Gorgeous Gaya Island Resort

There comes a point in life when you realise you just have to celebrate every occasion, simply because you owe it to yourself to have as much fun as you can while your health is still rosy and financial ability is still strong.

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So for my birthday vacation this year, I chose to escape with the greatest love of my life to Gaya Island Resort, a new five-star island resort tucked into the hillside and lush rainforest of Gaya Island, off Kota Kinabalu in Sabah.

The only way to get there is by boat. We flew into the city, got picked up by the resort’s Mercedes, alighted at Sutera Harbour and then took a speedboat right to the resort’s doorstep.

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We stayed in room 821, a Kinabalu Suite that sits on possibly the highest point of the resort, giving us splendid views of the resort, the sea, the mainland in the distance and, unfortunately, the occasional ugly tanker.

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Stepping past the spacious terrace of our villa and through the sliding doors, we were faced with a large, comforting bed, a hallway that led past a walk-in wardrobe and study desk and into an open bathroom with a magnificent bath.

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While the location of our villa was wonderful, the downside was the distance we had to walk every time we wanted to get to the resort’s ‘nerve centre’ where the lobby, dinng outlets, pool, sun decks, gym and library were located. In fact, returning to our room was most tiring, as it was an uphill trek – not good after having a tad too much wine at the resort’s lovely Pool Bar & Lounge.

On the bright side, the trek makes for good exercise and after a couple of times up and down that stretch, we sort of got used to it!

We had a quick lunch at the resort’s Feast Village all-day dining restaurant. By the time we filled our tummies, the rain came heavily and we could not explore the resort or lie in the sun. So we returned to our villa to enjoy the material comforts it offered. Sinking into the massive bath, I soon fell asleep, only to wake up with a start and adjourned to the bed for more sleep.

The husband and I rose only after the sun had retired for the day. And it was only because our tummies were rumbling again. So we dressed up and made our way down the winding concrete path and ended up at Fisherman’s Cove, the resort’s fine dining establishment.

Food at Fisherman’s Cove was priced slightly more that the all-day restaurant downstairs, with mains starting from over RM100, but the quality and taste of food was far superior. From starters to mains to desserts, everything was tip-top. However, the dining area could use some fans to move the air on hot and humid nights.

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Being a fine dining restaurant, a dress code applies and we brought only one set of fancy clothes for this trip. That meant we could only dine here once! Never mind, we will be ready next time! :)

Early next morning, the husband woke me up to catch a glimpse of the sunrise from our terrace. This photo does not do justice to the view, unfortunately.

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After breakfast, we explored the resort’s compound, taking pleasure in walking among the lush landscape on meandering wooden paths.

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We also rejoiced that the sun was out in full force, knowing that we could get a nice tan that day. :)

By noon, we headed to the jetty to catch a boat to Tavajun Bay, a private stretch of beach some five minutes away. We had arranged for a little picnic there, which cost us RM180. For that amount, we were allowed to pick a variety of sandwiches, salads, cheeses, other nibbles and beverages. A bottle of wine was included too, which made the picnic quite a value option.

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A picnic mat, cushions and cutlery were all laid out under a tree by the edge of the waves when we arrived. Lovely!

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 We lounged around till 4pm, and then returned to the resort. Once back, we took root at the resort’s swim-up pool bar and guzzled as many beers as our tummies could bear.

That evening we chose to have a simple dinner at Feast Village, where a semi-buffet menu was on offer. That meant we got to choose our main course from a menu, and then pick our starters and desserts from a buffet line.

We ate slowly, chatted a lot and laughed even more. As the dinner crowd thinned out, we started to get sleepy and headed back for yet another night of great sleep.

It is funny how one tends to wake up early despite plans to sleep in on holidays. Or maybe it was the glorious sunrises on this island that roused one easily.

On our third day on the island, the husband went snorkeling – offered free to guests – with the resort’s resident marine biologist. I played the role of his photog, seeing how much a coward I was when it came to swimming in the sea.

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The activity lasted more than an hour, but the husband was reluctant to emerge from the waters at the end. “The seabed is just teeming with life! There’s too much to see, but too little time!” he gasped when he finally came up.

He could actually explore another part of the sea on his own, but we had a cooking class to get to.

