Mum-of-two Marianne Rogerson discovers you don’t have to travel far to enjoy your very own desert island.
As our boat approaches our remote tropical island destination, the aquamarine water is so clear and the sand is so white, I wonder if we have taken a wrong turn and ended up in the Maldives. But no, we are just a 3-hour drive from Singapore’s Changi Airport, on an island called Pulau Tengah in Malaysia, home to luxury beach resort Batu Batu.
Batu Batu is just one of many private island getaways easily reachable by boat from Singapore. These beach resorts offer the ultimate in barefoot luxury. They are the kind of place where you kick off your flip-flops the moment you step ashore and don’t even look for them again until it is time to leave.
These islands are exactly how you would dream up your ultimate beach retreat. Rustic chic pervades throughout the villas and eco-consciousness is the name of the game. Some islands have no Wi-Fi; some have no air-conditioning. There aren’t even any locks on the villa doors here. We are all friends in paradise after all.
Pulau Tengah originally caught the world’s attention when it starred as the location for Expedition Robinson, the original Swedish television series behind Survivor. It has since played host to similar television franchises from France, Holland, Belgium and Finland. The island became home to Batu Batu resort in 2012.
The 22 luxury air-conditioned villas are a far cry from the subsistence living of Survivor, but the rugged natural beauty of the island is still at the forefront of its charm. Sandy pathways wind through coconut groves and the villas are set in amongst the wild jungle, or along the naturally white powdery beaches.
The villas, built by local carpenters using native hardwood, feature large 4-poster beds with mosquito nets and huge bathrooms with oversized bathtubs. Sizeable private balconies offer views out to sea or into the thick of the jungle, while children’s annexes outfitted with bunk beds give parents the privacy so often lacking in hotel rooms.
But with such an incredible island to explore, we don’t waste much time in our villa. Within seconds of alighting on the jetty the kids have spotted a blue spotted stingray, some needlefish and a cuttlefish in the crystal clear waters below. So our first stop is the dive centre, where we borrow snorkelling gear to explore the protected reef of Johor Marine Park.
Batu Batu’s conservation efforts include a Turtle Watch Camp, where they compensate local fisherman for handing over turtle eggs, in order to give them the best chance of survival. We take a tour of the onsite turtle hatchery and learn about the critically endangered Hawksbill and Green turtles.
The rest of our days are spent hanging out at the sea-facing infinity pool, checking out the island’s eight beaches and exploring by kayak and paddleboard. We enjoy sundowners at the beach bar and evening meals in the open-sided pavilion restaurant.
All too soon it is time to seek out our flip-flops and bid farewell to paradise, but at least we have an equally intriguing destination in mind: Telunas Private Island in Indonesia.
Telunas Beach Resort has been a fixture in the Riau Islands for 13 years, since three American college friends created it as a back-to-basics beach resort in 2004. When its Private Island resort debuted in 2014, they decided to take things up a notch, and the Private Island resort was quickly welcomed into the prestigious Conde Nast Johansen Luxury Hotel – Spa collection.
Here 15 villas branch out on stilts over the water, resembling a local water village or kampung. The villas are constructed using ethically-sourced local materials, where even the roofing comes from sagu leaves that are only collected once they have naturally fallen to the ground.
While these water villas may be Indonesian kampung on the outside, their interiors are all New England beach house, with whitewashed wood paneled walls, distressed wood flooring and shabby chic furniture repurposed from local fishing boats. There’s a separate living area with rattan sofas and a children’s loft bedroom that sleeps up to three children.
There’s no Wi-Fi or television on Telunas so it’s all about good wholesome family fun. The kids try their hand at fishing off our private balcony, jumping off the jetty and paddle boarding in the calm waters. We take a family kayak expedition around the island (it takes around 30 minutes to circumnavigate the island) and embark on a nature walk to discover the ‘secret beach’ on the other side.
One morning we take the 2-minute shuttle boat across to the Telunas Beach Resort. Although the accommodation at the Beach Resort is distinctly no-frills, it does benefit from a spectacular beachfront – a huge expanse of sand where we hunt for hermit crabs and mudskippers and splash around in the shallow water.
The big advantage Telunas has over the other private island escapes is its fully supervised kids club. So while the kids are being entertained with hermit crab races or arts and crafts activities, I escape to the blissful open-air overwater spa. Here I indulge in an aromatherapy massage to the sound of the splashing waves and cicadas in the mangrove trees. Life doesn’t get much better than this.
But wait, we have one more stop to make. On another Indonesian island not far away, we find Pulau Joyo to be the ultimate castaway isle to live out our Robinson Crusoe fantasies. Originally built by Hong Kong-based shipping magnate Antony Marden as a family holiday home, the island opened its doors to the public in 2011.
Construction here has been restrained to just five driftwood ‘palaces’ and two traditional Javanese joglos, so seclusion and privacy are guaranteed. We spend three full days on the island and, apart from evening meal times, we barely see another soul the whole time we are here, despite full occupancy.
We start each day with a walk around the island, following monitor lizard tracks in the sand. We swim, we snorkel, we paddle board, we kayak, we read, we eat we play, and we laugh a lot.
We end the day with a bonfire and dinner on the beach, we count the stars and we are thankful that there is more to life than traffic and shopping malls and television and emails, and all the other mod-cons we have happily done without whilst in our own little slice of paradise.
Follow Rogerson’s travel adventures at mumonthemove.com
Good to know
Getting to Batu Batu:
Private taxi from Singapore to Mersing in Malaysia (details on Batu Batu website) takes approximately 3 hours. Private boat transfer from Mersing to Batu Batu takes around 20 minutes, batubatu.com.my
Getting to Telunas:
Ferry from Singapore’s Harbourfront ferry terminal to Sekupang in Batam takes approximately 50 minutes. Transfer via private boat from Sekupang to Telunas takes approximately 1 hour 20 minutes, telunasresorts.com
Getting to Pula Joyo:
Ferry from Singapore’s Tanah Merah ferry terminal to Bandar Bentan Telani in Bintan, Indonesia takes approximately 1 hour. Land transfer across Bintan is around 1 hour 20 minutes, followed by 25-minute boat transfer, pulau-joyo.com
Other private island resorts near Singapore:
Nikoi Island – nikoi.com
Cempedak Island – cempedak.com (Adults only)
Pangkil Island – pangkil.com (Whole island hire only)
Bawah Island – bawahisland.com (Accessible only via seaplane, ages 10+ only)