18 May 2013

Pulau Gaya - Gaya Island Resort Review

Date of Exploration : 24 - 28 Apr 2013

"Let's go Pulau Gaya at Kota Kinabalu." Juliana suggested.

"But I've been to Pulau Payar already and it's off Langkawi, not Kota Kinabalu," I corrected her, secretly feeling smug.

"No, not Pulau Payar, it's Pulau Gaya," the plucky gal clarified before launching into a marketing pitch of Gaya's attractions. The pride of thinking I am a Christopher Columbus of Malaysian islands quickly drowned.

Gaya, Payar, Maya, Raya, Kaya... okay, the last one is a pandan flavoured coconut and egg jam but a letter makes a huge difference in which pulau (island) one ends up on. While many of these remote Indomalaya island destinations boast immaculate beaches and are bestowed with spectacular natural attractions, few can match the distinguishing factor that sets Pulau Gaya apart... the luxe element.

Pulau Gaya soaks up its glam-grade from a couple of 5-star luxury resorts that call it home. I got a chance to stay at Gaya Island Resort by YTL Hotels during this trip and the experience was so sublime, Juliana and I extended one more night from our initial 4D3N arrangement with the resort. Who wants to leave heaven right?

Gaya Island Resort's 5-star hospitality starts at its private reception lounge at Sutera Harbour Marina where guests board a speedboat to the resort.
Getting to Gaya Island Resort (GIR)

Pulau Gaya is an island mere minutes by boat from Kota Kinabalu city. Kota Kinabalu (abbreviated to 'KK') is the capital of Sabah, an East Malaysian state on Borneo island.

Our journey from Singapore began with a flight from Changi Airport to KK Interntaional Airport (approx. 1 hour), taking a cab from KKIA to Sutera Harbour Marina (20 minutes, RM30) and boarding a private speedboat transfer to GIR (15 minutes, RM140 return). Click here for more info on getting there. I like the fact that the total travel time is under 2 hours instead of a long-haul vehicular triathlon to reach paradise.

Sutera Harbour is a private marina cum yacht club. GIR has an exclusive welcome lounge within the clubhouse's main building for guests to relax while waiting for their scheduled boat transfers to Pulau Gaya. 

All set for my island rendezvous!

Onboard the speedboat, we met Joanna, an operator offering diving packages which GIR guests can book while at the resort. As we departed Kota Kinabalu city, clusters of makeshift over-water settlements provided a glimpse into the lives of the local fishing community. 

A 15-minute boat ride later, we exchanged this...

... for THIS! Hello Pulau Gaya!
Lush & Luxe at Gaya Island Resort

Pulau Gaya is the largest island among a group of 5 islets consisting of Pulau Sapi, Pulau Manukan, Pulau Mamutik, and Pulau Sulug. Collectively, they form the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, a designated sanctuary to preserve the on-land and underwater biodiversity of the region. So expect to come into close contact with virgin forestry and unspoilt coral reefs stitched together by powdery beaches.

Officially opened in August 2012, Gaya Island Resort by YTL Hotels sinks into the island's lush green with developments and luxurious villas reminiscent of tribal longhouses and huts of the indigenous Kadazan and Dusun people.

The 120-villa resort property comes with a Spa Village, a complete range of facilities (swimming pool, gym, restaurants, gift shop, Reading Room, conference hall, etc) as well as a comprehensive range of activities (Nature Walk, snorkeling, Sunset Cruise, etc) to indulge in islandic bliss. And not to mention the many scenic spots to catch a sunrise over the majestic Mount Kinabalu.

One of the 'dangers' of going on a holiday at an isolated resort is ending up in a place with nothing much to see or do. While doing nothing and just chill spell the allure of island escapades, having the option to be as adventurous or as laid-back as one pleases ensures that the senses are never bored.

GIR is one such place that offers something for everyone. During my stay, I got to experience almost every activity and cuisine the resort has to offer and this blog entry is an attempt to capture all that I saw, played and tasted. It is going to be a long post with lots of photos but I hope it provides an overview of what to expect, what to see, when to see it, best spots to stay, what to eat as well as not-to-be-missed activities.

For experiences that are too sumptuous for just a brief mention in this post, I've written separate blog entries with their links included on this article. You can click on them to find out more details.

Now, let's go explore the resort!

On arrival, we were thrilled that the water was so clear, the boat seem to be hovering on air.

GIR's jetty and pathway leading to the reception area.

This way and that for endless adventures or taking it easy.

GIR's reception takes the shape of traditional Kadazan longhouses found in the tribal villages of Sabah.

