The island of Borneo is famous for its untamed rainforests and majestic orangutans, but it also boasts beautiful beaches and outstanding marine life. Demelza Rayner discovers a honeymoon destination that provides the perfect combination of adventure and luxury
As my husband and I headed out on an early morning boat ride along the expansive Kinabatangan River, camera at the ready, we eagerly scanned the rainforest on both sides, straining to spot Borneo's most famous inhabitant – the orangutan. Sightings aren't guaranteed but luck was on our side and, within minutes, the boat pulled close to the riverbank, providing the perfect view of a mother orangutan carrying her infant up a tree.
It's moments like these that make a honeymoon truly memorable, and Borneo just kept on giving. From the troupe of playful macaque monkeys on a low-lying tree trunk, to the brightly coloured kingfisher that perched on a branch just inches from the boat, we were mesmerised by the exotic wildlife around every corner.
Of course, not all of Borneo is covered in rainforest. We began our journey in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah state in East Malaysia. Despite its city status, KK (as it is affectionately known), is not as built up as some of the other south east Asian capitals.
Gourmands will be in their element as Kota Kinabalu is bursting with eateries offering tasty regional fare. We headed to the open air restaurants at Sedco Square, which are not only recommended by the tourist guides but are well frequented by the locals, the best indication that you've found a real gem. The food could not have been fresher. We selected some sizeable prawns from one of the fish tanks on display and, within minutes, they were cooked and served to us in a delicious spicy sauce.
If you're too squeamish to fish for your dinner, then head to the Waterfront Esplanade. It's the perfect place to enjoy early evening drinks while the sun sets over the South China Sea. This stretch of modern restaurants and bars has something for everyone – for newlyweds who really want to unwind there's even a cocktail bar offering excellent massages at a fraction of the price you'd find in the UK. Just around the corner you'll find one of Kota Kinabalu's popular night markets, packed full of handicrafts, clothes and mouth-watering hawker food.
Take a tour
While there's plenty to see in Kota Kinabalu by day, such as the Signal Hill Observatory, affording fabulous views over the city, and the Sabah State Museum which contains human skulls from Sabah's macabre headhunting past, the best way to explore the surrounding area is to book a tour. After much consideration, we selected a five-night, six-day adventure, taking in the Kinabalu National Park, as well as the Kinabatangan River beyond Sandakan.
Our first day was spent simply flying across from Kuala Lumpur and checking into our hotel for the night, while day two was packed with adventure. We visited Poring Hot Springs and took a dip in one of the soothing mineral waters. We then spent time at the World Heritage site of Kinabalu Park, exploring the mountain gardens – home to many species of orchids, pitcher plants, birds, insects and butterflies. The highlight of the day had to be the Tree Top Canopy Walkway. This suspended pedestrian bridge within the Danum Valley Conservation Area spans nearly 1,000 feet and has multiple viewing platforms along the way. It's not for the faint-hearted as the safety ropes only reach waist height and the walkway sways unpredictably with each step. However, the views over the rainforest are incredible so it's well worth making the journey across.
After spending most of day two on the road, we were delighted to kick back on one of Borneo's many islands – Manukan – on day three. We meandered along the island's jungle walk, spotting a monitor lizard or two before relaxing on the white-sand beach.
The quiet repose didn't last long; for the final three days, we took a 40-minute flight to the opposite side of the country – from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan (the same journey overland would take around eight hours) – first visiting the orangutan rehabilitation centre at Sepilok. While orangutan sightings aren't guaranteed here, food is put out at the same time of day and you'd have to be extremely unlucky not to see at least one of these magnificent tree-dwelling mammals.
From here, it was a short drive to the river for a thrilling boat ride of around two-anda- half hours up the broad Kinabatangan River to our base for the next two nights. After a relaxing night's sleep, we woke early for a more leisurely boat trip into the mangroves. The sight of the morning mists rising over the rainforest was magical, and I'll never forget the moment we caught a glimpse of our first orangutan in the wild. Spending time on a tour is incredibly exciting, however, the early starts can become a little tiring so factor in some time for relaxation.
Ready to go
It's well worth investing in those little extras before you leave the UK to start your honeymoon in style. If you're driving to the airport, book a meet and greet service – try Holiday Extras (www.holidayextras.co.uk
). Then, once you're at the airport, check into a lounge where you can unwind with complimentary drinks, nibbles and reading material. Servisair (www.servisair.com
) and No. 1 Traveller (www.no1traveller.co.uk
) both offer great value on advance bookings. Animal instincts
Borneo is a wildlife-lover's dream. Among our many sightings (too many to list them all) were orangutans, proboscis monkeys, long- and short-tailed macaques, silver leaf monkeys, monitor lizards, sea eagles, egrets, hornbills and hummingbirds.
