Everyone’s reaction is the same when I tell them the name of the Indonesian island I’m about to visit.
‘Like the beer?’ they ask.
No, that’s Bintang, I point out. I’m off to Bintan.
Evidently, this Indonesian outcrop isn’t as famous as its soundalike lager, but by rights it should be, because the high-end holiday destination has got a lot going for it, with some residents touting it as a rival to the country’s best-known tourist destination, Bali.
Part of the Riau Archipelago, the 450-square kilometre island is accessible by sea or air, with most visitors sailing via Malaysia or Singapore.
The latter is where I fly into, jumping on the speedy 45-minute ferry from the Tanah Merah terminal after spending a couple of days sightseeing in the city. And, honestly, I couldn’t have timed my arrival at Banyan Tree Bintan any better.
Bintan’s airport, Raja Haji Fisabillillah Airport, does not cater to international flights. Riau Airlines is the main operator and connects the island to Jakarta, Palembang, Jambi, Pekanbaru, and Natuna islands.
The picturesque resort is situated on the northern side of the island, its 67 Thai-style villas spread over two lush hillsides. It’s just gone 6pm when I step through the carved dark wood door of my villa, and the sky is beginning to turn from hazy blue to marshmallow pink. As the fiery orange sun slips behind the horizon, the stunning sunset is perfectly framed in the window as I watch it from my four-poster bed.
After a blissful night’s sleep, I’m up at sunrise for outdoor yoga at the highest point of the property, doing sun salutations while gazing out over the calm azure sea. It feels wonderful to stretch and loosen up, but truth be told, that’s about as energetic as life gets for me here.
Days are spent at an extremely leisurely pace, relaxing by the two hotel pools or paddling in the warm waters that lap at the wide white sand beach. Just when I think I can’t get any more relaxed, I spend two glorious hours in the Banyan Tree spa, having the last remnants of city-induced stress kneaded out of my knotty back and shoulders by a Thai massage expert.
If too much lounging around leaves you restless on holiday, there is plenty to do on Bintan besides sunbathing. Golfers have four pristine courses to choose from and you can find every kind of water sport, from laid-back kayaking through shady mangroves, to high-speed jet-skiing on the ocean.
If it’s culture you’re after, head south to the area around capital city Tanjung Pinang. Reflecting the diverse heritage of the Riau region, here you’ll find Buddhist temples, Muslim mosques and a beautifully restored Malay palace.
Personally, I get my fill of history – not to mention modernity – during my 48-hour stopover in Singapore, which begins with a fascinating walking tour around the Joo Chiat area to marvel at the traditional, ornately-painted ‘shop houses’, and get a taste of the melting pot local cuisine.
With bustling hawker centres (street food markets where some vendors actually have Michelin stars) right through to posh rooftop bars, the incredibly clean and green metropolis is perfect for a city break.
But after a bustling blast of a concrete jungle, the serenity of Bintan is even more welcome.
As with so many tourism hotspots, sustainability is a big buzzword in Indonesia at the moment – and that’s no different at Banyan Tree Bintan, which has a marine conservation centre onsite, dedicated to helping boost the local turtle population.
Here, conservation officer Adlan Fadhlan Bakti collects eggs laid in nests on the beach by Hawksbill turtles, which then leave their offspring to fend for themselves (or risk being stolen by poachers). The hatchlings are looked after until they’re strong enough to head out into the wild.
“Then we let nature do the rest,” Mr Bakti explains on my last afternoon at the resort, when I get to help release one of the adorable green creatures into the sea. A few metres from the shore, I watch my tiny little turtle slowly waddle into the waves and eventually swim off, hoping that he thrives and lives to be 80 years old (as some turtles do).
Then it’s time for my final dinner, a spectacular send-off at one of the eight private dining destinations that are dotted around the resort, in addition to the three restaurants. This one requires a boat to reach, but it’s a very short voyage (a matter of minutes) to the ‘kelong’, an open-air floating restaurant based on the traditional Southeast Asian fishing platforms of the same name.
Here, we’re treated to a feast of Indonesian delicacies from sea snails (surprisingly tasty) and otak otak (seafood wrapped in coconut leaves) to spicy crab and nasi goreng fried rice, all while bobbing gently under the star-filled sky.
For those in search of the ultimate secluded escape, the kelong concept is being extended to a beautiful floating villa. The island has recently undergone a major expansion.
Right now, it’s popular with affluent Singaporeans and expats, not to mention celebrities who appreciate the privacy that the island affords. But it will be a while before the Riau islands hit the mainstream – and that’s a good thing.
If Bali is the crown jewel of Indonesia, Bintan is a hidden gem, but a precious one that’s just waiting for discerning travellers to discover.
A Rainforest Seaview Villa at Banyan Tree Bintan starts from $600 a night, with breakfast.
Have you ever visited Indonesia? Do you think Bintan will replace Bali as a hotspot for Australians?
– With PA
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