The Australian - Wish Magazine - - MOTORING - STORY MARIA SHOL­LEN­BARGER

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

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