This secret Maldives alternative is even more luxurious

Side by sides of shots of Bawah
A truly remote isle makes the case for a one-of-a-kind eco-adventure that's just for you.

Why do Americans go to the Maldives when they could stay in the Caribbean?

Why do we suffer grueling flights, dizzying jet lag and prices known to rattle pacemakers for what amounts to a holiday in the sun? We also have sun. Florida has sun. The US Virgin Islands have sun. The answer, whether we care to admit it, is that it just sounds so nice to respond to the question, “Where’d you get so tan, Charlie?” with, “Just back from the Maldives, Bill. You shoulda seen it.”

But what if there was a case for going just as far, with even more legs, to a tropical island resort almost no one has ever heard of? Could there be a rationale for traveling to a place so outlying and unidentifiable that it would baffle Bill?

An indie gem, Bawah Reserve doesn’t play by big resort rules. Courtesy of Bahwah Reserve
An indie gem, Bawah Reserve doesn’t play by big resort rules. Courtesy of Bahwah Reserve

Consider this.

Floating halfway between Singapore and the west coast of Borneo in the South China Sea, on the fringes of the Anambas Islands Regency archipelago under the flag of Indonesia, is a cluster of six smalls isles: Bawah, Elang, Sanggah, Muerba, Batu tokong and Lidi. With a collective land mass of about one-third of a square mile, they’re little more than steep volcanic hills, blanketed in jungle fronds, ringed in pale sand. Together, these islands make up Bawah Reserve, a boutique resort dedicated to caretaking this threatened marine environment.

But the path to this littoral Eden, ripe with a heterogeneity of prismatic butterflies and fish, might have made headstrong Hannibal hesitate. Step one: Fly 19 hours east from NYC to Singapore. Step two: Go through Singapore immigration, get in a van and head to the cruise terminal. Step three: Board a 45-minute ferry to the Indonesian island of Batam. Passport stamped, you’ll drive across Batam to a small airport. Step four: Hop on a seaplane for an 80-minute flight to Bawah, et voila. Suddenly an elephant-back crossing of the Alps doesn’t sound so bad.

So about that rationale again?

Book a room and that’s it — everything is included, from meals to daily spa treatments. RAPHAEL OLIVIER
Book a room and that’s it — everything is included, from meals to daily spa treatments. RAPHAEL OLIVIER

Bawah Reserve opened in 2019 and was quickly shut down by the pandemic.

Today, the resort’s eponymous island is born again.

Based around a central bar and treetop restaurant, the resort’s 36 beachfront and overwater villas unfold under the tropical canopy and against the surf. Walk along its single track and you’ll pass the pool, grass tennis court, vegetable garden, beachfront restaurant and the spa. Rarely are the best resorts all-inclusive and when they are, they rarely mean it. But at Bawah, the chef’s dinners, the surf-side lunches, laundry, all activities (snorkeling, paddle boarding and kayaking), the classes (yoga, meditation, coffee tastings and perfume mixing) and, yes, even daily spa treatments are part of the deal.

Arrive by seaplane and dive into crystal-clear water foaming with fish. Courtesy of Bahwah Reserve
Arrive by seaplane and dive into crystal-clear water foaming with fish. Courtesy of Bahwah Reserve

And that all adds up to point No.1 for going to an island your neighbors haven’t heard of. At $1,900 per night (which includes Indonesia’s steep hotel tax), plus $950-per-person transport, it’s damn competitive. For instance, at a Maldives favorite like Soneva Fushi, rooms start at $1,500 per night, but that doesn’t include meals, doesn’t include the $1,300-per-person seaplane, doesn’t include the spa and doesn’t include a 29.92% tax on your villa.

The next reason to head for nowhere is privacy. Although Bawah feels adventurously remote, its neighboring island, Elang, is even more secluded. Built as owner and shipping magnate Tim Hartnoll’s private family residence, this 15-acre speck is available for buyout only for up to 22 guests. A sprawling jungle mansion filled with trees, light and character, it’s obvious the owner’s eye was focused here. No, there are no water slides. No, there are no glass-walled underwater bedrooms. But there is a private grass tennis court. There is a bathtub on the terrace in the tree canopy. Rooms are filled with tasteful locally made furnishings that look straight out of the New York’s D&D Building. It’s heaven on earth for people who know how to put away their phones.

The other argument for Bawah is indie-environmentalism. Yes, every resort on planet Earth advertises its eco chops. They plant coral (usually after destroying the reef during construction). But there is nothing corporate or greenwashed about Bawah: It’s managed by a team of OCD garbage sorters and plays by its own rules. It runs a mini-recycling and bottling plant.

The rooms are chock full of local furnishings that don’t skimp on the wood. RAPHAEL OLIVIER
The rooms are chock full of local furnishings that don’t skimp on the wood. RAPHAEL OLIVIER

Everything is composted and the veggies and fruits in the restaurants are grown right there. There’s a shop where driftwood and whatever else washes ashore is transformed into usable furniture and lumber. Everything from coconut husks to beer bottles become something new. There are no coffee pods (it’s ground fresh) and there’s no plastic. And, of course, there’s extensive coral planting in the glassy lagoons. It’s a massive, frequently Sisyphean effort that gives the resort a gently commune-esque atmosphere in places. Environmentalism is in the blood here.

And here’s the sinker: It’s important, even luxurious, to drop off the map. Every year, it’s becoming harder and harder to find a destination that isn’t a brand name, that isn’t a neon-lit exhibition of social media clout.

Tomorrow, it might be impossible. Of course, it’s fine to book St. Barts, the Côte d’Azur, the Maldives; they’re great. But they’re also as conspicuous as a pair of hot pink Juicy sweatpants at a Connecticut Sunday school. Did you really schlep all that way for you or for them? So go ahead, baffle Bill.