Where to stay - Editor recommends
Gaya Island Resort www.gayaislandresort.com
Just 15 minutes off the coast of Kota Kinabalu lies Gaya Island, the largest island in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. There are three resorts in residence, but the newest and most deluxe is Gaya Island Resort, owned by the luxury hotel group, YTL.
Check-in is conducted at the exclusive Sutera Harbour Resort in Kota Kinabalu and, after enjoying a chilled freshly squeezed exotic juice, we were ushered to a private speedboat for the short transfer across.
Our Mount Kinabalu villa, so named because it affords sensational views of the highest mountain in the Malay Archipelago, was beautifully appointed and the spacious balcony with daybed provided the ideal place to unwind.
The beauty of this resort is that all facilities are within easy reach, from the stunning swimming pool overlooking the beach, to the restaurants and bars, and even the watersports centre and spa. Plans are currently afoot to make use of a gorgeous little bay around the coast, which would be the perfect private retreat for newlyweds.
♥ The service – helpful, friendly and always ready with a smile, the staff at the resort were truly incredible.
♥ The snorkelling – beautiful clear waters and hundreds of different fish. What's more, the guided snorkelling tours are free for all guests staying at the resort.
♥ The sunset cruise aboard the 64-foot private yacht, Lumba Lumba. Relaxing and romantic, it made our first night at the resort truly special. Why not?
♥ Book a meal at Fisherman's Cove. This adults-only restaurant boasts two spacious outdoor gazebos, as well as tables. Make sure you book the exceptional Sinigang Steamboat experience, where your own private chef will cook the freshest seafood in a mouth-watering spicy broth.
♥ Visit the superb spa. I enjoyed an 80-minute indigenous massage which was traditionally used to restore mobility and flexibility for paddy planters and farmers. Honeymooners may like to try Tadau Kaamatan, a joint programme of treatments that includes a body scrub, hair mask, massage and facial.
♥ Take a private cooking class. My husband and I spent an enjoyable hour preparing a starter and main course, which we then ate for lunch, washed down with a glass of chilled white wine.
West Coast Malaysia
It's easy to tour Malaysia thanks to cheap taxis and the local low-cost airline, Air Asia. From Kota Kinabalu it's a short flight to Kuala Lumpur, the gateway to some of Malaysia's most popular sights including the stunning tea plantations and strawberry fields of the Cameron Highlands, and the bustling island of Penang with its excellent hawker fare and impressive Buddhist temple, Kek Lok Si. Overland, the journey between Kuala Lumpur and Penang is 350km, which can take around six hours. Thankfully, the privately owned island of Pangkor Laut, located 1.6km off the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, provides the perfect stopping-off point between the two.
With a multitude of accolades to its name, awarded between 1997 to 2012, Pangkor Laut has an excellent reputation and is the perfect choice for honeymooners seeking an island paradise.Pack this…
The Dune suitcases from Carlton Luggage are lightweight and surprisingly robust. We put our case through its paces with no less than 11 flight connections over four weeks and, apart from a few scratches caused by over-enthusiastic luggage handlers, it arrived back in the UK in excellent condition and with our belongings intact. The Dune cases are available in four colours from John Lewis nationwide (www.johnlewis.com
Where to stay - Editor recommends
Pangkor Laut www.pangkorlautresort.com
Pangkor Laut is an island like no other: after all, where else would you be greeted by a sizeable monitor lizard basking on rocks by the shore, exotic birds flying overhead and sparkling needlefish swimming in the water below? Most of the island is given over to primary rainforest and guests are encouraged to join the resident naturalist for a jungle trek, where it may be possible to spot a myriad of exotic species including monkeys, snakes and birds.
We stayed in a beautifully appointed Garden Villa which combined Asian styling with every mod-con available, including your own personal mobile phone for contacting the resort's staff. Most impressive was the open-air bath, the size of a small swimming pool.
♥ The pretty white-sand beach at Emerald Cove – ideal for swimming and sunbathing. It's also possible to request a romantic meal here in the evening – staff will set up a table on the beach, encircled by lit bamboo stakes.