Now, there’s actually plenty to do at Gaya Island Resort. A common problem with most private island resorts is how guests may get bored and feel “trapped” after a while. The resort nips that problem in the bud by offering a schedule of activities everyday, from nature walks and snorkeling to culinary classes and sunset cruises.

A number of unique dining experiences are also offered, just in case one got bored with the usual restaurants, such as private beach BBQ, steamboat dinner in a private cabana and the picnic experience we had the previous day.

There were a few activities we wanted to do, and yet also have enough lazy time by the pool. And because of that, we realised that three nights were just insufficient to enjoy the resort fully.

Back to our cooking class. Held at Fisherman’s Cove, the activity was led by chef Shim who was patient and attentive. We learnt to whip up a fine local chicken stew with spices and grated coconut, and a tangy raw fish salad.

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Then, we gobbled all that for lunch in lovely surroundings. Burp!

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With our tummies filled, we changed into our swim wear and settled comfortably at the swim-up pool bar again. We also spent a brief moment under the shade in the Pool Bar & Lounge.

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As 6pm approached, we found ourselves at the resort’s Spa Village, a cluster of rustic buildings up the hill and in a corner.

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It was actually quite an odd timing to sooth our bodies, as it was just before dinner and we would have to shake off any sleepiness after the session just so we could eat. We would have preferred a long massage just before bedtime. But it was our fault for not booking our spa sessions ahead of arrival. We made the mistake of booking after we checked in on Saturday, only to discover that the spa was completely booked out the whole of Sunday and much of Monday.

Oh well. We all learn from our mistakes. Next time, we will book far, far ahead. :)

The Spa Village is quite a wonderful place to escape to. It has a spacious reception that is surrounded by greenery, little massage huts and a water feature.

The staff told us that we could come by just to relax in the serene surroundings even if we did not have any spa bookings. Darn, if only we knew earlier!

While we waited for our masseuse to get ready, we were served an invigorating chilled cocktail of guava juice, chilli, star anise and other natural ingredients. If only I could get that recipe!

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After a brief wait, we were ushered to a building where couple treatment rooms were housed. Our taste of heaven started with a traditional foot bath, using ginger, crushed chilli and other natural ingredients. Spicy, eh? We were told that all that spice would get blood circulation going.

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We opted for a traditional body rub. While it was great for the husband throughout, my session started off not too spectacularly. My masseuse started off too tough despite my earlier request for a lighter touch. I had quite a shock when she rested her full weight on my spine. My body stiffened in defense, which made it even more painful on my ribs. It took a second reminder for her to go easy on the pressure.

As expected, we were a tad sleepy at the end of the massage. But we needed dinner, and with that being our final night at the resort, we were reluctant to retire to our room that early.

So we had a slow dinner at Feast Village again, then proceeded to the poolside lounge to enjoy a bottle of wine while we waited for the skies to rain itself out. Yup. It rained cats and dogs that night.

As always, good times come to pass too fast. We bade Gaya Island Resort goodbye on Tuesday morning, and made our way back to Singapore and the rat race.

We will return, Gaya Island Resort. And next time, we will stay a lot longer!

A perfect holiday

How do you define a perfect holiday? Must it involve a stay at an elite hotel, dining at only the finest restaurants, transfers via stretch limousines, and destination experiences at top-end attractions?

Maybe. But for me, I think I’ve discovered that definition in Malacca.

Forming part of that definition is where Joshua and I stayed. We stayed in a beautiful Peranakan-style boutique hotel – Courtyard@Heeren – which has no more than 20 guestrooms.

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Run by a family, the hotel sits just metres from Jonker Street, which transforms into a lively pub street at night and into an exciting market street on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. We could not have asked for a hotel with greater convenience.

Step through the front of the hotel, and you will enter a well-lit courtyard that is reminiscent of a traditional house in the olden days. Old-fashioned armchairs line against the wall, offering a serene rest spot for weary guests.

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The guestroom’s decor draws on Peranakan features but also offers modern comforts, such as a flatscreen TV and rainshower. The bathroom is spacious and the wash basin looks out to a private little courtyard, with pebbled floors and a lone, slender tree.

ImageBeautiful decor, clean interiors, friendly staff and bloody affordable rooms at no more than S$250 for two nights – Courtyard@Heeren is a wonderful accommodation choice. Frankly, I ought to be selfish and not tell you too much of Courtyard@Heeren. I should keep it a secret so that not too many people would book at this hotel and make it harder to secure a booking the next time I want a holiday in Malacca.

