Buzz is building over Bintan, where almost a dozen new attractions and resorts have opened in the past two years - and travellers are arriving in record numbers to enjoy them.
More than 670,000 tourists visited Bintan Resorts last year, a 22 per cent jump from 2015 and the highest number on record since the 17,500ha parcel of land - where the majority of the island's tourism infrastructure is located - officially opened in 1996.
About half the tourists are domestic, but Singaporeans make up the island's next largest market, accounting for 20 per cent of arrivals last year.
And the number of Singaporeans visiting Bintan Resorts, managed by Singapore and Indonesia-owned investment company Gallant Venture, is on the rise - already up 13 per cent in the first half of this year, according to Bintan Resorts' visitor arrival statistics report.
Travellers, it seems, are eager to check out new developments such as The Canopi, a 2ha resort which offers safari-style glamping in opulent, air-conditioned tents.
The unique luxury-camping experience is what convinced Ms Jacinta Poh, who works for a bank, to visit Bintan for the first time in January. She spent one night at The Canopi with her mum and sister to celebrate her 30th birthday.
"It was unique and different from a staycation. All the facilities were new and clean and there were lots of things to do. I also liked The Canopi's decor and furniture, which had a cool safari theme," she says. "I would definitely go back and have been recommending my friends to go too. I think it's a great place for a nice family vacation or couples' retreat, especially since it is so near Singapore."
Bintan is a roughly 45-minute ferry ride from Singapore and The Canopi has become a prime attraction. Opened with 40 luxury glamping tents in 2015, it has since expanded to 100 tents, which are almost always fully booked every weekend, says a Bintan Resorts spokesman.
The Canopi is part of the Treasure Bay integrated resort development, which launched with Bintan's other new integrated resort, Lagoi Bay, in 2015. Luxury tents line its star attraction, the Crystal Lagoon - a 6.3ha saltwater swimming pool equivalent to 50 Olympic-size swimming pools, where guests can swim, wakeboard, kayak, ride a sea scooter, cable ski and fly 9m up into the air on a hydro-powered Jetovator.
In Lagoi Bay - home to The Sanchaya luxury resort, Plaza Lagoi shopping centre and Grand Lagoi Village hotel, which opened in 2015 - Lagoi Bay Villas opened its first boutique villas in June last year, and Holiday Villa Pantai Indah, an allvilla property, opened in August last year.
Lantern Park in Lagoi Bay - an attraction with huge lanterns of marine creatures and threatened animals of Indonesia such as the Javan rhinoceros, Komodo dragon and Sumatran elephant - opened in January.
Meanwhile, Bintan stalwarts such as Laguna Golf Bintan and Club Med Bintan - which opened in Bintan Resorts' first phase of development in the late 1990s and early 2000s - have reopened after major renovations. A new Banyan Tree Group resort, Cassia Bintan, is expected to open next month.
Nine other brand-name hotels, including Alila Villas Bintan, Four Points by Sheraton, Novotel and Chiva-Som Bintan, are set to open across Bintan Resorts in the coming years.
The next opening is likely be Doulos Phos The Hotel, a century-old ship bought by a Singaporean businessman which is now in the final stages of its conversion into a unique boutique hotel.
The ship's engine room and bridge will become a maritime museum, while the captain's deck will become the presidential suite - a 100 sq m cabin with a private jacuzzi and barbecue pit - and its eight decks will be decorated to reflect different periods of the ship's history.
The ship's old bunk beds are being turned into guest beds and the hotel will feature a swimming pool, library, spa, piano lounge and amphitheatre when it opens on a 1.4ha site beside Bintan's Bandar Bentan Telani ferry terminal next year.
Getting to Bintan is also easier.
In June, Changi Airport Group and Singapore Cruise Centre launched a $2 shuttle service between Changi Airport and Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal, and a private airport in Bintan Resorts is scheduled to open next year, making it easier for international travellers to venture to the island from Singapore.