♥ The spa – incredible treatments in beautiful surroundings. Following a 45-minute bath house ritual, representing bathing traditions from around Asia, I selected the Campur-Campur treatment which combines Malay and Thai massage techniques using steamed herbs to promote wellbeing. Words cannot describe the fabulousness of this treatment, and I would happily fly half-way around the world to experience it again!
♥ Sailing on the resort's 34-foot yacht, The Impian. With a private crew of two, we were whisked around the pretty coastline to a jellyfish-free swimming spot before tucking into a bespoke gourmet picnic basket, packed with treats.
♥ Trek through the jungle with the resident botanist to spot the island's wildlife, finishing in Emerald Cove.
♥ Dine at Uncle Lim's Kitchen – mouthwatering Chinese food in superb surroundings overlooking the sea.
♥ Stay in a romantic Sea Villa. Standing elegantly on stilts over the sea and linked by wooden walkways, each private villa has a large balcony with deck chairs and a bathroom with an oversized tub that opens onto the sea.
Malaysia's capital city, Kuala Lumpur, is home to the country's primary airport, and is the first stop for those travelling onwards to the popular islands of Penang and Langkawi, or the tea plantations of the Cameron Highlands. But don't dismiss the city in your rush to see prettier parts of the country – Kuala Lumpur has a charm all of its own and is just waiting to be explored. The best way to get your bearings is to head for one of Kuala Lumpur's most popular nightspots – the SkyBar on the 33rd floor of Traders Hotel (www.skybar.com/my
). With floor-to-ceiling windows, mood lighting and an impressive cocktail list (my recommendation is the lychee martini), it's the perfect place to watch the sun set behind the iconic Petronas Towers.
During the day, the city beckons. It's a shopper's paradise, whether sourcing souvenirs in Chinatown's Petaling Street and Central Market, or high-end designer brands in the shopping malls. But if you'd rather not indulge on your honeymoon, then there are plenty of other experiences to make your visit a memorable one. For starters, no trip to Kuala Lumpur is complete without reaching the 83rd floor of the city's number one landmark – the Petronas Towers. Tours of the building also stop on the 41st floor, where a glass walkway connects the two towers, offering exceptional panoramic views.
Once you return to ground level, catch a taxi out to the verdant Lake Gardens, home to a spacious butterfly park, orchid garden and bird park. It's easy to spend an entire afternoon taking in the natural beauty of your surroundings, while spotting a monkey or two!
After such a busy day, you'll build up quite an appetite, and if there's one thing Malaysia is known for, it's the diversity and quality of its street food. As night falls, head for Jalan Alor, where you'll find a series of informal outdoor eateries, all offering delicious local cuisine. Alternatively, I can highly recommend Hakka, an awardwinning restaurant along Jalan Raja Chulan that offers mouth-watering seafood, spiced to perfection.
If you have time, there are some wonderful experiences to be had just beyond the city. My personal favourite has to be the half-day tour to Kuala Selangor, home to the largest firefly colony in the world.
Where to stay - Editor recommends
Shangri-La Hotel, Kuala Lumpur www.shangri-la.com/kualalumpur
I was expecting big things from the Shangri-La in Kuala Lumpur. After all, you don't get to number one on TripAdvisor without offering a top-class experience. On paper it ticked all the boxes: central location, excellent reputation, fabulous facilities and luxurious bedrooms – the question was, would it appeal to newlyweds?
The glamorous lobby provided a welcome first impression and, after a short conversation at reception, we were whisked up to our Horizon Club room where we completed our check-in. Tempting though it was to head straight for the complimentary afternoon tea, followed by complimentary drinks, the superb location made touring the city a breeze so we soon headed out to explore our surroundings.
The Shangri-La is more business chic than romantic retreat, although a quick call to concierge is all it takes to request one of many thoughtful touches, from filling your bath full of warm water and rose petals, to delivering a bottle of chilled champagne. My highlights…
♥ The divine afternoon tea in the executive lounge. The impossibly beautiful pastries and dainty cakes were truly a feast for the eyes as well as the taste buds.
♥ The location, right in the heart of the city and a short walk from the nearest metro station.
♥ Breakfast. Everything you could want and more. There are even two chocolate fountains – so ditch the wedding diet in style. We recommend…
♥ Take a dip in the pool or simply recline on the sun loungers with a good book.
♥ Ask the super-efficient concierge to suggest ideas for a half-day or full-day tour from the city.
♥ Dine at the elegant and popular Shang Palace restaurant, offering authentic Cantonese cuisine.