Desert island drift
Southeast Asia may be one of the most populated places on the planet, but there’s still plenty of opportunity to escape the hustle. Carolynne Dear reveals the best private islands on which to hang your hammock
Bawah Reserve, Indonesia
Opened in 2017, Bawah Reserve is one of six Anambas islands in the Riau archipelago north-east of Singapore.
The islands are today a designated marine conservation area, but this hasn’t always been the case. The resort opened just over a year ago after much clean-up work. When the uninhabited island of Pulau Bawah was first discovered by resort owner Tim Hartnoll, it was an environmental disaster zone. Year of illegal dynamite fishing had decimated the reefs and fish populations and the island itself was covered in rubbish and was being logged.
Last year, Hartnoll established the Bawah Anambas Foundation to address marine and forest conservation and community development. Its overriding goal is to improve the ecosystem of the Anambas.
The local district consists of more than 200 islands and 45,000 people, the majority of whom rely on the ocean for their livelihood.
The six islands of the Anambas are now a designated marine conservation area, meaning its illegal to fish in its waters, anchor offshore or collect marine life.
The resort itself has just 35 suites so as not to overwhelm the local environment. They include Overwater Bungalows, Beach Suites, Deluxe Beach Suites and Garden Suites. All rooms have air conditioning, in-room WiFi and iPads, a private covered verandah, snorkelling and diving equipment, free laundry service, indoor and outdoor showers and a choice of towels.
Culinary offerings include breakfast, lunch and dinner at Treetops, snacks and drinks at the poolside Grouper Bar and sunset cocktails atop the Jules Verne treetop hideaway. Or pull up a swing chair at The Boat House as the sun sets.
Activities run from heaps of snorkelling opportunities (the resort provides handy snorkel maps) to hiking trails across the island.
Bawah Reserve is reached via Singapore and can recommend hotels if you need to overnight in the city. Staff can collect guests from the airport as long as they are there for 7am. Guests are taken to Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal and escorted to Batam via ferry. There is then a car transfer to Hang Nadim airport and guests transfer onto the resort’s seaplane. bawahreserve.com
Please note the resort only accepts children over the age of five.
Kids club – children are welcome to take part in all resort activities under the supervision of parents.
Kids menu – the resort’s chef is happy to tailor menus to suit tastes and preferences.
Nay Palad Hideaway, The Philippines
Live out your tropical island dreams at Nay Palad, a private, barefoot resort located on the southeastern tip of Siargao Island in The Philippines. The ten luxe villas are set around a private bay. Facilities include private beach, outdoor cinema, watersports, infinity pool, spa and fitness centre and plenty of beach activities.
The villas are airy affairs with indoor-outdoor showers and mod cons. Opt for Deluxe with a beach view, Superior with garden views or Superior Family with a private garden and garden views. Included with your stay are daily homemade dried fruits, organic bathroom products, iPod Touch with docking station and an outdoor terrace. All villas have air conditioning and fans, mosquito nets over the beds and natural mosquito repellants on-hand. Also included in your stay are all meals and drinks, all activities and excursions, massages and spa treatments, transfers and laundry services.
No resort worth its salts skimps on its wellness offerings, and the serene Nay Palad spa huts are neatly hidden away in the forest. They come with a full treatment menu – try the traditional Hilot massage – and there is also a fitness centre. Check out the treehouse for insta-worthy views over the sea and jungle – it can also be nabbed for relaxation, yoga and meditation, as well as private dinners.
Talking of dining, a daily changing menu brings out the best in the local, seasonal produce. Meals can be served at the beach, in the treehouse, or back at your villa, as well as at the outdoor cinema and in the lantern-lit gardens. Barbecues and picnics and marshmallow roasts around the campfire are also offered. The casual pool bar serves drinks, cocktails and snacks all day.
Kids (and big kids) will be kept entertained with all manner of sporty equipment, from beach volleyball to table tennis, billiards, cricket, badminton and petanque. Cycling, hiking, caving and birdwatching are also available, along with island-hopping via one of the resort’s three boats, picnicking on neighbouring islands, land tours and day-trips to a local rockpool. On the water, try your hand at sailing, stand-up paddle boarding, waterskiing, wakeboarding, tubing, donut boating, kayaking, skimboarding and snorkelling.
Nay Palad Hideaway is a 40-minute drive from Siargao Island’s Sayak airport. Catch a direct flight from Hong Kong to Cebu or Manila from where you can pick up a connecting flight to Sayak. The resort offers free airport transfers in a private jeepney. Naypaladhideaway.com
Kids club – no kids club as such, but the resort offers The Children’s Village, a fun playground with trampoline, swing and tree platform. There are organised kids activities including cooking lessons, marshmallow roasting and movie nights.
Babysitting – included in the package on request
Cots – yes
Highchairs – yes
Children’s menu – chefs can prepare meals tailored to requests.
Nikoi Island, Indonesia
Kick your shoes off as the speed boat docks because you won’t be needing them again until you leave – this is barefoot (family) living at its best.
Nikoi Island is in Indonesian territory approximately 80 kilometres south of Singapore. It nestles just off of Bintan Island where the Java and South China Seas meet.
If you’re thinking white sandy beaches, swaying palms and grass-thatched beach huts, then you’re pretty close to the mark.
The island was developed into a luxe, eco-resort by long-term Australian expat Andrew Dixon, along with American Peter Timmer, who had been living on nearby Bintan Island. Together, they decided to explore the relatively undiscovered east coast of Bintan.
