Our experience at Bawah Private Island, Indonesia
Penny Buckley finds a sustainable paradise in a remote Indonesian 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 left my hotel in Singapore at first light and following a 30-minute drive, I was scooped up by a Bawah rep at a local ferry port and we boarded 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 asked where I was going and when I said Bawah, he replied in a bored, but faintly suspicious, tone that he’d never heard of it. My excitement intensified.
While waiting for our seaplane at Coffee Bean Cafe, where Bawah had reserved a table, cold towels were 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 was taking photos all the way and was overjoyed when I saw that our pilot was 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 isles 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 came into sight, our barefoot pilot circled the reserve and from this striking bird’s-eye view, I took in Bawah’s natural beauty for the first time. The gathering of rocky islands covered in dense bottle-green jungle were surrounded by aquamarine reefs. The sand was bright white and dotted around each island in secluded bays and coves.
On arrival shortly before noon, I was greeted by friendly and smiling faces and this openness and enthusiasm did 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 sat prettily at the end of the jetty and was made entirely of wood. At sunrise, the uninterrupted views out to the reef break were spectacular. The tide was never low enough that I couldn’t walk down the steps from the villa to dip into the ocean.
My favourite rooms. though, were the tent-roofed Beach Suites on the sunrise side of the island, which have walkable access to the sea. They felt so warm and homely that I found myself daydreaming 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 it’s stripped back to the essentials – a few luxury essentials that is, including a canopied kingsize bed and a 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 was converted, which was exactly how I felt about the lack of televisions and the fact that Wi-Fi was limited to the rooms. After a few hours, I embraced the time away from screens.
There were lovely touches in the rooms, such as 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 spoke to at Bawah seemed 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 told 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 here were spent swimming, kayaking and paddle-boarding on the calm and crystal-clear waters. On one day, I hiked through the jungle to a beach where my feet hit the sand and I stood still, awestruck by 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 eels are all common when snorkelling here.
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 tailors each guest’s stay with activities to keep all ages busy. My host, Agus, organised my days with amazing enthusiasm and professionalism.
Mealtimes 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 was fresh and delicious, as was the menu of fresh juices and cocktails. You won’t find five-star hotel, palatial breakfasts but let’s face it, they are pretty over-the-top. Instead, my chef came to find me each day to let me know what had been caught that day and tailored my menu to what I felt like.
Bawah’s nightly rate comes at a high price point, but for those that can, this 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 walked the sandy path to breakfast on my last morning, with insects and butterflies drifting past and monitor lizards rustling the bushes, I promised myself that one day I would try to come back to this slice of paradise.