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In the Pursuit of Luxury in Borneo

Bungaraya Island Resort Pantai Villa, Borneo
Bungaraya Island Resort Pantai Villa, Borneo

Two exclusive resorts in tropical Borneo bridge the gap between wilderness and luxury…

It’s a jungle out there, and I mean that literally. After 30 minutes of trekking through dense rainforest, we have spotted two hornbills, a monitor lizard, exotic blue butterflies, several long-tailed macaque monkeys, and two snakes – both venomous.

When we reach our destination – a bubbling waist-high crater of thick, cold, oozing mud – my teenage daughters and I reach in and scoop out big handfuls. As we smear it all over our bodies and even into our hair, our guide Nico laughs and takes photos for us as the mud hardens in the tropical heat.

According to locals, the mineral-rich mud has great healing properties, and even if it doesn’t, it seems to deter the bloodsucking mosquitos that have been feasting on us since we started our trek. (Note to self: next time, stock up on hardcore insect repellent as these jungle mosquitos are not fazed by citronella spray).

We are on Pulau Tiga, an island off the west coast of Borneo. This remote sanctuary, just 4.5 kilometres long and 1.5 kilometres wide, was the location used in the inaugural series of the US reality TV show Survivor.

Surrounded by a 15,000-hectare marine eco-reserve, the island and its newest luxury hideaway, Borneo Eagle Resort, offer visitors a real-life Jungle Book experience – complete with wildlife, coral reefs and volcanic mud pools – but with fine dining, soothing spa treatments and stylish villa accommodations.

Borneo Eagle is an intimate 13-villa resort and the most recent addition to Echo Resorts’ luxury portfolio. The Tan clan is a third-generation Sabahan family that owns this and two other sister properties along with a marine ecology research centre.

The centre has been very successful with its giant clam and coral restoration project, and guests can get involved by adopting a coral or by spending a day as a fledgling marine biologist.

Once immersed in the program, guests come to realise how unique the biodiversity in the area is, and become more passionate about preservation and education so that it can be enjoyed by future generations.

Back from our jungle trek, we lie on the sand and bake our mud-covered bodies in the sun until the thick coating starts to crack. It takes a lot of scrubbing in the ocean to rinse it all off, but our skin does feel pretty amazing when we’re done.

Eager for more adventure, we opt to tour the surrounding islands. The first stop is Snake Island, where yellow-lipped sea kraits spend hot afternoons hiding between rocks.

These poisonous sea snakes are a beautiful pale blue with striking black bands. I’m happy to look, but not game to touch, as our guide bravely handles one for a closer look.

Next, we snorkel in the clear warm waters off the boat, examining blue starfish and several species of clownfish while making our way to a sand bar, but sadly upon closer inspection, the sandbar has plastic bottles and other rubbish strewn about.

Our guide explains that while they do beach clean-ups in these remote areas, the wind brings rubbish from the mainland where the disposal of garbage is still a problem in the coastal villages.

Back at our villa, we swim in the free-form pool and relax on the large yellow daybed while Nora and Tina, our spa therapists, set up massage tables on the deck overlooking the ocean.

What follows is 90 minutes of pure bliss as Nora kneads my body with her small but powerful hands and a piece of smooth bamboo, and finishes with a 16-point facial acupuncture massage.

There are three restaurants at the resort, but tonight we treat ourselves to a private dinner on the deck of our villa. Chefs Timmy and Joseph, along with a couple of sous chefs, set up a small kitchen near the deck and cook up an array of delicacies.

Fresh salads, seared local tuna, grilled New Zealand lamb, chicken satay, freshly baked bread, 24-hour brined organic chicken roasted to perfection, and a fresh pineapple torte for dessert. Nearly all of the food is sourced from the Tan family’s private farm on the mainland, including the organically farmed fish and vegetables.

The next morning after enjoying breakfast by the pool, we take a boat back to the mainland and head to sister property Bungaraya Island Resort and Spa. The one hour and 40-minute drive to Kota Kinabalu passes through rolling countryside, virgin rainforest and small kampongs (villages) with orchards and farms.

Following the drive, a 20-minute boat transfer lands us on Gaya Island. Bunga Raya means hibiscus – Malaysia’s national flower. The Tans have a passion for them and dozens of varieties can be found around the resort.

Here the jungle seems even more dramatic with the resort’s 48 timber villas perched on the hillside and linked by narrow footpaths that meander through the dense foliage.

Our cheeky friends, the long-tailed macaques, also reside on this island and are regularly seen in the evening as they play along the shoreline. And don’t be alarmed if you hear grunting under your villa, those are just wild boar rooting around for a snack.

Keep in mind you’re in an authentic jungle setting in Borneo; it’s not sanitised for guests, so if you’re not happy with the occasional insect or curious primate, this holiday might not be for you.

Our two-bedroom Deluxe Suite is built into the side of the hill and reminds me of a lavish treehouse. The large furnished verandah has sweeping views over the ocean and pool, and is the perfect place to chill out.

The best way to experience the jungle is on the canopy walk and flying fox. It took local workmen more than a year to build these three suspension bridges and as the terrain was so rugged, everything was done using manpower. There are incredible views out to the sea and the three zip lines will have you soaring at some speed over the treetops.

Stand-up paddle boarding and kayaking are easy in the resort’s calm bay, and snorkelling straight off of the island is also good, with huge pink jellyfish, parrotfish and clownfish as entertainment.

There are three dining venues as well as in-room service. The Malaysian food at the Longhouse Restaurant is excellent; tender beef rendang, slow-stewed korma cinnamon lamb shoulder, and lip-smacking roti canai are our favourites.

The Koi Wine Cave is a romantic cellar with 4,500 quality wine bottles and is ideal for private dining, while Pantai Restaurant and Bar is beachfront and specialises in succulent grilled meats and seafood. All of the resort’s restaurants offer Western dishes, but the Malaysian menu is so delicious, we never try any of them.

If you’re looking for a different type of holiday, something a bit on the wild side, Borneo Eagle and Bungaraya will give you the jungle look, but still immerse you in pampered luxury. Mowgli never had it so good.

The Details

Royal Brunei, Singapore Airlines, AirAsia and Malaysia Airlines operate flights from Australia to Kota Kinabalu International Airport.

The private road transfer from the airport to Kuala Penyu Jetty takes about 90 minutes for the 10-kilometre boat ride to Borneo Eagle on Pulau Tiga.

Bungaraya Island Resort and sister Gayana Marine Resort are located on Pulau Gaya, the largest of the five islands in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. The two resorts are accessible by a 10 to 15-minute boat transfer from Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal in Kota Kinabalu.

All-inclusive room rates at Borneo Eagle start from about A$1106 for a pool villa, A$1739 for a coral villa and A$2372 for a spa villa per night. For further details and bookings, echoresorts.com.

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