Set in one of the most breathtaking yet little-known locations in Indonesia, Bawah Reserve is the pinnacle of hidden treasure
“More coffee?” “No thanks, I’ll take some juice, though, and another warm muffin… and maybe some more fruit salad, and…”
They say you should eat breakfast like a king, and we’re certainly doing that today, but not in the way you might think. Our location is a secret squirrel of a beach in the Anambas Islands in Indonesia, and to say the spread and scenery are a step-up from our usual breakfast setting would be an understatement. This is not your regular beach picnic, either, because it has been organised by Bawah Reserve, and nothing Bawah puts on is ever regular.
We were brought here by speedboat at 8:30am expecting a few beach towels and a picnic basket with a handful of snacks. An umbrella, perhaps. Instead, we arrived to a large Balinese-style balé, set back from the beach in the shade of the trees, with wood-panelled floors and inviting furnishings including floor lounges, cushions, a table and leather chairs for two. We then watched in amazement, feeling slightly foolish, as the Bawah staff unpacked endless edible morsels for us to break our fast in the most memorable of ways. That’ll show us for underestimating one of the most coveted island resorts in Indonesia.
The small, very pretty Turtle Bay we’ve landed on is just one of 13 sandy havens across six islands – all private – that guests have access to at Bawah Reserve. Romantically remote at 300 kilometres northeast of Singapore, it’s not an easy place to get to – the journey involves an international ferry followed by a 90-minute seaplane – but when you arrive, boy do you arrive. The bird’s-eye view of the main island on the descent is of lush tropical jungle and an azure-blue ocean that gently changes hue as it heads towards reef-speckled lagoons and onto powdery white beaches. From the dizzying heights of the sea plane, the resort’s beach villas look like little matchboxes lined up on the sand, while the main buildings are hardly noticeable at all, their curved, thatched roofs hesitantly pushing through the trees like the caps of ginormous exotic mushrooms.
Lord knows how this place was even discovered – not even the Singapore Air staff on our flight from Sydney had heard of it. Not that we’re complaining. Having your very own Robinson Crusoe experience has become something of a dream among tightly wound city dwellers – myself no exception – and Bawah’s isolation guarantees its exclusivity. Only about 10 per cent of the Anambas’ 250 islands are inhabited, making it perfect for adventure and adventurers. Now a designated marine conservation area, making fishing illegal, Bawah Reserve opened in 2017 as a beacon of sustainable, luxurious hospitality. The owners’ goal was to preserve and protect an ecological paradise, and this meant designing and building an exemplary eco-resort that would not impact the natural environment either while it was being built, or when it was up and running. Using bamboo as the main structural material and putting the buildings on supports to minimise damage to the landscape, the build took five years – a process Singaporean architect Sim Boon Yang has described as “both painstaking and rewarding.”
Yang worked on a concept of a ‘lost world’ for Bawah, where the guest is an explorer botanist, and their inner child is reawakened by the resort. Bawah’s two restaurants, in particular, demonstrate the faultless execution of this childlike, light-hearted and yet luxurious design. Sitting 84 steps upslope at the physical peak of the property, Tree Tops restaurant requires stamina, but at the summit is the ultimate reward. The hero view of Bawah’s unique fishtail jetty, along with Elang Private Island, where Bawah Reserve is opening an ultra-exclusive cluster of private villas later this year, is indescribable. I am on my eighth visit to this country, yet am again presented with an example of its spectacular beauty. Most will find it hard to peel their eyes away from that view, but if you can, look up. There is a magnificent oversized light feature that resembles a jellyfish and, in the evening, it changes colours creating a sort of marine-themed discotheque dinner experience. You can’t help but talk about this focal point when you dine at Tree Tops, but by the second night I’m more interested in discussing why my partner is not wearing any shoes. He has taken the whole ‘barefoot luxury’ thing as literally as possible, and despite the fact that everyone else in the restaurant is, on a quick glance around, indeed wearing shoes, he’s unfazed. For a man that finds it hard to switch off, this says a lot about the effect of Bawah Reserve.
Somewhere bare feet do make sense is at our favourite lunch spot, The Boat House. Yang’s idea of childlike fun and freedom continues at this relaxed restaurant, where natural-edged wooden chairs, swinging seats suspended on rope and curved beach loungers invite guests to loosen up and just chill out, man. With the sand between your toes, literally, it’s the kind of effortless beach shack vibe all the cool kids would love, although with a glass of wine or a cocktail costing around $40 after taxes, any grand ideas of uninhibited sundowner sessions may be quickly abandoned.
Luckily, Bawah Reserve is a true utopia for swimming, snorkelling, diving, hiking, sailing and simply being, and the latter is how I spend a lot of my time during the three nights we are there. This is only partly because it is monsoon season and it rains a lot during our stay, and more because any excuse to relax will do, especially when there is beauty at every angle.
For those who like to stay active, a full island itinerary is provided on arrival. This can be amended at guests’ discretion, or ignored altogether, although I highly doubt many would turn down the daily spa treatment, which is a standard inclusion of the full-board experience. Also offered on fair-weather days is a sunset boat trip around all six of Bawah’s islands, an open-air movie night, a private destination dinner, croquet and a tour of the resort’s organic gardens. Wet weather activities include twice-daily yoga/Pilates, a mixology class, a whisky and chocolate tasting session, an Indonesian batik painting class and a traditional Indonesian cooking class. There is also a library to leaf through for the book worms and an ice-cream cart, which, let’s be honest, is fair game come rain or shine.
The 35 eco-focused suites and villas are sustainable through and through, with the 19 Beach Suites and three Garden Suites using safari-style canvas for their ceiling and walls, creating an out-of-Africa-meets-rustic-beach-bunker vibe. More luxurious are the Overwater Bungalows, where we happily chill during the daily deluge, book in hand. The bathroom is my favourite part of the villa, with a striking copper tub and wall mural, and the space looks particularly beautiful lit up in ambient lighting each evening. Turn-down each night comes with petit-fours, a handmade ornament of one of the creatures found in the surrounding waters, such as the sea urchin or starfish, and an educational note about the animal. At Bawah Reserve, the lessons on sustainability never stop.
A standout for many will be the couples-focused Spa Explorer experience. A more modest, but still memorable, iteration of Nihi Sumba’s Spa Safari concept, the experience involves a speedboat ride to another secluded beach and a 60-minute massage. Another opportunity to disconnect from the world and reconnect with nature (and your partner), it is accompanied by a soundtrack of the ocean lapping gently nearby and the cicadas in their element. The aperitif of a hydrating raw coconut completes the experience, before a swift skim across the cerulean water, back to the main island.
For us, the therapists are not quite up to the standards that the exclusivity of the resort suggests (one couple staying at Bawah while we were there flew home by private jet), and we feel the inexperience of many staff during our stay. Put it down to the resort’s relative youth, or the fact that one-third of Bawah’s staff hail from the region, where there are few similarly luxurious properties. Regardless, we are always treated with utmost courtesy, and get the feeling the intuitive customer service that traditionally comes with such resorts is simply a matter of time. There’s no such thing as perfect, after all, but as one of the most dazzling destinations I have ever visited, Bawah Reserve comes pretty close.
Around 30 per cent of the fresh produce served at Bawah comes from the resort’s organic garden and there is an on-site waste management centre that even crushes glass and uses it in the water filtering process. All water on the island is drinkable, unlike most other Indonesian locations, and there are no plastic bottles allowed. Bawah’s partner foundation, Bawah Anambas Foundation, works to protect and conserve the natural environment, while educating the communities on surrounding islands about recycling and conservation, and offering skills training and English lessons.