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22 Aug 2012 § Leave a comment

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gaya island resort: distinctively borneo.

13 Aug 2012 § 6 Comments

When I heard that YTL will be launching their new resort – Gaya Island Resort, located 15 minutes off the coast of Kota Kinabalu in Sabah – in July, I thought it would be the perfect place to celebrate the boy’s birthday in August and decided to book a trip there. With a launch date scheduled for 1st July 2012, I’d initially thought one month would be enough for the staff to work out the inevitable kinks of a new resort. Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans. The resort was not able to meet their opening date and when we set foot at Gaya Island Resort on August 8th, it had only been formally in operations for a grand total of less than two weeks!

Nevertheless, our stay here was generally on the pleasant side despite a few minor (and one major) blips…

Arrival
After a bleary-eyed, early morning flight via Air Asia, we arrived at Kota Kinabalu at 10am in the morning. The Gaya Island Resort reception lounge is situated at Sutera Harbor Marina, just a short 10 minute drive from the airport, hence we decided to pay for an airport taxi (RM30) instead of booking a private car from YTL Resorts (RM150!).

The friendly staff at the reception greeted us with a refreshing calamansi sorbet and drinks upon our arrival and checked us in at the reception itself. After taking a short stroll along the marina to take in the views, we were soon ushered to the speedboat and off we went to Pulau Gaya! Strangely enough, upon our arrival at the resort, we were asked to produce our ICs again to check-in a second time, but other than that, our arrival went smoothly.

Resort grounds
Frankly, this is my biggest disappointment with Gaya Island Resort. Granted, it will take time for the greenery to mature, but trees notwithstanding, the whole place looked like a work-in-progress. Only half the resort was open, and the Spa Village was not operational yet. Personally, I think it is very misleading of YTL to not have informed their guests prior to their arrival (we were only told at the reception at Sutera Harbor that the spa is not ready – not a big deal for us, but the lack of info was rather disconcerting), furthermore, their website made no mention of this. The resort grounds looked very ‘raw’…there were dead and dried plants here and there, the public toilets smelt of fresh cement, the w.c. was dirty…even the soap came in the plastic bottles straight off the shelf.

Things slowly got better as we inched towards the weekend (presumably due to the higher number of guests that would be checking-in on Friday and Saturday), but it was a disappointment nevertheless. Another grouse I had was the construction workers that were walking around the resort grounds (these are the ones not in the GIR uniforms) – there were two occasions where I had to walk back to the room by myself, and when I passed these workers, they called out, “Hiiiiii…where are you going??“. Call me paranoid and/or biased after reading about all the daily incidents in KL, but I felt fearful of my safety on those two occasions as I was alone on a pathway that had a forest on one side and a steep slope on the other.

Room
Our room (#606) was situated quite far from the restaurant and pool, and the daily trek and climb in the humid weather was not something I looked forward to. We stayed at Bayu Villa, which had views of the sea that was slightly blocked by the tropical mangrove forest below. The room is spacious, and the layout is somewhat similar to Pangkor Laut (for those who have been there), whereby there are his-and-hers sinks on each side of the bathroom and a big bathtub at the end of the room.

Sadly, the finishing of the room was far from perfect – for example, I spotted light switches that had not been fixed properly, leaving holes in the wall as well as paint splotches here and there. We were probably the first guests to use the bathtub as well – the sealant gave a loud crack after we’d sunk into a tubful of hot water…thinking back, that was quite hilarious as I thought the tub was going to fall through the floor when I first heard the crack!

What I did enjoy about the room was the strong rainshower that was installed in the bathroom – perfect after a humid and sticky day out at the pool. As there were no in-room telephones, all guests were given a Samsung Galaxy Player that was preloaded with the reception’s telephone number…I thought that was a nice touch!

Pool

While the pool doesn’t look as big as the one in Tanjong Jara, the thing I loved most about it was the four huge day beds that were accessible from the pool bar. You had to wade in knee-high water to get to the day beds, but it was perfect for all-day lounging! As the resort faces the morning sun, the day bed is positioned just right for early morning tanning from 10am-12pm when the sun is out in full force.

I, however, took full advantage of the shade that the rooftop of the pool bar provided, which slowly shifted to cover the whole day bed as the sun moved west, spending hours lounging on the daybed from morning till evening. Its proximity to the pool bar meant that we could leave our belongings on the day bed and enjoy our meals at the pool bar right above. It was r&r at its best, being lulled to sleep by the sound of the water lapping against the side of the pool, and waking to find an ice-cold, all-chocolate, banana split served just the right time. Bliss.

The deck chairs were pretty much fully occupied with sun worshipers enjoying the view of Mount Kinabalu in the distance although the pool remained relatively uncrowded. For those with kids, rest assured that the pool isn’t very deep and there’s also a wading pool next to it for younger children.

Beach
Alas, no sandy white beaches here! The beach was sadly not as pristine as I’d hope it would be – I spotted some random pieces of litter here and there – and although the water nearest to the beach was clear, the bottom was rather sandy with quite alot of sharp stones as well (the hotel provides Crocs shoes which was very thoughtful).

