Planning a family holiday? You don’t have to look too far for great family-friendly destinations near Singapore. On a visit to Telunas Private Island with her family, Katie Roberts discovers starry night skies, total seclusion and a beach of powdery white sand, along with a thoughtful and beneficial partnership with the local community – and all of this just 50km from Singapore.
There are several one-of-a-kind getaways accessible by water from Singapore, but few are as easy as Telunas Private Island. This tiny speck in Indonesia’s sleepy Riau Island archipelago is reached via an easy four-hour journey – with no need to set foot in Changi Airport.
Opened in 2014, the resort sits opposite Sugi Island, and the stunning beach where, a decade ago, three American families established the original Telunas Beach Resort – still in operation today. The private island is a notch up in terms of quality of accommodation – but the vision of the founders has remained the same: to offer an amazing holiday experience to visitors, and long-term, sustainable benefits to the surrounding local communities.
This mission is well explained in the Kindle handed to every guest on arrival; this acts as an electronic room compendium and resort guide in one (and cleverly does away with unnecessary paper!). After disembarking from the resort’s private boat and receiving a friendly welcome at the jetty, we were escorted into the restaurant for a leisurely lunch. There’s deliberately no formal check-in, in keeping with the laid-back vibe of the resort. And with up to 40 guests on the island at one time, it’s never, ever crowded.
I caught an hour with Resident Manager Nathan McGill early one morning before he caught the boat to administrative centre Batam for a meeting. Nathan has lived at Telunas for three years with his wife and two small children. He explained that the vision of Telunas is to enable guests to “simplify, clarify and connect” in a place far removed from city life. “They come to get away from the hustle and bustle, to a place where they can clarify their thoughts and have some time out,” he said. “We think the absence of Wi-Fi and electronic devices provides ample time and space for this to happen.” After my own peaceful nights of sleep at the resort, I wholeheartedly agreed with him.
Each of the 15 over-water villas has five distinct spaces: living room, king bedroom, bathroom, balcony and a loft sleeping area accessible by a ladder. The villas sleep up to five people and are furnished in an understated beach vibe that doesn’t compete for attention with the beautiful views; colourful cushions, local handicrafts and furniture made from upcycled boats create an instant “at home” feeling. Villas are also equipped with a water fountain, tea and coffee supplies, in-house toiletries, beach towels and umbrellas. Do spend some time stargazing on the balcony after dinner – it’s a rare treat and something we all really enjoyed.
Meals are served in the enormous open-air restaurant and the daily menu is written on simple blackboards. There’s a hearty buffet breakfast (we loved the eggs Benedict) followed by a three-course lunch and dinner with a vegetarian option. Meals range from delicious local Indonesian favourites (and plenty of seafood) to Western options, from gnocchi to beef Wellington. The kids’ menu is packed with healthy choices like pasta, and grilled chicken with coleslaw, and there were no complaints from my two hungry children. A selection of fruit and snacks is available between meals. Look out for the honesty bar, too, where guests can purchase beers and soft drinks – or bring your own alcohol (there’s no corkage fee). The Sand Bar serves drinks and snacks; we savoured a couple of well-earned margaritas by the pool while the kids were absorbed in hermit crab races on the beach at sunset.
The resort’s complimentary Kampung Kids Club offers younger children enough distractions to keep them out of their parents’ hair for several hours every day: fishing, local crafts such as weaving, and evening movies are offered under the watchful gaze of the friendly staff. Older kids and adults can enjoy other complimentary activities: a low ropes course at the neighbouring resort, river kayaking through the mangroves, a village tour, a cooking demonstration, standup paddle boarding, windsurfing and kayaking. If that all sounds too energetic, just curl up with a book.
Another option is a visit to the newly opened spa. Book a massage (around $50 for one hour) in your villa or take the boardwalk across the mangroves to the four thatched spa pavilions elevated above Sunset Beach. As a couple, it’s a tranquil spot to settle for an afternoon, especially when you know the children are taken care of. The therapists are friendly local women who train in-house at Telunas. Fiza was diminutive, but strong, and her massage, the signature Telunas – gentle long strokes with attention to pressure points – was amazing. Hubby Sean chose the Balinese deep-tissue massage and reported a restorative experience with therapist Susan.
Jumping off the jetty was the most popular activity for our two children. I stood watching them one afternoon at sunset and when I looked down my sunglasses dropped off my face into the deep water below. When I alerted the staff, they spoke with one another, then one ran off towards the pool, and within minutes a male guest appeared. With goggles covering his eyes, he jumped in and retrieved my sunglasses from four metres of water! Needless to say, I was effusive with thanks for his thoughtful action.
That afternoon on the jetty was memorable not only for the sunglasses incident, but for the simplicity and old-fashioned family fun we had. Children fished with hand-lines and leapt off the jetty, and guests struck up casual conversations with others. The sun was setting, everyone was happy – and nobody was holding a mobile phone.
From the very first days, the ethos of Telunas focused on building partnerships and relationships with the surrounding community. Nathan McGill says the resort has links to more than 50 villages on neighbouring islands. “The majority of the 70 staff from Telunas Private Island hail from within a 30-minute radius and many received in-house training when they began work here,” he says. The staff are undoubtedly one of the strengths of Telunas – friendly, authentic and genuinely caring.
Guests and school groups visit local villages and often get involved in community development projects. Nathan stresses the aim is to work in partnership on tasks such as building a volleyball court or painting a school. “We carefully choose projects that are sustainable and do not create dependence on Telunas,” he says. Both my children have visited Telunas on school trips and benefited greatly from their interactions with Riau children, and participation in activities in the villages.
Nathan explains that projects should not only be self-sustaining but have the potential to multiply the impact felt by neighbouring communities. One example is a sea turtle initiative. “In the first year, we discovered that the turtles visit the beach on the other side of the island to lay eggs in the pandan tree roots at night. We soon realised that if the lizards didn’t eat them, the staff would take them, because the common understanding was that you sell them – it was accepted local practice,” he says.
With the turtle population in decline, Nathan had a hatchery and large shelter built for the guards to stay in overnight during the laying season. “The guards collect the eggs and put them in the hatchery, and last year we successfully released the baby turtles into the ocean.” Nathan’s next quest is to devise a sustainable waste business to manage the volume of garbage discarded into the environment from local villages. “We’ve tried once, and I’m trying a second time – it’s tough because it’s too easy just to put rubbish out the window,” he says.
Telunas is the perfect escape from the day-to-day city grind. Our family benefited from the two-night stay in different ways. The simple experience of fishing with a hand-line (and figuring out how to extract a hook from the fish’s mouth) was a great pleasure for my son. My daughter enjoyed jumping countless times off the jetty, and encouraging the younger guests to be brave and join her. Without Wi-Fi, my hubby was free to let his mind wander in any direction, to swim, walk around the island and relax. For me, the simplicity, closeness to nature and unstructured days allowed room for conversation and connection – things that are often impossible in the busy lives we lead. I’m looking forward to a return visit!
Make it Happen
After taking the 11.10 am or 3.10pm ferry from HarbourFront to Sepukang in Batam, you clear customs and then meet the Telunas representative on the other side for the transfer to the private boat. It takes between 60 and 90 minutes to reach Telunas, passing by some beautiful island scenery. On the day of departure, take a 9.30am or 2pm ferry, which puts you back in Singapore at 1.30 or 6pm respectively. Telunas is one hour behind Singapore time.
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