Greener getaways: Nikoi and Cempedak, two eco-paradises off Singapore

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This article is part of a guide to Singapore from FT Globetrotter

Here’s a question I’m asked a lot: is there a hotel or resort in the world you love so much, a place that gets it so right, that you’ve kept it to yourself, and never written about it?

The answer I’m invariably inclined to give anyone who’s not a friend seems obvious, if also churlish: where exactly does dishing about it fit into the “keeping it to myself” agenda? But some places merit extolment far too much to not share them. Nikoi, a private-island resort in the western Indonesian regency of Bintan, is one of them. For that reason I have actually written about it, including for this newspaper — though given it’s been happily humming along at about 90 per cent occupancy year-round for ages, I suspect I’m pretty irrelevant to its success.

Nikoi is a 37-acre Indonesian island about 60 miles south of Singapore © Will Scott

Those who know Nikoi know its story: in 2004 Andrew Dixon, an Australian who was then a Singapore-based banker, purchased a deserted 37-acre Indonesian island some 60 miles south of the Lion City with a small cohort of friends, initially with the idea of using it as a weekend escape. Over time, the group realised it made more sense to run it as a resort. Because the project evolved slowly, with no huge revenue-generating agenda, Dixon, who took the lead on development, was able to adhere to a sustainable vision.

The result is a place that today resembles what it was a decade ago, and still run along the same precepts: high gratification in ways that matter for enjoyment and low-fi in ways that matter for the environment. It has a fine white-sand beach; an interior of unadulterated rainforest; bars and restaurants with sand floors, and a single menu each day; a grass tennis court; a spa consisting of a clutch of dreamy tents next to the water. No phones or TVs in the rooms — just the privileging of the truest and most elemental luxuries there are: space, light, and nature.

The indoor/outdoor lounge space in one of Nikoi’s villas © Will Scott
Nikoi’s two-storey villas are all made of driftwood and powered by renewable energy © Will Scott

The journey to get to Nikoi starts with a one-hour ferry from Singapore to Bintan island, followed by a one-hour car transfer to its eastern shore, where a speedboat waits at Dixon’s private jetty to take you the remaining 20 minutes. So you commit; but then you’re there, greeted with icy ginger-snake fruit mocktails, walking along packed-sand paths curtained by emerald undergrowth to the villas, strung out along the beach. These are enormous (even the most basic is two storeys) with indoor-outdoor living rooms and a spare bathroom downstairs, and a huge, airy bedroom and bathroom upstairs, fronted by a wide veranda.

There is no air con, but huge fans spin lazily above, and the breeze from the sea — maybe 10 yards from your private garden and massage bale — sneaks in and out all day long. The main beach is lined with loungers and umbrellas. There are two bars, and two restaurants: the food at the main one is mainly Indonesian with some western dishes; opening in July, the new restaurant by the pool will serve pizzas and Mediterranean dishes.

A decade after buying Nikoi, co-founder Andrew Dixon acquired a second island called Cempedak, which opened in 2017
Kebun Reja, a permaculture farm on Bintan that supplies produce for both Nikoi and Cempedak

Nikoi hits all its marks on holiday style, but they’re balanced carefully in a framework that prioritises, as it always has, the sustainable footprint. Villas are constructed of driftwood; power comes primarily from solar, and entirely from renewable energy sources. Desalination technology produces potable water, and groundwater is recycled for all other purposes, including tending the organic gardens (the island also sources from fisherman and farmers on Bintan). External consultants visit regularly to survey the natural and marine environments, ensuring best practices for protection — and restoration — are in place. If it all sounds par for the course to 2022 ears, bear in mind Dixon was already doing this in 2007, back when bath butlers and $82 Kobe burgers in the Maldives were the vanguard of Experiential Luxury.

A decade after purchasing Nikoi, Dixon acquired a second island about 14 miles to the south called Cempedak. It opened in 2017 as a more ambitiously sleek destination, and a child-free one — a boon for those who, as a repeat visitor and friend of Dixon’s I know once noted, find that Nikoi (which is hugely popular with Singapore-based families) can skew a bit Lord of the Flies on weekends.

