For many visitors to Borneo, a few nights on Gaya Island is the ideal end to the trip. A short boat ride from Kota Kinabalu, the island is covered in rainforest and surrounded by coral reefs and clear water. Walking trails, beaches, snorkeling, and some of the best resorts in Borneo: it’s a lovely place to sit down with a good book or a cocktail. Ideally both. There are only three hotels on the island, but with each one offering something different, choosing one is a challenge. After checking out all three, here are my thoughts on the best hotel on Gaya Island depending on what you’re seeking. For a quick takeaway, jump to the bottom!
Gaya Island Resort
The largest of the three resorts and only 15-minutes from Kota Kinabalu, if I’m required to pick a favorite, this might be it by a very narrow margin. The luxurious villas are huge, all with private verandahs or balconies, there are multiple dining options, the beaches are the best, the options for keeping busy or relaxing are numerous, and the service is incredible.
The resort sprawls across a gentle hill and the only way to get around is on foot so if you’ve just climbed Mount Kinabalu, I might recommend one of the other resorts. Aside from the two-bedroom Suria Suite, the villas are all quite similar inside but differ in location and view. All have massive closets and bathrooms, a private verandah or balcony, and feel supremely decadent.
If you don’t mind a bit of a walk to the pool, beach, and breakfast, the Kinabalu Villas are the best choice as they have views like the one in the photo above. You’re also closer to the spa and the Wildlife Centre. I attended an evening meditation class in the gorgeous Spa Village and joined the team from the Wildlife Centre for a morning walk through the rainforest. Both were excellent and even after weeks of listening to guides in the jungles of Borneo, I learned a few things from the team at Gaya Island Resort. Had I stayed longer, I’d have loved to try a yahai pupuan workout – a combination of qi gong, breathing techniques, and movement inspired by nature; made a bracelet in the Borneo craftworks class; sat down with the resident marine biologist to talk all things ocean; or given in to a day of pampering and wellness at the spa. The roster of weekly activities is substantial and includes a number of kid-friendly options like movie nights. Snorkeling, diving, and fishing excursions are available and you can swim and snorkel right off the beach.
As with all of the hotels on Gaya Island, eating options are limited to the resort unless you want to pay for a boat ride back to Kota Kinabalu. GIR has multiple restaurants including the adults-only Fishermen’s Cove. The buffets at Feast Village are huge and one of the chefs personally assisted me with vegetarian offerings that met my restrictions. Whatever your food preferences, they’ll be catered for – you’ll be asked upon booking and at check-in if you have restrictions they should know about. That’s how much they care!
So who is Gaya Island Resort best for?
Those who want activities in addition to beach or pool time, families, seekers of luxury, lovers of wellness offerings, anyone who doesn’t mind a bit of walking to get around the resort, and foodies. Click here to learn more about Gaya Island Resort.
Bunga Raya Island Resort
The smallest of the three, Bunga Raya has 48 villas built into the side of a hill. As the boat pulled in, I could barely make out a few in the trees, that’s how well they blend into the landscape. Ideal for those looking to get away from it all and relax in luxury, this is our top recommendation for honeymooners and anyone with something to celebrate.
A long jetty leads across the water to reception, complete with covered sitting areas for looking out dreamily at the sea. As I walked the length, all I wanted was to grab a mask and snorkel and dive in. Alas, my first duty was to scope out the resort by riding around in a buggy and checking out the villas.
Many of the bungalows are accessed by stairs which makes for great views but maybe not so fun after a few cocktails. All are handcrafted with local materials and textiles showcasing Borneo’s rich textures and I love the subtle decor inside the rooms. The polished wood floors might benefit from an area rug or two. The balconies are heaven for curling up with a cup of tea and watching the sky light up in the morning.
Inside, most villas look the same but location on the hill and other features make for a different experience. My favorites are the two treehouse villas as these have the most privacy and are far from the rest of the resort. One has a plunge pool and the other an outdoor tub. There are bigger options including two and three bedroom villas plus the incredibly posh Royal Villa. That one has two bedrooms, a full kitchen and dining area, a designated chef and butler, an infinity pool, and a private beach.
