Can you really enjoy a luxe holiday while leaving a light footprint? Eco resort Cempedak Private Island blew us away and will change the way you live the good life...
You know we love a minibreak around here, and we’ve figured out how to stretch out Singapore’s public holidays to escape at whim for another Asia-hopping session. But it’s become increasingly clear to me that when I enjoy the luxury of a sanity-saving break in a beautiful pocket of the world, I want to tread more lightly on this Earth. Cempedak Private Island off Bintan is one of those gorgeous, secluded stays you want to soak up again and again, and is entirely authentic when it comes to amazing eco tourism and giving back to its community.
But above all, it’s an experience that’s a whole world away from Singapore (is it really just two and a half hours away?). Here’s the inside story on the private island you’ll want to make your own…
First up, know that this is an adults-only island – which means it’s the kind of restorative, kid-free vacay parents (and non-parents) dream of. This is the definitive place to chill, and if you want to travel meaningfully while you’re at it, you’ll be blown away by the dedication of its founders to responsible, environmentally friendly hospitality. From the natural, locally sourced building materials to the composting of food waste, right down to the bamboo straws in your cocktail, serious thought is behind every detail of this divine retreat. Even the Jenga set at the bar was handmade from wood offcuts (go on, you know you want to play until midnight). Here, responsible travel works so perfectly with pure enjoyment too.
It’s all about the bamboo – and that breeze
If you’ve indulged in a stay at sister property Nikoi Island, you’ll have noticed the theme of driftwood – the same commitment to natural materials and sustainable design has come to Cempedak, where bamboo brings strength and natural beauty to the property. The villas have been designed to invite the breeze – no aircon here, people – and you’ll welcome the change. There is, of course, a fan above your bed, wifi and iPads for communicating with staff. Swooning over the interiors and wanting to steal the style of the entire resort is also highly probable. Don’t get us started on that private pool.
In certain parts of Singapore, you can be spoiled with a view of the sea when you wake up – and I’m sorry, East Coast, but you’ve got nothing on this. Gentle waves just footsteps away, giant tropical leaves still covered in drops from the morning rain and the sight of the giant resident lizards sunbathing on the grass as you take in the morning light from your balcony is almost too much. And yes, it inspires you to run straight out onto the beach before breakfast and plunge in that clear, clear water.
Before we dive into the amazing food, let’s head back to Bintan for a moment, where Cempedak has a permaculture farm – it’s all part of the mission to become as self-sufficient as possible, provide work for the local community and serve up a fantastic farm-to-table experience.
Wander around and you’ll encounter curious hens (who lay the eggs you’ll enjoy for breakfast), and a maze of fruit, veggies, herbs and spices: think enormous jackfruit, kangkong, aubergine, ginger and chillies and even rosella that you’ll enjoy later as a handmade syrup in your cocktails – more on that later.
Knowing where the fresh produce comes from makes island feasting even more satisfying here: and yes, the eggs from the farm, which you can enjoy over mee goreng for breakfast, are out of this world.
Aussie-turned-Bali addict Penny Williams, whose culinary pedigree includes London’s Savoy and who now runs best-kept-secret Bali Asli near Mt. Agung, has lent her hand to the development of the offerings at Cempedak. She brings island dining and imbibing to the next level, and is one of the warmest, food-loving souls you could meet. Executive chef Dika Nainggolan and chef Bambang Kusmanto rule the Cempedak kitchens, and deliver intuitive, amazing flavours. The result? You’ll feast on elevated, authentic, Indonesian cuisine – and take note, the menu is fixed, to avoid food wastage. We dig into comforting curries, refined broths, punchy salads packed with sweet, spicy and sour flavours, dip into an knockout sambal from Chef Dika’s hometown and sip from the most enormous coconuts we’ve ever seen.
Of course, there are biodynamic and organic wines in the cellar to enjoy over dinner. Any time of day, there are brilliant craft cocktails at Dodo Bar that are stirred up with boutique spirits and homemade cordials. This is one of those spots just made for nursing your favourite drink in the sunshine or gazing at the stars – which never look this clear and bright from Singapore. And yes, there’s a telescope so you can take your stargazing to the next level. No apparatus needed to spot the taxidermy dodo the bar is named after.
Butterflies, monkeys and island wildlife
Two thirds of the island is still covered in virgin rainforest, and your surroundings are nothing but lush. One thing you can’t help but notice here are the butterflies – they’ll land on a nearby leaf, or even on you, in a Disney Princess-like moment. They’re enormous, beautiful, and they’re everywhere. It’s because the island doesn’t engage in fogging, a move that was made to encourage the island wildlife to thrive, and the ecosystem to do its work. An assortment of herbs and vegetables are being grown on the island too for immediate access to fresh ingredients.
Go for a guided walk with Cempedak’s resident expert on flora and fauna, Jaslan Muhammad Syukur, and he’ll point out the leaves you can cook, the traditional uses and local folklore behind native plants, and show you where the resident pangolins like to take a nap. We didn’t catch the pangolins during nap hour, but we did spy a trio of geese, more enormous lizards (a hazard for the local turtle hatchlings), and heard several reports about the infamous silver-leaf monkeys that was spotted swimming to Cempedak from a nearby island.
When in Cempedak…
You are on a private island, with a mission to unwind. You can do this by your private pool, or find that moment of peace padding onto the soft white sand to watch the sunset over the sea, or by exploring the pockets of the island that change so dramatically according to the tide. My place of sanctuary? The rock spa might have ruined me forever. You’ll find the spa amidst giant granite boulders and mangroves. The soundtrack to your massage is waves lapping against the rocks; the view when you open your eyes. This is, frankly, as serene as it gets.
Of course, if you want to up the ante, you can take a kayak around the island, go kite surfing, paddle boarding and snorkelling. I’ll be right here at the Rock Spa.
Now this is what we call good vibes
Founder Andrew Dixon is the driving force behind it all, and one of the most passionate people you’ll meet. Cempedak Private Island is a luxury experience, but the intent behind it all is to reduce our impact on the environment and reconnect with nature. Gaining an insight into the behind-the-scenes details such as the recycling of water and composting of food waste drives home just how much problem solving has gone into this project. “I enjoy the challenge intellectually of reducing our impact,” says Andrew, and his commitment to making lasting change and going beyond best practice is palpable. While you’re walking with him, he’ll pause to pick up pieces of styrofoam that wash up on the shore to repurpose as bean bag fillings, and no surprise, he doesn’t entertain greenwashing. (By the way, you litter around him back in Singapore, you lose.)
Delve deep into conversation with Andrew, and you’ll discover that this spectacular project (and Cempedak Private Island is deservedly award-winning) has, at its core, a commitment to conservation, community, culture and commerce – all achieved in balance. A coral replanting program is already underway, and the goal is to establish a marine conservation area around Cempedak. You’ll hear of the efforts to retrain a local dugong hunter to provide him with a new livelihood as a guide and transform him into a fellow conservationist. You’ll learn that some of the staff who came on board for the construction of the property were provided with new skills and career direction in hospitality, and are still part of the team. And the benefits for the local community continue to unfold through The Island Foundation, which was established to provide much-needed learning centres for children in nearby villages on Bintan and surrounding islands.
Cempedak is one of those special places in the world you don’t forget, and you feel good about visiting on so many levels. And it will change the way you see luxury. Go feast, find your place in the sun here, and come back feeling lighter.