Bintan Resorts spokesman Iris Kok says it is also boosting marketing efforts on attractions outside the resorts area, too, such as tours of Tanjung Pinang in Bintan, the capital of the Riau Islands, and visits to the sea gypsy village at Berakit, which will give travellers a glimpse into the unique way of life of the orang laut, or sea nomads.
The small island of Pulau Penyengat, where the Riau kingdom used to be based, is another attraction just 10 minutes from Bintan Resorts by water taxi. People can visit the royal mausoleum and the majestic Masjid Raya Sultan Riau that was built in the 18th century.
"With the rise of discerning travellers, Bintan Resorts recognises the importance of consistent development to attract new visitors and maintain novelty," says Ms Kok.
Though Bintan is the largest of the Riau Islands, there are many others worth visiting. Here are six of the best within easy reach of Singapore.
For a back-to-basics refuge, head to Pulau Pangkil (www.pangkil.com), off the coast of Bintan.
Opened in 2003, this private island is a favourite destination for groups of friends, families and corporate retreats because when you are there, you hire the whole 5.5ha island for yourselves.
Guests stay in 10 Driftwood Palaces, elevated and partially openair structures made out of logs and wood recovered from the sea.
Each "palace" has at least one large four-poster bed as well as Balinese daybeds or benches that can be converted into extra sleeping quarters. There are at least 18 single beds that can be placed in the Driftwood Palaces as well, though some guests prefer to enjoy the outdoors and sleep in one of the island's many hammocks.
Pulau Pangkil can sleep as many as 55 adults, who can spend their days at the bar, by the freshwater pool or lying on the beach, enjoying the island's sound system, volleyball court, sailing dinghies, kayaks and snorkelling equipment. Linen, towels and basic toiletries are provided.
The island comes with a fully equipped kitchen and more than 20 service staff who cook and clean and set up a roaring bonfire on the beach at night.
Basic rental for one to 10 adults starts at $7,935 for two nights and $11,903 for three nights during weekends from December to February; and at $9,085 for two nights and $13,628 for three nights during the high season from March to November. Helpers and children aged four to 12 are charged $115 a night. Discounts for longer stays may be possible.
The fee includes accommodation, three meals a day, coffee, tea, milk and drinking water, use of the sports and entertainment facilities and one return land and sea trip from Bandar Bentan Telani ferry terminal in northern Bintan to Pangkil a group. Rates include taxes and fees and go up with each additional guest over 10 people.
To get there, guests take a ferry from Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal to Bintan, where Pangkil staff will pick them up and drive to Pangkil's private jetty, about 11/2 hours away, where they will take a 15- to 30-minute boat ride to Pangkil. The whole trip takes about three hours.
After a decade operating Nikoi Island, the resort's environmentally focused owners opened Cempedak Private Island (www.cempedak.com) in March this year.
Located about 9km off the east coast of Bintan, the pristine 17ha eco-luxury retreat is poised to outshine its elder sibling's eco-friendly credentials.
Much of Cempedak's electricity is generated by solar panels and it is water self-sufficient through rainwater collection and the recycling and reuse of water.
Cempedak buys almost all its food supplies at local markets from small traders and directly from farmers when possible. The island also has its own fruit and vegetable garden, ensuring guests' meals are made with the freshest produce.
None of this means the Singapore-based expatriate owners have skimped on the comfort or elegance of its facilities.
Ensconced in the privacy of a jungle are 20 two-storey villas on the adults-only island, which accommodates a maximum of 40 guests who must be aged 16 and older.
Each 150 sq m villa (starting at $450 a night) was handcrafted using locally sourced and sustainable bamboo and features vaulted ceilings, a broad deck, a plunge pool and expansive sea views.
The luxury villas are designed to blend into the environment and maximise natural airflow, negating the use of air-conditioners. The resulting peace and quiet is all the better for enjoying the in-villa spa treatments or observing the natural life of the island, which includes hornbills, eagles and kingfishers as well as a family of sea otters and the critically endangered pangolin.
