Is This Borneo's Most Beautiful Wellness Retreat?


In the jungles of Borneo, there’s a retreat so serene that even the neighbourhood cobras are too blissed out to strike, writes Linda Jaivin.

As our speedboat approaches the island of Pulau Tiga, off the western coast of Sabah, Malaysia, I feel my own engines beginning to throttle down. Like most travellers, I’ve come to Borneo to explore its wilder side. I find it on the Kinabatangan River in inland Sabah, setting out at dawn on skiffs to catch sight of frisky proboscis monkeys and at dusk in search of pygmy elephants.

I find it again in Sepilok, where I watch playful young orangutans swinging gymnastically on ropes before flopping onto their backs for a breather and sun bears cracking open coconuts to tip the juice down their gold-collared throats. But I’m crossing the calm waters of Kimanis Bay to reach the newly opened Borneo Eagle Resort for another reason: taking my cues from the orangutans and sun bears, I’m here to play, rest and refresh.

Pulau Tiga, a dot on the map 10 kilometres from Kuala Penyu in Sabah, is for slowing down: for walking in the lush jungle at its centre; for swimming, kayaking and snorkelling in the sea; for paddling in Borneo Eagle’s lagoon-like pool. With its focus on wellness, the resort features a gym and offers Pilates, yoga or guided exercise on the beach if you’re keen – and day beds if you’re not. 

The wildlife seems as easygoing as the surroundings, introducing itself by name: cheechak cheechak goes the cicak (gecko); tokay tokay calls its larger cousin, the tokay; pipit pipit chirps the pipit songbird. “Even the snakes here are too relaxed to bother anyone,” jokes Hedros, a guide and trainer at the resort.

A few days into my stay, we’re hiking through the rainforest to the mud volcanoes that formed the island in 1897 when an earthquake on Mindanao in the Philippines – 900 kilometres away – caused a volcanic eruption off the coast of Borneo. There are cobras and pit vipers here but the most venomous inhabitants are gone – this is where the first series of American Survivor was filmed, the Tribal Council picking off contestants one by one. Our trail detours towards the shore, taking us to a barbecue area with a sign declaring “Survivor Island”. “Please don’t vote me off,” I say.

My villa is one of 13 studded along a narrow, palm- fringed ribbon of sand, the broad pitched roofs of Borneo ironwood an architectural nod to long houses, their floor-to-ceiling windows a mirror to the sparkling sea. Behind them rises the dense rainforest, with its soft, ambient drone. Three of the villas, mine included, have a spa treatment room.

Indigenous treatments are the speciality here, including the signature “welcome” offering, Gakod Ku, Ralan Ku (which means “my feet, my pathway”). Nursita, the resort’s spa therapist, soon eases my feet into a basin of warm water before adding chopped pandanas leaf, lime and sirih (betel) leaves, along with bunga kantan (torch ginger), lavender and other oils. Massaging my soles with a river stone, Nursita, who is from Borneo’s Bajau tribe, explains that this is “what the kampong [village] girls do when they go to the river”. 

The next therapy is a rice-flour foot and leg mask. Rice-flour masks, Nursita tells me, are how kampong girls keep their glowing skin hydrated. After the mask comes off, she offers me a choice of aromatic-oil blends for a full-body massage. The oils are named for states of mind. I reject “calm” – at this point, if I was any calmer I might just slip into a coma.

Later treatments prove more energising. During one, Nursita drums on my back with lengths of bamboo before rolling them up and down my spine – excellent therapy for the sore muscles that have resulted from my 4.5-hour jungle hike with trainer Hedros. There’s also a bamboo scrub and a coconut-oil hair mask. Natural, often edible ingredients are a feature of Nursita’s menu; torch ginger also appears in a laksa I have at breakfast. 

The food here caters to individual preferences, with each guest’s menu designed in consultation with the resort’s chefs. My wish is for Malay-style breakfasts and “anything goes” for the rest. Make that everything goes as lunch and dinner are leisurely four-course affairs served in the open-air Eagles Nest restaurant, by the pool or at my villa – wherever I nominate.

While long-tailed macaques cavort in nearby trees and songbirds weave their notes through a soundtrack of cicadas and gently lapping waves, I sample the resort’s menu and produce. To start, a salad of spinach leaves from its organic farm, mixed with strawberries, radishes, pine nuts and cherry tomatoes, over a poached egg on crostini. Beetroot soup, dotted with fragrant pandanas oil and accompanied by baked haloumi, is followed by succulent lapu-lapu (grouper) from the fishery. As I lick the last of a savarin-like dessert with vanilla sauce off my spoon, I make a mental note to see a lot more of Hedros.

Which I do. He guides me on a snorkelling session, where we explore coral formations, chase bright little fish and gaze into the curvy smile of a giant clam, then dials it up with high-intensity interval training known as Tabata. On my final morning, we go kayaking just after sunrise. About 100 kilometres away, on the mainland, Mount Kinabalu shimmers above rose-tinted clouds. When a barracuda breaks the surface in a flashing, silvery arc then crashes back into the sea, I’m reminded that I’ll be plunging back into my real life soon enough. But I’ll take it slow. 

SEE ALSO: The 5 Best Wellness Retreats in Asia

You may also like