Stylist.co.uk’s former editorial assistant Lauren Smith flies across most of the world’s landmass to explore the oldest rainforest on the planet...
Every year I read those travel trend lists that appear at the beginning of January – the ones that proclaim Cuba as ‘the new Barbados’ or Kiev as ‘the new Kraków’. Every year I resolve to visit at least one of them, mentally planning an out-of-this-world trip that’ll get hundreds of likes on my Facebook holiday album, and portray me and my boyfriend as culturally aware jet-setters when we casually drop our travel plans into dinner party conversation. And every year, around the middle of June, I’ve panicked, logged on to lastminute.com, and played it safe with a solid, reliable, much-reviewed destination that I know will be amazing.
But this year, I decided it was time to stop plumping for the easy option and visit somewhere completely alien to me. Step forward Borneo. Touted by travel experts as an up-and-coming destination, it was a place I knew little-to-nothing about, while every person I excitedly told about my trip either looked intrigued, glazed over, or asked me if I had a “keen interest in orangutans”.
The one thing I knew about Borneo is that it is the place to see wildlife. Except with a very short schedule (Thursday to Tuesday) there would be no time for an epic jungle trek, but there would be a luxury resort on an island – which sounded pretty risk-free to me. So I braced myself for a whirlwind few nights in one of south-east Asia’s more adventurous beach retreats – the Gaya Island Resort.
ABOVE: The amazing lap pool at the Gaya Island Resort
Few places would be worth a 13-hour flight, then a further three-hour plane journey and a 15-minute boat ride. And while it is an epic trek to Gaya Island (I survived by watching every Ryan Gosling film on the flight and getting seriously involved in the free mini Toblerones), the setting – ancient rainforest, the snow-peaked Mount Kinabalu and a secluded stretch of beach looking out to a bay of fishing boats – is not that of your average luxury beach resort.
The hotel is built high into the hillside, surrounded by flora and fauna (the resort is sustainably built and the cost of each guest’s stay includes a conservation charge), and the facilities are as luxurious as you’d expect, with chic, minimalist rooms boasting impressively large bathtubs. There is also a serene spa, offering age-old treatments and soothing massages from local tribes. Oh, and a 64-foot private yacht, the Lumba Lumba, which is available for sunset cruises.
ABOVE: Gaya Island Resort's spa is the perfect place to unwind
The local cuisine is also worth the trip. We took part in cookery classes offered to guests at seafood restaurant Fisherman’s Cove, where we learnt how to make a classic Malaysian Rendang curry. We also ate a Sinigang Steamboat – a traditional meal of the local Kadazan tribe, where a pot of piping-hot fish broth with lemongrass, chilli, ginger and tamarind is placed in the middle of the table under some heat, and everyone joins in cooking fish and vegetables in the liquid.
But of course the real reason people visit Borneo is to spot orangutans and trek through the rainforest. Gaya Island is not in the heart of the jungle (for the full-on Borneo experience, you’ll want to explore the Denham Valley with a guide), but it does offer enough adventure for a safari novice like me. First up was a ramble through a nearby patch of rainforest with resident naturalist, Justin Juhan. We didn’t see a lot of animals as the hotel has just been built and they were still being coaxed back to their natural habitat, but Justin enthralled us with his knowledge of the local plants (including an all-natural alternative to Viagra), and tales of the most famous local resident – the bearded pig. We developed a slight obsession with the bearded pig (Google them, they’re amazing), and we spent ages trying to find one wandering around the hotel grounds.
More successful was our snorkelling expedition in the hotel’s marine park, with resident marine biologist Scott Mayback. I couldn’t tell you the names of half the fish we saw (sorry, Scott), but I can tell you that there are enough strange creatures in Borneo to warrant their own David Attenborough show. I could have written an entire feature just on the mountain bike tour the hotel offers its guests. If you stay here, please do it – it involves yet more travelling via boat and car to the mainland, but it shows a world far removed from the comfortable luxury of an island resort.
ABOVE: Stylist's Lauren unfazed by lack of cycle lanes
Our guides Junior and Sly took us by bike on a scenic tour past rivers where buffalo grazed in groups, across rickety bridges straight out of Indiana Jones, ending in the village of Tombung, where we stopped off at the home of locals Mr Francis and Mrs Flora, for Malaysian ‘high tea’. ‘Tea’ was actually a feast of tinubong (rice and coconut cake), panjaram (pancakes) and ice-cold soy milk, which we scoffed in Mr Francis’s backyard, before we were shown the family’s crop of rubber trees and saw how rubber is made. After sampling some rice wine (I made a faux pas by swallowing the rice at the bottom of the bucket), we were back on the road again, ending our journey at a roadside cafe for bowls of coconut curry and noodles. It was the sort of unique experience I’d been hoping for, and while I failed to see an orangutan (or, tragically, a bearded pig), my journey to Borneo proved that those travel trend lists can be worth reading.
A seven-night trip to Borneo with Original Travel starts at £2,000 per person. The price includes accommodation at Gaya Island Resort in a villa on a bed and breakfast basis, return flights with Malaysia Airlines from London to Kota Kinabalu and airport and boat transfers; originaltravel.co.uk