Activities available to guests include sailing, snorkelling, diving, nature discovery, island-hopping, windsurfing, kayaking, tennis and stand-up paddle boarding.
Getting there requires an hourlong ferry ride to Bintan, about an hour's drive to the east coast of Bintan and a 25-minute speedboat ride to Cempedak. The daily board charge of $95++ a day includes three meals and most activities.
Though Batam's beaches are not the nicest in the Riau Islands, there is a handful of resorts which are perfect for a weekend getaway and within reach of shopping and entertainment facilities.
Montigo Resorts, Nongsa (www.montigoresorts.com/nongsa) - an oasis of modern, white Mediterranean-inspired sea-facing villas which opened in 2012 - tops the list.
Situated along 1km of private beachfront, the resort previously offered only two-, three- and four-bedroom villas.
This year, it added premier one-bedroom villas (starting at $265++ on weekdays and $365++ on weekends) and five-bedroom villas with spectacular sea views, a large outdoor lounge and a dedicated butler (starting at $1,560++ on weekdays and $1,950++ on weekends) last month.
There is something for every age group and interest - from fishing and kampung cycling tours to water sports such as wakeboarding, water skiing, jet skiing, knee-boarding, kayaking, snorkelling and banana boat rides. There is also a gym, tennis courts, yoga and water polo for those who want to stay fit.
Turi Beach Resort (www.turibeach.com), with 140 deluxe rooms and suites, is another favourite.
Set amid 7.7ha of treelined hillside, the resort has a village feel with minimalist, sea-facing rooms starting at 1,260,000 rupiah (S$128) a night.
The best part about Batam is that getting there is easy.
The ride from Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal to Nongsapura Ferry Terminal takes 30 to 40 minutes. From there, it is a five- to eight-minute drive to either resort, which both hotels provide free for guests.
Travellers looking for a quiet, laidback and intimate getaway should head to Pulau Joyo (www.pulau-joyo.com), a 6ha jewel off Bintan.
Accommodation is limited to seven "palaces" - either reconstructed Javanese joglos (peaked roof houses traditionally owned by Javanese aristocrats) or stilted villas made entirely of driftwood, all with lofty ceilings and expansive living quarters decorated with Indonesian antiques.
The sister island of Pulau Pangkil, Pulau Joyo opened in March 2012 and provides an idyllic beach break where guests can enjoy the sun, sand and clear, turquoise sea with few others around.
Located three hours from Singapore - first by ferry to Bintan, then by car to another jetty and then a 25-minute speedboat transfer to the island - Pulau Joyo is ideal for nine couples or families, though more people can be accommodated.
The area is protected from commercial fishing and is a snorkeler's paradise. Colourful schools of fish can be found on the eastern tip of the island, while the best coral is off a sandbar to the south.
Guests can also enjoy free use of the island's kayaks and play beach volleyball, badminton, table tennis, billiards or bocce (a popular Italian ball-sport) if they are in the mood for a game or two.
Massages are available and the island holds regular bonfires and movie screenings at night.
There is also a 25m-long pool and its well-stocked poolside bar is another popular hangout.
All meals, basic drinks, use of facilities and one round-trip transport from Bintan's ferry terminal a group are included in the cost, which starts at $322 an adult and $138 a helper or child a night.
After the first two adults, charges for extra guests in the same palace start at $230 an adult a night, taxes included.
Travellers looking for a relaxing weekend away should plan way ahead if they are hoping to stay at the award-winning Nikoi Island (www.nikoi.com).
Though the private island resort has been open for 10 years, it remains incredibly popular and guests need to book at least six months in advance if they want to spend a weekend there.
Given that it is ringed by clear turquoise water, white sand beaches and colourful coral reefs, it is not hard to see why. The name Robinson Crusoe is often repeated here as guests who arrive at the 15ha island off the east coast of Bintan, feel like fortunate castaways, the city quickly forgotten.
The few buildings on the island are eco-friendly, made almost entirely of driftwood and grass. A blend of Indonesian architecture and contemporary design, they have high, double-vaulted roofs that draw hot air up, allowing the sea breeze to naturally cool the houses.