But I am too nice a person. :)

Anyway, too many Singaporeans already know of this hotel. The private carpark in the back, which is watched by a steely man every night, is full of Singapore-licensed cars. *sigh*

The hotel has recently expanded its cafe and moved it to another shophouse, across the street. Cafe@Courtyard is beautifully made out too. We had our breakfast there.

ImageContributing to the definition of a perfect holiday was also the ability to sample the best culinary delights without breaking the bank. In the three days we were there, we had 7kg of the freshest, sweetest crabs, no less than 20 plump prawns, probably two squids for dinners on two nights at the Portuguese Settlement, a liberal dosage of baba laksa and cendol from our favourite haunt, Jonker 88, and a spectacular Peranakan meal at Kocik Kitchen.

We love seafood – crabs, in particular. While one could get crabs almost anywhere, a crab and seafood feast in the Portuguese Settlement costs under RM$400 (or less than S$200) for the two nights. A kilogram of crabs in a decent restaurant in Singapore would cost at least S$30 – you do the math. :)

ImageAnd we love the Portuguese Settlement for its simplicity. You could eat till your face is all greasy, and no-one bats an eyelid because they too are enjoying their meal too much to care. Then when you are done eating, you wipe your mouth on the back of your forearms and have a bottle of chilled beer and one or two ciggs. Bliss, my friends, bliss.

Then there is also the must-have baba laksa and cendol at Jonker 88. Better still was the fact that we planned this trip over weekdays, which allowed us to escape the throng of people usually seen inside and outside of Jonker 88. That place has gotten much too popular.

ImageAnd finally, there was our dicovery of Kocik Kitchen, an unassuming restaurant along a quieter stretch of Jonker Street. The chef is brilliant, whipping up some really mean Peranakan dishes. Our lunch of kueh pie tee (a crunchy pastry cup holding tasty shreds of stewed turnips, a prawn and fragrant chilli paste), ngoh hiang (rolls of minced, spiced meat), bakwan kepiting soup (a savoury soup with meat balls made with crab and pork) and ayam cili garam (chunks of tender chicken fried with a sweet and thrilling chilli paste).

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Joshua and I died and went to heaven with every bite.

Forming the third part of the definition of a perfect holiday was our shopping haul. Malacca is full of shopping malls now, and some shops within are unique to the destination. What that means is you get to buy some interesting things and decent clothes and accessories at local prices. Yay!

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What we have on in this photo, except for his watch, are among the many things we bought in Malacca. Heh. :)

And the last factor contributing to the collective definition of a perfect holiday was how we did not have to rush to anywhere. We slept as much as we wanted, went for lunch and dinner wbenever we wanted, walked slowly through Jonker Street and explored any quirky shop that caught our fancy. And because we were already familiar with Malacca, there was no stress from losing our way.

This, my friends, is what I call a perfect holiday. It is perhaps one of the best short breaks I’ve ever had, and a brilliant way to celebrate my birthday. :)

Eating our way through Penang

Penang, Malaysia is not a destination for people on a lean and mean diet and who derive pleasure from depriving their tongues and tummies of all things tasty and sinful.

Therefore, Penang is my kind of wonderland. An expanding waistline can be cured with more rounds of vigorous sex later on or with an energetic wrestle with the husband to get him to submit to me in the bedroom.

The husband and I flew into Penang on SilkAir on July 28 and rented a car from Hertz at the airport. Having our own transport allowed us to explore the city and stop and eat wherever we fancied.

The downside was, we forgot to reserve a GPS device and they were all snapped up. We had to rely on a very unreliable map. To make things worse, road signs mysteriously disappeared whenever we hit forked roads and intersections. We ended up lost in a wrong part of town and going round and round in circles for over an hour.

So although our flight placed us in Penang at 2.30pm, we only checked into Hard Rock Hotel past 5pm.

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Our nerves were frayed and the poor husband was so tired he could not drive anymore. So instead of exploring Batu Ferringhi for dinner, the husband suggested we head to Tree Monkey restaurant at Tropical Spice Garden, just a few minutes’ drive from the hotel for dinner. Thank goodness he did some research before the trip!