What they found was a little piece of paradise. Stretches of white sand, pristine reefs and verdant rainforest made Nikoi and exciting proposition. “It was hard to believe a piece of paradise like this could remain uninhabited and untouched – a mere 50 miles from Singapore,” says Dixon.
The pair wanted to create something that was genuinely in tune with the natural environment, but at the same time of a high quality. “As much as possible, we have left Nikoi as we found it – a desert island,” continues Dixon.
“Our plan was to develop a private island, not a resort,” he says. “We wanted guests to enjoy the best of local dishes and appreciate service that is relaxed and genuine,” he says.
Fifteen two-and three-bedroom grass huts form the accommodation. The spacious properties have no windows, no doors, no locks or rooms keys and no air conditioning – just gentle sea breezes and ceiling fans ventilating the rooms and snowy white mosquito nets adorning the beds.
The covered dining area is situated on the sand and boasts long, communal driftwood tables. The chef chalks up the menu du jour each morning, featuring locally sourced produce and many fish or seafood-based dishes, as well as a simpler, children’s alternatives – but don’t worry, there’s not a single chicken nugget to be seen.
Lazy days can be punctuated with the odd burst of activity, if the mood takes you. There are plenty of watersports on the beach, including a catamaran, snorkels and kayaks. A peaceful paddle around the island each morning is easily achievable before lunch.
To the other side of the island is a pool and cocktail bar, and along a sandy track in the middle of the island is a kids’ club – the children have a ball, with treasure hunts across the island, rock climbing and plenty of active, Enid Blyton-esque activities. This is no cookie cutter hotel kids club offering. Each evening, a bonfire is lit on the beach for the children, who are then led up to kids club HQ for an outdoor movie night, neatly ensuring adults can linger over their supper and drinks.
A spa and grass tennis courts complete the idyllic picture.
Nikoi Island can be reached via Singapore. Catch one of the regular high-speed ferries from Singapore’s Tanah Merah Ferry terminal to Bandar Bentan Telani on Bintan Island. From there, Nikoi resort can arrange a private car to transport you to its speedboat on the other side of Bintan (a 45-minute drive). Nikoi.com
Kids club – yes
Babysitting – yes
Cots – yes
Highchairs – yes
Children’s menu – yes
Song Saa Private Island, Cambodia
Hong Kongers Melita and Rory Hunter have carved out an award-winning eco-resort from a pair of neighbouring islands in the Gulf of Thailand.
The couple chanced upon Song Saa on a weekend trip while they were living in Cambodia in the early 2000s. At the time, the islands were strewn with rubbish, the forests decimated and the marine life had all-but disappeared thanks to rampant dynamite fishing.
But after a decade of hard toil and engagement with local communities, the islands are now stunning examples of what can be achieved with passion, energy and a plan. Years of environmental bad practice have been reversed and the islands are now a haven of ecological goodness – think lazy, white-sand beaches and an aquamarine ocean vibrant with corals and fish.
“We knew we had to change things,” said Melita. “But we also wanted to be good neighbours. When we first took over the islands, we weren’t planning on building a resort, we just wanted a nicer environment.” Overfishing meant it was becoming harder for locals to feed their families, which meant large tracts of rainforest were being cleared to create agricultural land.
The couple reached out to neighbouring islands and soon the wider community was involved with the clean-up. A marine protection zone was established and amazingly, within just 18 months, fish stocks had begun to recover. A research diver was brought in to conduct an underwater survey and set up a database, which turned out to be the beginnings of what was to become one of the largest marine parks in southeast Asia.
In 2005 the Hunters created the Song Saa Collective and were granted a 99-year lease with the aim of introducing tourism to the area.
Ever the ecologists, the couple invited experts from James Cook University in Australia to advise on construction without harming the wildlife. The result is a high-spec, eco-conscious resort.
“Along with the resort construction, we also accelerated the conservation side,” says Melita. “We brought in marine biologists, set up an education programme teaching local children how to snorkel and introduced an annual medical mission with doctors from the US flown in to treat villagers.” The resort’s Boat of Hope runs a clinic on the local islands every month.
As for the resort, all 24 one- and two- bedroom villas have private pools and are stunningly perched over-water, next to the ocean or forest-fronting. The resort also boasts an infinity pool and spa and wellness menus.
The kitchens are supplied by the organic garden and the resort recently appointed executive chef Jeremy Simeon, who has brought with him a wealth of expertise in macrobiotic cooking. His Asian-inspired dishes incorporate the island’s local produce, channelling Kampot pepper flavours and vegan and vegetarian dishes if requested.
And if you can rouse yourself from your pool, there are hiking and nature trails, kayak expeditions, snorkelling tours, inter-island excursions and ocean nature safaris. Children are warmly welcomed.
Song Saa Private Island is located in the Koh Rong archipelago, Cambodia. Fly from Hong Kong direct to Siem Reap or Phnom Penh international airports from where there are direct flights to Sihanoukville Airport. Song Saa can provide transport to Sihanoukville Port, a 30-minute drive from the airport. From there it’s a 45-minute speedboat ride to Song Saa. A resort-owned helicopter is also available from the port to nearby Koh Rong island. songsaa.com
Kids club – no kids club, but the resort warmly welcomes families and scavenger hunts and other activities are regularly organised to keep kids busy.