Cempedak Private Island hotel review
Just a short trip from Singapore, this adults-only private island is a true travel gem for people looking to escape the daily grind and the dizzying demands of a traditionally jam-packed vacation. The sprawling villas immerse guests in nature, with only the sea views and the sounds of birds and bugs to distract them. The exclusions: key cards, TVs, AC, walls and windows. The inclusions: peace, calm and a chance to reconnect with loved ones and the environment. This as you dine on fresh fish and produce that’s transformed into incredible local cuisine, explore your surroundings and wonder why a destination that’s so humble can win you over in a heartbeat.
Traveller: C. James Dale
Room: Seaview villa
Address: Air Gelubi, Bintan Pesisir, Bintan Regency, Riau Islands, Indonesia
Date: July 2019
Best for: Couples in search of time away from tots and tech; a peaceful jungle hideaway that specialises in an underrated and underappreciated luxury: sheer simplicity
The Signature factor
Cempedak Private Island’s grand bamboo villas are woven into the verdant landscape of a 17-hectare private island, a place that puts the ‘away’ in ‘getaway’. Cast your eyes out to sea and you can’t spy anything else on the surrounding islands. It’s Swiss Family Robinson without the kids; Lost without the plane crash and the supernatural silliness. Lounge in your villa as you watch hornbills and eagles glide by. Stare at the sky as you track an approaching storm. Stroll along white sandy beaches before enjoying a drink at sunset. Linger over delicious dinners featuring local cuisine as you realize you have nothing to do but be in the moment in this special, remote paradise.
Cempedak is the sister property to Nikoi Island, which is also located off the east coast of Indonesia’s Bintan Island. The philosophy for both properties is the same: simple, barefoot luxury that incorporates good design and service, involves nearby communities and minimises the impact on the environment. Cempedak has two types of accommodation – Beach and Seaview villas – all of which are built from handcrafted bamboo and have crescent-shaped, curved roofs covered with a local grass. The downstairs living quarters open onto an expansive deck that has a bar, sun loungers and a private plunge pool. Walk up the delightful winding staircase and you’ll find the bedroom, which sits under a vaulted ceiling and is, like the first floor, wide open to the outdoors. Guests can also sit in comfy chairs on this level while they read, chat, or just gaze at all the greenery. The villas are designed to capture cool breezes that will chase out the hot, humid air of this tropical island. There’s no air conditioning, but there are fans that keep the air moving (including one over the bed).
Guests arrive by boat and as they pull up, they’ll see the light brown curved rooftops of the villas peeking out from the treetops. From the long jetty, head to the restaurant and bar area, where you’ll enjoy a tamarind-based welcome drink during check in. Cempedak Private Island, open since March 2017, immediately cast a spell on us. Our jaws dropped when we walked into our villa, which truly feels like it’s part of the surroundings. We kept it open day and night, eschewing the roll-down blinds in favour of the delicious breeze and a view of the star-filled night sky. At mealtimes, we chatted and watched birds take off and land on a large rock in the sea as we feasted on fresh food. After a visit to the spa, we sank into chairs that sit atop granite rock and relished the post-massage bliss. In the evening, we played cards and connected in the absence of television, devices and other distractions. Yes, the resort has Wi-Fi, but we kept our screen time to a minimum and reaped the myriad benefits.
Bamboo has long been used as a construction material in Indonesia, but now the government and NGOs are getting serious about promoting its cultivation in villages across the country to encourage economic development and climate change mitigation. Cempedak shows how much you can do with this hardy grass: bamboo doors, walls, staircases, ornately-carved railings and even speaker cases. The villas are nothing short of stunning, making guests feel as if they’re living in the grandest version of the treehouse they dreamed of in their youth. From our Seaview Villa, the vistas of the green jungle and blue sea were unobstructed. The sounds of birds and insects filled the air, along with intermittent pops of a ball being bashed on the nearby grass tennis court. The villa is private enough that you may feel inclined to go au natural as you sun yourself. The saltwater pool offers a bit of respite from the heat, although it warms up quickly during the day. The rain shower in the main bathroom is another option if you want to cool down. At night, we watched the sunset as bats flitted through the air. After dinner, we curled up in bed, protected by mosquito netting, and on one night saw a storm roll in, with the lightning illuminating the sky. With no curtains or walls to keep out light and noise, we woke each morning around dawn to another day’s avian chorus.
The ten Seaview and ten Beach villas are all the same in terms of size and layout.
