Before I began the planning for RTW #8, I’d never even heard of tiny Nikoi Island. But before each big trip these days I cruise my friend and London-based-travel-writer, Jill’s, ecoluxhotels.com website for properties that still need to be reviewed. In exchange for doing the review, the writer receives a 2-night stay. In the past year, her site has introduced me to several luxurious eco-lodges like Laguna Lodge in Guatemala and explora’s superb Chilean properties. So, that’s how I discovered this little gem of an island just 50 miles from Singapore.
Since I had already penciled in Singapore on the RTW #8 itinerary, Nikoi seemed like the perfect place to escape the buzz of the city for a few days. Getting there from Singapore sounded complicated at first glance but turned out to be a breeze. From Singapore, I took a ferry to Bintan Island in Indonesia (1 hour and the entry visa was easily processed on the boat) and then Nikoi’s staff took over from there, greeting me at the ferry terminal and escorting me to a private car for the ride across the island to meet the Nikoi boat (also 1 hour). From there, it’s just a 15-minute speedboat ride to the private island paradise of Nikoi.
The Nikoi Story
When Nikoi Island was purchased in 2004 by a small group of expatriates residing in Singapore, it was completely uninhabited, truly a deserted island. The group had become disenchanted with the resort options easily reachable from Singapore and set out to bring to life their own idea of an island escape with space, privacy and simple luxuries. The goal was to create a relaxed environment akin to visiting a friend’s private island home. The result is Nikoi Island, which opened to the public in 2007. Where there are no rules, no signs and no room keys. In fact, there are hardly any doors. And when I say no rules, I mean it. For example, when I asked what time the bar closed, I was told, “when the last guest leaves.” That’s the kind of service you can expect here on Nikoi.
And Nikoi was anything but a typical resort development. From the beginning, the owners were committed to protecting the natural environment of the island and passionate about giving back to the local community. Sustainability, as essential as luxury.
Prior to construction, they engaged a highly-regarded naturalist to survey the island and make recommendations for construction to minimize the impact on the island’s natural flora and fauna. He made several recommendations that were implemented into the resort’s design. For example, the coastal foreshore around the island was left intact to maintain healthy and regenerating reefs. Lighting is minimal so as not to disturb nesting sea turtles and the eastern side of the island has been left virtually untouched except for the addition of a limited trail system.
Beach House Living
From the minute I stepped off the jetty and got my first look at the pristine beachfront and thatched rooftops nestled among the native flora I knew I was going to love it here. I was greeted by the manager, Tony, as I stepped off the boat and after a brief introductory tour was shown straight to my beachfront two-story villa.
Constructed primarily of driftwood, each of the 15 villas enjoys prime oceanfront real estate yet each is spacious and secluded. The downstairs area featured a wide open seating area with no walls and perfect oceanfront views. Despite the lack of walls, the villa was surrounded by native Sea Almond trees that provided total privacy. Just off the living area, my own private beach area with two lounge chairs and a shaded daybed.
But the upstairs was the real showstopper. A king-sized bed draped elegantly with mosquito netting created a simple but chic design and two chairs sat on the balcony facing directly to the sea. On either side, cozy built-in daybeds offered plenty of room for lounging and soaking up the view. The bathroom was spacious and well-appointed with an open shower and toiletries made with essential oils.
The bedroom did have sliding patio doors and a door to the staircase that could have been closed if you wanted to but I didn’t dare interrupt the island’s steady cross-breeze. I was a little concerned about the lack of air-conditioning but the villas were designed with pitched thatched roofs that draw the warm air upward and each level has a ceiling fan. Between the design, the fans, the cross-breeze and the sound of the waves just a few feet away, I slept soundly and comfortably.
Unfortunately, the weather was just about the only imperfect detail on my first day on Nikoi Island, it rained for most of the day. I spent the afternoon in the comfort of my villa, enjoying the ocean views and doing some research into the eco-initiatives of the resort for my review. And what I discovered was as impressive as my villa.
In addition to teaching local farmers to grow organically and providing a library with computers for the local children on Bintan Island, Nikoi has created The Island Foundation which seeks to aid in local community development through education and environmental projects.
After an afternoon of writing from the peaceful comfort of my villa, I headed over to the dining area for dinner. Each time I left my villa I had to keep reminding myself I didn’t need to bring a key. It’s so ingrained in my psyche to grab my key before leaving my hotel room, the open door policy took a little getting used to. But I liked it.
The meals at Nikoi were one of the best parts of my stay. The chef crafts each day’s menus based on what is fresh in the local markets and what’s in season. At each meal, there’s a chalkboard posted with the menu for the next meal. Before you leave one meal, the staff will enquire if you’re okay with the set menu for the next. If it’s something you don’t like, they’ll make you something else. I didn’t have much experience with Indonesian food so I enjoyed trying the various menu combinations the chef created.
Dinner that night was a spicy prawn salad followed by grilled snapper with steamed vegetables and roasted sweet potatoes. For dessert, a pear and almond tart. Everything was delicious at each meal and I learned a lot more about Indonesian cuisine along the way.
After dinner I retired back to my lovely beach house exhausted from the all-nighter I’d pulled the night before finishing a piece for the Sunday Times Travel Magazine. As I walked back, I glanced up at the sky only to discover it was blanketed with more stars than I’d ever seen in my life. It was absolutely mesmerizing. Somehow, I eventually managed to tear myself away from the celestial view and headed for bed. With the sound of the ocean beneath my window and the fan spinning above, I slept better than I have in months.
The Sun Finally Shines
The next morning I awoke to the pink swirls of a perfect sunrise. Finally, the sun had returned. I spent most of the day exploring the island, which was larger than I had imagined. The main part of the resort is on the southern side of the island while the pool is on the northern side. I took a walk over to the pool which boasts quite the dramatic setting overhanging the ocean and surrounded by enormous granite boulders. Soft sandy beaches cover half of the island’s coastline and I spent some time walking those as well. I discovered it was kind of fun to have an island all to yourself (practically). Though I’m sure the other 14 villas were all occupied, the island never felt crowded. I often went hours without seeing another guest.
And that’s when I realized that while the resort may not be luxurious in the traditional 5-star hotel sense, it offers a type of luxury I’ve yet to experience in all my travels – the luxury of space and solitude. There’s a simplicity to Nikoi that begets an effortless elegance in its most natural sense. It’s peace. It’s quiet. It’s disconnecting from the modern world and reconnecting with the things – and the people – that really matter.
In an electronic world where truly disconnecting has become increasingly impossible, Nikoi Island offers the rare chance to escape to your own private island. It feels light years from the roar of Singapore yet it’s just two boats and a car away. After two days on the island I could hardly bear the thought of returning to reality, yet I knew I had to.
Though something tells me I’ll back someday. Life without walls is just too hard to resist forever.
Next stop, Phuket…