Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Bintan

(visited June 2011)


Viewpoint outlook of part of the western most beach on the north coast of Bintan. Buildings belong to Mayong Sari resort, part of the Nirwana Gardens complex.

Bintan's major advantage is that it can be reached from Singapore by ferry in around 45 minutes. The northern beach area is very attractive with white sand and surprisingly clear water. But it is more or less a Singaporean enclave of midrange hotels/golf courses etc - there are no bargain Indo-style accommodation or associated activities.
These can be found on the east coast - but the beaches here are markedly inferior to the north.

This modified Google Earth image shows Bintan's location close to Singapore and adjacent Batam. Ferry access is from both Singapore and Johor Bahru in Malaysia. Bintan's two major piers are Bandar Bentan Telani for the northern International Resorts zone and at Tanjung Pinang, the island capital. Note I have called this Tanjung Bintan on the map - it is too hard to correct it I'm afraid.

I pinched this map from Wikipedia - the northern Singaporean dominated Bintan International Resorts area (locally called Lagoi) is clearly defined. Image expands by clicking.

Lady Tezza and I decided to experience both the northern tourist zone (at Nirwana Beach Club) and the more traditional east coast Trikora Beach area (at Agro Cabana).
We entered from Singapore via
Bandar Bentan Telani pier just a few km south of Nirwana and left the island for Johor Bahru in Malaysia via the Tanjung Pinang (once again miss-named Tanjung Bintan on the map) pier a good hour from Agro. Van transit from Nirwana to Agro was about 90 minutes - Bintan is a pretty big island at 2400 sq.km.
The landscape is largely rolling hills covered by rainforest or palm-oil plantations. Population density is low - only about 200000 people live on the island - and it appears half of them in Tanjung Pinang which is a bustling little city and port. The northern Lagoi area seems largely devoid of local villages and industry. The occasional farming village is found along interior roads, fishing villages are scattered around the other coastlines and there is a bit of modern industry - an oil/gas terminal on the upper west coast etc.



NIRWANA BEACH CLUB
This place is also referred to as Beach Club Cabanas, Nirwana Cabanas, Nirwana Garden Cabanas, Nirwana Beach Club on various sites.
Beach Club is part of the greater 300+ ha Nirwana Gardens complex which also includes Nirwana Resort Hotel, Banyu Biru Villas edge of image at right, Mayong Sari resort on the beach below the N of Nirwana Beach Club and the flash Indra Maya Villas/Nirwana Villas on the hillside (lower)/adjacent the coast (upper) to Mayong Sari's left. A regular shuttle van connects all places and it is a pleasant stroll from A to B. I've place-marked some other locations referred to below.

Most of the Lagoi resorts are fairly expensive for budget travellers like yer humble servant, but Beach Club was offering a pretty reasonable deal on one of the major booking sites. Since all the other facilities of the Nirwana Gardens complex are open to Beach Club guests, we went for it. It doesn't hurt that Nirwana Gardens is only 10 minutes from the arrivals pier on the complex's free bus. The northern International Resorts area is about 25km across so some of the more eastern properties would be a fair drive.

Beach Club itself is a pretty nice place - the chalets are comfortable and well equipped, the beach itself is very attractive, the beach-club has a range of water-sports, the beachside restaurant is nicely positioned and the staff friendly and hard working. However there is one caveat - food/drinks pricing is at 4 star international resort levels - $Sing7 for a cup of tea once the 21% taxes were included (all prices are in Singaporean currency), $9 for a beer, $17 for a club sanga etc. Fortunately breakfast (usually an okay buffet except when there are not many guests) was included in the room price - and there was a food-hall at the Resort Centre complex high on the hill about 10 minutes walk away (or wait for the half-hourly shuttle), which had less expensive grub but still around twice the price of food halls in Singapore and not as good quality wise.

Beach Club has a couple of dozen chalets about 100m in from the sand. Many are located around this nice pond, others on the hillside behind - ours was in a clearing to right of image. The chalets are duplex style - the partition wall is thin but noise from the adjacent place seemed okay until a bunch of Singaporean high school kids moved in - note it was the loud mouth teacher who was the offender, the kids were pretty good.
The chalets are spacious, have aircon, a frig but no jug. The queen sized bed was okay. Rooms were serviced daily by an efficient staff. Mozzies seemed to be not a problem - this place obviously sprays the surrounding gardens and pond.


Some interesting wild-life in the Nirwana Gardens area - plenty of these monitors, birds, cute squirelly things.

Speaking of wild-life, there is a small zoo between Beach Club and Nirwana Resort Hotel - some crocs, raptors and vultures, a cobra, two pythons including one monster and some deer. The Outdoor Activities area south of the Resort Centre had elephants - either for a show or for rides.

THE BEACHES This low tide shot with lots of wet sand does not show Beach Club's rather nice white sand beach to best advantage (you can see the far end of this beach at high tide in the opening shot) but it does prove there is lots of sand into the water at most tide levels. This is shot from a sunbathing platform in front of the Beach Activities Centre (paddle boards, kayaks, catamarans, jet-skis [not used the duration of our mid-week stay which didn't break my heart] even surf boards)- the restaurant is slightly behind camera to left and has a nice outlook. Some sun-lounges under the trees to left.

