Indonesia’s new private island eco-resorts

Crystal-clear waters, virgin jungle, uninhabited islands, and coordinates none of your friends know about – yet. Western Indonesia’s Riau archipelago is about to be a place to be. Sanjay Surana visits the striking new resorts that prove it

The private island resort of Bawah is nestled in the remote Anambas archipelago, 170 miles northeast of Singapore
The private island resort of Bawah is nestled in the remote Anambas archipelago, 170 miles northeast of Singapore

I don’t claim to be an astronaut but, in a sense, I have floated through space. On a Monday night in September while staying at Bawah, a new private island resort about 170 miles northeast of Singapore, I slid into one of the property’s three lagoons. Lying spreadeagled in water turned inky black by the nightfall, I looked up to a vast, cloudless, star-filled sky. There was not a sound to be heard; with my body weightless, the Milky Way stretching to all corners, I felt truly adrift, untethered – a sensation both wildly unnerving and unforgettably thrilling.

The resort’s Treetops restaurant with its jellyfish lamps
The resort’s Treetops restaurant with its jellyfish lamps

But if there is one thing Bawah offers, it is space. Opened three months ago in the Anambas, an archipelago in Indonesia’s Riau Islands – a province populated mostly by farmers and fisherman – it’s the first bona-fide resort of any metric here. This, given the unspoiled beauty in and around these isles, is surprising, but together with a handful of other recent openings, Bawah might be putting the Riau Islands on the global map. 

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Singaporeans have long known about the province, whose roughly 3,200 islands start just south of the Lion City and roll out to the northeast between Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo. But none has yet attained the cachet or stature of others in southeast Asia, like Myanmar’s fledgling Mergui archipelago, or Phu Quoc in Vietnam – let alone de facto global brands like Phuket, Bali or Boracay. That, though, could soon change. On Bintan, one hour southeast of Singapore by ferry, a slew of new resorts is raising the profile of an isle long viewed as a ho-hum weekend getaway. First was The Sanchaya, opened at the tail end of 2014, anchored by a refined great house steeped in British colonialism and a world-class cuisine offering. A year later, in October 2015, the glamping-style luxury tented suites of The Canopi, within a sprawling development known as Treasure Bay, welcomed its first guests. Alila Villas Bintan, an exclusive 40-villa boutique hotel with beachfront residences designed by the same firm that created Alila’s award-winning resort in Uluwatu on Bali, is under construction, while an international airport for charter flights is also being built.

The landing jetty at Bawah, seen from Treetops restaurant
The landing jetty at Bawah, seen from Treetops restaurant

The latest addition to Bintan, or more accurately, to a tiny island off its eastern coast, is Cempedak. Opened in March, it is the brainchild of Australian Andrew Dixon, who moved to Singapore in the late 1990s as an investment banker and, having “stumbled” across the smattering of pristine islands off Bintan one weekend, came up with the idea of buying one with a few friends. That is how his first private island resort, Nikoi, came into being in 2007, after which Dixon left banking to focus on hospitality. Nikoi’s spare, barefoot-luxe stilted beach houses consistently draw families in search of an easy and chic island escape, and led Dixon to set up The Island Foundation in 2009, to help Riau Island communities with Nikoi proceeds. 

The jetty also leads to the resort’s bars, including the Grouper bar
The jetty also leads to the resort’s bars, including the Grouper bar

Together with the other owners of Nikoi, Dixon bought nearby Cempedak in 2011 and started building in late 2014. In marked contrast to Nikoi, Cempedak only allows adults or children over 16, though it seems to exclusively attract couples. The 17-hectare island pulls in plenty of Nikoi acolytes, but feels more grown-up, more acutely designed than its sister property. Cempedak uses bamboo from Sumatra and Bali as its main building blocks: the sturdy, hollowed-out trunks appear everywhere. The 20 villas (12 were operational at the time of my visit; all will be completed by April) feature sweeping crescent alang alang roofs that, from a distance, look like coconut husks. They dispense with air-conditioning and room keys, and feel for all the world like huge, fantastical treehouses: in my beachfront villa, thick bamboo stalks formed the imposing front door, which opened to a wall-less living room and a private, teardrop-shaped pool. A bamboo spiral staircase led to the bedroom, where a wall of hinged glass-and-bamboo doors slid open fully, welcoming the outdoors in. 

Cempedak covers 17 hectares and its showstopping bamboo buildings are entirely sustainable
Cempedak covers 17 hectares and its showstopping bamboo buildings are entirely sustainable

The showstopping (and entirely sustainable) design continues throughout. In the main restaurant, built above terra firma and with a menu that alternates daily between Indonesian and European, giant trunks of curved bamboo create a kind of elevated porte-cochère. The Dodo bar, also above ground, has a striking four-tiered roof made of ijuk (black arenga palm tree fibres) that recalls a Chinese pagoda, while its clubby bar area features black bamboo panels (the three bars, incidentally, don’t close until the last guest leaves).

