Indonesia’s islands: from Bali to Bawah

    21 November 2019

    There’s no better portal to Indonesia’s rich tapestry of islands than Singapore. The whole of the city seems so ridiculously pristine it looks like it was conceived as part of ‘The Sims.’  As we sped down the immaculate tarmac streets lined with manicured trees my Singaporean Uber driver proudly pointed out some of the new features of the city’s landscape including ‘Gardens By The Bay’ and ‘Marina Bay Sands’ roof-top infinity pool featured in ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ which I had watched on the plane to get me in the mood.

    My first stop was a far cry from the glass skyscrapers that have sprung up across Singapore’s already glittering skyline and instead was nestled in the maze of narrow streets that make up Chinatown in the Outram district. Drawing up at dusk outside the Six Senses Duxton you can’t help but be struck by the dramatic frontage of the hotel. Comprised of a row of heritage trading houses, with an achingly stylish interior, it has all the low-rise wooden-shuttered charm that I love about this city. After sampling some chicken fried rice and chilli crab at the impeccable Yellow Pot Restaurant downstairs, I collapsed in my bed in their Montgomerie suite thankful to be horizontal. 

    Snorkelling in the Anambas Islands

    Bawah Reserve, Anambas Islands

    I woke in my Singaporean sanctuary with barely enough time for room service before starting on a half day mission to a resort in the Anambas Islands. It is a place so secluded and impeccably Instagrammable that it had, in part, prompted this mini-pilgrimage to Asia. The resort is called ‘Bawah Reserve’ and involves a car ride, a jaunt on a ferry to Batam and a breathtaking flight on an Amphibious Twin Otter 300 which lands you on the turquoise waters surrounding Pulau Bawah.  The brainchild of Tim Hartnoll, a British billionaire who grew up in Singapore, Bawah consists of thirty-six tented safari and overwater suites which unfurl along the south coast of the central private island.

    My suite was the stuff of Alex Garland’s ‘The Beach.’ A handmade bamboo frame on stilts with canvas walls housed a huge four poster bed complete with a draping linen mosquito net.  The bathroom was designed around a large copper stand-alone bathtub whilst my balcony led down to my own stretch of pristine white sand.  There was hardly any time to unpack as I was told that a castaway picnic had been prepared for me on ‘Coconut Beach,’ one of the powdery strips on an adjacent smaller island. I packed my snorkel and goggles provided by the hotel and was sailed to the most picture perfect castaway beach I’ve ever seen, on which had been placed an umbrella and linen bestrewn table complete with white fingered coral.

    A combination of freshly cut fruits and Indonesian style Opor Ayam appeared out of delicately woven multi-tiered steamers before they left me for several hours to paddle around in the translucent water marvelling at the royal blue and ruby red coral. On my return to the main island there was only time for a quick shower before padding over to the extraordinary ‘Tree Tops’ restaurant whose vaulted clamshell ceiling is adorned with five oversized weaved bamboo chandeliers with mother of pearl discs hanging down in strings giving the appearance of giant floating jelly fish.

    Surfing at Nihi Sumba

    Surfing in Nihi Sumba, Sumba Island

    Many days passed in this papaya-fueled island stupor before the sea plane arrived again and it was time to head to Bali.  Arriving back in Denpasar at night was a tad trippy after the seclusion of Bawah. Balinese couples astride motorbikes beeped their horns as our taxi was stalled in traffic and I felt a tad blinded by the neon as Europeans and Australians weaved their way along streets marked by brightly coloured temples and markets selling trinkets.

    Fortunately our hotel The Legian was in the quieter Seminyak area and it wasn’t long before we pulled up outside its large walls revealing coy-filled pools at the base of several internal atriums around which the hotel is built. The cool starkness of Hendra Hadiprana’s architecture was beautifully offset by the elegant teak antiques and parquet floors of the sixty seven suites that make up the hotel. Mine didn’t disappoint being both the size of a largish New York apartment and featuring huge wooden double doors which opened onto a large balcony from which teeming Bali glittered picturesquely below. 

    The Legian

    The morning provided just enough time for some fried Mie Goreng next to the Legian’s split-level swimming pool and rolling gardens dotted with tropical flowers before a return trip to the airport to head to Sumba. This island is one of a string of islands to the east of Bali which are far less developed and no less beautiful. In fact the contrast is dramatic. Despite Tambolaka being only one hour from Bali the airport was tiny, the faces almost exclusively Indonesian and there was not a Havaianas flipflop store in sight. This place has been on my radar for a while mainly for it being the home of ‘Nihi Sumba;’ a cult surfer lodge turned ultra-luxe resort which indefatigably ranks top of many luxury resort listings.