Cempedak’s sustainability bona fides are no less legitimate. With driftwood no longer in ample supply, its villas were instead built with bamboo, one of the world’s most renewable materials. Their innovative architecture maximises air circulation, eliminating the need for air conditioning. They’re also massive, leveraging bamboo’s famous tensile strength in soaring, dome-like configurations.

Cempedak’s dome-like villas are made of bamboo © Will Scott
The villas on Cempedak were designed to maximise air circulation and eliminate the need for air conditioning © Will Scott

So far, so eco-fabulous. But genuine sustainability extends beyond environmental custodianship to engagement with local communities. Dixon had done so in an ad hoc, intuitive capacity from the time of Nikoi’s inception, both with Riau Islands Indonesians and with the local seafaring nomadic ethnic groups, known collectively as Orang Suku Laut. In 2010 he made it official, registering a non-profit, The Island Foundation, in Singapore. It quickly became evident that education initiatives would have the biggest impact. “It was also what the communities themselves wanted most from us,” he tells me. “A lot of these kids are excluded from learning because of the language and economic barriers they face.”

Around 90 per cent of the people The Island Foundation serves are in fishing communities, which aren’t always counted in the national literacy data; the non-profit estimates that as many as 30 per cent of adults haven’t completed primary education themselves. And in the case of the Orang Laut, Dixon says, “they’re now some of the first generations to live on land. They can be culturally marginalised and viewed superstitiously by locals,” which tends to further distance them from educational opportunities.

Today the Foundation runs eight learning centres in rural Bintan communities, educating as many as 250 primary-school-aged children at a time. Stakeholders are engaged too: teacher-training courses are free to local adults; Learning for Sustainability, an education programme for the children taught by the Foundation, was recently introduced. Meanwhile, Island Foundation staff and volunteers provide support in human resources, infrastructure and data-gathering.

The Island Foundation has eight learning centres in rural Bintan communities, educating up to 250 primary-school-aged children at a time © The Island Foundation
Since 2020, Nikoi staff have worked with a profit-for-purpose called Seven Clean Seas to help remove 250 tonnes of plastic from Bintan beaches

Like the rest of the travel industry, Dixon suffered a huge blow with the onset of the pandemic. The Singapore-Indonesia border stayed closed more or less consistently from early 2020 until April 2022. But he managed to keep his resorts’ staff engaged, and solvent, by partnering with an Asia-based profit-for-purpose organisation called Seven Clean Seas (SCS), which sells plastic credits to companies as offsets, ploughing the returns into clean-up initiatives across the region.

Before Covid, Dixon says, his employees had done “maybe a couple of beach cleans a year”. Since 2020, they have helped remove 250 tonnes of plastic from Bintan beaches and audited it for recycling. “We initially had two teams, each working twice a week; SCS funded one team, we funded the other,” he explains. They eventually worked five times weekly or more, collecting as many as 1.5 tonnes of plastic each go. “They were paid a full-day’s wage for a half-day’s work, plus a bonus,” Dixon says. The rates were the going minimum wage, which, he notes, was less than his staff normally earn, “but they didn’t really have other sources of income, so it’s been a real lifeline”. 

The pool at Cempedak

Meanwhile, borders are open again and guests are returning in numbers. Three new villas have been completed on Nikoi, and major upkeep projects ticked off (“It was a fantastic time to re-roof,” Dixon says with a laugh). These days, he’s focused on implementing an official management plan for the Marine Protected Area in which Nikoi and Cempedak sit, in collaboration with other foundations and government actors. He speaks enthusiastically of eight previously unidentified species of fish, and more than 200 others that are new to the area, discovered on sponsored dive surveys.

It’s that engagement, and walking the talk, that makes Nikoi the backable venture it is. But not only. The place, it must be said again, is the dream. Go one day, if you can. Not that you heard it from me.

Nikoi, minimum three-night stay in a one-bedroom beach house from S$1,335 (about £765). Cempedak, minimum three-night stay in a pool villa from S$1,425 (about £815)

Do you have any green getaways to recommend in and around Singapore? Share them in the comments

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