweed, and four large monitor lizards lazily chewing away at… well, if you read about their diet, you won’t want to eat your lunch. After a few days in the heart of the rainforest and not a sign of a mosquito, I just couldn’t imagine for one moment sitting on this balcony sipping a G&T. Our instant request to be moved was met with a very polite response, and we were immediately taken to the restaurant and offered a drink, while our reception person went off to check availability. After about 20 minutes she returned with details and a map, but we could see that it was still over the pond, so we refused this. Now we were invited to have a free dinner, and after this she returned with more details. It seemed a lot of the rooms were not ready for occupation due to problems with A/C and other snags. The third villa was acceptable – only a short distance from the ‘pond’ villa, but higher up the hillside and surrounded by a mixture of villas and palms trees, with a view through to the sea. However, the ground below was not exactly a tropical garden: again a rather unsightly mixture of bare earth, puddles, logs and struggling plants. In a year or two no doubt the jungle will have covered much of the eyesore, but surely there is going to be a mosquito problem unless the artificial ponds are filled in.
The rooms, conversely, are of an exceptionally high standard, and maintained as such (and very quickly turned around when you were out). After three nights of troubled sleep with no A/C on uncomfortable beds in the rainforest, we slept really well and in great comfort. This aspect applies to all of the indoor facilities of the resort: spotless, modern, cool, airy and well equipped; and everywhere the most friendly and helpful staff imaginable. The pool was ideal for our 8-year-old (shoulder deep), with plenty of space around it, and a pool bar that could be accessed from the water or from within. As dusk fell around 6pm the reflected sunsets (it faces east) could be spectacular, and as the scenery changed to lights over the water, with other lights strung from palms along the beach, the atmosphere does indeed become idyllic.
The food at all times was of very high quality, with a wide selection of local and international choices. If you are focused upon the quality of staff/service, high standard of accommodation/public facilities (eg. Spa), and excellent food, with a great pool to lounge beside – then this place will not disappoint you (especially if you get a good offer). If you picture yourself or the kids running in and out of pure crystal blue waters, to a 360-degree backdrop of tropical forest and distant surf on the reef, if you want snorkeling and to enjoy the sea in an environment that feels reassuringly fresh and clean – then you should probably go to the Maldives or the Western Isles.
I’d also mention that the staff sensed our disappointment, and immediately offered to pay for our dinners for our 5-night stay. This was a big compensation and made a difference. I do feel that someone from senior management (or perhaps a consultancy) who can come with a fresh visitor’s eye should tour the place and deal with the many cosmetic (and potentially safety) issues that currently create a poor first impression. Reception staff should not be expected to show guests to rooms along a route that is patently disappointing; you wouldn’t do it to guests in your own home.
My wife and daughter graded the holiday as excellent – higher than me as they are not so anoraky about the environment and safety – and say they would go back. Again I’d reiterate that the staff training and delivery is of the highest standard. I have graded it low, both for the reasons above, and since I think it is more likely the company will read it and perhaps therefore it will be of benefit to future visitors.
- Official Description (provided by the hotel):
- Gaya Island Resort is located on Pulau Gaya, the largest of a cluster of five islands that form the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, a natural conservation area off the coast of Borneo, close to Kota Kinabalu. Gaya Island Resort has a unique setting: the land is fringed with a golden sandy beach, rocky coastal outcrops, and surrounded by coral reefs. The hilly island landscape is covered with lush tropical rainforest and an abundance of flora and fauna. And to complete this perfect setting, visible in the distance, is the stunning outline of Mount Kinabalu. The guest villa exterior respects Sabahan architecture uses local materials and blends harmoniously with the natural environment. The interior living space is designed with contemporary elegance to create warmth, comfort and a serene indoor setting. Gaya Island Resort is committed to ecologically sustainable practices to minimise the carbon footprint within its environment. Therefore the resort is a walking resort and only minimal motorised vehicles are used for operational purposes. ... more less
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- Also Known As:
- Gaya Island Resort Malaysia/Pulau Gaya