On my plate
Cempedak’s sole restaurant offers fixed daily menus that can be tweaked to accommodate different tastes and dietary requirements. Breakfast starts with fresh fruit and baked goods, smoothies, accompanied by a nice strong pot of coffee. Then it moves to a bowl of black rice porridge topped with sweet pieces of mango. For lunch and dinner, you’ll enjoy outstanding Indonesian cuisine, from ayam bakar (roast chicken) to sambal udang (hot and spicy shrimp). My wife loved the beef rendang, while I happily dug into a delicate yellow fish curry. I also developed an addiction to the thick pieces of tofu and crispy tempeh the staff would bring over to me. Dessert one occasion included a tangy lemon cream tart and a healthy serving of rich coconut ice cream. Diners can sit at tables or cosy up in pods that look out over the ocean and sit under the shade of the trees, protected from both sun and rain. Before dusk, guests sometimes gather at the main bar to enjoy snacks and sundowners.
I wish I could take home…
… the ‘takeaway’ of no AC, no TV, no phone and no gadgets. Plus, the Host who is attached to each villa. You can break your tech fast by dropping them a line any time of day using a tablet and they will get back to you almost immediately with answers to your questions, confirmed reservations at the restaurant or spa and suggestions for how to get the most out of your vacation.
Talk about hidden away! You’ll find the spa on the resort map, but there are no signs leading to it save a small one outside the building. The facility (more bamboo) is right on the ocean, where waves smack against granite rocks on the shoreline. The treatment rooms have two beds, reinforcing the couples-only vibe. The Signature Massage was quite good, especially the work that was done on my head and face. Afterwards, we sat outside sipping ginger tea and letting the rhythm of the sea soothe us further. The spa also has a variety of facials, scrubs and spa journeys on the menu that sound enticing, too.
The villa is the main attraction here and you’ll find it hard to resist the pull of yours. It’s the perfect home away from home. Lounge in bed at dawn, soak in the pool and count the multicolored butterflies and birds (including the strange-beaked hornbills), put down your iPad and pick up a book (the resort has a small library) or borrow a game to bring out your competitive spirit. Celebrate sunset in style with a bottle of bubbles, which you can chill in the simple cooler box at your villa’s bar.
Stroll along the beach, hike nearby trails or join a nature walk, play tennis or a spot of croquet. You can also head out on the water and go for a sail or kayak (sun shirts are a must). In addition, the resort can arrange snorkelling and scuba diving trips. If you feel like an outing, order a picnic hamper and go visit one of the uninhabited nearby islands.
- 2019 TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice Award – Certificate of Excellence
- 2018 TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice Award – Certificate of Excellence
- 2018 Conde Nast ‘Hot List’
- 2018 Travel+Leisure – Best New Hotels
- 2017 National Geographic Big Sleep Award – Winner of “Castaway” category
Follow up any requests you make, especially meal changes, with your Host to be sure there’s no miscommunication. For anyone with strict dietary requirements, it’s worth clarifying with an email before you arrive.
Green thumbs up?
Cempedak sets the bar high when it comes to reducing its impact on the environment. Rainwater is purified for drinking and showering. Glass bottles are used instead of the plastic variety, which many hotels are working to phase out. There are no plastic straws either. Plus, you won’t find a lot of plastic sullying the beach, which is surprisingly clean. In fact, the only plastic we saw were the bottles used for shampoo, conditioner and body wash. As mentioned, Cempedak is AC-free. Solar power is used to heat water. There are no mini-bar fridges or televisions. Hairdryers are only available upon request. And water sports are all non-motorised. The resort also operates a farm on Bintan, with more than 700 free-range chickens to supply eggs and where staff harvest greens, chillies, basil and more. In addition, Cempedak has established a charity called The Island Foundation, which works with local communities on education, tourism, environmental and conservation efforts.
Room for improvement
While I loved the Swiss Family Robinson vibe, staff need to pay more attention to cleaning up the villas. It’s not hard to find dust or cobwebs here and there. Also, during our two-night stay, turn down service was unreliable.
The common spaces could have a bit more life to them and, in the case of the pool, the seating feels awkward. Guests who are interested in stepping out and socialising will hope the hotel puts more effort into improving these areas.
This resort is a no brainer for travellers looking to escape day-to-day life, rest and recharge, and disconnect to reconnect with their partner. But it’s not just for couples. Going solo would also be amazing. Or if you have children 16 years of age or older, why not bring them? Whatever the configuration, this is a must-visit destination.
Where to find Cempedak Private Island
The resort is located 91 kilometres from Singapore, where visitors pick up a ferry at the Tanah Merah terminal to Bintan, a journey that takes about an hour. After that, you hop in a private car and drive across Bintan (another hour). Then, guests take a 30-minute speedboat ride to the resort.