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Travel & Holiday

Pleasure islands

Recommended destinations to escape from the hustle and bustle of urban living.
The Business Times - June 11, 2011
By: Audrey Phoon
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Pleasure islands

Pulau Joyo

WHILE discussions about private-island holidays have only recently been bandied about by the average traveller, at least one place here has, for some time, been pre-empting that trend. Pulau Pangkil Kecil, to Singapore's south-east, is the grand-daddy of private-island resorts in the region, having been around for more than a decade, and it's been something of a repository for early adopters of the commercial private-island vacation genre.

Ironically, Pangkil was not developed for public use. Its owner, a shipping industry tycoon, had a collection of eco-friendly 'driftwood palaces' - villas made from wood salvaged from the sea - built on the island so that he and his family could stay and enjoy it. But when their visits became rarer, he decided to open it up for rental, and customers poured in - mainly hard-partying INSEAD students, he says, who are 'completely bananas' and who now consider a stint at Pangkil 'a rite of passage'.

The island became so popular that the owner (who declines to be named) started having to make his claim a year in advance, which 'got a little irritating'. Fortunately, as tycoons do, he had a couple of spare islands to play with, and he decided to develop another, more exclusive one for himself as well as a different band of guests.

Enter Pulau Joyo, which lies some distance to the south of Pangkil in Indonesia's Riau Archipelago and is accessible via the resort's speedboat from Bintan Resorts Ferry Terminal. This tranquil haven, which has been six years in the making and officially opened for public bookings last month, is surrounded by clear blue waters and has white sand beaches and lush tropical foliage - the 'classic Robinson Crusoe island', as the owner calls it.

Which would be true, if Mr Crusoe had had his pick of vast wooden villas to dwell in, complete with plush beds and designer sheets, and a team of staff to do his bidding. Because that's what the upmarket Joyo has been furnished with.

Along the island's beachfront, the owner has built eight 'palaces' (rates from $999++ per night per villa for two people), some of which are treehouses and others, driftwood structures similar to the ones on Pangkil, only about three times bigger. ('They're built for giants!' he says with relish.) Two are joglos, traditional Javanese houses that the owner found in a warehouse in east Java, which he rescued, dismantled, then painstakingly moved to Joyo to be reassembled, a process that took months.

'Oh god, it was a terrible thing to do,' he recalls. 'We should never have done it! I thought it was going to be easy and cheap, but how wrong I was. It took us at least six months, probably more.

'But anyway, they're lovely now.'

It does seem that his efforts were worth the considerable trouble - the stately, restored structures look good as new and lend a Javanese touch to this part of Riau. And they're just as spiffy on the inside, as are the other villas, all of whose interiors were done up by the owner's sister, Debbie Gardner. Mrs Gardner is the creative force behind the renowned Begawan Giri Estate in Bali, now known as Como Shambala.

Step in and you'll find yourself in a spacious, high-ceilinged area, deftly done up with hand-hewn wooden furniture, cool white loungers and pretty porcelain vases. Ivory-hued curtains tied back with cord tassels that are embellished with pearly conches sweep along four-poster beds, while the owner's personal artworks - mostly Indonesian statues and carvings - enliven desks, tables and walls.

Of course, it's not just luxurious digs that Joyo offers, but the entire lifestyle. Guests are welcome to charter the owner's 40-metre-long steel hull boat, the Hang Tuah, to gently explore the untouched beaches and reefs surrounding the island. Then there are massage services, a deep teardrop-shaped pool and - perhaps most importantly - scrumptious food.

Joyo's consulting chef is Heather Barrie (of the catering and cafe operation Fine Palate), and she's come up with a special menu of spa cuisine that, she says, was 'inspired by the sense of well-being' that's to be found on Joyo. 'When you get there, it's the sun, it's the sea; everything is so pleasing that I wanted to do food that is good to yourself,' she explains. Which translates to light dishes with an Asian influence - sprigs of coriander, curls of red chilli and wafer-thin slices of ginger enrich the food here - that are made surprisingly tasty with a minimum of seasoning and an emphasis on local produce.