Interior of GIR's reception.

Unlike the brick-and-mortar constructs of European longhouses, Sabahian longhouses favour natural materials such as wood and thatch roofs. A refreshing drink welcomed our check-in and the resort staff were so cordial, friendship came easily.

A gallery of shrubs and foliage behind the pool bar and lounge. GIR feels like a resort built within a garden.

The resort went to great lengths to carve a pool that's both functional (it's long enough to do laps in it) and relaxing to laze by.

With a delicious is the best way to chill by the pool!

Or cool off from the tropical heat with a relaxing swim and open air rain shower.

To retreat from the sun's reach, there are chambers behind the pool or get a good workout at the gym above them.

Come into my lair! Muahahaha...

The chambers are furnished with daybeds and are open 24/7 for a hideaway during the day or night.

Balcony outside GIR's gym. Behind me is the Reading Room.

The gym is small with well-maintained machines but the best part is the view while working out.

The Reading Room offers a selection of travel guides as well as literature on the eco wealth of Sabah and Borneo.

I'm not much of a bookworm but I love the vantage view that the Reading Room provides.

This standalone structure is the Kuri-Kuri Kids Club, an activity hub and playroom built just for children.

For RM120++ per child, parents can choose between a morning or evening programme that includes a meal, playtime, exploratory trails and a cookery class.

Just further up from Kuri-Krui Kids Club is a great spot to catch the sunrise.

I came to this spot which offered an unobstructed, elevated view to shoot the gorgeous sunrise over Mount Kinabalu.

This shot was taken at 5:30am. First light during my stay at GIR starts around 5:15am so to photograph the sunrise, I woke up at 4:30am to do the morning rituals, recce, and set up equipments.

Sunrise at 6:15am.

The risen yolk at 6:30am.

Further up from Kuri-Kuri Kids Club is YTL Hotels' signature Spa Village. Most of the hotels and resorts under YTL's wing comes with a localized Spa Village with treatments utilising natural ingredients and indigenous techniques of the destinations they are in.

The Spa Village offers foot and body massages as well as a class on aromatherapy called Sabah Scent Adventures and free yoga classes.

To read more about treatments and the activities available at the Spa Village, please click here for my separate blog entry on the experiences.
Adventures & Activities

Sandwiched between the forest and sea, GIR is a nature lover's perpetual nocturnal emission. In the morning, you can eavesdrop on the conversations between birds and try to spot them while the night coax love songs out of crickets juxtaposed with the lull of surf gently caressing the beach.

As Pulau Gaya used to be joint to the other 4 islands and the mainland in an unbroken chain of the Crocker Range, the island inherited some of Borneo's exotic flora and fauna. But with the flooding of the lowlands at the end of the Ice Age, the islands were separated and some of these plants and animals were stranded. Which is a good thing as quite a number of these plant and animal species are facing extinction on the mainland and Pulau Gaya acts as a kind of stronghold to conserve the wildlife.

Purportedly, the endangered Proboscis Monkey can be found here along with discoveries of new species of indigenous plants, insects, mammals and marine life. I am a nature buff and the rich opportunities to encounter creatures I've never seen before was a real thrill and eye-opener.

But nature spotting is only one of the many activities available at GIR. A 'Weekly Activities Menu' in every guest villa stokes a sense of adventure and enthusiasm with free activities such as Nature Walk, Gaya Snorkeling Exploration, and Tribal Games among others. Guests can also book diving trips, rent kayaks, and go on a Sunset Cruise offered by the resort.

This Green Throated Lizard wanted to audition for Jurassic Park.

Justin Juhun, GIR's resident Naturalist telling guests who went on the Nature Walk more about the different species of termites and their habitats. The green mound he is stepping on is actually a termite's nest.

With waters so clear, snorkeling can be done at the shallow shores in front of GIR. Click here for more on the Nature Walk and snorkeling.

Love this tree 'posing' over the waters on a stretch of beach near the resort's reception.

An inviting hammock that's surprisingly comfortable keeps time suspended. 

A lethal blowjob. Trying out the Kadazan blowpipe used during hunting and war. The original weapons are much longer and the darts used are laced with poison. 

Juliana is a natural born blower by scoring 4 out of 5 darts on the bull's eye! Don't play play with this femme fatale!

Another Tribal Game we got our hands legs on was this sepak takraw wedding ritual. To marry a girl, the groom must kick a rattan ball high up so that it hits a container containing sweets, money and / or sweets. The groom gets 3 tries. If he fails to knock the container's contents onto the floor, the wedding is off. I had a go at the game and let's just say even Pelé would not score at this. 

