The journey itself is a perfect prelude to remote Bawah Reserve—from Singapore it’s by car, ferry, van, then seaplane; from Jakarta, you can fly straight into Batam to catch the seaplane—but throughout, the anticipation builds, so that at the end of the approximately four-hour journey, as the seaplane circles over the six-island archipelago that makes up the reserve, everyone is silenced by the delirium of blues in lagoons lined in white sands and the dense green jungle covering the peak of the main island, Bawah. At once, you know your level of anticipation was embarrassingly low.
Bawah is a small, secluded part of Indonesia’s Anambas islands, 160 miles northeast of Singapore in the South China Sea. It’s owned by Singapore shipping magnate Tim Hartnoll, who’d long dreamed of a private island when he sailed into the six islands and knew he’d found his place. Eventually he rounded up investors and built the resort, hiring Singapore architect Sim Boon Yang to design buildings built over five years, without heavy machinery.
When Hartnoll first arrived, the islands had been over-fished, often using coral-destroying dynamite fishing, and his immediate concern was restoring the ecology and steering the fishermen into making a living without destroying the environment, as simply banning them didn’t help anyone. Every year more coral and fish are returning—a diver recently reported seeing a whale shark—and the resort itself has a high level of self-sufficieny, with ecological efforts too numerous to outline in the space here—just be assured that aside from getting there and back, you’re doing next to no harm during your stay. Except maybe startling a few monitor lizards or resting eagles.
Bawah Reserve consists of 36 villas made almost entirely of bamboo, and set on the beachfront, in gardens, or over the water, some with pools. There are three and four-bedroom villas available, perfect for families or friends traveling together. Hiking over the peak to one of the lagoons, picnicking on a deserted beach, snorkeling, diving, tennis on a grass court, or enjoying a movie on the beach, are just some of the activities, and then there’s the spa. The villa rates include a spa treatment for each night of your stay, and there are pilates, yoga, and meditation sessions.
During the long pandemic closing, the island directly across from the resort, originally intended for an owner’s villa, was transformed into Elang, six hillside villas available only for buyout, each with a butler. Elang has its own spa, saltwater pool, and two restaurants, but guests can also enjoy the two Bawah restaurants, the Beach House and Treetops. By night, the latter becomes the fine-dining venue, and the views are gorgeous. Above Treetops is the Jules Verne bar, with dazzling views of the night sky. The Grouper is a bar/restaurant by the pier and the infinity pool. You’ll appreciate your meals even more once you’ve taken a tour through the herb, fruit, and vegetable permaculture gardens.
My personal preference was a beachfront villa, where snorkeling equipment was waiting for me, along with a hat, flip flops and more of those kinds of things you get somewhere and realize you’ve forgotten. I have to say I have visited a number of private islands, some with much larger villas and even more amenities, but there was something about Bawah. Every morning I made myself a cup of freshly ground Indonesian coffee, ate a cookie, then walked into the water and snorkeled out to give the fish a quick check before breakfast. The rest of the time I packed in every adventure (and spa treatment) I could. At night, after dinner, I sat on the porch under a ceiling of stars, listening to the water lap gently on the sand, and thinking how lucky I was to have found my way to this magic place.