There's a shrimp salad with rocket and chopped lettuce, for instance, that's given a lift with pieces of pomelo and a lovely and light calamansi-based sauce. And there are fat, crunchy baby cucumbers that have been hollowed out and filled with a medley of fresh crabmeat and Thai herbs. 'Guests at Joyo need to be looked after in every sense,' Ms Barrie says, 'so the food has to match the aesthetics as well.'

The entire Joyo recipe has taken off nicely, with the resort already quite busy on weekends. Now, it's working on drawing yoga and meditation groups for mid-week retreats, too. Shares Ms Barrie: 'You may do yoga three times a week, but it's good to go on a longer retreat once in a while. You meditate, eat, swim outdoors ... you end up finding a better place for yourself.'

Indeed, if you take her literally, that place could very well be Joyo.

Song Saa

IF Cambodia is best known for its tooting, scootering cityscapes, not to mention one of the most visited tourist complexes in the world, Angkor Wat, one project will soon set the scales on a more restful keel. Come year-end, the country's first-ever private-island resort, Song Saa, will open to the public, and it promises to be a transcendent sanctuary for those looking to play hooky from urban chaos.

Song Saa, which means 'The Sweethearts', is the Khmer nickname for the pair of islets that the resort is built across, and a very appropriate one too. With their crystalline waters that lap at creamy white beaches, beyond which lie untouched forests, it's easy to fall in love with these darlings of the Koh Rong archipelago.

In fact, that's exactly what developers Rory and Melita Hunter did on their first visit, which happened quite by chance. 'It was 2005, I was working for Saatchi & Saatchi, and my wife and I were supposed to be on our way to New York because I was being transferred to their head office from New Zealand,' shares Mr Hunter. 'But just before we left, I was given an offer to run a small agency in Cambodia. We thought it would be an exciting adventure for 12 months, given that we were still young and didn't have children.'

Upon their arrival, the couple saw that political stability had reached a point where Cambodia's future was 'looking bright for the first time in a long time', and that its economy was on the cusp of taking off. So they decided to stay and start a property development company focusing on buying and renovating French colonial apartments in Phnom Penh, where they learned the ins and outs of operating a business locally. 'We were one of the first Western property development companies in Cambodia, which came with many challenges but also opportunities,' says Mr Hunter. 'And one of them was finding an island paradise.'

This is how that discovery came about: the Hunters had heard about Cambodia's islands through a friend whose father was a fisherman. 'He talked of virgin rainforests, white sandy beaches and oceans teeming with fish,' Mr Hunter recalls. 'It all sounded too good to be true, so we ... decided to charter a fishing boat for two weeks, circumnavigate the archipelago, and see for ourselves. From the first moment, we were hooked.' On the final day of their journey, they arrived at Song Saa, were completely taken by the islets, and subsequently 'asked the government the right question at the right time'.

'We became the second company in history to own an island in Cambodia via a 99-year lease, and are the only ones developing,' says Mr Hunter.

Because of that privilege, as well as the islands' pristine environment and rich wildlife, the couple have approached development very sensitively. Under the Song Saa Conservation and Community programme, which forms an integral part of the resort project, they've created the country's first policed marine reserve around Song Saa, are conducting surveys to gather data on the local marine life, and have taught local fishermen the benefits of marine conservation and more sustainable fishing practices. They're also engaging the surrounding communities by supporting activities that promote a sustainable livelihood, and will be setting up a hospitality training centre for people from the archipelago.

'Because we were the first to develop an island, we knew this came with a sense of responsibility to ensure we set as high a benchmark as possible, not only in the quality of our work, but also in how we engage and treat the local community and environment,' says Mr Hunter. 'Overall, we've aimed to create a business model that's triple-bottomline-driven - profit, people and planet - as opposed to the traditional model, where development is purely focused on profit, often at the expense of the environment and local communities.'

Guests, then, can enjoy Song Saa guilt-free as they lounge about in its 27 luxurious villas (from US$550 per night for doubles and from US$40,000 per night for the whole island) after arriving via private plane from Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. Some of the accommodations are over water, others on the beachfront and yet others nestled within rainforest; all have been built with sustainable materials.

