SUSTAINABILITY IS MORE THAN A BUZZWORD ON CEMPEDAK. THE ECOLOGICALLY SENSITIVE (AND CHILD-FREE) PRIVATE-ISLAND RESORT IS A SHORT HOP AND SEVERAL WORLDS AWAY FROM THE COMMERCIAL HEART OF SOUTHEAST ASIA.
Singapore is just beyond the horizon, was the recurring refrain in the back of my mind, as the motorboat glided south over the mirror-smooth, milky-green waters just east of Bintan island. I felt the need to remind myself because, despite my proximity to the world’s second-busiest port and fourth most important financial capital – the Lion City is only about 40km north of Bintan as the crow flies – all around me were signifiers of back-of-beyond southeast Asia. To starboard, ramshackle fisherman’s houses on stilts and long-tail boats dotted the shoreline (Bintan, from which my speedboat had departed after a ferry ride from Singapore’s Tanah Merah terminal and a 45-minute car ride through its interior, belongs to Indonesia). Off our port side was scattered a small constellation of densely forested islands, thick thatches of palm and mangrove and pandan banded in by rings of grey rock or buttercream-coloured sand, most of them deserted. But not all: from behind his aviator shades, our skipper grinned and pointed at one particular emerald hillock with a brilliant white swath of beach projecting off its northern edge. “Nikoi,” he said.
The other passengers nodded approvingly. Anyone who’s spent time as an expat in Singapore knows about Nikoi private island, where space and nature are the stock in trade, and airconditioning, televisions and butlers are conspicuously absent. The story of its creator, Andrew Dixon, is almost as well known: an erstwhile banker from Sydney, based in Singapore, who bought a little tropical hideaway with a few friends in the early Oughts, then set himself the challenge of creating a truly ecologically sound private-island resort. Nikoi is entirely constructed of sustainably sourced driftwood; its two-story villas all have bales, outdoor living rooms and beachfront access; the food is sublimely fresh and simple; the spa suites are tented platforms set among
granite rocks millions of years old. To get an idea of the zeal of its devotees, just try booking a room on any weekend in the next six months – Nikoi is one of the only hotels I know of that operates at over 90 per cent occupancy year-round.
But the skipper sped southward, because our destination was another island, one that is the next chapter of Dixon’s story and elaborates on the themes that make Nikoi exceptional. Nikoi was the first experiment in distilling luxury down to elemental parts achievable within a vision that benefits both the land and the people living on it (a healthy percentage of its revenues are reinvested into community initiatives – education, housing, healthcare – that benefit the family and neighbours of Nikoi’s mostly Bintan-based staff).
Cempedak, some 12 nautical miles to the south, and also reached from Dixon’s private jetty on Bintan, is a more ambitious endeavour. Opened last July, it purveys the same feet-in-the-sand, phone-forgotten-at-the-bottom-of-the-bag escapism, but with a more acute attention to design, and a remit to cater to grownups (under-18s are, in fact, not allowed, partially in response to Nikoi’s exceeding family-friendliness – arguably its only downside for anyone not keen to share a pool/ dining room/lounge/beach with other people’s very small children). Fifteen of Cempedak’s 20 villas are already built. They are extraordinary structures, seeming to combine local architectural vernacular with spaceship hulls of a Star Wars vintage; their crescent-shaped, alang-alang clad roofs curve up from the dense littoral forest, looking like boulders swathed in coconut husks.
It’s easy to see why Cempedak struck Dixon as the more adult-friendly venue; with more topography – bluffs and rock beaches and pinnacles at the island’s centre – it lends itself to a more ambitious and sophisticated design, staggered on various levels of land and beach. “Ultimately, you do this to make money; it can’t really be called sustainable if it doesn’t,” he points out. “And building sustainably doesn’t exist in diametric opposition to making profit – or to luxury. I think the coconut-castaway thing, the no-aircon, no minibars – it’s all very luxurious for some people, because these days anyone can stay in a glass box with its own bath butler, or whatever. We wanted to create a different design paradigm, and the sustainability has to serve that goal, rather than the other way round.”
