The Riau Archipelago, a group of islands in one of the world’s most exotic places, is a genuine hidden gem, says Stella Mailoa.
It’s never too early to plan your summer vacation. The thought of sand between your toes and sunlight on your skin just a few steps away from a refreshing and calm sea, or just lying on a hammock with your favourite book while sipping a cold cocktail, will give you that instant warm feeling inside no matter what the outside temperature is. And if you already know Sicily or the Côte d’Azur like the back of your hand, why don’t you fly further this time? Try going all the way to the south.
Indonesia, a country best known for its vast array of tropical islands, is also arguably one of the most beautiful places in the world, with a great display of different cultures. Therefore, if you’re on a mission to indulge in a private escape, this hidden gem makes travelling through several time zones worthwhile. Jakarta and Bali are the nation’s two most popular destinations, but if you opt to avoid the crowd, head a little to the west side, where Kepulauan Riau (Riau archipelago) is located. Javajet Asia and Indo Jet Charter offer private jets leaving from Jakarta, while Paramount Business Jets and Asia Jet have fleets from both Jakarta and Singapore.
Kepulauan Riau consists of 3,000 islands, with the most popular ones including Bintan, Batam, Karimun and Natuna. Batam is Kepulauan Riau’s closest point to Singapore, which gives it many advantages and also the key economic role in the archipelago. With tourism, electronics and oil industries being its strongest fields, Batam attracts both local and foreign investors as much as it appeals to tourists.
Bintan, which serves as the main island with the capital city Tanjung Pinang, lies in its southern part and also has direct flight access from Singapore to its Raja Haji Fisabilillah Airport (formerly known as Kijang Airport). If Batam mixes work with pleasure, then Bintan is all about the latter. Its many attractions cater to diverse type of visitors, their needs and their ideas of having a good time.
Historically, Bintan was the heart of an ancient Malay kingdom. It was an important hub for Indian and Chinese trading ships, and this glorious era left some trails behind for you to explore. Travelling to the west coast of Bintan, where Tanjung Pinang is, you can find some of Buddhist temples on Senggarang, including an old temple embraced by the roots of a large banyan tree. Take a fifteen-minute ride on a boat across the bay to the island of Penyengat, once the seat of the Queen of Johor-Riau kingdom and the place of origin of the fine Malay language, the base for Bahasa Indonesia (the Indonesian national language). With many beaches scattered around the archipelago of Riau, you can also do a whole lot of activities and watersports, including jetskiing, canoeing, wind surfing, sunbathing, fishing, sailing, island hopping and diving — especially around Batam and Bintan. Various species of animals and plants can be found underwater in the region — while dolphins are easy to spot at times, the main attraction is the sea turtles. Six of the world’s seven species of sea turtles can be found in Indonesia’s islands, including Kepulauan Riau.
In the Bintan Resort’s nestling beaches, hawksbill turtles and green turtles have been recorded. For the ultimate in island-hopping experiences, book a luxury private yacht in advance. Indonesia Yacht Charter has a range of private yachts and services to choose from.
There are two main diving spots in Kepulauan Riau: Anambas and Natuna. Natuna is surrounded by deep seas that border the waters of Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore, ensuring a magical underwater experience. Above the surface, Natuna has amazing scenery with natural beaches that are also peaceful. Tanjung, Sebagul, and Teluk Selahang are some of the must-see beaches. Besides being well-known for its coral reefs, Tiga Island is also where the Napoleon fish lives and breeds. In Natuna you can also find an endangered primate species, the Kekah, which lives and breeds only on Bunguran Island.
Natuna’s neighbour, the remote Anambas, was named Asia’s best tropical island by CNN.com in 2013 and boast a colourful underwater scene. Since it’s located among the most northern borders of Indonesia, Anambas spoils you with a panoramic view of blue seas and green islands dotted with azure lagoons. Don’t forget to visit the islands of Keramut and Mangkal, where the turtles have made their habitat. Admire the many lagoons here while sipping your fresh coconut water on the islands of Pantai Selat Rangsang, Pulau Bawah, Pulau Rongkat and Pantai Pulau Penjalin, where islands magically emerge from the sea. At low tide, the islets grow together by the connecting sands, creating an inland sea and an outer sea beyond.
Another main island that’s not to be missed is the Karimun Islands. As part of a free trade zone along with Batam and Bintan, the area is quickly being developed into tourism and industrial region. One of the town, Tanjung Balai, has a significant Chinese-Peranakan population, which means it has a different displays of culture. Here you can find a number of Chinese temples, with the oldest being built in 1926. Witness Indonesian rural lifestyle at some of the local villages at Meral or Pasir Panjang. The islands of Karimun offer long stretches of white beaches. Head to the popular Terkulai and Soreh islands or Palawan (not to be confused with Palawan in the Philippines) and Pongkar beaches, to relax under the palm trees. After going down to the deep water and lounging on the beach, you won’t want to miss feeling the adrenalin rush of flying on an open-cockpit seaplane. Air Adventures Asia, which operates in Bintan, assures you a bird’s-eye view of the clear water and pristine white beaches. Seafood is a must at island destinations, and Kepulauan Riau is no exception. Renowned for its fresh ingredients and Malay-influenced cuisine, the area offers a range of spicy and splendid seafood — chilli crab, steamed prawns, and grilled fish, to name just a few. Don’t miss Riau’s favourite, gonggong (conch). Usually this locally known aphrodisiac is steamed and served with a special sambal (spicy homemade sauce).
After days full of outdoor activities, it’s best to wind down with a spa before retreating to your suite or villa. Banyan Tree Spa, in a secluded corner on the north side of Bintan, offers total privacy, massages with different special techniques and spice-based beauty ritual treatments. Angsana Spa, at Angsana Bintan, provides serenity through ancient aromatherapy art of massages. Bintan also has several other upscale places to stay, ranging from beachfront resorts to private islands. Sanchaya Bintan, featuring 30 villas and suites, is set on the pristine sands of Lagoi Bay, which is the prime beach area. With its own VIP lounge in the ferry terminal, the Sanchaya ensures your comfort from the moment you land. It offers tailored packages for its guests who wants to experience Bintan’s best in a short amount of time. Among other facilities, it offers a host of aristocratic outdoor activities whenever you want to while away a cosy afternoon, such as a yoga pavilion for you to perfect your asanas, a croquet lawn overlooking the ocean, and a field to channel the edicts of Zen through the ancient art of archery. On the other hand, Club Med Ria Bintan is included in Resor Ria Bintan’s premises, just next door to the golf courses. This all-inclusive luxury resort is the place to go for a family holiday.
For more private travellers who are looking to be pampered by nature, private islands such as Pulau Pangkil Kecil and Nikoi are the perfect choice. When you book Pulau Pangkil Kecil, you have the whole island for you and your party — which means, everything from driftwood palaces and bar to pool, kayaks, speedboats, kitchen and more, including the maids and butlers.
Nikoi, one of the most stunning islands, is ringed with white sandy beaches and colourful coral reefs. In between the rainforest, guests will sleep in beach houses that reflect traditional Indonesian architecture. This eco-resort also features a pool with uninterrupted views over the South China Sea. Wherever you wish to spend the night, remember one thing: when the warm night slowly emerges, head to the beach to just lie on your back against the bed of sand, gaze at the stars, feel the gentle breeze on your skin, soak it all in and live in the moment to find the true meaning of the art of slowing down.