    True to form I was met by a deep green Toyota safari vehicle inside which a freshly cut coconut sat on a purpose built teak holder next to a plate of homemade banana bread wrapped in individual banana leaves.  As we sped south west across the island there seemed almost zero development with traditional grass-thatched ‘peaked’ menara houses still populating every street and water buffalo being herded along smaller dirt roads.

    The resort itself is announced with a wooden sign stating ‘Welcome to the Edge of Wildness’ and behind it is the expanse of beach called Occy’s Left with killer surf which prompted the construction of a simple shack by surf enthusiasts Claude and his wife Petra Graves in the late Eighties. Since then Chris Burch and James McBride have reimagined it into twenty seven distinctively Sumbanese private villas and treehouses each framed by banana and frangipani trees with their own butler and private pool. Despite the extraordinary attention to detail here (a welcome note was imprinted on sand decorated with orchids on arrival) the place has pleasingly retained its hippy surf lodge vibe with happy hour at the ‘Boat House’ where fresh fish was barbecued nightly and good looking tech couples relaxed after a day of surfing. Having arrived late in the day there was just enough time to release some baby turtles and watch them struggle towards the water which simultaneously reflected the brilliant pink sunset.

    Horses entering the surf on Occy’s Left, Sumba Island

    Breakfast at the beautiful Ombak restaurant overlooking the bay made me feel extraordinary lazy as it was clear that many guests had got up early to catch the best of the waves. After the fluffiest of pancakes covered in shaved coconut I decided to take the safari vehicle again to Nihioka; the resort’s spa and crowning glory three miles away. A miniature destination in and of itself the open air spa pavilions are nestled in a sheltered bay framed by pandanus trees where a full body Aloe Vera and banana leaf body wrap will makes you feel temporarily like a piece of hand rolled sushi but leaves you baby-soft and tranquil.

    Orangutans in Indonesian Borneo

    Mother and baby Orangutangs in Indonesian Borneo

    The trip to Indonesia was not complete without a wild orangutan sighting which involved several more flights via Sarabaya to Pangkalan Bun in the heart of Indonesian Borneo. Our tour guide Arif was a highly knowledgeable biologist and picked us up at the local fish market in a brightly coloured river boat called a Klotok which was to be our home for a two night adventure into the jungle.  As we set sail down the black peat-stained Sekonyer river hedged by Nippon palms the mist started to set in and the day was spent shuttling from one side of the houseboat to the other as Arif enthusiastically pointed out the large nosed Proboscis monkeys and crocodiles lurking at the edge of the water. Our sightings of wild orangutans navigating supple branches with mesmeric dexterity increased as we pushed further into the jungle with perhaps the highlight of the trip being a close encounter with the semi-rehabilitated Percy in the famous research centre Camp Leakey in the heart of Tanjung Puting National Park. 

    That evening we docked next to a Nippon palm known for being home to crowds of fire flies and dined on freshly barbecued fish on the top deck content as the black waters lapped our painted vessel.  It had been a breathless tour of Singapore, the islands of Eastern Indonesia and Indonesian Borneo but as Edward Abbey said; no journey is a journey unless its “trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view(s).”

    Plan a trip

    • Rates at Six Senses Duxton start from SGD390 (currently approx. £221) based on two sharing an entry-level Nutmeg Room on a room only basis.
    • Ampersand Travel offer seven nights at Nihi Sumba Island from £3,310 per person including international and domestic flights, private transfers and all meals, accommodation, non-alcoholic drinks, local excursions, wi-fi and many sea activities available at the hotel. / 0207 819 9770
    • The Legian Bali is a mere 25-minute drive from the Ngurah Rai International Airport and is situated on Bali’s southern coast. Rates start from $498 (currently approx. £381) per night on a B&B basis, excluding taxes. For more information please visit: 
    • Rates at Bawah Reserve start from $1,980 USD per night for two people on a full board basis including spa daily treatments, laundry, in-room minibar, a host of land and water-based activities. Complimentary return transport from Singapore is included when booking a five-night stay or more. For more information visit
    • Orangutan Applause tour of Indonesian Borneo: Rates start at $387 per person for a three day two night all-inclusive tour with private guide