Some dream of owning a private island while others, well, live that dream. Australian Andrew Dixon has not one, but two such slices of elysium – Nikoi and Cempedak – to his name, both of which have become luxury retreats for travellers seeking quiet, beach holidays a few hours away from Singapore. But Dixon never set out to found luxury resorts. For the ex-banker, those islands were initially intended to be “little slivers of paradise” that afforded a slower tempo from the hectic pace of life in Singapore. What started out as weekend family camping trips to Indonesia’s Pulau Nikoi in 2003 eventually saw Dixon and three other friends-turned-fellow investors chipping in to secure the leasehold title for the island the following year.
“We started out by putting a couple of shacks on the beach, before deciding to open it up on weekends just to cover the cost. We weren’t focused on making it a business but it became very popular,” says the 53-year-old. Today, the 15ha island sited 8km off the east coast of Bintan, Indonesia, is a fully operational resort with 15 beachfront villas priced between $390 and $1,100 per night. Exclusive booking of the entire island can be made for $16,500 per day.
When news reached them that Cempedak Island, located 22km away from Nikoi, was up for sale, Dixon, together with his co-founders, paid a visit. They were blown away by the rock formations and “magnificent views of the neighbouring islands in the distance”, and acquired the leasehold title for the 17ha space in 2011, with the intent to develop it into an adults-only resort. “One of the luxuries of being on a private island is the space. No one can build up around you,” he says.
Today, the owner’s villa sits atop the same vantage point from which Dixon first surveyed the land. Unlike the resort’s 14 other villas, it is the only one without a pool. When construction work for Cempedak Island began in 2014, the owner’s villa was used as a prototype for the ambitious all-bamboo structures they had in mind. “I don’t mind that it doesn’t have a pool. When I’m here, we’re usually out and about, enjoying nature and sailing to neighbouring islands,” says Dixon.
In keeping with Cempedak’s commitment to sustainability, its villas, bar and main dining hall are fashioned from bamboo and local alang alang grass. Lead architect Miles Humphreys – the same man behind Mandapa, the Ritz-Carlton’s luxury villas in Bali – worked with bamboo specialist architects Chiko Wirahadi and Ketut Indra Saptura to ship 30,000 pieces of bamboo from Java and Sumatra. They were treated to guard against termites, before work on the villas began. Crafted by hand, each villa took three months to construct. Even the ceiling fans are made from this surprisingly versatile material boasting a tensile strength greater than steel.
Since its opening last year, Cempedak has occupied prime spots in architecture and travel glossies, and enjoys the distinction of being the world’s first private island resort to be constructed entirely from bamboo.
While Dixon left his banking job a decade ago to focus on running both properties, he still considers Nikoi and Cempedak his holiday homes. “It’s a business for us, but it’s somewhere I love going, and hanging out with friends and family. We get a lot of visitors coming through, including family from overseas and friends from Singapore. My son and daughter were four and six years old respectively when we used to camp at Nikoi. Now they’re 18 and 21 and love to bring their friends. They know every square inch of the place. They’ve really grown up with it.”
Reflecting on his childhood, he shares: “I grew up in Australia and we used to spend our holidays at the family’s beach house located on the Central Coast, an hour north of Sydney. When I was a teenager, I used to think, oh we’re going there again, while the other kids are heading elsewhere. But, when you get older, you realise that you grow a sentimental and emotional attachment to the place. You know the seasons, people, and all the fun things to do that not nearly everyone knows.”
On turning a private retreat into a business, the nature lover says with a laugh: “When I head over (to Nikoi and Cempedak), my greatest regret is not having more time to just sit back and relax.”