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Conservation meets pampering at Bawah Reserve

The view from Treetops restaurant in Bawah Reserve. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann
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Indulgence and responsibility seem at odds, but the two coexist comfortably at Bawah Reserve. It's hard to know at times whether these six islands at the southern tip of the South China Sea are a for-profit luxury resort or a concerted effort to save a remote corner of the world.

Extraordinary attention is paid in both directions, simultaneously. Its owners were motivated to lease the islands in part because they saw it as both beautiful and under threat, and they worked with the Indonesian government to have it declared a marine conservation area. 

That designation carries restrictions for its commercial use, but within those bounds, management is applying the same fervor that fuels their sustainability efforts to create an experience on par with the best luxury resorts in the world.

The property's extraordinary attention to detail becomes evident before a guest even sets foot on the island. Getting to Bawah isn't simple; it involves a public ferry from Singapore to the nearby Indonesian island of Batam and an 80-minute flight on an amphibious Twin Otter. But the process is a study in seamless, escorted luxury travel, involving chauffeurs in white Mercedes-Benzes, VIP lounges, fast-track immigration and a savvy group escort.

A beach suite bedroom at Bawah Reserve. The suite’s walls can be raised, all the better to enjoy the property’s natural beauty. But there’s also air conditioning for warmer nights.
A beach suite bedroom at Bawah Reserve. The suite’s walls can be raised, all the better to enjoy the property’s natural beauty. But there’s also air conditioning for warmer nights. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann

Upon arrival, I found that my beach suite incorporated an artful blend of luxe and nature. The very walls of the bedroom rise slowly at the press of a button. (I found a ceiling fan and mosquito net to be comfort enough, but in warmer, more humid weather, I don't doubt I would have brought the walls down and turned on the air conditioner.) Decorative touches in the room are unexpected, even quirky: a hat stand with a poncho and cowboy hat; strands of shells cascading from a ceiling lamp; a full-size chest at the foot of the bed.

The bedroom isn't large, but it faces the sea through floor-to-ceiling windows and a door. The entrance is via an expansive front porch designed with lounging in mind: a comfy, oversize chair; a long, cushioned bench; table and chairs for room service dining alfresco.

The bathroom/dressing room, also with a half-inside/half-outside vibe, is spacious, with a double vanity and an old-fashioned, deep bathtub. Near the dresser is a cord that raises or lowers a coconut; its height indicates "do not disturb" or "make up my room."

Just below it is a hamper. Laundry service is complimentary, in part because weight is a serious consideration for the amphibious plane. Guests are advised to bring a minimum of clothing, but also are promised that clothing will be picked up daily for washing.

The list of inclusives is long and impressive, including the ferry and flight transfer from Singapore as well as daily spa treatments and all meals and drinks (except alcohol) and activities (except scuba diving).

A guest at Bawah Reserve takes in the view on the Six Island Sunset Cruise.
A guest at Bawah Reserve takes in the view on the Six Island Sunset Cruise. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann

The mix of opportunities to relax or be active is nicely balanced. Those in the mood to simply chill can hang out at the beachside infinity pool, take the Six Island Sunset Cruise, browse the library or pass the time between meals lounging on beaches, in bars or the porches of their suite or overwater bungalow.

There's an option that offers a bit of adventure … with pampering. A guest walks to the end of the jetty and steps onto a covered motorboat for the short ride to neighboring Sanggah Island. He or she is dropped off — or, if they're feeling dramatic, cast away — and the boat leaves them in solitude.

But Robinson Crusoe never had it this good: A shaded futon awaits at the drop-off point, and before taking off, the resort staff brings ashore a picnic basket, a cooler with drinks, a bag of snorkeling gear and a promise that they'll be back in two hours for pickup.

I enjoyed this excursion. For a couple of hours, it was me and some anonymous hermit crabs. (Two hours isn't long enough to feel you have to start naming things.) And it was there, along Turtle Beach, that I found the best snorkeling.

Going up a notch in activity, there's yoga, Pilates, stand-up paddleboarding and sailing. There's no gym, but those looking to burn off calories (the food is very good) can hike any of four trails. All begin with a climb — the island is volcanic — but end at viewpoints, or in one case, the widest and longest beach on the island.

Another "active" activity I enjoyed was circumnavigating Bawah in a kayak. It took about an hour; the water was crystal clear on the lee side of the island, and I saw an eagle ray as well as a variety of tropical fish. On the windward side, waves brought some challenges and fun.

Odd as it may sound, a highlight was a "permaculture" tour. An earnest young man named Teguh Wahyu Pramana oversees an ambitious operation to discover what will grow, what can be recycled and what can be made more beautiful on Bawah.

Cucumber and okra vines grow up lattices on staff quarters. He's trying to farm catfish and has started a chicken coop. He points out eggplants, chili peppers, snap beans, lemongrass. In a greenhouse, microgreens. Aloe vera. Cassava. Three types of bananas. Soursop. Mango. Sweet corn.

An arching trellis of pumpkin and squash vines epitomizes Teguh Wahyu Pramana’s vision of beauty, efficiency and productivity.
An arching trellis of pumpkin and squash vines epitomizes Teguh Wahyu Pramana’s vision of beauty, efficiency and productivity. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann

He harvests staff ashtrays for tobacco to experiment with making biopesticides. He's very proud of a trellis tunnel of squash and pumpkin vines, feeling it reflects his three guiding principles: beauty, efficiency and productivity.

But he feels his greatest accomplishments are in teaching local farmers good agricultural practices. When the islands became a reserve, many local fishermen were banished from its waters. To provide them with a more ecologically friendly livelihood, the Bawah Anambas Foundation, started by Bawah's owners, is educating area residents in best practices of organic farming, with the promise that the resort will buy their harvests.

All of this becomes more impressive in light of the resort's capacity: 35 rooms.

Currently, most guests are from Europe, though Bawah is interested in hosting more Americans. Paris-based travel adviser Laurence Huiberts-Hoang, with Virtuoso-affiliated Grand Luxury Group, was on site when I was there and said he had sent clients who came back and raved about Bawah. 

"It's the barefoot luxury everyone says they offer but no one actually does," he said. "It's small, it's remote, it's original."

In the final analysis, it's not for everyone, not even everyone who can afford the nightly rate, which ranges from $1,800 to $2,200. One can go simply for the five-star luxury, but those who appreciate the full dimensions of Bawah's vision will feel most richly rewarded.

See www.bawahreserve.com.

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