Plunge pool villas are nice but many feel a tad exposed as neighbors can easily look over and watch you sunbathing or swimming. If you ask me, privacy is the whole point of having your own pool so I was a little disappointed. The good news is that there are a few hidden among the trees so if you book with me as part of your trip to Borneo I’ll try to score you one of those.
All the non-alcoholic drinks in the mini-bar are free and there are a few little gifts. I took my bottle of “goodbye sandfly,” a natural bug repellent and bite soother, with me on the rest of my trip through Borneo and used it time and again.
The infinity pool is divine and the beach has plenty of shady spots if you’d rather not crisp your skin under the equatorial sun. I didn’t try any of the spa offerings but the treatment villas have all the amenities you’d expect from a luxury boutique resort. I particularly like the shower of one built around a rock. The folks behind Bunga Raya really tried to respect the natural landscape when they built this place. The villas are spread out which increases the feeling of exclusivity. Getting around on foot is an option and the staff will collect you in a buggy to ferry you around the property at any time. One of the best wine cellars in Borneo is at Bunga Raya and if you ask the staff, you might be able to check it out yourself.
This resort is a 45-minute boat ride from Kota Kinabalu and is tucked away in a private bay. There are no places to eat other than the two restaurants of the resort. Guided walks – including one to a zipline – are available as are kayaks and snorkeling gear. There isn’t as much to see in this bay as there is where the other two hotels are located but you can get a ride over to their sister property, Gayana Marine Resort, and snorkel there. At times, you’ll see people walking the paths and posing for selfies. These may be fellow guests or they could be day-visitors who have come to snorkel, relax on the beach, and otherwise enjoy the beauty of Bunga Raya. For the most part, the resort feels exclusive because it is.
Who is Bunga Raya best for?
Those who want to get away from it all, lovers of private pools (pick the treehouse villa for true privacy), anyone wanting a romantic and exclusive bit of luxury at the end of their holiday. Click here to learn more about Bunga Raya Island Resort.
Gayana Marine Resort
As an ocean lover, I’m a fan of the Marine Ecology Research Centre at Gayana but that isn’t the only thing it has going for it. The villas are built over the water and some offer direct access into the ocean below. Meaning you can sunbathe on your balcony and slip into the South China Sea whenever you wish. Set across the bay from Gaya Island Resort, the hotel is a 15-minute boat ride from Kota Kinabalu.
I’m going to be honest with you: I’ve spent the least amount of time at Gayana Marine so I don’t know all its charms. I do know that the villas are big, comfortable, and built with materials and techniques designed to minimize harm to the environment. Some have glass panels in the floor so you can watch the fish below. Above the spa is a great bar for catching the sunset with happy hour specials. At one of two restaurants, you can select your own seafood from the tanks.
I would be remiss if I didn’t write about the Marine Ecology Research Centre. With marine biologists and help from students and guests, the centre is replanting coral, restocking the waters with giant clams, and educating visitors about the ecosystem. If you plant a piece of coral, you’ll get regular updates by email marking its growth. It’s a great way to help the environment and to remember the holiday after it’s over.
There are a few elements to Gayana Marine that set it apart from the other resorts. First, there’s no beach. If you don’t like sand finding its way into your luggage and you’re just as happy by the pool or catching some rays on your balcony, then Gayana is a great choice for a little seaside relaxation. Second, as you can see from the photo below, the villas are quite close to one another. Each offers a great deal of space within and the Palm Villas, located at the end of the row, provide plenty of privacy and luxury complete with plunge pools and ladders into the sea.
Who is Gayana Marine best for?
Anyone who loves entering the ocean from their own balcony, wants great snorkeling, is interested in learning about marine conservation, and doesn’t want sand in their shoes. Click here to learn more about Gayana Marine Resort.
So what’s the best hotel on Gaya Island?
It’s a toss up between Bunga Raya and Gaya Island Resort and it depends on what you prefer. For honeymooners and anyone wanting an exclusive beach getaway, Bunga Raya is the way to go. If your idea of a beach holiday involves being active, learning something new, or a tranquil oasis of a spa, Gaya Island Resort is the better choice. Ultimately, you can’t wrong with any of these hotels. All are luxurious, offer excellent service, and provide a fabulous end to a Borneo holiday. If you’re thinking of a trip to Borneo or want to book a stay at any of these hotels, give me a ring at +44 0207 112 0019 or email me.