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

Here’s a question I get asked a lot: Is there a hotel or resort in the world that you love so much, a place that’s been so successful, that you’ve kept it to yourself and that you have you ever written?

The answer I’m invariably inclined to give to someone who isn’t a friend seems obvious, even if it’s also crude: where exactly does talking about it fit on the “keep it to myself” agenda? ? But some places deserve far too much praise not to share them. Nikoi, a private resort in the western Indonesian regency of Bintan, is one of them. For that reason I’ve actually written about it, including for this journal – although given that it’s been buzzing happily at around 90% occupancy all year round for ages, I suspect I’m quite irrelevant to its success.

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

Those who know Nikoi know his story: in 2004, Andrew Dixon, an Australian who was then a Singapore-based banker, bought a 37-acre deserted Indonesian island about 60 miles south of Lion City with a small cohort of friends, initially with the idea of ​​using it as a weekend getaway. Over time, the group realized that it made more sense to run it as a resort. Because the project evolved slowly, without a huge revenue-generating program, Dixon, who took the lead in development, was able to adhere to a sustainable vision.

The result is a place that looks today as it did ten years ago and still follows the same precepts: high gratification in a way that counts for fun and low-fi in a way that matters to the environment. It has a beautiful white sand beach; a pristine rainforest interior; bars and restaurants with sand floors and a unique menu each day; a grass tennis court; a spa consisting of a group of dreamlike tents at the edge of the water. No telephones or televisions in the rooms – just the privilege of the truest and most basic luxuries: space, light and nature.

Wooden table and chairs in the indoor/outdoor living area of ​​one of Nikoi's villas

The indoor/outdoor living area in one of Nikoi’s villas © Will Scott

Three of Nikoi's wooden villas

Nikoi’s two-story villas are all made of driftwood and powered by renewable energy © Will Scott

The trip to Nikoi begins with a 1-hour ferry from Singapore to Bintan Island, followed by a 1-hour drive to its eastern shore, where a speedboat awaits at the private jetty. from Dixon to take you the remaining 20 minutes. So you commit; but then you’re there, greeted with icy ginger snake fruit mocktails, walking along hard-packed sand paths blanketed in emerald undergrowth to the villas, which stretch along the beach. These are huge (even the most basic is two-story) with indoor-outdoor living rooms and a spare bathroom downstairs, and a huge airy bedroom and bathroom upstairs, in front of a large veranda.

There is no air conditioning, but huge fans spinning lazily overhead and the sea breeze – maybe 10 meters from your private garden and massage ball – in and out all day. The main beach is lined with deckchairs and umbrellas. There are two bars and two restaurants: the main cuisine is mainly Indonesian with some Western dishes; Opening in July, the new poolside restaurant will serve pizza and Mediterranean dishes.

Sunbeds on Nikoi Beach
Sunbeds on Nikoi Beach
A decade after buying Nikoi, co-founder Andrew Dixon acquired a second island called Cempedak, which opened in 2017

Nikoi hits all its marks on holiday style, but it’s carefully balanced within a framework that, as always, prioritises the lasting imprint. The villas are built of driftwood; the electricity comes mainly from solar energy and entirely from renewable energy sources. Desalination technology produces potable water, and groundwater is recycled for all other purposes, including the maintenance of organic gardens (the island also sources its supplies from fishermen and farmers on Bintan). External consultants regularly visit the natural and marine environments, ensuring that the best protection – and restoration – practices are in place. If all of this sounds normal to 2022 ears, keep in mind that Dixon was already doing this way back in 2007, when bath butlers and $82 Kobe burgers in the Maldives were at the forefront of the experiential luxury.

A decade after purchasing Nikoi, Dixon acquired a second island about 14 miles south called Cempedak. It opened in 2017 as a more ambitious, child-free destination – a godsend for those who, as a regular visitor and friend of Dixon I know, find Nikoi (which is hugely popular with Singapore-based families ) can skew a bit lord of the flies week ends.

