Reviewed by Michelle Jana Chan
Why book Bawah Reserve?
For principled eco credentials and a sense of lost world remoteness.
Set the scene
The journey here from Singapore is by ferry and amphibious plane, which takes off on wheels and lands on floats; it feels like a throwback to a more romantic era of travel. The pilots are barefooted on the rudder and offer a clipped security briefing (“If you fancy a swim, there’s a lifejacket under your seat”). It’s a charming way to arrive.
Landing with a splash, Bawah is the largest of the six islands in this tiny archipelago. There are 36 villas here, a line-up of restaurants and bars, walking trails through primary forest, open-air massages, an immaculate lawn tennis court, two spas and a boutique. The most challenging decision of the day might be selecting a picnic spot or which lagoon to snorkel.
Singapore-based shipping magnate Tim Hartnoll was once on a sailing holiday and dropped anchor here to discover these lush outcrops of islands and their sheltered lagoons. So began the journey to create a hideaway resort sensitive to the natural environment and a marine reserve with the aim to recover the coral reefs damaged by dynamite fishing.
Some villas are over-water, some front the beach and some are set back in the forest. Singaporean designer Sim Boon Yang, who oversaw the development of both islands, used sustainable bamboo, driftwood and natural, recycled materials in the construction.
On a separate island, the owner’s holiday home is available as a full buyout, the Elang Private Residence with its five one-bedroom villas—Ficus, Lychee, Yucca, Cycad, Satigi—and the two-bedroom Longhouse, all thatched with local palm with interiors in tropical blues, using recycled teak and copper, hand-hewn rock, and furniture made from flotsam. Stone staircases lead to the sea, where the water is so clear that it’s possible to spy marine life without even putting on a mask.
Food and drink
There is The Grouper, a laid-back poolside bar, or up the hill, the Jules Verne for sundowners. Dining can be at Tree Tops in the canopy or on the beach at The Boat House. Guests can also opt for private dining around the islands. Much of the organic produce served on the island is grown on-site in the permaculture gardens. Special meals can be provided on a sandbank or a deserted beach.
For those staying at Elang Private Residence, meals can be directed by the guests or left to the chef, serving up, say, lamb satay on sugarcane skewers, seafood with mango sambal, slices of rare beef with tiny pots of rendang sauce.
There are three spas, two on Bawah (Aura and the Hill spa) and Kayu on Elang, where guests can take up a daily massage (included in their stay). There are also traditional masks, scrubs, compresses and wraps using local ingredients, such as coffee, cocoa and raw honey, instead of branded products. They mix essential oils (ginger, tonka bean and lime) and utilize organic coconut oil, aloe vera, ginger, lemongrass and turmeric. As well as treatments, there are also daily Pilates and yoga classes (and SUP yoga), two gyms (one jungle gym, one air-conditioned), and guided meditation.
The property sits in the Anambas archipelago, an 80-minute flight from Batam, an Indonesian island that’s a quick boat ride from Singapore. The journey might sound heavy on logistics—with flights, ferries and shuttles—but it couldn’t be handled more seamlessly by Bawah staff. It amounts to a three- to four-hour journey from Singapore.
The location between Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo gives these islands outsized strategic importance; in fact, Bawah used to be a military outpost of the Indonesian army (you can still see the red and white stripes of the Indonesian flag painted on rocks around the shoreline). The local economy is based around fishing and farming, with the nearest inhabited islands a couple of hours away by boat.
The staff are gentle but also fun, witty and joyful, such as Rini, who can answer almost any question on Bawah; Nintya who handles landscaping and permaculture; and the waiter Julian, who likes to practice his English accent. But it’s hard to single anyone out because everybody– from the boat drivers to the housekeeping staff to the gardeners—seems committed to giving you the best holiday.
It is a paradise for young and older children, from snorkeling (black tip reef shark, hawksbill turtles, sting rays) to a robust diving program. The property can organise treasure hunts, movie nights on the beach and guided meditations using wireless, silent disco-style headphones. There are boat trips, art and cooking classes, and Indonesian Batik making. The Bawah Survivor programme has a beginner-level escape room/scavenger hunt up to an advanced level, where guests can overnight in the open on the outer islands.
Elang Private Residence can accommodate multi-generational families or groups of friends with kids. There are six villas, a restaurant flanked by a saltwater pool and waterslide, a clubhouse, a spa and another lawn tennis court. There are four other uninhabited islands in this marine reserve, all so close together you can swim between them.
Many of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands have been smashed by overdevelopment, palm oil plantations, plastic waste and water pollution, which is why Bawah and its fierce environmental program feel so crucial. The hotel has put conservation at its core, visible in a shimmering field of floating solar panels, which I am told is one of the largest arrays in southeast Asia. There are also rainwater catchment and water desalination systems, a plastic-free policy and a zero-waste program. The Bawah Anambas Foundation works with local communities to combat destructive fishing techniques, focusing on reforestation and offering skills training. On a dive, I noticed new polyps sprouting from artificial frames on the seabed, part of the coral regeneration programme. The coastal mangroves here are left to flourish, and there is constant beach cleaning in action. Perhaps the hotel’s philosophy is best seen by the seashells placed under glass cloches throughout the hotel, showcasing the reverence for nature here.
Accessibility for those with mobility impairments
Not recommended for people with disabilities, including because of the arrival by amphibious plane, as well as the many uneven stone steps and sandy trails on the islands.
Anything left to mention?
There is a turtle nesting project here; the mostly likely time to witness hatchlings being released is between July and October.
Bawah is the largest of the six islands in this tiny archipelago. There are 36 suites, villas and lodges here, a line-up of restaurants and bars, walking trails through primary forest, open-air massages, an immaculate lawn tennis court, nature-immersed spas and a boutique. Singapore-based shipping magnate Tim Hartnoll was on a sailing holiday when he dropped anchor to discover these lush outcrops of islands and their sheltered lagoons. So began the journey to create a hideaway resort. Villas are over-water, some front the beach or are set back in the forest. Stone staircases lead to the sea, where the water is so clear that it’s possible to spy marine life without even putting on a mask. Sundowner cocktails are as wonderful as you might expect – there is The Grouper, a laid-back poolside bar, or up the hill, Jules Verne. Dining can be at Tree Tops in the canopy or on the beach at The Boat House. Guests can also opt for private dining at various spots around the islands. The spas offer daily massages (included in your stay) as well as traditional masks, scrubs, compresses and wraps using local ingredients, such as coffee, cocoa and raw honey. The property sits in the Anambas archipelago and is an 80-minute flight from Batam, an Indonesian island that’s a quick boat ride from Singapore. Many of Indonesia’s 17,000 plus islands have been smashed by overdevelopment, palm oil plantations, plastic waste and water pollution, which is why Bawah and its fierce environmental programme feel so crucial. For principled eco credentials and a sense of lost world remoteness, there’s nowhere like Bawah.
All listings featured on Condé Nast Traveler are independently selected by our editors. If you book something through our links, we may earn an affiliate commission.