Our Experience at Bawah Private Island, Indonesia
Penny finds a sustainable paradise in a remote archipelago
Bawah is the first of its kind in Indonesia’s Anambas archipelago. I imagine the owner, stepping off his yacht onto the uninhabited island in 2008, having a similar experience to Sir Richard Branson arriving on Necker Island for the first time and envisioning all that it could become.
Bawah speaks to the adventurer within you and the journey to get there sets the stage. I leave my hotel in Singapore at first light and following a thirty-minute drive, I am scooped up by a Bawah Rep. at a local ferry port and we board the public boat to Singapore’s industrial island, Batam where I found myself sharing a row with sleepy workers on their morning commute. On arrival, the immigration officer asks where I am going and when I say Bawah, he replies in a bored but faintly suspicious tone, that he’s never heard of it. My excitement intensifies.
Whilst waiting for our seaplane at Coffee Bean Cafe, where Bawah have reserved a table, cold towels are offered, as well as coffees and pastries. What Bawah can control on this hitherto untrodden passage, they do.
The 80-minute seaplane flight to Bawah takes you in a northeasterly direction over the expansive deep blue South China Sea. I am taking photos all the way and overjoyed when I see that our pilot is not wearing shoes.
Who actually discovered the Anambas Islands is unknown, but the fact that no one has really heard of this area before is not surprising when you consider that the Islands were never a stop on the trade route between China and Singapore. A chart exists, made by John Horsburgh, a Scottish hydrographer in charge of printing maps for the East India Company. Horsburgh is reported to have written: “the inhabitants of the these islands were very dangerous and were on the lookout for any opportunity to attack strangers that came by.” Given that Singapore was only founded by Raffles in 1819, they could be forgiven for not concerning themselves with islanders who only had hostile intentions.
When Bawah comes into view, our barefoot pilot circles the Reserve and from this striking birds-eye view, I take in Bawah’s natural beauty for the first time. The gathering of rocky islands covered in dense bottle green jungle are surrounded by aqua-marine reefs. The sand is bright white and dotted around each island in secluded bays and coves.
On arrival shortly before noon, I am greeted by friendly and smiling faces and this openness and enthusiasm does not abate during my stay. These islanders could not be more welcoming. Very little of the Reserve has been altered in the creation of Bawah – every element being created with the utmost respect to preserving the natural environment.
The Over-Water Suites face east and west, and mine sits prettily at the end of the jetty and is made entirely of wood. At sunrise the uninterrupted views out to the reef break are spectacular. The tide is never low enough that I can’t walk down the steps from the villa to dip into the ocean.
My favourite rooms though, are the tent-roofed Beach Suites on the sunrise side of the island, which have walkable access to the sea, and feel so warm and homely, I daydream about how restorative it would be to stay here for a few weeks.
The style of Bawah is akin to an African safari lodge - supremely comfortable and not in the slightest bit pretentious. Some might say stripped back to the essentials - a few luxury essentials that is… a canopied king bed and copper bathtub.
Peshtemal (Turkish style) towels and washcloths are used in the rooms, as they require three times less water to wash than normal towels and dry quickly. Should guests prefer normal towels, they are available, but after a day spent using these towels, I’m converted and that is exactly how I feel about the lack of TVs and Wifi limited to the rooms. After a few hours, I embrace the time away from screens.
There are lovely touches in the rooms, like handmade soaps in the bathroom, and stylish rattan baskets and hats for the guests to wear during their stay. You can buy these things in the island shop, which spurns the typical luxury hotel designer resort-wear shop and instead, sells reasonably priced Indonesia-made clothes and accessories.
The owners of Bawah have nobly gone further than most to ensure Bawah is environmentally conscious, often at great expense. Bawah’s water, for example, is purified by an advanced system designed by Scandinavian company, Nordaq FRESH, which removes impurities and unwanted flavours, while retaining natural salts and minerals for a neutral, balanced and rounded taste. Plastic free water that tastes amazing. Bravo Bawah!
Everyone I speak to who works at Bawah seems to clearly understand the mission here, perhaps in part because the owners are often on the island themselves with their families. The management team, led by a passionate and experienced troupe are loyal and dedicated to nurturing this slice of paradise. The chef tells me at lunch one day that understandably, he’s not going to work at Bawah forever, but while he’s there, he wants to train as many of the local staff to cook as well as he can, before he moves on. At least a hundred staff come from neighbouring islands, many of whom have never been on a plane. With the arrival of Bawah, on-site English-speaking teaching and hospitality training are suddenly part of their daily lives. This I think, goes a long way in explaining why Bawah has so much soul.
Bawah’s unique geography means that it can offer much more in the way of activities than many of its counterparts in the Indian Ocean. My days are spent swimming, kayaking and paddle boarding the calm and crystal clear waters, and hiking through the jungle to beaches where my feet hit the sand and I stand, mouth aghast, at the deserted beach and the picnic lunch awaiting me. One would be remiss not to also make the most of the unlimited spa treatments, laundry and private dining on any of the five islands, all at no extra cost…
The Maldives might have the edge on the biodiversity of its marine life, but black coral, sea fans, black tip sharks, turtles, groupers, eagle rays, barracudas, and moray eel are all common to see when snorkelling the Reserve’s reefs.
For families, a holiday on Bawah will provide a welcome digital detox, but there are movie nights under the stars. Each Suite has an assigned “host” who are game to tailor each guests’ stay with activities to keep all ages busy. My host, Agus organised my days with such enthusiasm and professionalism that it is hard to believe Bawah only opened at the start of this year.
Meal times are a relaxed affair, either in the comfort of your Suite, at the beach club or up at Treehouse, the main restaurant. The thoughtful and creative food is fresh and delicious. As is the menu of fresh juices and cocktails. You won’t find 5* hotel palatial breakfasts that let’s face it, are pretty OTT. Instead, my chef comes to find me each day to let me know what’s been caught that day and tailors my menu depending on what I feel like and every meal is a la carte.
There are a few things that still need to be worked out on Bawah. The information booklets for the rooms hadn’t arrived from Singapore when I was there, and the grass tennis court is unfinished. Perhaps the biggest negative for some will be the absence of a gym and the rather token communal pool I expect no one lies by. But most everything else will be ironed out over the coming months.
Bawah’s nightly rate does come at a high price point, but for those that can, Bawah is a place to savour for at least a week. It’s somewhere to go to relax, surround yourself in the natural world and switch off.
As I walk the sandy path to breakfast on my last morning, with insects and butterflies drifting past and monitor lizards rustling the bushes, I promise myself that one day I will try to come back here, knowing that this slice of paradise, will only get better and better.
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