There's also a top-notch restaurant and lounge, for which the owners have flown in a chef direct from the Seychelles' North Island, and a raft of activities - such as champagne sunset cruises to other secluded islands, kayaking and rainforest hikes - are available should you choose to leave your villa.

It's a whole new window into Cambodia, and Mr Hunter says as much: 'We also want to give our guests an experience where luxury and adventure are intertwined, showcasing that Cambodia has a lot more to offer than just the temples of Angkor.'

The Bawah Islands

IN Bahasa Indonesia, bawah literally translates to 'below' - yet that position is surely the opposite of where the Bawah Islands will be on travellers' must-visit lists in a couple of years' time. That's when the cluster of five in the Anambas Archipelago will open as a new socially-conscious luxury resort, developed and run by the folks behind another eco-friendly private Indonesian island operation, Nikoi.

'We are currently working on completing the approval and financing stage of Bawah, and we are now getting quite close to finishing,' says Andrew Dixon, one of the co-owners of the Bawah Islands and Nikoi projects. 'After which it will take us about 18 months to two years to complete it.'

The Bawah cluster, at 150 nautical miles north-east of Singapore, is the closest to the Republic, and the southernmost of the Anambas' largely unexplored 238 islands. A development there would offer guests the chance to experience its spectacular beauty - crystal clear lagoons teeming with marine life; powdery white sand beaches; and rolling, thickly forested hills - as well as a rare base from which they could get acquainted with the archipelago's other treasures, that by and large have gone undiscovered. According to Mr Dixon: 'Not many know the area and it has not been well researched. The last survey by a research team uncovered a host of new species.'

But it's also precisely because this is such an extraordinary opportunity that great care must be taken in the way it is developed so that the ecosystem there remains unharmed. And that's something the developers are aware of.

'Bawah is quite exciting because it's in an area that's quite pristine. If we follow the same mould as we've done for Nikoi, a development there could actually help it,' says Mr Dixon. 'It's a bit like being a guardian angel, if you like. We'll develop it sensitively and by being there, we can protect it from damage.

'For example, we can stop cyanide fishing in the area, which damages the coral reefs, and what we've discovered in our experience with Nikoi is that the reefs recover very quickly afterwards.'

To start with, he and his partners have undertaken a survey of Bawah, led by one of Singapore's top naturalists, Raj Suberaj, to see how best to work with the area, and 'we will continue to work with Raj to gain better understanding of how to protect the islands', Mr Dixon promises. If sensibly developed, he adds, Bawah 'has the potential to become an alternative to the Maldives or Bora Bora, such is the natural beauty'.

Once completed, the resort - which guests can reach by taking an hour-long seaplane ride from Seletar Airport - will have 33 villas, plus restaurants, bars and a swimming pool. 'We are also looking at developing some private villas for sale and some of these might be available either on the main island or one of the smaller private islands,' Mr Dixon shares. 'In total the five islands make up 100 hectares, so the development will be about maintaining and protecting the natural beauty whilst offering guests space and privacy.'

And it won't be just those things that Bawah's visitors will enjoy: they'll get a sense that they're doing some good, too, by staying there. The islands' owners are also behind The Island Foundation (a registered charity which aims to give struggling isolated communities a boost by teaching them skills and helping them establish self-sufficient businesses, among other things) and, as with Nikoi, they intend for the foundation to benefit from the new venture.

'We're trying to help communities - largely fishing ones which are struggling because stocks are depleted - look at other ways of getting income,' Mr Dixon says. 'We want to help them become engaged in the global context without losing their place in the local community.'

As it happens, that responsible-travel slant also works to build business these days, and that's something the owners are aware of, thanks to the success of Nikoi (whose 15 beach houses are fully booked every weekend until November, and which has a 90 per cent occupancy rate on average).

Says Mr Dixon: 'People are now, when they book their holidays, looking for something more than just checking into a box. It has to be an experience, and that's what we offer. They like the fact that we're protecting the environment and putting back into the local community, and that we're built and operate in a sustainable manner.

'In terms of the market, people are now a lot more socially responsible and environmentally friendly, so this sort of holiday resonates with them. That's a growing trend in Asia.'


Melting pot Medan