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Escape to a Private Island Resort

An Indonesian private island near Singapore shines a light on the many tropical pur suits just a hop, skip and a jump from the city. By MERRITT GURLEY. Photographed by LAURYN ISHAK.

Published on Sep 4, 2017


I WAKE UP COLD, a surprise since I'm just one degree north of the equator at a resort without air conditioning. The mosquito net billows around the bamboo fan above my bed, and I fumble to find the remote that will still its powerful wooden blades. The bedroom is wide open, facing the sea, and as the stars fade to a golden dawn, I crawl out of bed.


The villa's breezy canopy bed.
The villa's breezy canopy bed.

It is too early for breakfast so I wander down the bamboo spiral staircase and go for a swim. I hang over the side of the infinity pool and just absorb the sky, blushing pink and rose, and the island-dotted ocean sprawling across the horizon. My internal clock slows down a notch, and it feels like there is nothing separating me from the scenery. I'm just as much a part of the sunrise as the clouds carrying its colors across the expanse.

At Cempedak, a private-island retreat in Indonesia's Riau Archipelago, just 91 kilometers from Singapore, luxury takes on a new meaning. Yes, every room is a two-story 150-square-meter villa, with an indoor and an outdoor shower, a sitting area, a walk-in closet, a plush canopy bed and a private pool. Noticeably missing though are televisions, air conditioners, and walls. When a space is designed to usher in the sea breeze, rather than trap in cold air, walls only get in the way.

Every villa comes with a private pool and paradisiacal view.
Every villa comes with a private pool and paradisiacal view.

Of course this au naturel style isn't for everybody. "One of our mantras is not to try to suit everyone," says Cempedak's cofounder Andrew Dixon. "Too many hotels try to please everyone, and that is a mistake because you lose authenticity. You become a bit bland." Dixon and I are chatting over a breakfast spread of fresh fruit, Indonesian pastries including pisang molen (banana wrapped in flour dough), and eggs served in a skillet with savory tomato sauce. Every meal I've had here has been an elegant take on regional specialties. "Try this," Dixon says, handing me a piping hot cup of jamu, a ginger-heavy local elixir. "It will cure what ails you." After staying up to the wee hours the previous night, drinking 12-year-old Venezualan Diplomatico rum with Dixon at the resort's Dodo Bar—complete with a hideous stuffed replica of a Dodo, whose closest living relative, the Nicobar pigeon, is found in this region—I have my share of ails to cure.

Dodo Bar
Rum pairs beautifully with tropical bliss at the Dodo Bar.

One of which is a persistent beetle that keeps landing on my head. "It is attracted to your red hair," Dixon says. Who can blame it? I was hoping to see one of the island's resident hornbills, or sea otters, or elusive scaly pangolin, but so far this beetle is demanding the spotlight. The 17-hectare island is still a wilderness, covered in palm trees, sea almond trees and long grass. The cempedak tree, with its jackfruit-like yield, for which the island was named, was sadly harvested to extinction here, but Dixon's team has planted plenty more that should sprout up over the next couple of years. The 20 bamboo and alang alang villas were built around the natural habitat as much as possible, and blend in with the surrounds.

"I hate the word eco," Dixon says. "It has been used and abused." But of course, it is an eco-resort, minimizing electricity and water usage at every turn, preserving the landscape, responsibly managing waste and respecting the local culture. They decided against building a staircase to the beach because the staff said it would upset the island's balance. They even flew in a priest from Bali to bless Cempedak in an elaborate opening ceremony. I watch the shamans line up offerings, ring bells, burn incense and splash water on the sand to appease the spirits. And as part of their good-guy credo, the founders of Cempedak also invest part of their profits into local schooling, and are raising money from outside donors. "In the end," Dixon says, "it is the thing that we're the most proud of."

A blessing ceremony to appease the spirits and usher in an era of prosperity.
A blessing ceremony to appease the spirits and usher in an era of prosperity.

This is Dixon's second private island, following the opening of Nikoi in 2007, a rustic retreat built entirely out of scavenged driftwood. "It was quite a job collecting it all," Dixon tells me. "I went out and helped one day. God, I'd never do that again." The resort was a runaway success that's now booked at more than 90 percent occupancy year-round, but even though they had a winning formula, Dixon didn't want to open another Nikoi. "We didn't want to replicate it," he says. "We wanted to refine it."

So you won't find driftwood in Cempedak—the island is bamboo central, from the rooms, to the custom-made fans, to the straws in the cocktails, to the record player at Dodo Bar. Dixon holds up his iPhone case, also made of bamboo. "It is almost becomes too much, doesn't it?"

The leafy landscape provides built-in dividers between the rooms.
The leafy landscape provides built-in dividers between the rooms.

Though wildly versatile, there are some drawbacks to building with bamboo. "It doesn't like to get wet, it doesn't like beetles, it doesn't like the sun," Dixon says. "It is a bit sensitive." The next day I tour the island with a few other guests and get to see the different species of bamboo in its many incarnations, from tiny tubes to 45-meter-long behemoths that take 35 people to carry. Only the low-lying villas (Nos. 1 to 6) on one side of the island are currently complete. All the other villas, including the ones up the hill with broader views over the ocean, are in various stages of construction. Running around the island would be like seeing a flipbook of a villa being made.

At the end of the tour, which includes a stop at the tennis court and soon-to-open spa, we find ourselves stranded on Dead Man's Beach. Nobody knows why it is called Dead Man's Beach, but everybody likes to speculate. "They probably found a dead body here when they first surveyed the island," says Lauryn, the photographer traveling with me, in a macabre and inaccurate guess. "It is the shallow reef out front. Big boats would run aground," ventures Frank, of Frank and Carolyn, a Texas couple vacationing here for the past few days. It was Carolyn who insisted we find Dead Man's Beach, against the advice of our patient and beleaguered guide who followed us barefoot as we scrambled down hills and over rocks in search of these forbidden shores.

A beachfront villa on sunny Cempedak.
A beachfront villa on sunny Cempedak.

While we managed to shimmy down a giant boulder, we couldn't climb back up, so now we have to wait for a speedboat to rescue us. With time to kill, our guide cracks an oyster off of a rock, and sucks down the soft morsel within. Lauryn sits waist deep in the ocean and lets the current wash over her. I stroll the perfect white-sand beach collecting shells, of which there is a beautiful and bountiful variety. I hope the dinghy never arrives.


Cempedak Private Island:; from S$450 a night, two-night minimum; daily board is S$95 per adult and includes activities. The one-hour ferry ride from Singapore to Bintan starts at S$58 round-trip; the one-hour drive from the ferry to the jetty and the 30-minute boat ride to Cempedak is S$90 round-trip.



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Lounge by the boathouse at Cempedak Private Island.
  • A beachfront villa on sunny Cempedak.
  • The custom-made fans from bamboo.
  • Every villa comes with a private pool and paradisiacal view.
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