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Saturday May 23, 2009

Green luxury

A private island resort off Bintan, Indonesia redefines the concept of luxe with its sand-in-toes experience, raw designs and green practices.

In an era where everyone brazenly hitches a ride on the green bandwagon, the folks behind Nikoi Island are an aberration.

When I asked Andrew Nixon, one of Nikoi’s founders, about the resort’s eco-friendly approaches, he says, “We take sustainable tourism seriously but avoid labelling or marketing ourselves as such.”

A unique double-vaulted roof allows for greater airflow and ventilation.

Nixon thinks, and rightly so, that these green labels have been bandied about by too many hoteliers who don’t do much beyond asking guests to reuse towels or changing light bulbs.

To find out for myself, I took a ferry to Bintan Island, Indonesia, from Singapore’s Tanah Merah terminal. From the fishing village of Kawal, I boarded a boat to “Eden”, and in less than three hours I was on the island from bustling Singapore.

A white sandy beach fringed by sparkling azure waters and a row of rustic thatched bungalows peeking out from a lush green forest greeted us in Nikoi. Wide grins on their faces, the resort staff scampered out to the arriving guests — yours truly and an American couple, Lara and Nick, who were on the same boat.

Barefoot luxury

After a zesty welcome drink at the Beach Bar, we were escorted to our beachfront bungalows. Fifteen two-storey beachfront houses, two dining rooms, four bars and two modest-sized swimming pools take up a third of the private island’s 15ha space.

The fan is cleverly placed beneath the mosquito net.

These one-, two- and three-bedroom houses are amply spaced to give guests the privacy they seek. Currently, 10 houses are open to guests while the rest are due to be ready by the end of August.

My one-bedroom bungalow is twice the size of my studio apartment in Kuala Lumpur. And how can you beat waking up to a view of the shimmering blue sea facing your king-size bed? Also, a 10-second skip from the room takes you to the crystal-clear sea for a snorkel or dip in the refreshing water.

At Nikoi, the first rule of thumb is to kick off your sandals and bury your toes in the soft sand as you saunter around the resort, minus the ugly concrete paths. And instinctively, you’d put your mobile phone in silent mode — I did! — lest the ringing ruins the tranquillity of the place. There’s no Internet or TV here, making it a perfect getaway for busy urban folks.

Outdoor haven

Not surprisingly, natural heritage is Nikoi’s calling card.

Two-thirds of the island is thick forest, harbouring tall native Banyan trees and a variety of bird species. The owners have invited Singapore’s leading naturalist, Subaraj Rajathurai, to survey the island’s flora, fauna and coral reefs. Some of Nikoi’s staff are taking a keen interest in nature guiding.

Watersport lovers have a field day taking the kayak or sailing boats (Lasers or a Nacra Catamaran) out to sea, paddle-boarding or spotting Nemo hiding in the anemone. On full moon nights, lucky guests may catch spotted turtles nesting on the beach. Except for diving or excursions to nearby islands, all the sports activities are free of charge.

Kids have a blast playing in the giant sandbox or frolicking in the shallow waters while watchful parents recline on deck chairs, sipping chilled margaritas and soaking in the sun. Nikoi’s earnest and fun-loving staff are great with the kids, sometimes giving parents a brief respite from demanding toddlers who can be a handful.

After a long day of playing under the sun, I looked forward to an Indonesian deep-pressure massage by one of the resident masseuses. She plopped a mattress in the bale bengong (rest pavilion) in front of the beach house and got to work.

Originally from Bintan, Salmiah deftly kneaded my shoulders and back, unravelling the knots and letting the stress melt away. This coupled with the gentle brush of the sea breeze and soft hum of lapping waves, made me fall into a slumber. Who says you need a fancy spa!

Holistic approach

Although Nikoi folks don’t gloat about their green practices, discerning guests can spot the telltale signs.

You can’t miss the raw, rustic look of the structures — from the bars and the bales to the beach houses. The buildings are mostly handcrafted from driftwood. The 10-foot (3m) long dining table is shaped out of a driftwood that Peter Timmer, the man behind Nikoi’s building designs, found while fishing.

“It took us almost four days to tow it back across 150 miles (241km),” said Timmer who’s from California. He was on the island when I visited.

Timmer’s roof design — a double-vaulted thatched roof that doubles up as a chimney stack, draws the hot air up and cools the houses. The alang-alang thatch roofs not only lend a rustic feel but provides the cooling factor. The grass (Imperata cyclindrica) is sourced from nearby Teluk Bakau and Gesek, and helps supplement the locals’ income.

With its open layout, each room has a wall with foldable, panelled glass door and large windows, allowing the sea breeze to waft through. In place of air-conditioning, a ceiling fan is cleverly installed beneath the mosquito net that drapes over the bed. In the chilly mornings, the solar-heated hot showers are a real treat.

The biodegradable soaps and shampoos in refillable containers help minimise chemicals and waste. All wastes are sorted and sent to Bintan for recycling. Twice a day, staff comb the beach for litter that have floated from Bintan and other islands.

CFL and LED bulbs light the rooms, dining areas and bars, minimising the use of electricity supplied by diesel generators. At night, torch lamps, using recycled cooking oil, light the resort and take a backseat to the black velvet sky lit by glittering stars.,

Most guests rave about Nikoi’s fresh and seasonal cuisines inspired by Indonesian recipes. To support the local economy, almost 100% of the food are sourced locally, from seafood and fruits to an assortment of veggies.

I adored the simple recipes that emphasise freshness and the “real’’ taste of food like crunchy salads tossed with tangy vinegar dressing, fresh barbecued seafood or stir-fried veggies.

Foodstuff like beef, wine and cheeses are imported. Though the menus are fixed, the staff will accommodate non-meat eaters. Breakfast is a simple affair of eggs, homemade muesli, breads and pastries and fruits with freshly squeezed juice, tea and coffee. Organic waste is fed to the fish. 

Nikoi owners believe “responsible’’ tourism isn’t just about being eco-friendly but also about taking care of the local community.

The island hires local staff and its manager, Mansud, comes from Kawal. The company recently roped in a full-time Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) manager to identify and run its community development programmes. Staff are encouraged to learn new skills to enable them to move from entry-level positions.

“Here, we are like a family and we can communicate directly and freely with the owners,” says Mansud, 37, who worked with several large resorts in Bintan before joining Nikoi in 2007. Apart from a basic salary above minimum wage, the staff get free room and board, uniform, medical allowance and collective tips. (See sidebar, Behind the scenes.)

Barely two years old, Nikoi has already chalked up quite a reputation.

The weekends are booked at least two months in advance. Almost all guest reviews are positive and gushing. On my visit in April, despite the full occupancy, I only spotted a sprinkling of guests at the dining room, bars or on the beach. Yes, it’s so easy to get used to the luxury of having the whole island to just a few of us.

For sure, Nikoi’s charms — the raw edge and natural beauty — will lure folks back again and again.

Nikoi

www.nikoi.com

E-mail: relax@nikoi

Tel: +65-9635 1950

From July 2009, the rates start from S$330/RM800 for a double occupancy (onebedroom house) to S$550/ RM1,333 for a two-bedroom house. Fixed-priced menus are: S$88++/RM213 per day per adult and S$40++/RM97 for children.

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