Cempedak’s good faith in sustainability is no less legitimate. With driftwood no longer plentiful, its villas were built with bamboo, one of the world’s most renewable materials. Their innovative architecture maximizes airflow, eliminating the need for air conditioning. They are also massive, taking advantage of bamboo’s famous tensile strength in domed configurations.

Surrounded by trees, a bamboo villa sits by the ocean in Cempedak

The domed villas of Cempedak are made of bamboo © Will Scott

A bed and two seats in the first floor bedroom in one of the bamboo villas in Cempedak

Cempedak villas have been designed to maximize air circulation and eliminate the need for air conditioning © Will Scott

So far, so eco-fabulous. But true sustainability extends beyond protecting the environment to engaging with local communities. Dixon had done this ad hoc and intuitively since Nikoi’s inception, both with the Indonesians of the Riau Islands and with the local marine nomadic ethnic groups, known collectively as the Orang Suku Laut. In 2010, he made it official by registering a non-profit organization, The Island Foundation, in Singapore. It quickly became clear that education initiatives would have the greatest impact. “It was also what the communities themselves expected the most from us,” he tells me. “Many of these children are excluded from learning because of the language and economic barriers they face.”

About 90% of the people The Island Foundation serves are in fishing communities, which are not always counted in national literacy data; the non-profit organization estimates that up to 30% of adults have not completed primary education themselves. And in the case of the Orang Laut, says Dixon, “they are now among the first generations to live on earth. They may be culturally marginalized and viewed superstitiously by locals,” which tends to further alienate them from educational opportunities.

Today, the Foundation runs eight learning centers in rural communities in Bintan, educating up to 250 primary school-aged children at a time. Stakeholders are also involved: teacher training courses are free for local adults; Learning for Sustainability, an education program for children taught by the Foundation, was recently launched. Meanwhile, Island Foundation staff and volunteers provide support with human resources, infrastructure, and data collection.

Two rows of children outside an Island Foundation learning center

The Island Foundation has eight learning centers in rural communities in Bintan, educating up to 250 primary school-aged children at a time. © The Island Foundation

Seven Clean Sea employees wearing high visibility vests pick up plastic waste on a beach

Since 2020, Nikoi staff have been working with a for-profit organization called Seven Clean Seas to help remove 250 tonnes of plastic from Bintan beaches

Like the rest of the travel industry, Dixon took a hit with the onset of the pandemic. The Singapore-Indonesia border remained closed more or less regularly from early 2020 until April 2022. But he managed to keep his resort staff engaged and solvent by partnering with a for-profit organization based in Asia called Seven Clean Seas (SCS), which sells plastic credits to businesses as offsets, reinvesting profits into cleanup initiatives across the region.

Before Covid, Dixon says, his employees had done “maybe a few beach cleanups a year.” Since 2020, they have helped remove 250 tonnes of plastic from Bintan beaches and audit it for recycling. “Initially, we had two teams, each working twice a week; SCS funded one team, we funded the other,” he explains. They ended up working five times a week or more, collecting up to 1.5 tonnes of plastic each time. “They were getting a full day’s pay for half a day’s work, plus a bonus,” Dixon explains. The rates were the prevailing minimum wage, which he notes was lower than what his staff normally earn, “but they didn’t really have any other sources of income, so it was a real buoy of rescue”.

The swimming pool of Cempedak
The swimming pool of Cempedak

During this time, the borders are reopened and the guests return in number. Three new villas have been completed on Nikoi and major maintenance projects have been launched (“It was a fantastic time to re-roof,” Dixon laughs). These days, he is focused on implementing a formal management plan for the marine protected area in which Nikoi and Cempedak sit, in collaboration with other foundations and government actors. He talks enthusiastically about eight previously unidentified species of fish and more than 200 others new to the area, discovered during sponsored dive surveys.

It is this commitment and these words that make Nikoi the sustainable company that it is. But not only. The place, it must be said again, makes you dream. Go there one day, if you can. Not that you heard it from me.

NikoiThree-night minimum stay in a one-bedroom beach house from S$1,335 (around £765). Cempedakminimum stay of three nights in a pool villa from S$1,425 (around £815)

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

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