Round up the troops for your milestone moment at this tropical retreat close to Singapore. Leanda Rathmell shares her perfect island party.
In theory, a destination birthday bash is a top idea. Pick a country, pencil in a date and shoot out a quick e-invite – and, just like that, everyone’s on board and it’s time to dust off the suitcase!
Fast forward one month later, and the plan starts to unravel at the seams. Folks have forgotten to book flights, prices have gone up, the hotel’s now fully booked and others have checked into a suspect Airbnb on the other side of the city. Next thing you know, you’re down to one friend and the barman to ring in your big moment, with a dead phone and no means of locating other pub-crawl casualties.
In short, destination celebrations can be a logistical nightmare. The key is choosing a spot that is both convenient and contained. This is something my best friend Grace and I kept in mind while on the hunt for a location to celebrate our big 3-0 recently. Our guest-list demographics had it all: a 40-strong group of singles, newlyweds, parents, early-risers, all-nighters – not to mention a broad range of budgets to accommodate. After ploughing through countless options, only one spot ticked all the boxes – and it surpassed our expectations by miles: easily accessible, picture-perfect, affordable and, best of all, led by a team of party-planning gurus.
Located in the southeastern corner of Bintan in Indonesia’s Riau Archipelago, Pulau Pangkil is a private island resort near Singapore – a mere 95 kilometres away. From door to door, the journey is around three hours via ferry, bus and 15-minute speedboat. The quick shift in state on our Friday morning was miraculous – from 8am traffic and city clamour to an 11am cocktail, gleaming sunshine and the song of kingfishers and crashing waves. As we got acquainted with the friendly staff, it slowly dawned on us that the island was ours for the weekend; no check-in desk, no rush-hour breakfast queues and no crowds or strangers, just our nearest and dearest and the seamless service of a team to tend to our every whim.
The accommodation is split across 10 spacious Driftwood Palaces. Eight of these can comfortably sleep a family of four, while the other two are smaller, though we’re told the island can accommodate up to 60 individuals with the option of extra mattresses that can be shifted around. Constructed with salvaged logs and repurposed wood, each Palace has its own castaway character with details of rich fabric, intricate hand carved furniture and fittings bringing an element of tropical luxury.
Though there’s no air-conditioning on the island, all the accommodation is sea facing and raised on stilts to maximise the cooling sea breeze, so we never found ourselves missing it. Likewise, the island is gloriously void of all other manmade menaces – minimal concrete and zero washed-up rubbish or light pollution. There’s nothing that recharges the soul quite like spending the entirety of your weekend barefoot on a deserted island, with the evenings aglow with tiki torches and a blanket of stars.
For a small offshore island, it’s incredible how rich the ecosystem is here. At the forefront, you have a dramatic stretch of powdery white sand, while the mid-section holds dense forestry and colourful flora. Over 40 species of plants breathe life into the island, and the surrounding seas are under a government-approved no-fish zone. There’s always something catching your eye on Pangkil, and our evenings were often spent comparing notes on our sightings: herons, mudskippers, monitor lizards, all bountiful in number and majestic in size – the little girl in me was especially taken by the beauty of the butterflies.
Though the parents in our group had opted for a kid-free weekend, the island truly is a playground for all ages. There’s a swimming pool at the rear, while the stretch of beach and large grassy lawn area are perfect for a run around or a game of badminton or petanque. We spent our mornings swimming and kayaking (happy hour started early for some, with a cooler of beers paddled out to the pontoon), while afternoons brought games of beach volleyball, frisbee and an organised relay race that the staff helped us put together for the group, including a three-legged race, wheelbarrows and a Beer Pong finale!
As the cotton candy skies set in each evening, the tempo slowed for a bit of R&R. Many indulged in wood-hut massages overlooking the ocean; others could be found napping or engrossed in their novels in the various hammocks, beanbags and sun loungers on the island.
Food, glorious food
As if life weren’t easy enough on this island, your three meals a day are inclusive of your stay and on your own schedule. Each day, we were asked what time we wanted our meals served (including afternoon tea and nibbles) and, like carefree kids in the peak of summer, were summoned in from the sea and sun only when the food had been served and coolers of iced calamansi were replenished.
Instead of having menus to mull over, each meal is an exceptional spread that caters to all tastes. There’s a mix of Western and Indonesian dishes, from grilled seafood, barbecued meats, moreish curries and pastas to ample vegetable dishes and fresh fruit. Our appetites were insatiable from all the fun in the sun, making each spread a real treat to share across the long communal style driftwood tables. The staff were attentive to everyone’s needs – be it the odd late-riser to hit the breakfast table or our gluten-free guest, who, by the end of the weekend, declared the food to be some of the best she’d had in Southeast Asia.
Bonfires and beats
For my preceding 29 years, birthday party favours have been pretty standard – a favourite Italian haunt, the odd balloon and a good ol’ singsong before blowing out the candles. This is far from the case on Pangkil; whatever the celebration, the staff go above and beyond to make it one to remember.
Our final evening began with a banquet-style dinner under the stars with an abundant buffet of gloriously barbecued prawns, stuffed squid, gado gado and more. As the last slice of birthday cake had been served, a roaring bonfire was set alight and fireworks shot into the sky to get the party started. Music streamed through the speakers, the self-serve bar was stocked to the heavens and everyone spent their last moments tearing up the dance floor. As the early hours set in, Grace and I cheered one last tequila to our twenties – what a way to see in a new chapter!
Take me there
The cost for hiring the entire island starts from $3,450 per night, for a minimum of 10 adults for a two-night stay. However, if you’re sharing costs amongst a group, then it’s a case of the more the merrier, as the cost decreases per person. (For example, for 40 people, it’s $250 each per night.) All costs include three meals a day, full use of facilities, and land and boat transfers between Bintan and Pulau Pangkil.
For more information or to make a booking, email paradise@pangkil or visit pangkil.com.
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