And it was a great suggestion. One could catch the sunset from the restaurant, so we had a couple of drinks while the sun slipped over the horizon and then enjoyed a leisurely dinner.

Tree Monkey does Asian and Western cuisine and the menu is extensive. If you can’t make up your mind, which will definitely be the case, go for a tapas platter which comprises six to eight different dishes. Tah dah, so your problem is solved.

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If you enjoyed what you ate, you could return to Tropical Spice Garden earlier in the day and attend one of its cooking classes. It was something the husband wanted to do, but we later decided that we wanted much more to eat than to learn how to cook.

The next morning, the husband tore me out of bed at 9am, rushed me through my shower and whisked me off into town. I can understand his enthusiasm. Our plan was to spend a full day navigating Penang’s city centre for food, food and more food, and there was no time to waste!

Right at the top of our eat list was Penang laksa and char koay teow. Both are done very differently from the versions found in Singapore, and after much research, the husband knew exactly where to find the best versions of these two dishes in Penang.

It so happens that they can both be found in the same coffeeshop: Taman Emas, opposite a rather impressive looking Chinese girls school.

ImagePenang char koay teow is divine! Or perhaps, I should say the version served at Taman Emas is divine. It is savoury and spicy, and the flat rice noodles is chewy. It puts even the most highly recommended char kway teow (spelt this way in Singapore) back home to shame. Singapore’s char kway teow is too sweet and mushy.

ImagePenang laksa is a real beauty. The way to eat this dish, we were told, is to dip fried spring rolls into the soup, take a bite of the damp roll, and then slurp up a spoonful of laksa. Hmm! The combination was truly wonderful. However, Penang laksa did not excite us a lot because it was heavy with chopped ginger flower, which we hated. Hah, despite so, we cleaned off the bowl. :)

Oh, and that was just breakfast.

After wiping our happy mouths on our sleeves, we hopped into our car and drove further into town. Next stop, Union Primary School. Or rather, a mobile street stall outside Union Primary School.

Look out for a mobile stall with a sign that reads Apong Guan, the husband ordered. So I did. And we found that stall in no time.

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Apong is the name for fluffy pancakes wrapped around diced bananas, shredded coconut and sweet corn. Brilliant stuff. And they cost a mere RM0.40 a piece – that’s hardly S$0.20 each!

The husband said that the owner of Apong Guan, has a brother who also runs the same business just a few metres down the road. His brother’s stall is called Apong Chooi. Some food blogs said the owner of Apong Chooi is a real mean bean and has a nasty temper and sharp tongue. But because the banana fritters from Apong Chooi are nicer, it boasts more regulars than Apong Guan.

So the owner of Apong Chooi is a food nazi then!

For me, I’ll gladly support the gentle owner of Apong Guan, who flashed me patient smiles whenever I got a little too close trying to see how he made his wares.

Sweets make me hungry. Always. So after gobbling my last bit of banana fritters, we dived into a bustling coffeeshop opposite the school and ordered a bowl of Hokkien noodles to silence my growling tummy. In Penang, Hokkien noodles is a soupy noodle dish made with prawn stock.

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Just look at the colour of the broth and you can tell how much flavour it contains. The cook probably used a helluva lot of prawn heads and shells to make the stock. I’m not surprised if the stock was cooked layer upon layer every day, such that what I drank could contain soup remnants from donkey years ago.

I wanted to have another bowl – not because I was a glutton, but because servings in Penang came ridiculously small! – but the husband bade me to pace myself. The day was still long and there were many things we had to eat.

Next stop, Toh Soon Cafe along Lebuh Campbell in an old part of town. It wasn’t easy to find because of the frustrating lack of road signs to point us in the right direction and the terrible map we had in hand.

We went in circles again. This time for 40 minutes. I lost my temper and gave up trying to be the navigator. So the poor husband turned into a small road and stopped the car.

“Toh Soon Cafe should be somewhere here. Let’s park the car and walk around, that way we can also enjoy the architecture,” he said.

And what do you know? Toh Soon Cafe was immediately down the alley on the left side of where he parked his car! The coincidence made me laugh and my awful temper was gone.

ImageToh Soon Cafe is an old-fashioned coffeeshop that is more like a hole in the wall, with tables and chairs laid out along an alley. It is famous for its thick coffee served in traditional ceramic cups and butter-and-kaya toasts that were made crisp over charcoal fire.

