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Explore Indonesia Beyond Bali

A jaunt through the country's remote corners reveals paradisiacal archipelagos teeming with inimitable nature and culture.



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A variation of this question was posed to me — unironically — several times on my way to Bawah Reserve, a private resort at the base of Indonesia’s Riau Archipelago (bawah translates roughly to “bottom”), approximately 160 nautical miles northeast of Singapore. It was asked by the Bawah staffer who escorted me onto a boat gliding away from the glistening city-state toward the nearby island of Batam, where I was asked the question again — this time by the shaggy, barefoot pilot of the small, yellow seaplane that swept us to our final destination. When he cut the engine and gently dropped us into the reserve’s shimmering water, before pulling up to a sinuous jetty, we were met by a row of smiling faces.

“You’re here!” said the man who greeted me with an icy towel to chase away the humidity. “Welcome to paradise.”

Indeed, when you first glimpse Bawah out the window of that plane, it does look like paradise, so much so that it conjures an almost eerie sense of déjà vu. After all, you’ve seen so many pictures of paradise before — azure ocean, powdery beaches, lush foliage — that it somehow seems like a memory, or a return to a place you’ve always known. Yet once you settle in, Bawah reveals itself as having a rich texture no postcard image could convey. Like Dorothy in Oz, you’ve gone from black and white to Technicolor.

Indonesia is a staggering country comprised of more than 18,000 islands unfurled across 735,000 square miles, stretching between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Nearly 274 million people call it home. Its gateway, to many, is Bali, the buzzy, built-up island replete with dazzling coastlines, plentiful hotels, wellness pursuits, and cultural attractions. Or, as the sign outside its airport reads: The Last Paradise in the World.



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“Travelers are seeking unique experiences and want off-the-beaten path destinations,” says ​​Charlotte Dent, the Asia destination manager at the award-winning luxury travel tour operator Scott Dunn, who notes she’s seen a marked uptick in bookings for the region. “Which is why so many are turning to Indonesia over more traditional breaks such as Europe, and opting for more remote experiences over more familiar spots.”

“Travelers who book Indonesia are delighted by the array of immersive experiences on offer,” she adds. “It’s rare to find a destination that offers so much in the way of both nature and culture.”

To get to Bawah, you’ll likely need to stop in Bali — or Singapore, both of which are home to spectacular Raffles properties that provided much-needed relief during my long journey — but to end your travel there would be to miss so many of the lesser-known yet seductive corners that reveal the depth and allure of this complex nation. Bawah Reserve is a prime example of the treasures hidden among the country’s surplus of gleaming islets.

Shipping tycoon and boat enthusiast Tim Hartnoll first visited it in 2009, during a sailing trip. “Someone mentioned Bawah, so we decided to venture up and explore,” he recounts. “A one-day excursion became a three-day stay. I knew at that moment that it was a special place.” He was immediately struck by the colors: “ ... the blues of the sea with the reef, all the green of the vegetation, plus the rocky shore, and the pure white beaches. Soft, very fine sand. You almost feel like you could be the first person who’s been there.”

At its core, Bawah is a collection of six poky islands nestled around three glittering lapis lagoons and, farther afield, mangroves and coral reefs dotted with marine life. Its infrastructure was constructed in an eco-friendly manner, using local materials and environmentally sound methods. In some ways, it’s a contained world, equipped with an organic permaculture garden, a reverse-osmosis water-filtration system, and, in a nearby inlet, floating solar -power panels (currently the world’s largest floating solar -power plant) that help provide electricity. You’re given a water bottle before arrival because plastic is frowned upon and scarcely seen.

Bawah inspired Hartnoll to create not only a resort but also a reserve and to found the Anambas Foundation, with its mission to help conserve the area’s natural bounty while also offering a slice of it to guests. “There was a lot of damage when I first went there — reefs destroyed from dynamite fishing, the fish population was down,” he says. “Through our marine conservation, we really have made a change: The blacktip reef shark population is flourishing, turtle conservation and hatching continues to improve, the fish are back. We’ve created transformation.”

The main island hosts 36 rooms ranging from overwater bungalows reached by winding wooden boardwalks to two-, three-, and four-bedroom villas tucked away into the overgrown tropical verdure, each equipped with its own pool. Designed by architect Sim Boon Yang, Bawah’s structures often subtly mimic Indonesia’s wildlife (octopus, jellyfish, sea turtles) and are made from native Ulin wood, bamboo, and even driftwood. Along the path that connects them are two restaurants and two bars, as well as a fitness center and spa. Those looking for an even more secluded experience can cross a lagoon to the island of Elang, which can host up to 20 guests who have the island and its exclusive spa and restaurants entirely to themselves.

Days in either destination are best spent in repose, but there are activities, to be sure, for those who crave adventure: a picturesque tropical picnic on the private Coconut Beach, accessible only by dinghy; a kayak in the warm luster of a glowing, pink-orange sunset; hikes at dusk or dawn; a yoga class with an ocean view; or snorkeling in waters teeming with fish and other aquatic creatures in their dayglow regalia (we even spotted a small, dopey shark who was more adorable than alarming).

You can also opt for the various spa treatments or, even better, the Spa Explorer experience, which drops you off at a bamboo pagoda on a small ocean overhang on the remote side of Bawah. There, shaded from the day’s soporific heat, lit by the winking reflection of the sun on undulating water, I received a rubdown from a therapist whose hands read me like a book — one of life’s great heartbreaks may be that he’s out on an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

But mostly, my recommendation is to read, nap, lay out in the sun, and wade into the temperate water. It takes a few days to let the static of the real world subside. Once it does, Bawah may do for you what it did for me (and what all great travel should do): remind you just how big and awe-inspiring the world is and, at the same time, how small we are in comparison to its multitudinous wonders.