Apart from snorkeling, kayaks and paddle surf can be rented for RM20 per hour each.

The clear waters makes paddling so much more fun!

Not lying down, or sitting down like on a kayak... This is the first time I tried paddle surf (a.k.a. Stand Up Paddle Surf) which originated from Hawaii. It's easier to balance than I thought. The trick is to stand on the broadest part of the board with the feet parallel to each other. Don't stand one feet in front and one feet behind like surfing or skateboarding.

It feels like walking on water!

Still on water, a not-to-be-missed activity is going on a Sunset Cruise (RM250++ per person).

I have no words to describe the beauty of the sunset which changes hues every minute. Click here for more about my Sunset Cruise experience.
Tavajun Bay

The restive coastline of GIR is not limited to the belt of beach in front of the resort but includes a secluded bay 5 minutes away by boat. Called Tavajun Bay, the obscure beach offers a quieter alternative to chilling at the main resort grounds. It is free to visit and GIR provides hourly boat transfers between the resort and Tavajun Bay.

The reclusive Tavajun Bay is like a shy clam.

The bay houses a soon-to-be-completed Marine Rescue Center to rehabilitate distressed sea creatures and comes with a mini aquarium and petting tank. 

Behind me is a dining hut where guests can order meals. Order the food early as it is cooked on the spot and could take a rather long time.

A family of wild boars hang around the dining hut during lunchtime. During our visit, we saw this mother boar just inches away from the hut!

Mermaid (?) spotted under Tavajun Bay's jetty!

Guests can also enjoy a private gourmet picnic here at RM250++ per person.  

A Taste of Sabah & Beyond

No exploration of a destination would be complete without food and GIR offers a wide menu of popular local dishes, international favourites, fine dining selections and specialty dinners that bring the best of cultural flavours to the table.

Cuisines served at its main dining hall (Feast Village)and fine-dine restaurant (Fisherman's Cove) are lip-smacking fresh and score high on tastes. I ate so much throughout my stay that for breakfast on the last day, all I had stomach space for was just a few slices of fruits and a serving of Eggs Benedict on toast!

Eat with your eyes. GIR has many picturesque spots with spectacular views to enjoy a meal.

Chef Dolis ensures orders are done to guests' satisfaction at Feast Village.

American burger, Japanese seaweed salad and Italian pasta... every palate is satisfied.

Fresh catch, desserts and Asian flavours... every bite a taste adventure.

Sweet & Sour King Prawns at Fisherman's Cove. Click here to go on a gastronomical exploration of GIR.

The Villas at GIR

I've been talking a whole lot about the facilities, activities, and food at GIR but have not touched on the most important topic of accommodation... are the villas nice?

I delayed showing what the villas look like till now because I'm saving the best for last! This final section of the post showcases the living environment that the villas are built in as well as their interior design. Here we go...

Wooded boardwalk leads past ponds and mangrove to the villas.

GIR has 120 villas categorized by the views they offer (Bayu, Canopy, and Kinabalu) and a two-storied Suria Suite.

The Bayu Villas are the closest to the beach and offers a mangrove view (RM910++ per night). The Canopy Villas are higher up on a slope and gives one the feeling of living within a garden (RM1,010++ per night).

We were booked for the Kinabalu Villas (RM1,120++ per night) which are higher uphill. The villas offer a vantage view of Mount Kinabalu silhouetted in the distance but it's a long walk from the reception.

Each villa contains 2 separate units... an upper unit and a lower unit.

For the first 3 nights, we stayed at number 825 of the Kinabalu Villas.

The balcony and daybeds of unit number 825 was sheltered by foliage and offer pocket glimpses of the seaview before us.

GIR conserves major trees by building around them or including them in the design. The tree is at the right corner of this photo and not the black thing in front with blooming shorts!

The moment we opened the door, the comfy-looking bed greeted us. Being near the door means a spectacular view of the outside scenery while lying in bed. 

The bed doesn't just look comfy but is VERY comfy!

A long and spacious in-room desk lined one side of a corridor that connects the bed area to the bath area. I'm using area instead of rooms because the villa unit adopts an open concept.

The other side of the corridor is a walk-in wardrobe.

Standing at the door, we can see right in to the bathtub. On the reverse, while soaking in the tub, you can look all the way out to the ocean and sky outside!

Aromatherapy-based toiletries are provided with toothbrush and shaving kit available on request.

The bath area comes with 2 vanity tops... one for him and her. I found that configuration refreshing but the really amazing thing is the bathtub. It's so huge, it could easily fit 3 adults! 