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I’m not quite a bread person but I really enjoyed the ambiance. It was sort of charming to slowly sip coffee and nibble at toasts, while listening to the chatter of old men.

The husband remembered that there was a Peranakan museum nearby (that boy really did his homework!) and it was where we went after our coffee and toast break.

The Pinang Peranakan Mansion is a restored Peranakan home that was built at the end of the 19th century. You can’t miss it. It is a large green house in a street full of smaller shophouses.

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The museum takes visitors back in time to see how rich babas and nonyas lived back then. This museum is said to contain over 1,000 antiques.

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It is quite fascinating to wander around the musuem, moving from the airy courtyard to the elaborate main hall and dining room, and from fancy bedrooms to the solemn prayer and ancestor hall. I felt like I was trespassing through someone’s home! :)

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We spent almost two hours at the museum and were quite sleepy when we exited the attraction. The afternoon heat did not help, so we made a beeline for the hotel and stole a quick nap before dinner. :)

That evening, we made like the horde of tourists who stayed around Batu Ferringhi and had dinner at the Long Beach Cafe.

Long Beach Cafe is a mad-busy hawker centre housing a cluster of food stalls. The stalls sold all sorts of cuisines – Chinese, Malay, Indian, Thai, Japanese, Western – and all sorts of dishes. To cater to foreigners, the hawker centre also sold a variety of imported beers usually found in fancier bars.

ImageWe ordered some grilled seafood, char koay teow, a traditional Hainanese fried spring roll and fried oysters. The grilled seafood was brilliant, the char koay teow was not as good as the one from Taman Emas, the fried spring roll had too much yam for my liking and the fried oysters made me smile because it did not have the muddy, shellfish taste I always get from the same dish in Singapore.

That night, we went to bed with such happy bellies.

After two days of stuffing our faces with Penang’s finest delights, our plan was to take things slower on the third day and laze by the hotel pool and bronze our bodies.

However, the husband woke me up at 10am, saying he was starving and wanted some dim sum. So off we went into Penang’s China Street in search for old-school dim sum. We found it soon after turning onto China Street.

The little shop did not come highly recommended by food blogs and guides, but it was an immediate solution for the husband’s cravings. The dim sum we had were not to-die-for, but they were truly old-school.

What turned the drab morning breakfast around was this humble bowl of koay teow soup – flat rice noodles with chewy fishballs and crunchy fried onion bits.

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This seemingly unlikely winner was so delightfully light, yet so tasty. I am hardly a fan of fishball noodles because it was a dish I associate with being ill. Dad always made this or plain porridge for me whenever I fall sick, and I hate bland food. But I could eat this Penang version every day!

The husband also had a hefty bowl of wanton noodles from this stall in the same coffeeshop.

ImageIt reminded me of a riddle I’ve heard since young.

Q: Which hawker is the strongest of them all?
A: The wanton (one-tonne) mee seller!

Then we drove around a bit to see more of Penang’s old places.

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For our final dinner in Penang, we went to Kang Ho Coffeeshop on Mount Erskine Road. A food blogger recommended this place for excellent fried oysters.

ImageThat food blogger did not lie. :)

We also had a pot of bak kut teh, a herbal pork rib soup that goes wonderfully well with fried dough fritters.

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The version found here was murky and looked so messy, it dampened our appetite. But it is proof that one should not judge a book by its cover. The soup turned out to be a real flavour bomb and was packed with a variety of mushrooms and tau pok (sponge tofu), in addition to chunks of meat.

We were quite reluctant to leave Penang the next day. There are still so many eateries we’ve not gone, so many celebrated local dishes we have not sampled.

“Let’s have our favourite dish here before we say goodbye,” chirped the husband and we unanimously agreed that parting dish should be Taman Emas’ char koay teow.

ImageI love Penang. Because of its thriving hawker food culture, one could really eat a lot without busting the bank. There is no need to dine only at fancy restaurants. Cheap eateries can whip up some excellent stuff. You only need to study a couple of food blogs to know where gastronomic orgasms can be found.

The husband and I will return to Penang for sure. Next time round, we will stay in a different part of Penang, perhaps closer to the city centre to save on travelling time. The less we drive, the more time we can spend stuffing our faces! :)