I only ventured into the sea once and only for a short while as we’d spotted a small jelly fish near the jetty and neither of us wanted to get stung (nor try the traditional remedy for jellyfish sting, heh!). Nevertheless, I noticed many of the guests wading out into the sea, having fun snorkeling, kayaking and trying their hands with the stand-up paddle surfboard.

Food

Gaya Island Resort only consists of two restaurants – Feast Village and Fisherman’s Cove (sound familiar? The names were probably inspired by restaurants in another YTL owned property – StarHill). As part of the residents’ package, all our meals were at Feast Village which consisted of a buffet style breakfast and dinner, and a 3-course meal off the menu for lunch. There was a decent spread for the buffet – highlights for me were the soft buttery croissant from the breakfast buffet, and the teppanyaki from the dinner buffet as well as a assemble-it-yourself pavlova from the dessert counter. As for lunch, the food was generally good with exception for the crab and the beef burger that we both had on our first day there – it was a case of quantity over quality as the burgers were huge but sadly lacking in taste.

As part of the birthday surprise, I’d requested for a basket to be packed for a personalized picnic at Tavajun Bay, but upon arrival, I was told that the bay was not accessible yet (this is what I mean when I said earlier on that YTL should have done their due diligence by informing their guests regarding the progress of the resort prior to their arrival!). The reception staff who attended to us was however very apologetic, and in what I felt was a very generous gesture, she arranged for our dinner on the first night to be held at Fisherman’s Cove, on the house! The food we had there was superb – we dined on tuna tataki, lobster bisque, pasta with fresh lobster and prawns right under the twinkling stars. Be warned though, Fisherman’s Cove is open-air and while we were there, there were no fans so it gets pretty hot on a still night!

As for the major blip I mentioned earlier: I’m usually quite careful with my food intake when we go on a holiday, and I’d expected that the food from a YTL resort would be perfectly clean. Sadly, on our final night, after dinner at Feast Village, I came down with a bad case of food poisoning that lasted for two days. I suspect the culprit is probably the fresh salad that I had – perhaps it wasn’t washed properly? Everything else I had that night was cooked (prawns and vege teppanyaki style, a lemon meringue tart and a pavlova). It was such a bad experience and it definitely marred an otherwise pleasant trip.

Staff and service
I have to commend the local staff at the resort – they were very friendly and always smiling, taking time to check if everything was ok. As we neared the weekend, I noticed some foreign staff walking around the resort as well, and while they were polite, the warmth seemed to be sadly lacking as compared to the locals. Knowledge-wise, most of the questions I asked eg. regarding the picnic, the beach bbq, the sunset cruise could not be answered straightaway – but I guess that’s part of the usual teething problems of a new resort.

One incident that saddened me though was when I saw a GIR staff smoking at the jetty and then flicking his cigarette butt over the railings into the clear water below. Considering that Gaya Island is part of the Tunku Abdul Rahman marine park and the resort itself is built to preserve the natural beauty of the island and the delicate ecological system, it’s a pity that the staff were not trained to uphold the same values.

Activities
The resort is definitely not short of things to do for those who are less inclined to lounge the day away. There’s a veritable list of activities provided, from diving to island excursions, nature walks with their resident naturalist, cooking classes and storytelling sessions for the little ones.

We joined in the early morning snorkeling excursion with the resident marine biologist, Scott Mayback. All the equipment was provided by the resort and it was a fun 45-minute outing (though I probably spent a good 15 minutes of it trying to clear my mask, wipe the salt water away from my eyes and stretching my legs that were cramping up!). Scott is extremely knowledgeable and he pointed out the different types of coral and fishes to our group as we swam from the jetty out to the open waters, while reminding us to steer clear of the sea urchins down below – I definitely shuddered at the sight of those long black spines!

We also booked ourselves on a sunset cruise aboard the Lumba-Lumba, a 64-foot beautiful yacht. Departing at 5.30pm in the evening, this is one cruise that’s definitely worth going if you love sunsets as much as we do. There’s nothing more spectacular than to see the glowing, blazing sun slowly move down towards the endless horizon, and just as it disappears, to watch the sky burst into a cornucopia of pink, red and orange while sitting at the bow of the boat in the middle of the sea.

Departure

Our departure from the resort was abit of a let-down. We had to ask the staff if the boat docked at the jetty was indeed the boat that would be taking us back to Sutera Harbor, and there was no send-off or good-byes like we experienced at Tanjong Jara. On top of that, 5 minutes into our journey on the speedboat, we had to turn back because they had apparently ‘forgot a guest’. Without saying a word to us, the speedboat driver just swung the boat around and headed back to the island and to make things worse, he received another call before he reached, presumably to tell him that the guest that had been left behind had been picked up by another speedboat, and he swung round yet again to continue the journey towards the marina. I personally think resorts need to put in the same amount of effort in sending a guest off as they do in greeting a new guest – after all, last impressions count as much as first impressions and the holiday experience should be holistic.

Overall, I would say that Gaya Island Resort definitely has the potential to grow – I would call the negative experiences that we encountered growing pains rather than serious problems. As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, we did enjoy ourselves (food poisoning notwithstanding!) and will probably plan a trip back there in a year’s time when the resort is more seasoned and matured.

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