On Cempedak, Dixon has swapped out driftwood – so scarce these days that it’s no longer really sustainable – in favour of bamboo, which among high-design aficionados in the region is getting a lot of play, particularly on Bali (whence come two of Cempedak’s architects, Chiko Wirahadi and Ketut Indra Saputra, boasting between them decades of experience with bamboo; the third, Bali-based New Zealander Miles Humphreys, is the author of five-star resorts around Asia). Despite a tensile strength equal to that of steel, and a higher compressive strength than wood or concrete, bamboo is technically a species of grass. That
techniques and castaway fantasy fulfilment, looks stunning. Almost everything structural on the island is fashioned from bamboo, from the glowing toffee-coloured double doors of the villas to the nautilus-like private dining pods surrounding the restaurant, their floors spiralling dynamically, to the very fans above the huge gauze-swathed beds. Every villa has a wide deck and tear-shaped plunge pool (the high-saline ocean water they’re filled with is the byproduct of the sustainable desalination treatment system); it’s flanked by a sun deck with loungers on one side and, on the other, a breakfast-dining area, complete with a clever foldaway pantry with coffee and tea machines and glass jars and hampers of snacks. There are upstairs and downstairs bathrooms, and a truly sprawling living space, in which local ikat and batik textiles are layered over low-slung contemporary chairs and sofas made from recycled teak. Books and copies of Tom Hodgkinson and Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s brilliant Idler magazine (whose ethos seems tailor-made for this island) are arrayed on tables. The roof of each villa arcs out well over the living area, protecting it and the upstairs bedroom entirely from rainfall (there are also folding bamboo-and-glass doors upstairs, for when the monsoon breezes kick in, in January and February); the ingenious crescent shape maximises airflow, parlaying the barest stirring of air outside into a coolness circulating through the bedroom.
Roughly half of the villas are strung along the beach; the other half are immersed in the jungle at the island’s centre. Mine, high on the hill, had a sigh-provoking view of Bintan’s hilly, deep-green coast, separated from Cempedak by a strait of limpid South China Sea. Each is a Crusoe-esque world of its own, and I can personally attest to the ease with which a whole day can be whiled away without ever leaving (butlers there aren’t, but there are cleverly-conceived iPad control centres for ordering room service and in-room spa appointments and sending personal messages to the manager and staff; at Cempedak, the Crusoes benefit from excellent wifi).
But you’d be remiss not to fully explore the island, rich in biodiversity and well-conceived leisure pursuits. Sea otters and monitor lizards – the former shy, the latter entirely harmless – patrol the rocky shallows of the island’s south coast. Pangolin hide in the jungle, but are occasionally spotted. Several of the staff are also naturalists-in-training, and over a half-hour walk can expound on medicinal uses for sea lettuce berries (bugbite antiseptic, eye drops) and belinjo nut (the chefs use it for the delicious emping crackers served in the bar). Worldly pleasures are represented by a croquet lawn, yoga pavilion and – a very chic touch – a full-sized grass tennis court. By end of this year, a small spa cantilevered over the water will be operational.
But what most impressed, given both the coordinates and the mandate of elemental simplicity, was the sheer excellence of the food and drink. This is in great part thanks to the consultations of Penny Williams, a Bali-based chef-restaurateur whose experience at London’s Savoy and the Bathers Pavilion in Mosman lend a tangible refinement to the offering here. The restaurant does a single menu, which changes daily, alternating Indonesian and western food; what’s not grown or raised on the island is sourced locally. Every dish I ate – from an elevated interpretation of the traditional Balinese megibung to a sirloin with a blazingly spicy pepper sauce I asked to take home with me – was very, very good. Likewise the cocktails in the spectacular twostorey Dodo Bar, whose black-tinted bamboo, quirky taxidermy (there’s a story there) and various highly original takes on the G&T add a flourish of showmanship, without forsaking any of the precepts Cempedak stands for. It’s a fine balance, this very specific form of luxury, and Dixon is the first to admit it. Good thing, then, that it’s in his nimble and experienced hands.
Cempedak, besides delivering vanguard building techniques and castaway fantasy fulfilment, looks stunning.
Clockwise from left: the main swimming pool; the walkway to Dodo Bar; a beach villa; the island, reached by ferry, car or private boat from Singapore’s Tanah Merah terminal
Inside a villa