Escape to the great apes and splendid isolation in Borneo’s Shangri-La
THERE is the trill of excited chatter as about 40 of us walk along a raised platform into the forest. The rangers have told us all the rules — no touching, no feeding — and shown us a short video about the plight of the jungle creatures we are about to meet.
As we arrive, so do they: a small family of orphaned orang-utans. For an hour we watch from a viewing platform as they eat pieces of banana, play with each other and the rangers, and tease the macaque monkeys that try to steal the leftover fruit.
Ranging in age from three to five, these seven beautiful creatures, whose natural habitat is being destroyed by palm farming, have been raised by humans who are attempting to give them the skills they need to live on their own in a protected forest.
We are at Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort in the east of Sabah, part of Malaysian Borneo. About 10 years ago, the resort set aside 25ha of forest to assist in the rehabilitation of baby orang-utans and to protect other unique rainforest species. Now, a maximum of 80 people a day— most staying at the resort but also a few others who have booked well in advance — pay 50 ringgit ($17.20) to watch the beautiful creatures up close.
The orang-utans are not the only attraction at this isolated resort, placed strategically between rainforest and beach at Pantai Dalit. At the end of 2007, the resort opened its luxurious Ocean Wing, a low-slung building with 90 deluxe rooms. The interior design is inspired by the local culture — artwork, carved hardwood partitions, a natural palette — but it is the private terrace that excites. An enormous daybed and outdoor bath (the hotel suggests it’s for two but I’ve seen smaller backyard pools) overlook the gardens and the South China Sea.
One night, after a superb dinner at the hawker-style Makan Street restaurant, I order a revitalising bath from the spa menu. At 9pm, a soft knock at the door signals the arrival of a therapist, who, while filling the bath with sea minerals, peppermint oil and fresh flowers, kneads my feet and legs for 15 minutes as I stretch out on the day bed listening to the ocean. She disappears, and I immerse myself in the deep, warm, sweet-smelling water and almost float off to sleep.
During the day, there are several activities, relaxing and otherwise. Children love the banana boat ride that hurtles around the calm water, while larger thrill-seekers tend to go for the parasailing. Next door, the Dalit Bay Golf Club and Spa at Dalit Bay are open to Rasa Ria guests. Or (and plenty seem to take this idle option) you can just soak up the calm atmosphere by the pool.
At night, Coast restaurant, located on the beach, is transformed by soft blue light from spectacular fixtures that resemble shimmering jellyfish, hanging from the ceiling. The menu blends Italian techniques with Asian flavours; seafood offerings are definitely worth ordering. This is also the place to go for breakfast if you are staying in the Ocean Wing; there’s a buffet of just about everything you can imagine as well as an excellent selection of freshly cooked dishes.
If you are looking for action, this stretch of sand probably won’t be on your itinerary, but for holidaymakers wanting some quiet time combined with the good things in life, Rasa Ria may be the perfect destination. Carrie Hutchinson was a guest of Shangri-La Resorts.
Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort, Pantai Dalit, Sabah, Malaysia. Phone: + 60 88 792 888; www.shangri-la.com. Tariff: From 1021 ringgit ($351) a double, including breakfast for two, in the Ocean Wing. Garden Wing from 470 ringgit, which includes breakfast for two. Getting there: A 45-minute transfer from Kota Kinabalu airport. Checking in: Couples and families wanting to get away from everything (except luxury). Wheelchair access: All rooms and most restaurants are accessible by lift and paths. The beach and the orang-utan rehabilitation centre are not. Bedtime reading: StrangerintheForest:On FootAcrossBorneo by Eric Hansen. Stepping out: For the energetic, Mt Kinabalu is just waiting to be climbed (allow two days). The surrounding national park has much less exhausting territory to explore. Brickbats: The resort really is isolated, which could be a problem for the social traveller or if the weather turns bad. Bouquets: The shuttle service to Shangri-La Tanjung Aru in Kota Kinabalu means you can enjoy this sister hotel’s facilities, including snorkelling trips to nearby islands and its decadent new Chi spa.
Shore thing: Rasa Ria Resort