Can a desert island stay in Indonesia really reduce your stress?
Is paradise worth the hype? Claire Spreadbury spends some seriously quiet 'me time' in the middle of nowhere.
Having a wee on a fully plumbed eco toilet, I look down to see the turquoise sea lapping beneath the slats of my overwater bungalow.
A few days ago, I could barely think straight for stress. But having landed (by seaplane - that's how they do it in paradise) in Bawah Reserve, part of Indonesia's remote Anambas archipelago northeast of Singapore, I'm already so relaxed I can barely make a decision and am feeling the tension wash away with the waves. I've only been here three hours.
It all starts with that super-smooth landing, and since then I've been wined, dined and welcomed, and am now sprawled on one of the two egg-shaped loungers on my deck, sunbathing in my pants. I have three swimsuits with me, but having adapted to the chilled vibe rather too quickly, I simply can't be bothered to get changed.
Everything you touch here feels deluxe, but in a wonderfully sustainable and rustic way. Once at risk of destruction by illegal dynamite fishing, the archipelago was rescued and is now protected and preserved as an ecological utopia and designated marine conservation area.
Each of the 36 rooms is wonderfully private (hence the pants) and sandy pathways meander through the resort, marked out by stone walls and shaded by mangrove fan and fishtail palms. Giant, heart-shaped colocasia bataviensis leaves make me smile everywhere I walk, but if you're feeling lazy, you can always phone for a buggy to ferry you around, and listen as the wheels crunch gently, making a sound like rain sticks.
Getting here means a 13-hour flight to Singapore, a short ferry to Batam, followed by the 80-minute seaplane journey, but it's worth it. The accommodation options include garden and beach suites, too, but there's something about being suspended over the ocean that fills the senses with excitement.
The honeymoon suite of dreams, each bungalow over the sea is personalised with a wooden sign with your name on (which can also be wrapped up and taken home). Head up the pathway to your deck, where you can lounge about, bathe and - most importantly - tiptoe down the staircase and swim straight into the sea.
From beside your room, you can spot vivid teal parrotfish, cobalt blue starfish, and even big floaty stingrays if you're really lucky.
Inside, a gorgeous white bed awaits, all tented in muslin to keep the mosquitoes out. Recycled copper features heavily in the bathroom, from the matching illuminated mirrors above the sinks, to the giant bathtub and rain shower.
A piece of driftwood is set in the corner with a straw hat and cotton poncho slung casually over its branches, a soft pair of leather flip-flops at its base, just waiting for you to slip your toes into.
I plod playfully towards the spa for my first massage. Guests are entitled to a treatment every day and for a special treat, you can book a spa safari, where you get taken to one of Bawah's other five islands by boat, all easily reachable within five to 15 minutes. They're currently just used for resort experiences, although one is under construction, soon to be rented out as an entire private island.
On Muerba (which means snail) island, a tiny expanse of sand, Balinese masseur Nyoman is waiting for me in a bamboo hut, the muslin curtains waving in the wind.
After asking me to take off my clothes, he covers me up with a sarong and begins to pummel, press and preen my skin, as I drift further into a state of calm.
Relaxation is key, but this isn't a fly and flop destination.
Allowing jet lag to awaken you feels joyous if you grab yourself a kayak and head out for a sunrise paddle. Giving your shoulders a workout while a jammy blob of sunshine starts to emerge from the horizon might just be the most zen way to wake up ever.
We row over to Muerba and spot hermit crabs leaving cog-like trails, as we search for sand dollars (small, flat stones, naturally imprinted with flowers) on the shore, like twinkling treasures waiting to be discovered.
Lisa is the head of wellbeing at Bawah and takes 'movement' classes here. We gather by the tennis court and croquet lawn for a morning stretch, incorporating both yoga and Pilates. It might be 30 degrees, but the downward dogs are made easier by the distraction of butterflies fluttering in and around the class.
Back in the water, you can dive here, but snorkelling is a big draw because there's so much to see around the coral reefs.
You can take a boat further out to explore, or simply hang around the jetty, where you can spot some of the reserve's 240 species of recorded fish. Bumphead parrotfish (which can grow to over a metre) are everywhere, as are wrasse, but search harder and you'll find delicate damselfish, Nemo-esque clownfish and shy, hiding grouper.
One afternoon, I take myself down to meet Lisa with a stand-up paddle board (SUP). It's something I've always fancied trying, but my almost 40-year-old brain is still pretty childlike when it comes to the sea. I'm petrified of being out of my depth.
Lisa helps me build up confidence and before long, I'm balancing and rocking the SUP, to feel how sturdy it is. We spend the afternoon mastering my technique and when I smugly head to the bar for a well-deserved pint of Bintang beer, other guests tell me how effortless I was making it look (it really isn't, but it's great fun).
The sunset hikes are an absolute must, but for anyone wanting a less energetic jaunt, you can take a boat trip, drink Champagne and scoff nibbles, as you watch the smoky red sun settle and turtles peek their heads up out of the sea, while the salty breeze wafts up your nose.
When you stay somewhere as luxurious as this, you expect top-notch nosh, something Bawah delivers on across their four food and drink outlets. At Treetops, I taste my favourite foods of the trip (the 'Magnum' of goats cheese dipped in chocolate is a highlight, a dish Italian head chef Roberto is particularly proud of) and sit under a chandelier of cascading, handcrafted jellyfish - which has 3,000 different light combinations - at the enormous, rustic tree trunk of a table it took 45 people to carry up the stairs.
This is also where you take in the delirious views of the ocean over breakfast (the poached egg on brown toast with avocado puree is the perfect portion size and the homemade granola is to die for).
There are more laid-back options at the Boat House, a Chef's Table experience and even a traditional cookery course, where I learn how to make (and eat) a deliciously fiery kalio curry beneath a ginormous mesh octopus, which sits in the roof of the Jules Verne Bar, his tentacles entwined around the bamboo rafters.
And of course, because this is paradise, you can also have your meal shipped to another island, just in case you need a change of scenery.
After stopping en route to ogle at flying fox bats hanging upside down in trees, we cruise over to Coconut island, where breakfast is served on the sand next to a shaded four-poster day bed, and we're left for an hour or two with a walkie-talkie for company. Ceramic bowls of noodles, pearl barley, fish balls, sandwiches, pastries and papaya are served up with tea, coffee and watermelon juice. Kayaks and SUPs can also be brought over, in case you need to burn off the mountain of calories consumed.
So, is paradise worth the hype? I really wish it wasn't, but when total relaxation is served up with such an array of activity, in a destination most of us can only dream of, the answer was always going to be yes.
How to get there
Rates at Bawah Reserve start from $1,980USD (around €1,750) per night for two people on a full-board basis, including round-trip transfers from Singapore, daily spa treatments, laundry, in-room minibar and a host of land and water-based activities.
For more information visit bawahreserve.com.