The bamboo bridge connecting the Dodo bar to the restaurant
The bamboo bridge connecting the Dodo bar to the restaurant

But for all the emphasis on high style, nature is zealously protected. Cempedak has a compendium of eco-practices in place: besides all the bamboo, there is furniture built of recycled teak, solar-powered hot water (with a larger solar system in the works), efficient DC motors to power ceiling fans and pool pumps, self-production of foods that minimises packaging waste, organic composting, replanting of native trees… the list goes on. On an afternoon walk with one of the uniformly affable staff, I learnt that sea pandan leaves can be used to make baskets, and the juice of the white fruit of sea lettuce makes excellent eye drops (the leaf is good for soothing skin allergies and cleaning divers’ masks). As we ambled around the islet, past the grass tennis court and croquet lawn (guests must play barefoot), we saw sea hibiscus, fig trees, bright angular heliconia, wild yams and belinjo seeds (which the kitchen makes into moreish crackers). In the kitchen garden were passionfruits the size of tennis balls. “We have 50 species of bird, 150 species of butterfly, sea otters and some pangolin here too. I am looking forward to offering guests birdwatching,” my guide said, scanning the canopy for imperial pigeons and hornbills. At the back of the island, behind a stand of giant granite boulders, the spa reception and three treatment gazebos were being built. It’s an undeniably alluring spot, the rocks adding a hypnotic sculptural element to what is already a beautiful location in a one-of-a-kind place.

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If Cempedak benefits from its easy accessibility from Singapore, Bawah, which opened in August, trades on its remoteness. My journey took about six hours, involving a ferry, a flight, a boat and car transfers tucked in at various points between. (Seaplane operations have since begun, from Batam Island, off Singapore’s coast, cutting travel time in half.) But the meandering journey reinforces Bawah’s highly prized isolation, and the pristine nature, above and below the sea line, that results. Many places claim to be in the middle of nowhere; this one is. “The Anambas has 250 islands with fewer than 50,000 people,” Tom Blachere, a Frenchman who had worked for 16 years in the Maldives prior to becoming executive general manager, told me. “The people who come here are explorers.” 

Bawah’s driving force is Tim Hartnoll, an Asia-based shipping entrepreneur who is the majority shareholder among nine others. The resort comprises five islands: one is the site of the resort’s 35 villas and suites; a second is earmarked as Hartnoll’s (four villas with a total of eight bedrooms, which can be rented in exclusivity by guests, to be finished next year); and the others are uninhabited, hilly mounds of primary littoral jungle, with some of the trees over 2,000 years old. The property took five years to build, with no heavy machinery used; everything was constructed by hand. A landing jetty leads to bars and a restaurant, their domed roofs echoing the island’s three hillocks, their interiors full of winking references to marine life, with lamps fashioned like jellyfish at Treetops restaurant – expect stellar food from the Italian chef – a mammoth wire-mesh octopus installation at the Jules Verne bar. 

Beach and garden suites have safari-style canvas roofs, recycled teak floors and a bamboo skeleton frame with weather-proofed roller-shutter walls that allow the room to be completely open to the elements. Overwater bungalows are set on concrete piles, with wood walls and decks over the crystalline water. The large bathrooms have handsome lychee wood vanity counters, recycled-copper tubs and chrome fittings patinated to look vintage. 

“We want people to disconnect so they can reconnect,” says Blachere of the stripped-down aesthetic and the in-room-only WiFi policy. “We want them to bring back their inner child, to explore – not be stuck on one of these,” he adds, giving his smartphone a shake. “People come with a purpose, not just for a holiday. Here they can learn from the arborist or the marine biologist or the permaculture expert” – all will be on staff by the end of the year. “Many of our guests are entrepreneurs, decision makers; we want to inspire them to make decisions to change the world.”

Some of that inspiration is likely to trickle down from the resort’s own practices, which include solar water heating and water desalination systems, fortnightly cleaning of its 13 beaches (even this slice of paradise isn’t immune to the occasional Styrofoam container or plastic bag washing up from thousands of miles away), setting up a nursery to repopulate the islands’ forests, and creating a 500sq m permaculture garden. Bawah also connects with the local community through, for example, teaching Anambas farmers how to grow products for its menus, supplying them with seeds and purchasing their harvest; or educating local fishermen in sustainable practices (as well as buying from them). Among the overwhelmingly Indonesian staff there is no obvious sense of hierarchy. “We want to improve Bawah together, and don’t want barriers,” says Blachere. “If a masseur really wants to cook, we’ll send him or her to the kitchen to learn to cook.” Guests are also encouraged to interact with staff to learn about how they live; they can visit the engineering facilities and the staff quarters or eat traditional Indonesian food in the staff canteen (the beef rendang with black beans is fantastic). This inclusivity has resulted in a team that’s warm, good humoured and ready to have fun.

And there is plenty of fun to be had, on and off the islands. In the space of a breathless day, Marcin Grell – officially the food and beverage consultant, unofficially a kinetic bundle with the joie de vivre of a nine-year-old – took me on a motorboat tour of the islands, a kayaking and snorkelling excursion, taught me how to make a few excellent cocktails, and led me on a trek culminating in gorgeous clifftop views. In the water we saw purple staghorn, nubby Acropora that looked like fields of pine trees, shoals of glinting blue-green Chromis, and trippy, luridly colourful parrotfish. The forest walk wound past towering dipterocarp trees and liana vines, up to a small clearing that looked onto sublime turquoise waters. The kayak excursion brought us to a rocky inlet that narrowed to a cave, which turned out to be populated by hundreds of tiny sheath-tailed bats. As we stood in the tight, still space, gaping up at the incredible spectacle of them swooping and fluttering above us, Blachere’s words sprung into my mind: an explorer was exactly what I felt like.

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