We all know the situation: a relative is coming to visit, and he or she is keen on a weekend away that won’t involve too much travel (preferably no planes) and won’t break the bank, but will provide a beach, a pool and some authentic Asian flavour.
Sounds tricky, right? Luckily, as many Singapore residents are aware, Bintan fulfills all these criteria. That’s why, on a sunny Saturday morning, my mum and I made the 90-minute journey in the relative luxury of Emerald Class from Taneh Merah Ferry Terminal to Bintan. Though we were warned to take Kwells to avoid seasickness, the crossing was surprisingly quick and calm, and we spent the majority of the journey on deck “boat watching” on the busy stretch of water and watching Singapore retreat behind us.
The resort is just a 20-minute journey by courtesy shuttle from the Ferry Terminal – and ten minutes of that was within Bintan Lagoon Resort itself before we arrived at reception. It would be very easy to stay at spacious BLR and never venture outside the gates!
This is a mid-range property, and the accommodation was as expected: clean and well-equipped. We stayed in a Deluxe Plus Seaview Room ($195 per night) that included a balcony with table and chairs overlooking the sea. The room also boasted an enormous daybed almost the same size as the king-size bed, which gave the feeling of plenty of space. The marble bathroom was also roomy, and came with a full-sized Bravat designer bathtub, something that I luxuriated in each day of our stay. And I wouldn’t be British if I didn’t mention that yes, there was a kettle and tea- and coffee-making facilities – though sadly no biscuits!
The 470 guest rooms are housed in a sprawling complex, and it’s a decent walk from the rooms to almost everything else – and since the accommodation is built into a hill, if you aren’t very mobile, you’ll need to take the lifts up to the reception or down to the pool.
After being greeted with welcome drinks and cold towels, we toured the grounds – thankfully on a golf buggy, as it’s a rather spacious resort. There are two pool areas, both really well landscaped and with plentiful sun loungers. The kids’ pool is close to the Activity Centre and offers two excellent waterslides (good for adults, too!) and shallow pools suitable for little ones. The resort has a kids’ club as well as a playground, and the children we saw seemed to be having a whale of a time in inflatable zorb balls, running on the water as if in a hamster wheel! The resort boasts that it has over 50 activities, from mini-golf, quad-biking and archery to any number of water sports. However, as we were on a relaxed girls’ weekend, we chose to enjoy the more sedentary activities of lounging by the pool or, at most, swimming over to the in-pool bar at the “adults’” pool.
One thing we wished we had time for was a round of golf on one of the two 18-hole golf courses – in particular, the Jack Nicklaus course, which offers stunning vistas of the South China Sea. We did treat ourselves to lunch in Haskell’s Café at the Clubhouse, however, and enjoyed watching the monkeys and monitor lizards disporting themselves on the greens as we ate a leisurely lunch of local specialities nasi goreng, gado gado salad and satay.
Our positively energetic afternoon was spent lounging on the gorgeous private sandy beach, watching other guests bounce around on banana boats. The sea is perfect for a dip, with lovely soft sand and clear water.
We opted for an afternoon trip to the mangroves (from $38 per person, minimum four people) and were glad that we did. The 1.5-hour trip down the river was truly relaxing, with our knowledgeable guide pointing out all manner of fauna and flora, and explaining how the mangroves are created, and what an important role they play in the eco-system in maintaining clean water.
The mangroves are also home to a fascinating array of creatures; we saw various snakes sleeping in the trees above our heads (eek!), mud crabs and a troop of macaque monkeys marauding near the boat mooring. The real highlight for us, though, was spotting some rare silverleaf monkeys swinging through the trees. It was a worthwhile and interesting way to end the day, and the sunset from the beach on the return to the hotel was spectacular.
For dinner that evening we secured a beachfront table at Orzo, an Italian-Mediterranean restaurant overlooking the sea. The varied menu offers steaks, wood-fired pizzas, pasta and seafood – my ribeye steak was sublime and I’m told the salmon was equally delicious.
It would be easy to visit Bintan and get no real sense of its history and culture, so on the second day of our trip, we chose to do the South Bintan Heritage Tour. We were keen to learn more about this Indonesian island, which, despite being more than three times the size of Singapore, is home to only around 200,000 people.
Setting off at 9.30am, we drove through the countryside, stopping off at a waterfall popular for bathing and seeing a variety of different locally grown fruits and spices: durians, pineapples, mangosteens, rambutans, bananas and cinnamon. I was already learning something, as I’d had no idea that cinnamon was just the inner bark from certain trees, or that pineapples grew on the ground!
Our guide, Maradu, quickly realised that our chief interests lay in the flora, fauna and people of the region, so he did his best to give us as much cultural information as he could. Before lunch we stopped at Guan Yin Temple, a modern Chinese Buddhist temple, to see a giant Buddha statue and a garden of dragonfruit. For lunch, we were taken to an eatery in the capital of Bintan, Tanjung Pinang, where we had the chance to try Indonesian specialty ayam penyet (literally “smashed fried chicken”), served with vegetable and tofu soup, and rice – yummy
Our next stop was via a sampan (flat-bottomed Chinese boat) to Pulau Penyengat Island, which has historical significance, dating back to the 18th century when it was established as a fort as part of the Sultanate of Johor-Riau by the Bugis people.
The island offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the locals. Make sure you take a tuk-tuk around, and you’ll be rewarded by intriguing heritage sites such as an old Dutch fort, royal mausoleums, ancient palaces and the Sultan of Riau’s Grand Mosque, which, according to local belief, was built with egg whites presented by loyal subjects to the sultan on the eve of His Royal Highness’s wedding.
We were also lucky enough to stumble upon a cultural festival, which involved lots of dancing and lively music. Friendly to a fault, the locals encouraged us to join in, and then immortalised my terrible dancing on film!
Hopping back on the sampan, we headed to our last stop, Senggarang, a fishing village believed to be the original Chinese settlement on Bintan. The homes are mostly wooden houses built on stilts. We saw some men building a new one; they were waist-deep in water, hoisting timber beams up with a basic pulley system – an intriguing look into a totally different world, and hard to believe it’s only 50km from Singapore’s moderm metropolis.
On the way back to the car, we were treated to a display of sea eagles soaring on the currents and diving into the harbour to catch fish – an amazing end to a great day.
For our final night we indulged in a meal at Miyako Japanese Restaurant, a very zen place with a proper central teppanyaki counter, and a talented chef cooking the food in front of us; he was excellent – complete with utensil-twirling and brilliant knife skills.
We were pleased we’d arranged to catch the later ferry home (5.30pm) so that we could enjoy relaxing by the pool. Although we felt we’d done an enormous amount, and seen plenty of the culture and nature that Bintan has to offer, at the end of the day there’s nothing better than sipping a margarita on a sun-lounger!
So, Emerald Class – what’s the deal?
Pay the extra $22 on the Bintan ferry and you get: seats on the upper deck; access to the exterior; a private land-based lounge offering tea, coffee, Milo, water and biscuits; and a refreshment service at your seat during the crossing.
This story first appeared in Expat Living’s August 2015 issue