Ever the reliable getaway location, the island of Bintan sees new resorts pop up frequently. But can they hold a candle to big brother Bali’s beaches? Bintan virgin Amanda Chai checks into newly opened Cassia Bintan to decide for herself if it’s worth the 45-minute ferry ride.
For someone who stays in the north, a trip to Tanah Merah may as well be the journey to Bintan, Indonesia itself. But alas, the ferry terminal located there is the only way off our island and onto Bintan.
Stepping out of the taxi I shuddered at the terminal’s façade, built in 1995 and renovated in 2007; was I already in Indonesia? With slight inertia I dragged my wheelie up the stairs and through the front doors.
Don’t get me wrong—I am a fan of Indonesia; just not Bintan. Many a relaxing holiday I’ve spent on the beaches of Bali, overpriced fruit juice in hand and crystal blue waters ahead beckoning. But Ubud, Kuta and Nusa Dua have been teeming with tourists as of late, and the cost of a flight to Bali doesn’t quite justify a weekend trip anymore. So I resolved to embark on my maiden voyage to Bintan—with its promises of shorter traveling times, better prices, yet similar experiences. If I hated it my loss would have been negligible.
A choppy ferry ride later, I was on a minivan headed for Cassia Bintan, the Banyan Tree Group’s latest resort and the baby of the group, targeted at millennials like myself. It had been open for just two weeks then, and already friends were texting me their interest in booking a getaway there.
“They have lofts,” one text read, the unspoken emphasis screaming out at me from my phone. What can I say? We millennials are easy to please.
Pulling into the long driveway leading into Cassia, you pass a snippet of the other Banyan Tree properties, and then the rolling green lawns of the Laguna Golf Bintan golf course. There was an ease and familiarity to the place—with all the Banyan Tree facilities assembled in one private compound, it seemed almost like Sentosa, but without the obvious taint of overtourism. 10 minutes in, and it held the promise of a getaway that actually gets you away.
At the hotel itself, all traces of traditional hotel living are done away with. It’s young and bright; there’s traditional Indonesian art, reimagined with a funky pop art twist hanging on the walls, and a giant matching mural outside the main lobby (called the ‘meeting place’).
The turquoise colour scheme from the meeting place extends into the actual rooms, which range from single bedroom options to the coveted loft-style ones. Contrary to my millennial tendencies, I had booked into a one-bedroom apartment. The toilet is unnervingly located next to the kitchenette (why? I’ll never know), but the rest of the space works seamlessly as a serviced apartment for one or two; maximum three if someone doesn’t mind the couch.
While one can easily spend the entire weekend in the room, I was here to put Bintan to the Bali test. A big feature about Cassia Bintan was its location within the Laguna Bintan integrated complex—which meant access to the Angsana Spa at Hotel Angsana Bintan next door, the aforementioned golf course should I want to work on my swing, and most importantly, the private beach linking Cassia and Angsana.
Two unicorn floats sat enticingly on the infinity pool, but it was the beach two quick steps away that stole my heart. It was as I’d hoped—clean, sandy strip of beach that fed neatly into clear, green-blue water, but minus the throngs of sunglass-toting tourists. Dipping my toes at the edge of the beach, I had a proper Part-of-Your-World moment; and I kid you not but two mermaids were having a sexy photoshoot just meters away. I later found out they were here to perform.
For dinner, there’s the buffet at newly opened XANA Beach Club next door, or the option to cook in your own room—an in-house supermarket at the meeting place ensures you never have to step out of the hotel to get your essentials (not that stepping out is much of an option anyway). But Banyan Tree is known for their destination dining concepts—on smooth, giant rocks at sea; or in secret spots within the compound that come with delicious views of the island. I got on a rickety open-air boat, destined for a kelong floating peacefully in the middle of the sea.
I’m told the kelong was built and brought in specifically for the hotel, and the chefs onboard part of the team trained at Banyan Tree. Before we even set off for it though, there is a mini ceremony everyone must take part in. A staff member sprinkles frangipani into my palms, and we say a collective prayer in the local language (“Thuan beserta kita”, which means ‘God with us’) before throwing our flowers into the sea, to ask the powers that be to bless our uninsured boat ride.
Whether or not it’s a real practice, it will definitely appeal to eager tourists, particularly those with a penchant for exoticizing. A part of me wanted to snigger—how predictable can the tourism industry get?—but there was something quietly beautiful about standing with my toes in the wet sand, bonfire flickering softly behind, watching the waves carry my flowers away to the kelong, a glowing speck in the distance.
The meal itself was absolutely lush, with everything from grilled meats to squid to gonggong, the Indonesian dish of sea snails. The only downside was that the kelong doesn’t have a toilet, so make sure to get your business done before heading out here. Banyan Tree takes their CSR very seriously and haven’t figured out a way to get around disposing waste directly into the sea, which is typically what regular kelongs do. Still, the gentle rocking of the platform throughout the meal was a lovely experience, and a great prelude to bed.
A weekend away is hardly enough time to recuperate fully, but the stay at Cassia left me pleasantly surprised. The thing about Bintan is it gives you its best in pockets—so everything comes down to the resort you choose, and how self-sufficient it is. Sure you can zip around in a hired taxi to go explore the island, but most of us would rather spend our two and a half days away from reality relaxing.
Cassia was scarily well-equipped. In my time there, I had a massage, brunched on the beach, explored the surrounding areas, and caved on riding the unicorn floats (I’ll admit it was a bucket list goal). The views of the beach and the sea are unparalleled; they rejuvenate the weary soul, and made up my favorite part of the trip. I came to Bintan expecting murky waters, rain and a mediocre vacation stuck on one small part of the island, but it ended up surpassing any holiday I’d had in Bali in a long while.
I will be back, and maybe next time I’ll get a loft.