The island of Sumba — the next stop on my itinerary curated by luxury travel tour operator Scott Dunn — is twice the size of Bali but far less developed. A rangy, older Australian who rode with me across it in an open-air Jeep to the resort of Nihi said its simple homes (for us, a blur of tropical hues), minimalist roadside shops, and barefoot locals reminded him of his trips to Bali in the ’80s and ’90s, rife with natural beauty and a native culture mostly untouched by outside influences.

Nihi has been consistently ranked as one of the world’s best hotels since it expanded under the ownership of the entrepreneur Chris Burch in 2012. It’s positioned on a uniquely magical stretch of mountainside overlooking a small cove, where lush jungle wildlife and rolling hills give way to wide expanses of sandy beach. Each of the hotel’s tastefully designed villas is situated to take advantage of the sweeping view, and every afternoon it puts on quite a show: diaphanous clouds roll past the setting sun, creating a dance between sky, water, and gauzy mist that seems to hover like a chimera between land and heavens. It yields a view that is kaleidoscopic in its morphing colors: yellow shafts of light breaking through silvery saturnine clouds one minute, then rose-lavender radiance reflecting from the sky to the gurgling sea and back again the next.

The villas, each with an infinity pool, are open, with pergola-like living rooms across a courtyard from the bedrooms. Outside, luxuriant landscaping includes small dipping ponds dotted about to rinse your feet of sand; often, fallen bougainvillea or plumeria petals float in them, recalling sacred offerings. The rooms feature discerning nods to the local culture: carved beams, folkloric wooden statues, or intricate shell jewelry displays. Beds are surrounded by billowing white curtains, which are drawn at night so you can sleep with the windows open, allowing the sea to lull you to sleep, while keeping the bugs at bay.

Whereas Bawah revels in its remoteness, Nihi is in active conversation with the local Sumbanese culture. One highlight was a morning hike through the island’s chameleon-like terrain — emerald-green jungle giving way to bleached savannah plains, geometric rice fields, and back to rainforest-like overgrowth. We visited a nearby village, which felt willfully divorced from the vagaries of modern life, made up of elemental homes (livestock, such as goats and chickens, live on open-air bottom floors while families reside above) and the stately tombs of the townspeople’s ancestors. In the market, local craftswomen sold jewelry, wooden and stone statues, and the native specialty: woven batik textiles, whereas children laughed and examined us with fascination.

To ensure Nihi gives back to its home, Burch set up the Sumba Foundation, which executes a delicate dance of preserving certain cultural touchstones while also providing modern services: clean water, vital vaccinations, and other health benefits, plus access to education. Weekly, Burch hosts dinners at Nihi, where guests can learn more and where I saw his passion for the island on clear display.

Nihi is also beautifully enmeshed with its surrounding nature. The island’s famous wild horses can be seen galloping along its beaches at sunset and taken for rides — a real highlight. During the day, it’s not uncommon to see dogs trotting on the sand or sunbathing on a path leading to one of Nihi’s restaurants. I even spotted paw prints on the daybed of my lanai one morning, a reminder that I was just visiting; these lovely beasts are the lucky full-time residents.

I was also fortunate enough to come on a day when sea turtle eggs hatched (they are kept in caged nests to ward off predators) and was able to drop them onto the shoreline at sunset and watch their adorable flap-flap-flap into the tide.

Nihi offers all of this amid expected luxury resort amenities, but here, they are executed with an intuitive, finely calibrated aplomb. For example, rooms come with captains (mine was Simson, a breezy man with a mischievous, squinting grin) available on WhatsApp and ready to answer questions or inform guests of notable goings-on. The food is superb, and, naturally, there is a sublime spa program. The services I enjoyed — wraps, facials, and massages, often using fragrant, locally sourced ingredients — took place on a hidden cliffside inlet after my morning hike.

Indonesia may very well be “paradise,” but it’s infinitely more complex than a picture postcard. My version is layered with a night at Bawah when glowing cerulean plankton washed up onshore during a moonlit dinner, like incandescent stardust scattered across the sand; the rustling of leaves caused by darting lizards; the sweet sting of eucalyptus in the cold towels passed out at Nihi; the mauve sunsets against cotton-candy clouds that suffused the afternoon with a cinematic sheen; the sour taste of tamarind in warm teas; and kind, welcoming smiles that made every stop on my trip feel very much like home.

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Our Contributors

Max Berlinger Writer

Max Berlinger is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for GQ, the Los Angeles Times, Bloomberg Pursuits, Men’s Health, and many other publications. He covers the intersection of fashion, lifestyle, culture, and technology.

Lisa Sorgini Photographer

Lisa Sorgini is an Australian artist residing in the Northern Rivers, New South Wales (Bundjalung Country). In 2021 she released her first book “Behind Glass,” published by Libraryman (Sweden) and had works recognized as the winner of the Lucie Awards Portrait Project and Ilford CCP Salon for Most Critically Engaged image, as well as being a finalist in the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize (U.K.), the National Portrait Prize (Australia), and the Ravenswood Australian Women’s Art Prize (Australia). Her work has been exhibited within her home country and internationally and published extensively worldwide, with interviews and features in The New Yorker, TIME Magazine, The New York Times, Creative Review, and National Geographic.


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