Hotel Review: Tatler Checks Into... Bawah Reserve
This private-island resort in Indonesia celebrates the beauty of the sea and the tranquility of island life
As our seaplane hovers over the Anambas archipelago in Indonesia, a picturesque sight greets us—the tranquil cluster of six islands that form Bawah Reserve, one of Southeast Asia’s newest private-island resorts.
Formerly known as Bawah Island, the eco-conscious retreat is a three-hour journey from Singapore and had opened in July last year. Primary amenities and suites are located on Bawah island (the largest of the six isles), with access to the smaller isles made available via solar-powered boats during your stay. Due to the remote location, a minimum three night stay required for room reservations at the resort.
The property hosts up to 70 guests at any one time, with the titular island comprising 35 suites, a wellness centre, two primary restaurants and three bars, as well as a tennis court in the works; additional two-bedroom villas are currently being built on the smaller isles nearby.
The resort management has also set up the non-profit group Bawah Foundation, which focuses on keeping the sea clean and litter-free, while caring for the wildlife and coral reefs. With the archipelago now designated as a marine conservation site, fishing and anchoring is prohibited within the area; the foundation also educates local farmers on sustainable fishing and farming practices in the nearby waters.
Situated in between the Malaysia Peninsula and Borneo, getting to the resort is a small feat in itself: it involves a ferry transfer from Singapore to Batam, followed by a 75-minute flight on a seaplane from the Hang Nadim International Airport in Batam. Thankfully, the journey was made brisk. Escorted by a staff member every step of the way, we were able to skip the long queues at the customs area and arrived on the island before noon.
The aerial view of the islands from the seaplane presented a captivating sight. Up-close, clear waters offer glimpses of the sea life and coral reefs from the jetty, with the surrounding lagoons keeping the shallow waters tranquil. A row of lodgings line the beachfront area, with a coconut-shaped, two-storey structure being the largest structure on the island—it houses the main restaurant and bar, as well as a small library. Foliage is in natural abundance around the island, with most of the existing forestry and rocky cliffs kept as it was. Accomodation by the beach are well-spaced apart, surrounded by native plants that help add to the sense of seclusion and privacy.
Do Not Disturb
Our beachfront suite was a short five-minute buggy ride from the jetty, with each residence identified by the names of the guests at the entrance, in lieu of numbered suites for a personal touch. The accommodation itself is a hut-like tented lodge built primarily with bamboo sustainably harvested from Java, with just the bedroom area air-conditioned while ceiling fans at the ensuite bathroom and terrace area keep the spaces breezy.
Decor is kept to a bare minimum to create a rustic ambience and the high ceiling gives the bedroom area a breezy sense of space. The suite itself is loosely furnished with woven rattan cabinetry and wooden pieces and accents of patinated bronze, with glass sliding doors leading to bench seating at the veranda; the latter became one of our preferred lounging spots. The resulting ambience is all about glamping by the beach, with the sea just a few metres away from our doorstep.
Each suite is assigned a personal host, who will attend to the housekeeping of your accomodation, manage your meal orders, schedule reservations for spa services and any requests that you may require throughout your stay. The room rate also includes transfers via seaplane, ferry and a private car, as well as food and beverages (excluding alcoholic drinks), spa services and water sport facilities; the accommodation is also furnished with a set of snorkelling gear and life vests for up-close encounters with the sea life at your leisure. Solar panels are currently used on the island to heat the bath, and treated wastewater is used for flushing.
For more ways to unwind, look to the spa services at the Aura wellness centre. Services include traditional Javanese massages, facial treatments, as well as pilates, yoga and meditation sessions. The centre itself is a two-storey coconut-shaped hut, with spacious seats upstairs for the foot massages, and air-conditioned private rooms on the first floor for the body treatments.
Its beauty treatments feature vegan products from Thai skincare brand Ytsara, which use organically sourced ingredients that are free of parabens and pesticides. Amongst the treatments that I tried, the highlight for me was the Garden of Deep Calm body massage, a relaxing, 60-minute treatment that soon eased me into a blissful nap, accompanied by the scent of lemongrass and the light aroma of oils made with rice bran, sweet almond and soy.
Food & Drink
As part of its eco-conscious ethos, meals served at the resort consist primarily of local ingredients and sustainably grown produce. The property also grows its own collection of organic herbs and vegetables at its rooftop garden, and uses its own water purification system to produce still and sparkling water from sea water.
Must-tries on the menu include seafood dishes prepared with the fresh catch of the day, such as the slow roasted Tongkol fish salad, alongside red snapper ceviche, crab tartare and grilled seafood. A small selection of Modern Indonesian dishes are also available, although these did not have the spicy kick we were expecting; western-style staples such as pastas and Italian-style beef were among the mainstays and popular items on the menu.
Situated amidst the canopy, the main restaurant Treetops and the Jules Verne bar are the preferred spots for romantic sunset views, while the Grouper bar on the first floor is conveniently next to a family-friendly freshwater pool. Head over to the Boat House if you’re in search of a more laid-back vibe outdoors by the beach; furnished with swing chairs and seats by outdoor furniture maker Dedon, the seaside restaurant-bar serves up barbeque food and bar bites to go with your beers or cocktails of choice.
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The Bawah Reserve experience is all about embracing the tranquility and beauty of the natural surroundings, with guests encouraged to disconnect and go off the grid: there is no TV or radio in the suite, and limited Wifi connectivity within your suite. While it’s convenient to board a buggy on humid days at the car-free resort, exploring the island by foot still proved to be the most rewarding experience.
In lieu of paved roads, villas and amenities are connected by sandy paths or boardwalks, which can make for a bumpy buggy ride; having your feet in the sand by the beach is also a more enjoyable way to explore the archipelago’s 13 pristine beaches and three lagoons, including a beach said to be frequented by the local turtles.
It’s best to dress for comfort on the island and to bring a pair of trekking shoes if you’re intending to try any of the three walking trails. These guided walks will take you through the unspoilt forestry, and lead up to rocky cliffs that offer picturesque sights of the archipelago. The more adventurous travellers will prefer to trek up on their own after being familiarised with the routes, or visit a nearby bat cave for more up-close encounters with the wildlife; during our stay on the island, we spotted several fruit bats and native reptiles. Although it may not be to every city dweller’s taste, the flourishing foliage and rustic atmosphere are part of the charms of this secluded locale, which also makes it more suited to travellers who enjoy being immersed in nature, and for families with older children due to the rugged terrain.
Life on the island is also literally at a different pace. The time zone observed on island is one-and-a-half hours behind Jakarta time, and 30 minutes ahead of Singapore time, so synchronise your watches to match your spa reservation or meal schedule. Light pollution is minimal on the island due to its remote location as well as the minimal construction on the shore; dining under the stars and strolls along the boardwalk were particularly enjoyable, set against spectacular views of the night sky.
Weather conditions from March to July are optimal for diving and snorkelling, due to the tranquil waters and infrequent rainfall. The period from September to October is ideal for wind-related water sports, with kite surfing facilities and a yacht soon to be available at the island resort.