On our extension night, we asked for a change to an upper unit and we moved to Kinabalu Villa number 852.

Odd numbered units are below, even numbered units are on top. Our 852 unit offered an unobstructed view of the Mount Kinabalu mountain ranges.

The view was so fantastic, I was inspired to try time-lapse photography for the first time.
6:17am. View of sunrise over Mount Kinabalu at Kinabalu Villa unit 852.

The time-lapse photography session went pretty well and the experience was truly magical. During the shoot, a pair of Oriental Piped Hornbills flew right by the balcony railing! Awesome.

And a while later, a Macaque Monkey toed the wooded rail. I was afraid it's going to snatch my camera so I tried to frighten it away but it hissed back. But when I relaxed and stop being aggressive towards it, the monkey crossed the railing and went on its way. By then, the forest has awaken with a symphony of songs.

Below is the resulting time-lapse video from the shoot and if you would like to know more about this photographic technique, please click here to visit my lifestyle and photography blog, Celebrate Life Lah!.

With the gorgeous Sabahian sunrise, I sign off this post and hope that it has given you a good idea of what's in store for a vacation or honeymoon at Gaya Island Resort. The resort's iconic cultural elements, wide range of activities, good food, great service and priceless view definitely make it one of the best places to gather wonderful memories that are distinctively Borneo!

Related Posts :

Gaya Island Resort Sunset Cruise

On the Trail of Natural Thrills

A Wellness Sanctuary

Fresh Catch and Choice Cuts

Time-Lapse Photography of Sunrise Over Mount Kinabalu


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Hi,

    Just want to say thanks for publishing this very informative and detailed review of Gaya Resort. We're planning a holiday there this summer and your blog was great in helping us make a decision.

  3. Agree with the previous comment. Thanks a lot for sharing so much inspiring and useful information. I just booked a stay at the resort, partly due to your review!

  4. Same as the above two commenters! We're planning on spending our honeymoon in Sabah, and your review is just very informative. I am picky in choosing hotel/resort rooms/villas, but these villas in GIR seemed to be up my alley!

  5. thanks for dropping by my blog and hope you all had a great holiday and congrats on the nuptials! :)

  6. I had shortlisted GIR as one of the options for my birthday trip in Mar. Since I will be travelling alone, need to go to a place that is hassle free where I can just chill, enjoy water activities and explore with my cam. I looked at other options but keep coming back to GIR. Your blog helps alot. Quick question, is it easy and safe to get a taxi from KKIA to Sutera Harbour? On your return, did you arrange the transfer with the hotel or take a taxi from Sutera Harbour to the airport? Thanks

    1. Hi Sarina... thanks for dropping by my blog. Yes, it is easy and safe to get a cab from KKIA to Sutera Harbour and on my return, we stayed a night in Kota Kinabalu before going to the airport. But you can have GIR arrange for a cab to wait for you at Sutera Harbour so that you can transfer to the airport directly.

      Here's wishing you a happy birthday in advance and may you enjoy your me time at GIR. Safe travels!

  7. Darren thanks for this review, very informative and you capture it beautifully with all the photos! We're looking at going on honeymoon to Gaya, but also thinking of Bunga Raya IR. Have you heard anything about that resort? Like your photography too, cool time lapse experiment, worked out well! Will check out your photography blog. thanks!

    1. Hi Reyn... thanks for dropping by my blog :o) I've not heard or been to Bunga Raya IR so can't provide much info. Congrats on your nuptials and may you have a romantic honeymoon in Gaya!

  8. hey Darren, thanks for the review. It's very informative and such amazing photos. I'm going on a trip to KK this Nov. 2016 together with my mom as my Birthday gift to her and i'm wondering is it possible to have a full day tour from KK to Gaya Island then back to KK? Thank you. I loom forward to hearing from you soon.

    1. Hey... Thanks for dropping by the post and what a loving child you are to your mom :) At the time of my visit, Pulau Gaya is a private island with 2 private resorts, Pulau Gaya Island Resort being one of them. I assume that the island continues to be privately owned till now. As such, there are no day trips from KK to the island as a full day tour kind of arrangement.

      Pulau Gaya is one of a collection of islands under the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. The other islands being Pulau Sapi, Pulau Manukan, Pulau Mamutik, etc which are close by and I think there are island hopping day trips which you can book. Perhaps you can check for operators who offer day trip packages to these islands. I've done some Goolging and found this site that may be of help for you to find out more and plan a day trip from KK to the islands :


      Sorry I can't be of more help but here's wishing you a great trip and a blessed birthday in advance to your mom!

      Best Wishes


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