Lying less than sixty kilometres offshore from the clamour of Singapore’s concrete jungle, the endless beaches and rolling forest landscapes of Bintan Island have made it one of the emerald treasures in these tropical seas.
Seeing little Bintan as just a dot on the map north of mighty Java, I’d always pictured it as a tiny islet. The drive north from Tanjung Pinang airport brought several surprises.
“Most people never realise that Bintan is actually twice the size of Singapore island,” said driver Budi Indrah as he steered us along a rollercoaster road through dense forest, “and they’re always surprised to hear that it’s still 70% covered in jungle.”
Almost the entire centre of this little emerald isle remains forested since the 335,000 people (a fifteenth of Singapore’s population) who are fortunate enough to live here have traditionally lived around the coast, as fishermen, traders and, more recently, in the tourism industry.
A clue to the reason why few visitors ever realise that Bintan is so relatively large came an hour later, as Budi and I drove through the big security gate into the so-called ‘Resort Zone’. Almost the entire top quarter of the island has been converted into a tropical tourist playground where the simple pleasures of glorious beaches are boosted by a selection of some of the region’s most popular luxury hotels. Some people come here to relax, to breathe clean air and recover from the stress of another high-powered week in Singapore or Jakarta. A spot of snorkelling or a round of golf at Ria Bintan (often described as the best golf course in Asia) might be the extent of their exercise.
I had come here on assignment from Garuda Airlines, however, specifically to check out the incredible variety of action activities that the Resort Zone offers. Under Budi’s guidance I’ve already explored the highlights of old Pulau Bintan: the waterfront of Tanjung Pinang; the jungle roads around rearing Bukit Bintan; the majestic Buddhist temples (pride of the island’s big Chinese-descended community); the stretches of white sand and fishing villages along endless Trikora Beach. Now I’m on my way to Nirwana Gardens (www.nirwanagardens.com), the adventure-action centre-point of the Resort Zone. This complex, laid out across an immense beachfront acreage of rolling lawns and sinuous swimming pools, has gained a reputation as a haven of peace and tranquillity at the centre of a virtual cyclone of adrenalin-fuelled activities.
I wake early in my Nirwana suite to enjoy a sunrise walk on the beach, building an appetite for a huge buffet breakfast. An hour later I’ve already accelerated into my day (literally) at the controls of a roaring quad-bike. An hour after that and I’ve shot off a box of bullets on the rifle range and a quiver of arrows at the archery targets….and, courtesy of that strange fluke known as beginners luck, I’ve consistently hit the bulls-eye on both. From here, however, we head to the go-kart track where the best I can manage is a close second (out of two) but the adrenalin of those side-slipping chicanes and the 50km/hr ‘air-con’ breeze is such that I don’t notice the growing 36°C afternoon heat during the 15 lap race.
Here, just one degree north of the equator, we’re grateful that Bintan has the benefit of a blissful sea-breeze and as the temperature climbs still higher we make our way to the beach. But it’s not time to rest just yet and I decide to earn that Bintan Bintang sundowner with a session of wake-boarding. It appears that I’ve exhausted my quota of beginners luck for the day; I spend most of the one hour session being dragged underwater like a miniature Singapore dredger.
Most people return from a holiday on Bintan feeling, refreshed, rejuvenated and thoroughly relaxed. I wake on my last morning at Nirwana Gardens feeling battered but thoroughly invigorated. Palms blistered and shoulders tingling with the healthy ache that is a reminder of a well-spent weekend.
Flooded Forest – Listen to the soft lapping of waves among the tangled roots of the mangrove forest as you take a boat trip up Sebung River. Maradu Simangunsonghas been a wilderness guide here for 13 years and has a natural talent for searching out the big mangrove snakes, reclusive miniature bats and the bizarre otherworldly vegetation of this unique habitat. You can still see the remnants of a traditional way of life, based on fishing and charcoal burning here, but today the mangrove forest is a protected wilderness.
Watersports – Feel the salt spray on your face as you skip across the sheltered turquoise bays of north Bintan on a jet-ski, windsurf-board or water-skis. Nirwana water-sports centre offers equipment and lessons for everything from kayaking, to wake-boarding, to sailing. South of the ‘border’ – beyond the limits of the Resort Zone – you find sleepy Trikora Beach, a favourite with the islanders for a chain of pondok shelters that make perfect resting and picnicking spots. The area of curiously picturesque boulders known as Trikora 4 is the most beautiful.
Jumbo Park – Enjoy the thrill of riding the world’s largest land animal at Nirwana’s popular elephant show, starring six rescued Sumatran elephants. The great pachyderms are said to be incredibly intelligent…which makes you wonder what they think of humans with our apparent infatuation to have them play football, toot on harmonicas and dance to ‘Gangnam Style’. Before you leave so-called Jumbo Park be sure to take a few minutes to cuddle with the gorgeous Jessy – a three metre-long albino python with exquisite blonde markings.