There are 15 beach houses with a total of 21 rooms, which can accommodate up to 60 guests, who can rent individual beach houses or the entire island.
All the houses have direct access to the beach and guests can spend their days relaxing on the sand or swimming in the two pools.
Visitors can also sail, snorkel, dive, island-hop, windsurf, stand- up paddle board and kayak.
The resort also has two grass tennis courts - the only ones in Indonesia - and a beachside volleyball court. The three bars are ideal places for guests to sit back with a drink and watch the sunset.
Meals are eaten at the island's only restaurant, where the daily menu is a showcase of the market's freshest produce.
Besides organising child-friendly activities such as treasure hunts and movie nights, the island also offers children's menus.
Nikoi Island is less than 85km from Singapore and, to get there, guests take a 45-minute ferry ride from Singapore to Bintan, where the resort's drivers pick you up and take you to the Nikoi dock at Kawal, about an hour's drive away on the east coast of Bintan. From there, it is a 20- to 30-minute boat ride to Nikoi. The whole journey takes about 21/2 hours.
Prices start at $375 a night for a one-bedroom beach house which sleeps a family of four, including meals and use of most watersport equipment. Drinks are paid for separately. Transport to Nikoi, which includes VIP clearance at Bintan ferry terminal, transport across Bintan and the boat trip to Nikoi, costs $90++ an adult and $45++ a child.
Experience a different side of the Riau Archipelago on Pulau Sugi, off the western coast of Batam.
Open since 2004, Telunas Beach Resort (www.telunasresorts.com) is a favourite destination for travellers who want to disconnect from frenetic city life and experience a digital detox.
There is only intermittent mobile reception and no Wi-Fi at Telunas Beach Resort and its sister property Telunas Private Island, so while both resorts are only three hours from Singapore, they feel much more remote.
To get there, guests take a ferry from HarbourFront Ferry Terminal in Singapore to Sekupang, Batam.
There, a Telunas Resorts team member will guide guests to the Telunas boat, a modified version of a traditional wooden Malay fishing longboat, and take them on the one-hour-and-40-minute ride past mangrove-forested islands to Telunas Resorts. This domestic round trip costs 750,000++ rupiah (S$76++) a person aged five and older.
Guests can stay at the original beach resort, which has 10 overwater thatched-roof chalets and four deluxe rooms (starting at 750,000++ rupiah a room a night).
Meals are served buffet-style (500,000++ rupiah an adult, 450,000++ rupiah for ages five to 17a day) and daylight hours are spent swimming, lounging and enjoying the natural scenery.
A roughly 10-minute boat ride across the water is Telunas Private Island, which opened in 2014, with 15 over-water villas built using ethically sourced materials.
The spacious 90 sq m sea-facing villas (2,100,000++ rupiah a night) are connected to the private island by a wooden jetty and have a kingsized bed as well as a children's loft, which sleeps two or three.
On the island, guests dine on Western and Indonesian cuisine in the open-air two-storey Grand Lodge (750,000++ rupiah an adult, 650,000++ rupiah a child a day).
They can also sign up for the resort's complimentary daily social activity, which could be a jungle waterfall hike, mangrove kayaking excursion, half-day local village tour or Indonesian cooking demonstration.
Guests can also head out to explore on their own in a kayak or on a stand-up paddle board.
Telunas Private Island also has an infinity pool and the newly built Telunas Spa, with overwater treatment villas tucked away on the northern tip of the island, away from other facilities.
The island hosts "Only Adult" days every month, during which children are not allowed to stay on the island.
At other times of the year, kids can enjoy a childcare area staffed by professionals who are there to entertain the children for hours so their parents can relax and rest.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 30, 2017, with the headline 'Explore the Riau Islands'. Print Edition | Subscribe
We have been experiencing some problems with subscriber log-ins and apologise for the inconvenience caused. Until we resolve the issues, subscribers need not log in to access ST Digital articles. But a log-in is still required for our PDFs.