By Jonathan Evans
Mar 29, 2019
WHEN I FIRST VISITED BINTAN in 2012, the resort island—the largest of Indonesia’s Riau Archipelago—wasn’t much known for its cultural immersion. I recall being shepherded onto a coach and driven through its neat, airbrushed landscape to my tightly guarded hotel for a weekend of quiet seclusion. Bintan was colonized in the 1990s by developers who turned its northern white-sand beaches into Singapore-by-the-sea. But as Indonesia’s economy stagnated toward the end of that decade, construction stalled, and the island’s curio-laden south remained a reservoir of untapped potential.
Now, it seems the entire island has had a much-needed facelift. Last year, more than 1 million visitors hit Bintan Resorts’ 13 properties, more than double the 2012 figure. And that number is set to grow with next year’s opening of an international airport. There’s a new focus on the island’s natural bounty, emphasizing the richness beyond the resorts—a land of discovery where inquisitive kids can learn about rural history and the traditional slow life just an hour from one of the world’s most modern cities. Making a return trip to the island, I decided to discover this wholesomeness for myself. I hired a driver to embark on a clockwise circuit that would take in the once-underexplored south, and found that charming local villages, stunning natural wonders and a rapidly diversifying capital are just some of Bintan’s other treasures hidden in plain sight.
Just beyond the barrier of the Bintan Lagoon Resort (from Rp1,501,000) estate, midway along the northern coast, I arrive at the sea-gypsy village of Panglong. Here, igloo-shaped brick kilns once used to burn mangroves for charcoal stand near the entrance; men smoke kretek (clove) cigarettes as they repair a riverboat; on the seafront, young families relax in small overwater homes. Though the arrival of electricity has transformed the gypsies’ lives, the village’s traditional atmosphere still casts its spell on me.
The calming scenery continues further down the east coast. Waterfront highways thread through halcyon villages housing picture-perfect bungalows, while modest resorts, ramshackle boatyards and jetties line the shores known collectively as Trikora Beach. Just off Trikora Empat (Beach Four), I find myself alone in a copse that houses Grotto Santa Maria, where limestone sculptures depict bible scenes. The trail leads up to the bijou Chapel of St. Peter, a leftover from the Catholic migrants of the 1960s. My easygoing driver, Mohamed, tells me that a Beijing businessman is building a five-star hotel close by, suggesting that this tranquil coastline may get crowded soon.
A 30-minute drive away, family haven The Residence (from Rp1,821,090) kickstarted southern Bintan’s renaissance a year ago. The spacious resort emphasizes oneness with nature—its villas are immersed in jungle; the spa looks out onto a green expanse. Prizing myself from the comfort of my bed, I cycle around the estate looking for photo-ops before checking into the stylish restaurant, Rica Rica (mains from Rp175,000), for Javanese ayam bakar (spiced grilled chicken) served with a smile.
Near sundown, Mohamed drops me among a maze of boathouses in Kawal village to take a ride through its century-old mangrove. A wild-eyed boatman named Rizal, who runs an eco-initiative here, Rumah Bintan Adventure & Tours, makes a witty host for the journey (“Watch out! Snake!” he teased). As we glide down the twilit Sebung River, beyond the hulking wrecks of fishing vessels, fireflies start to glow, turning the rainforest into a thicket of Christmas trees, while solitary sea apple trees protrude from the water.
All across Bintan, new ventures are transforming the landscape. Even the gritty capital, Tanjung Pinang, best known for its street markets, now flaunts pristine malls like City Center, while Areca Water Park is a colorful family adventure in lagoons surrounded by greenery. The city’s heart, though, remains rooted in the past. After lunch at Sam’s Anna Restaurant (Jln. Ir Sutami; +62 821 1927 1115; mains from Rp20,000) on the seafront—order the chicken—I walk down a nondescript lane onto a jetty where a 10-minute pompong (water taxi) ride takes me to the small island of Penyengat, whose history as a Malay seat of power is embodied in its heritage yellow architecture. According to local legend, islanders offered so many eggs to the local sultan to fund the construction of Penyengat’s Disney-esque centerpiece, the 18th-century Mesjid Raya Sultan Riau, that the whites were mixed with lime and used as cement.
The journey is as much fun as the destination. At the pier, I am ushered by a becak driver into his house-shaped trailer with a crimson roof and ornately carved windows. As I trundle through the village, children wave from outside their homes. I pay the absurdly cheap Rp10,000 fare to head five minutes across the water to the Chinese settlement of Senggarang, where families still live in stilt houses. I wander past centuries-old temples beside a yellow pier, and find a tiny shrine almost completely engulfed by the rampant branches of a banyan tree.
A more desolate environment awaits in the northwest, outside the port city of Tanjung Uban, where roadsides of russet rock lend this part of Bintan an almost desert-like quality. Suddenly, I am dazzled by the sand dunes of Gurun Pasir Busung (Jln. Raya Busung), an undulating beige moonscape full of selfie-snapping locals, where rainwater has reacted with rock minerals to form brilliant turquoise pools (Telaga Biru). Just a few kilometers north—in stark contrast—is the entrance to the resorts zone, where tidy hedgerows flank the roads that connect the nearby attractions.
The move away from mega-resorts here is yielding unlikely hotel options. There are splashy contemporary apartments at Cassia Bintan (from Rp1,318,700) and glamping tents at the Canopi (from Rp1,611,720) in the family-oriented Treasure Bay Resort, where I spend an afternoon Segwaying around the giant Crystal Lagoon and ATV-riding along a path carved through a forest. At The Sanchaya (from Rp8,498,400), I kick back with a martini among colonial-luxe villas filled with stunning décor and artwork, all set behind a perfect white-sand beach.
It’s also here, at Lagoi Bay, that I come across a brace of millennial-friendly openings at Plaza Lagoi. A hip rooftop bar, Yeah! Lounge (drinks from Rp50,000), makes a cozy sundowner spot as waves crash against the shore below. Lights illuminate sculptures of Indonesian wildlife in Lantern Park, where I stroll before stopping at Rumah Imaji(Jln. Gurindam Duabelas, Plaza Lagoi) to pose with artworks at this 3D “selfie gallery” that neatly references local culture—a topsy-turvy Malay House leads to a painted mangrove forest.
Later this year, a “boat-el,” Doulos Phos, will welcome guests into the refurbished interior of the world’s longest-serving passenger ship, a 105-year-old vessel once inhabited by missionaries on voyages to the Asian colonies. With facilities both on land and on board, including a Maritime Museum, the new hotel will become something of a symbol of the island’s intent to synergize its gritty history with its glitzy future. Hopefully by now we’ve learned the lessons of those long-ago missionaries: rather that force change upon the cultural legacy, this island that once felt like two separate worlds seems to be letting its modern and traditional sides co-evolve symbiotically.