Bawah Reserve, a luxury resort and conservation area spread out over six private islands within Indonesia’s larger Anambas Archipelago, is a five-hour journey from its de facto gateway at Singapore. Yet even my well-traveled friends in that city had no clue where I was going when I mentioned my destination ahead of a recent trip. “You mean, out toward Bali?” one asked.
I showed him a map, pointing at the waters between peninsular Malaysia and the island of Borneo. “Wow,” he said, eyebrows raised. “I didn’t even know there were islands there.”
Until recently, most didn’t. Then, in 2012, Singapore-based entrepreneur Tim Hartnoll purchased the far-flung cluster of islands with the intention of preserving their ecology, including both that of the land and of the surrounding waters. The area soon became a protected marine area, and Bawah Reserve, the 35-villa, conservation-focused resort, opened in 2017.
When I finally spotted Bawah, I was closing in on the 36th hour of my journey: First, a 16-hour flight to Singapore from the United States, followed by a quick overnight—just enough time for a bowl of laksa and a much-needed rest. Promptly at 7:00 a.m., a car whisked me to Singapore’s boat terminal. After an hour-long ferry to Indonesia’s Batam Island, we cleared immigration; hopped vans to a nondescript, midsize airport; and rode a small bus onto the tarmac to climb aboard a nine-passenger seaplane for a final 90-minute flight.
It was a seamless trip, but a lengthy one, so when the resort appeared in the distance, it seemed almost like a mirage. The still expanse of dark sea was suddenly interrupted by lush islands—one main island and its five satellites—ringed in dazzling sand and the crystalline blue of shallow waters. As we flew nearer, I could appreciate their heights and scale, their steep inclines and rugged interiors. The plane pulled into a sharp turn and circled the scene below before gliding to a smooth landing, fronting a row of the resort’s bamboo villas.
Half an hour later, from the beach outside my own villa, I saw the pilot whip off his shirt and dive into the water before his return flight. I could hardly blame him.
There’s a slightly surreal quality to the islands, as if they were conjured up for a James Bond tryst.
The greatest appeal of Bawah Reserve is its utter seclusion. There are a handful of other private island resorts in Southeast Asia, but Bawah is in a class of its own. Even in the region’s ritziest retreats—like Song Saa off Cambodia’s south coast—it’s hard to be fully isolated; the finest beaches can be interrupted by a diesel-coughing longtail boat or day cruise of rowdy tourists.
Not here. Guests can access Bawah only by seaplane. All staff live on site, and the nearest inhabited island is more than two hours away by boat. Before the resort’s opening, the surrounding stretch of open water, east of the Malaysian Peninsula, wasn’t on the tourism map at all.
There’s a slightly surreal quality to the islands, as if they were conjured up for a James Bond tryst or a swimsuit calendar. Butterflies flit along the footpaths, almost as if staged. Pristine white-sand beaches, swaying palm trees, wooden docks arcing out into glittering waters—every island fantasy cliché is here in full force.
Bawah doesn’t need to sell itself as a honeymoon destination; the secluded villas—some of which feature semi-private stretches of sand—speak for themselves. The 20 bamboo-framed Beach Suites boast expansive, shaded balconies, indoor and outdoor showers, and retractable canopies that open the main bedroom to the sky. Even these are perhaps surpassed by the 11 Overwater Bungalows, which enjoy the island’s best sunset views and direct lagoon access from each private, covered veranda. And massages and facials at Aura Spa are part of an indulgent daily routine at this all-inclusive resort.
But despite having all the trappings of a luxury hotel, Bawah manages to feel organic and unmanicured, even after the five years of construction and planning that went into the project. Nature predominates. The interior of the roughly half-mile-long main island—where the resort is located—is accessible only via a strenuous hike; the villas, restaurant, and three bars here blend into the tree canopies, as if woven into the landscape.
The creatures on the island are harmless, although the skittish might benefit from carrying the resort-provided flashlights when walking the grounds after dark: Monitor lizards crash none-too-lightly through the brush, and bats swoop overhead. My first night, intermittently awoken by jet lag, I listened to a bird alight on my roof and peck on the bamboo frame of the villa; I had to turn on the lights to convince myself it wasn’t inside my room.
Even the food pays tribute to Bawah’s sense of place. Rather than bland resort staples, I ate eggs smothered in sambal every morning, fried noodle nasi goreng for lunch, intricately spiced rendang for dinner. And, thanks to an ambitious garden plot, an increasing amount of produce is grown on the island.
On an island so isolated that a seaplane is your only connection to the outside world—why not bend even time to your whims?
There’s plenty to occupy active travelers, such as challenging hikes to watch the sun rise, yoga and Pilates at an overwater villa, and paddleboarding. The six islands have a number of isolated beaches, some reached only by kayak or the resort’s motorboat. But there’s no need for a packed schedule, either. I found myself wandering to the beach in front of my villa a dozen times each day, whether to dip my toes after that steep morning hike, spend a midday’s hour lounging on a sunbed with a book, or watch the late afternoon sun skip off the rippling waves as I bobbed in the water.
With no television and Wi-Fi that felt increasingly irrelevant as my stay went on, it was easy to slip into a relaxed island rhythm that gave me time to simply notice my surroundings. And there’s plenty to see. I discovered the distinctive arcs in the sand made when a monitor lizard passed by, tail swishing behind it. I could appreciate the bright blues of early morning waters, their near-translucence at noon, and the richer cerulean hues at dusk. I began to anticipate the time of evening when birds and bats would rustle in the trees or when hermit crabs might emerge from the sands and skitter across the beach. The natural world puts on a show, each day and night, seemingly unaware of human presence. It’s a privilege to sit back and watch.
At Bawah’s near-equatorial latitude, the sun rises and falls at the same times every day, year-round: Sunset is always around 5:30 p.m. But that was a bit early, owner Hartnoll reasoned. At 5:30, shouldn’t vacationers just be coming in from the beach, washing the sand from their feet, and getting ready for an evening gin and tonic? So he switched Bawah’s clocks, moving them forward an hour. Sunset is now at the prime cocktail hour—6:30 p.m. On an island so isolated that a seaplane is your only connection to an outside world that almost doesn’t seem to exist—why not bend even time to your whims?
The resort’s luxury credentials and classic beauty will undoubtedly attract many visitors to Bawah—although, with villas starting at $1,870 per night for three nights (all-inclusive based on double occupancy, including transport from Singapore), access will remain limited. But what I found myself missing most, once back in frenetic Singapore, was the solitude I enjoyed when floating in the warm waters under the stars or paddleboarding across a calm lagoon with only turtles and parrotfish to keep me company. It’s rare to experience a place that feels completely removed from the rest of the world, but if anywhere qualifies, Bawah might be it.
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