Cempedak – the no-compromise journey of an eco-island

4 years under way. Building a sustainable island on all levels and all aspects in mind, take time. Cempedak, an Indonesian island only 2 hours south of Singapore is an example of eco tourism without compromise on sustainability while having a business model that make sense. The island has been partly open since March, but early next year, the barefoot luxury getaway will be complete.

It’s hard not to be just a little impressed when you set foot on the pier at Cempedak. The island, that was little more than a beach, boulders and forest only a short time ago has developed into a place with carefully thought through design and an unpretentious atmosphere. And even without much knowledge of the work, it is apparent how much effort and time has gone into making this the future eco luxury getaway.

The sustainable concept had been tried and tested quite a few years before Cempedak was born. A lot of Singaporeans residents and tourists had to book a year in advance to get room on its sister island, Nikoi, when it opened with 15 villas out of driftwood in 2007.

The Australian banker, Andrew Dixon had fallen in love with the islands in the Riau Archipelago and bought Pulau Nikoi with a group of friends – initially, just for them.  But Dixon quickly saw the potential, and this vision wasn’t exactly off – Nikoi has since won a range of prices, had write-ups in influential global media and had 90% bookings in the past five years.

The iconic roofs of the villas are also bamboo and the beams have been designed especially for Cempedak. Photo: Cempedak.

Nikoi’s sucess is of course also due to the fact that you can get to the island easily by ferry to Bintan + the added exclusive transport by car and ferry by Nikoi. But Nikoi is more so known and loved for it’s sustainable concept, and with the know-how from here, Andrew Dixon and his friends could see that there was room for another concept, that could take sustainable travel to new levels. 22 km from Nikoi, they found the island, that four years later would open with seven completed villas and Cempedak was born.

The boathhouse has a bar and diving/boating gear for hire. Although all guests have their own pool, many hang out here for a chat and a swim. Photo: Cempedak

We visits the island six week after the opening and our first morning is spent walking around most of the 20 hektar island, where we get a rare insight into the ‘making’ of a ‘retreat’. We walk past the inhabited villas, but also have a look inside 10-12 unfinished villas in various stages, and find that our jaws drop when we see the work that is put into these. One villa have 10 work men sitting on the bamboo ‘beams’ of the roof trying to make the many ends meet. Another place there’s a group working on land, trying to form the beams into the circular shape for the recoginsable rooftops. And the same eye for perfectionism and sense for detail, we find in the mosaics in the pool, the work on the steps and the details in the floor.

The “raw” material, bamboo, that have to be cut, shaped and fitted to form the villas. Photo: Cempedak.

Like it can take years for a pearl to take shape in an oyster,  it isn’t so surprising that it has taken Cempedak almost five years to open its bamboo doors to a complete  island, when you see and hear the work that has gone in to it. All 20 villas, the restaurant, the two bars and the houses for the employees have all been built by bamboo all the way through. The beams that you see everywhere have been made with a special techinique and to get the roofs exactly right, Balinese specialists have been invited to teach the locals their craftsmanship. Glass and mosaic are handmade and the only sustainable compromise, the cement base, has been mixed with fine sand and finely crushed recycled glass from the island (with the added bonus that the cement gets harder!)

Bamboo is not only sustainable but if you build it right, one of the toughest materials. Photo: Cempedak

Our walk takes us past mangroves, giant boulder and vines that reminds you of the fact that the island was more or less untouched before and only the paved paths prompts that the island is inhabited by other people than monitor lizards, otters and apparently a python that keep the rats away (!). But even the paths have been carefully designed to curve around the natural habitat on the island and the boulders have been avoided, in order to respect the local’s wishes, who believe that they are possesed by spirits (!!).

We leave the half-finished villas and as we reach the tennis court and crocket lawn, we’re also reminded that Cempedak have to accommodate all types of guests, also from a certain standard. But of course the court is made of grass and without testing its speed, we continue to the heart of the island, via a vaulted footbridge and down ten teak steps to four small platforms with tables overlooking the sea.

The impressive vaulted footbridge takes you into the restaurant. Photo: Cempeak

The restaurant serves 3 Indonesian dishes for every meal, grilled fish, local dishes and tropical fruit that, picked by fresh criteria and what the islands garden can offer. We quickly get to know the employees by name, despite the fact that Nikoi and Cempedak have about 200 employees – because the service is a result of a thorough training. But there is a reason for the smiles, the staff are proud of their work, which is reflected in the fact that only 10% of the employees leave every year. Social responsibility is one of the key words at Cempedak, which of course also makes it a good business, keeping your good staff.

The boathouse teak chairs , also shaped as a boat, are designed are designed in Bali. Photo: Cempedak

We spend the day kayaking and chilling in the villa and accept the offer of pre-dinner drinks on the “Sunset floating bar” with a modest, but well chosen menu of six different cocktails, music and small talk with other guests. We feel very hip, in a barefoot eco-way, very far away from the town, bars and…our children (Cempdak is adults-only!). Most of us guests feel that way – and exactly what Andrew Dixon and his friends wanted to achieve with an island like Cempedak. But, of course, he hasn’t walked into this eco-business just to enjoy working on tropical islands. He has seen, that social responsibility and sustainability can actually be good business in the hotel industry.

We speak to Andrew over coffee on slightly more hectic Orchard Road after coming back, and there is no doubt about the founders passion to do things ‘right’. He talks about how he and the owners set up “The Island Foundation” in 2009, to involve the local community on Bintan and surrounding islands, and educate them in English, IT and responsible tourism. And while The Foundation educate proud and passionate staff, who contribute to the island’s future, it all comes back to Nikoi and Cempedak as good business too.

And of course, the fact that the food is 95% from local farms, no food waste, no tv or aircon, saltwater in the pool, soap in jars’, homemade syrup and all materials and interior are from the local islands, makes sense when looking at the bottom line. And most probably why Nikoi and Cempedak do as well as they do – they have founders who grasp both economy, quality and eco-toursim,

Back to our holiday, we finish off the day at the black-bamboo “Dodo bar”,overlooking the Riau archipelago. We reflect on our first day, while eating rice crackers, drinking ginger mojito and listening to carefully selected 80’s rock tunes – on the bamboo LP player of course..

The black bamboo ‘Dodo’ bar – Photo; Cempedak

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