Few things excite an Aussie as much as being able to travel to a foreign land in the time it takes to watch a film. So, having moved to Hong Kong, the idea that I can be somewhere fresh and fabulous within two shakes of a lamb’s tail has me hightailing it out of here 10 days after I arrive. ‘Bound for Borneo’ my Facebook status boasts, as Mr Smith and I board a plane for Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, on the tip of Malaysia’s ruggedly beautiful eastern island.
After a high-tech arrival (fingerprint scans and digital barcodes) in an airport resembling a tin shed, we take a 15-minute taxi ride to Jesselton Wharf, checking in at the Gayana Eco Resort lounge, at the end of a café-lined pier.
There’s something about a boat transfer that instantly eases me into holiday mode, and after a short skip across the bay, we’re docking at Gaya Island and ready to relax. We’re greeted by a chirpy chap called Jameson, who guides us through the rustic-chic resort, a series of overwater villas that fan out from a central boardwalk.
Hot-pink bougainvillea and hanging orchids line the route to our room, a Bayu Villa on the must-book sea-facing side of the property. Our thatched-roof retreat is filled with warm polished woods, rattan furniture and neutral-toned fabrics, pared-back interiors that happily play second fiddle to the scenes outside.
Arming ourselves with free beers from the minibar, we head onto the private deck, where steps lead down to the South China Sea. We take a quick dip in the lagoon – dodging tiny crabs on the climb back up to the terrace – then slump onto a pair of sunloungers.
A date with Solace Spa, the hotel’s dinky day spa near the pool, soon propels me out of my lounger and back along the boardwalk. Curling up in a cushioned cocoon, I sip hibiscus tea and wait for my session to start. Clearly I’ve begun to switch off already, because when my therapist arrives I realise I’ve dribbled tea down my shirt. Classy.
Normally, I’m a fan of a firm and furious massage, but as this mini-break is all about indulgence, I tick ‘relaxing’ on the preference form. Unfortunately, acting on auto-pilot, I’ve already marked ‘firm’ in the pressure section. It’s soon clear that this isn’t going to be the soothing, gentle treatment I’d envisioned. Instead, Veronica (now known as Tenacious V), pummels, prods and pulls my muscles in a series of yelp-inducing directions. At some point I manage to unwind enough to drool again, this time into the bowl of water and orchids placed strategically below my head.
After an afternoon spent snorkelling in the warm, fish-filled waters, Mr Smith seems far more laid-back than me, but both agree that a cocktail is in order. As luck would have it, sundowners are being poured in the Latitude Bar, and from 6 to 7pm, the first drink is on the house.
Our gratis gin and tonics are served with a bowl of nuts, which we fall upon in an animalistic heap, having arrived in the dining dead-zone between lunch and dinner. Fans whir overhead, billiard balls clack above the lounge tunes, and a storm sweeps through the resort, thankfully taking the humidity with it.
Once the rain clears, we follow the lanterns to Alu Alu, the hotel’s overwater restaurant on the other side of the lagoon. With swags of red and gold satin hanging from every beam, it looks like the dining room has just played host to a Big Fat Chinese Wedding; it’s an odd touch in what could be an elegant, open-air eatery. The daggy decor is soon forgiven once the food lands on the table: omelette-wrapped noodles, wok-tossed greens and a crunchy jumble of soft-shell crab.
The next morning is a delight, as we awake just in time to see our breakfast being delivered by boat. We sit on the deck and tuck into mango pancakes and nasi goreng as the sun glitters across the glassy lagoon.
So far our stay has been entirely self-centred, so we devote the morning to the hotel’s eco-friendly focus. We feed man-sized groupers in floating pens, then wander down to the Marine Ecology Research Centre (MERC), a hub devoted to giant clam breeding and coral restoration programmes. (Even pop star Ronan Keating is backing the cause.)
Admittedly, after ogling 200-kilo groupers, the clams don’t seem as massive as their name might suggest, but these endangered molluscs are fascinating none the less. In the blue-lit aquarium, we spy the not-so-giant clams, soft corals and puffer fish, then scoop up starfish and squishy sea cucumbers in the touch tanks. Last order of business is planting a piece of coral, which will be regenerated here, then replanted in the sea.
Feeling slightly smug from our aquatic good deeds, we steer clear of seafood for lunch, instead dining on satay skewers at poolside Macac restaurant and knocking back a few rounds of margaritas. Then, as quickly as we arrived, it’s time to leave… Retracing our steps to Hong Kong, we’re still feeling that tequila buzz when we touch down a few hours later.