The equatorial sun rises at a cracking pace over the South China Sea. One moment it’s a whisper of pink streaks emerging from the night sky, the next a glowing orb moving almost perceptibly upwards, drenching the landscape in fiery stripes of orange and red. Witnessed from a kayak on the waters of Bawah Reserve, it’s a spectacle rivalled only by the sight of a blue-spotted ribbontail stingray gliding serenely through the calm lagoon.
Welcome to the idyllic Indonesian island holiday. While Bali tends to hog the press, it’s only one part of the story of our sprawling northern neighbour. Some of the archipelago’s most captivating island escapes are scattered at its extremities near Singapore – and the dreamiest of them all is Bawah.
Part of the isolated Anambas Islands group, the previously uninhabited six-island mini-archipelago is set in a marine reserve of paralysing beauty where palm trees and pristine sand fringe lush jungle and preternaturally blue waters teem with wildlife.
Opened in 2017, with 35 tented safari-style suites and overwater bungalows set discreetly along the southern coastline of the largest island, Bawah Reserve is an irresistible lure for eco-conscious luxury travellers of all stripes. “Some people are all go, go, go,” says the islands’ general manager Raymond Saja. “Others are happy to do absolutely nothing.”
In a world where many resorts sport a cookie-cutter sameness, Bawah is unique. The 80-minute private seaplane flight from Batam Island, after a short ferry ride from Singapore, ends with the pilot (barefoot, the record ought to note) circling over the jungle-covered islands before landing at the fishtail jetty that curves gracefully into the water. A welcome side effect of seaplane access is a 15-kilogram baggage limit per guest which provides an easy excuse for embracing lo-fi luxury. There’s a lot to love about a resort that encourages guests to wear flip-flops and has a laundry service so efficient you need only pack the bare necessities.
Our overwater bungalow mixes the glamour of a mosquito-netted bed, recycled teak floors and copper bathtub with the solace of air conditioning and a coffee maker. There’s no TV, although the wi-fi is reliable enough to keep in touch with the world (but really, why not tune out for a while?).
There’s no shortage of things to keep the days turning over as languidly or as briskly as you like. It helps that the all-inclusive tariff (except for diving and alcohol) extends to the spa, where treatments include an aromatic body scrub blended from finely ground rice powder, turmeric, sandalwood and jasmine oil – the ultimate skin buffer set to a soothing soundtrack of trickling water from the pond outside and the song of exotic birds. While casting yourself into waters blessed with the clarity of the Hope Diamond is deeply gratifying, finding those waters contain the cast of Finding Nemo takes it to the next level. Snorkelling within 100 metres of our house on stilts, we encounter a giant fat-lipped grouper, orange-striped angelfish, a green sea turtle and pale blue-and-yellow parrot fish, all sheltering in luminous pink, purple and blue coral.
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We trek to the island’s upper reaches, through jungle thick with vines, ancient palm trees and the occasional monitor lizard. It’s a blow to my ego that our guide, Rini, zooms effortlessly ahead in flip-flops while I lag behind in running shoes but a breakfast of juice and excellent coffee, freshly baked croissants and Indonesian chicken congee at Treetops restaurant helps ease the pain later.
Chef Roberto Bellitti draws on his Italian background as well as local influences, using produce from the island’s organic garden to create an elegant East-West fusion. Velvety slices of beetroot-cured snapper carpaccio are anointed with a subtle pineapple curry, while roasted duck breast in a hoisin slick is teamed with smoked eggplant. Above the restaurant is the Jules Verne bar, a sublime spot for sunset cocktails where the bartenders mix a mean Margarita. For lunch we drift to the Boat House, unable to resist the lure of simply prepared seafood savoured with our toes in the sand.
Bawah is a place of bespoke marvels and little revelations. It’s an island where an army of staff (who all seem to know your name) is dedicated to keeping real-world annoyances at bay and a chilled handtowel within reach. If the walk to the spa along a winding sandy path shaded by the jungle canopy proves too much, a solar-powered golf buggy will materialise faster than you can say, “What’s the number for reception?” Casually mention you’ll be sad to miss Friday night’s beach barbecue and a feast for two at a candlelit table on a sandy promontory will appear, as if by magic. Being presented with a lobster the size of a cattle dog, served with lemongrass butter and a parade of sambals, adds to the enchantment.
Each day at Bawah is a lesson in easy indulgence, from the rope swing at the island lookout to the private picnics that see guests marooned in high style on a deserted beach with a hamper, a gauze-curtained daybed and a walkie-talkie to summon the boat. Even we tightly wound city slickers can’t resist being wooed by the rhythm of our days (the timeline goes something like this: yoga, breakfast, swim, lunch, snorkel, spa, sun lounger, cocktail hour) as we approach peak relaxation.
There’s a three-night minimum stay but it feels barely enough. The seaplane buzzes around the islands once more as we depart, giving us a last look at a place beautiful beyond imagining. Taking us back from Bawah, back to reality.