TRAVEL: Nikoi, the island hideaway where no-one need ever grow up says Charley Larcombe.
There is an island full of children’s chatter. Of stories and legends made up of wooden swords and imagination, with little WiFi and lots of fun to be had from making dens and dragon-hunting. It is a place of salty skin and sea-tangled hair, of sun-kissed cheeks aching from laughter where a Peter Pan-like character called Yogi calls out to a tribe of Villebrequin short-wearing Lost Boys who emerge from driftwood houses to follow him on adventures.
It is also a place of bespoke cocktails, freshly-caught seafood and guitar music played by moonlight. There are torch-lit paths winding through Jurassic-like jungle to hidden seats looking over the Riau Archipelago, where thirst is slaked by cold local beers and where lazy muscles are reduced to oily-suppleness in a tented spa with natural air conditioning. It is surrounded by an idle sea, gently lapping at the shores of white sand encouraging you to snorkel over underwater forests and spy, not mermaids, but gloriously-coloured rainbow fish. It’s where South China Sea pirates stored bounties or fishermen rested between long-trawls or where water nymphs dropped anchor and enjoyed the shallows of the reefs. This is an island overflowing with daydreams and bed-time stories. This is Pulua Nikoi.
It isn’t a secret. If you’ve been in Singapore for any time at all, you would’ve heard talk of this little slither of paradise not even a flight away from the centre of Singapore. You and your family and friends can leap on the ferry at Tanah Merah late afternoon on a Friday and be on Nikoi by 8pm. Stay for a week if you can, but even just a weekend is enough to totally lose track of time and settle easily into island life. Nikoi is a conservation hub that extols the virtues of barefoot luxury, where every detail is conscious of the guests but also the impact on the environment. Plus it’s an adventure playground for the smalls. It really ticks so many boxes.
The villas are built to be your home-away-from-home – and with only 15 on the island, you’re guaranteed privacy. They’re sprawling driftwood and ylang ylang houses with bunkbeds perfect for kids’ sleepovers and elegant first floor suites where parents can escape to king-sized beds and views over the beach. There are day beds and sundowner chairs and low slung seating just waiting to be collapsed in with a good book or for morning coffee to prepare you for a day of adventures. There are sea otters that play on the lawns, slow-moving monitor lizards that languor in the shade and butterflies that follow you down your private path onto the sand. In touch with its eco-tenet, you won’t find energy-guzzling mini fridges or wasteful snacks – but everything is but a quick call away. Your only real touch of modern tech’ is the iPod dock, ideal for some easy-listening reggae flowing through your room.
For those who just want to wriggle their toes in the sand and only move from the sun lounger at meal times, the beautiful beach on the west coast or the secluded pool to the other side of the island are perfect spots. Yet for those who go a little stir crazy after 20 minutes of sun bathing, there is plenty on offer – even if the island is only 15 hectares in size.
How about an early morning knock about on the grass tennis courts where you can feel the dew beneath your feet? Or a pre-lunch game of croquet or boule? Maybe something a little more strenuous? There’s rock climbing on the island and jungle paths to explore on foot, but the staff can also organise mountain bike trails or kite-surfing on Bintan, only a 20-minute boat ride away.
I’m a water baby so I immediately grabbed the snorkel mask – they provide them for all ages and sizes – and swam straight from the beach where the reef is home to lots of Nemos and Dorys. The coral itself isn’t glorious but there’s plenty of fish to swim with and you don’t need to leave the shore too far behind to be amazed. I also dragged down one of the kayaks to skim across the waves and explore the island from the water, but there are boats too – from lasers for the kids, to catamarans that can be prepared for island hopping. For the divers in the group, daily trips can be booked, but you need to have your PADI qualifications as the team on the island don’t offer courses. If all of that has been a little exhausting, book in for a massage. There is an extensive treatment menu in the tented spa and you can peruse the list whilst sipping on ginger tea.
Wait, where are the kids? Don’t worry, whilst you’ve been enjoying yourself, your little ones have stepped into a truly magical world. The ‘kids club’ is little more than a haphazard shack with no plastic toys, TV screens or iPads in sight. Instead there are rope swings, bows and arrows whittled from bamboo, a small football pitch with makeshift goal posts. Each day the staff, headed up by the famous Yogi, take the kids on nature trails and treasure hunts, pier jumping into the crystal clear waters, fishing with nothing but a piece of string tied to a thin wooden pole. It is all so pure and simple, so wholesome that it harks back to past childhoods. It all makes for twinges of nostalgia.
It’s worth noting that I visited with The Boyfriend; a weekend escape just for the two of us, away from it all. We had visited the adult-only sister island, Cempedak a couple of months before (read the article here) and so we had our expectations. Unsurprisingly, we absolutely adored the life and atmosphere that the children added to Nikoi. There was always lots of giggling and chatter, but you never felt like you were being disturbed or that it was killing any romantic moment – it was just fantastic to see sun-tanned children enjoying the island so much.
However, to get actual feedback on what it’s like to holiday on Nikoi with the clan, I turned to a friend. After all, maybe I was just looking at the rose-coloured ideal from my fortunate position where I wasn’t dealing with the spats and the moaning and nappies etc. of family-life.
“Nikoi doesn’t take the cookie-cutter approach with the children; everything just feels so authentic,” recalls Sara Conneely who has been to the island with her husband and two children, Tomas and Caitlin on a couple of occasions. “The kids have total freedom and you feel relaxed with this because the staff are so natural with them; they remember names and greet them like old friends. The children’s club may ‘only’ consist of four posts and a thatch roof, but it’s by far superior to other clubs that use technology to keep kids entertained. The activities like jetty jumping and marshmallow roasting over the beach fires are all overseen by the staff, which leaves parents free to unwind and just listen to the ocean. Its close location to Singapore is, obviously, a huge relief as there’s no travelling drama. Nikoi is a place of childhood dreams. Happy kids; happy parents.” Sounds pretty ideal, huh?
“Dreams do come true, if only we wish hard enough”. So, close your eyes, keep wishing and spread a little of that dollar-sign pixie dust and hopefully there will be a week free to head there. Just one thing, JM Barrie was wrong about directions to Peter Pan’s Neverland – it’s not “…the second star from the right and straight on ‘til morning”. It’s a three-hour door-to-door trip from Singapore to an island perfect for children who never wish to grow up.