Spell of the tropics
Long before entering Gaya Island Resort’s Spa Village, I hear about its welcome drink. Forget herbal teas and lemon-scented water. Guests who roll up to this resort spa in Malaysia’s easternmost state of Sabah are presented with an “elixir” of pineapple, guava and lime juices spiked with chilli and star anise. Those who have tried it rave so much that I turn up well ahead of my appointment so that I can savour this cool concoction “with a hit of heat”. To my delight, a carafe of elixir arrives balanced on a ceramic banana leaf.
The Spa Village is tucked away from the resort’s 120 villas, which cling to a jungle-carpeted hillside offering distant views of Mount Kinabalu. Mangroves and palms encircle the stand-alone complex; cicadas provide the soundtrack. The resort belongs to YTL Hotels, which takes its spa brand very seriously. YTL has opened Spa Villages throughout Malaysia, from Kuala Lumpur to Malacca and the Cameron Highlands, and in China’s Yangtze River delta.
Its latest Spa Village opened this month in one of the world’s oldest spa towns. The Gainsborough Bath Spa is billed as Britain’s only hotel with a natural thermal spa (it taps into the same warm waters the Romans enjoyed in Bath). The spa brand’s philosophy is to honour the healing traditions of respective regions. I’m sampling one of the “distinctive journeys”, the three-hour Unduk Ngadau treatment for women. If a couple wants to hang out in the spa together there’s an equivalent three-hour men’s treatment. Both are designed as a celebration of rice — a staple for Sabah’s largest indigenous group, the KadazanDusun. The community’s biggest cultural event is the month-long harvest festival that culminates in a beauty pageant and the crowning of a harvest queen. My treatment is named after that pageant.
After my feet are bathed on a deck overlooking the mangroves, I head inside to be slathered with a porridge of red rice, corn, avocado and cinnamon. All of my marinades sound good enough to eat (my hair is basted with avocado and coconut, my face with honey and avocado seed).
After leaving a Hansel and Gretel-like trail of crumbs as I head to the shower, I return for the urutan pribumi massage, which draws upon traditions from several indigenous tribes.
It’s said that these techniques restore mobility and
Treatment room at Gaya Island Resort’s Spa Village; spa ingredients include rice and avocado