Less than 10 minutes walk from the point of the last shot gets you to the far end (from this perspective) of Nirwana Resort Hotel's/Banyu Villas' arguably even nicer beach - which continues for about 500m behind camera.
I took dip at low tide with my swimming goggles - I didn't have to go too far out to find swimmable water and there were small patches of coral and rock here, nothing particularly attractive - but a fish or three hanging around which were keeping some snorkellers entertained.


These signs reinforced some comments I'd read on Trip Advisor - however the beaches (and water) were pristine in our mid-June visit. But the prevailing winds at that time are south-easterlies, blowing off the shore at this northern coast - and also blowing any gunk from the hundreds of ships moored off Singapore away from Bintan. Between November and March the winds reverse - this is probably the time to keep your eyes open. There were similar signs re jellyfish - we saw none - most places' jellyfish to me seem to be more a wet season/just after wet season problem, maybe November into April/May here

Part of Nirwana Resort Hotel's fabulous pool - open to Beach Club guests and less than 10 minutes walk from our chalet. To left of camera is a series of smaller passages and pools - I swam a loop of the full complex and estimated the total distance at 250m. To right of camera is one of those horizon walls looking out over the beach and ocean. Quite a lot of sunlounges around the perimeter.
Because 95% of my travelling involves backpacker joints, I'm a sucker for pools like this.


This is part of the Outdoor Activities Area in the south of the complex, shot from the Resort Centre. Activities include horse riding, archery, shooting, table tennis, the afore-mentioned elephants. The tower in background is the take off platform for the trapeze high-wire flying fox that people were riding down to a landing area out of shot to right.
The Resort Centre had the Makan Makan food hall, ten-pin bowling, a small supermarket, a few memorabilia/clothing/gift type stores and an upstairs sports bar with terrace views over the activities area and distant north beach to the bay - the bar offered an all you can drink $S30. deal. Crikey.


The north beach was nothing to get excited about - yellow sand and given to the low tide blues of exposed sand/rock flats.
Nirwana Gardens also has a jogging track east of the main complex and offers snorkelling and dive trips. I noticed a map showing a golf course not too far east of the resort - Bintan has become a major golf destination for Singaporeans.

Nirwana complex has a good network of roads joining various areas, and most are paralleled by walking paths like this which dive off into the rainforest for a pleasant stroll. This track was only a few meters from the road and heads up the hill from our chalet to the Resort Centre. The roads themselves are mostly bordered by rainforest for an okay walk - not busy - mainly the half hourly shuttle bus plus golf buggy-driving service people/high rollers from the villas. There are electric bicycle/moped thingies for hire.
There must be a dozen places to eat throughout the complex - one that gains considerable praise on user-reviews is Kelong seafood restaurant in the south-west of the complex, less than 15 minutes walk from our chalet (the shuttle bus includes this on its route of course). Your tucker would be pretty fresh - the area between the pavilions has live fish pens.

GETTING THERE All the International Resort Zone places use the Bandar Bentan Telani pier which is only 10 minutes from the Nirwana Gardens properties. The resorts send free buses to meet the ferries. This pier gets two ferry arrivals from Tanah Merah pier in Singapore, just south of the airport.

The new airport should be open by now - this is situated a lot closer the International Resort Zone and will allow access from major Indonesian locations. Apparently the old Batam airport has been closed for some time - people flying in from other Indo locations used Batam airport.

International Resorts' ferry about to dock at Tanah Merah.


BINTAN AGRO CABANA/aka CABANA BEACH RESORT
For the second half of out Bintan stay we decided to head out of the special resort zone for the Trikora Beach area on the east coast. There are four sections of this beach and I'm not sure which one Agro Cabana is on - some of the reports say beach #1, the nicest of the four, but the beaches are numbered from the north and Agro is a fair way down the coast. Google Earth is a bit inconclusive here - the resolution is not sharp and it's kinda hard to determine where one beach ends and a new one starts. Similarly the road touches the coast and follows it for a while and then wanders inland for a bit - making it hard to determine if you have passed a headland or other coastal division. I have also gained the impression that each Trikora beach may be a greater area which includes a number of changes in direction and small obstructions. There were no motorcycles or bicycles for hire at Agro Cabana so I had to confine myself to a wander north for about 2km and a trip on Agro's free shuttle to a sister property about 10km south.

Although Singapore owned, Agro Cabana was more my idea of an Indonesian resort. Chalets were cheaper again than Nirwana Beach Club and the food prices were at typical Indonesian budget resort levels.

High tide shot of Agro Cabana - that's the over-water (at high tide at least) restaurant at left. On top are rooms, particularly family suites - some had pretty nice seafront balconies. At right behind the palms is a row of chalets of various sizes. To left of the restaurant is a line of motel type rooms. Out of shot to right of camera are a couple of small villas perched high on the rocks of a small headland.

When we arrived on a Wednesday we were one of two couples staying at the resort. But Friday night saw an influx of what appeared to be Indonesian and Singaporean guests lifting the place to maybe 80%. Even the karaoke got cranked up. Crikey! Actually it wasn't too bad. Noise wise at least - the singers were as bad as me.

This place gets the low tide blues - in the above shot water is lapping the retaining wall - at low tide there is bare sand in the vicinity of the camera - even further out in front of the restaurant.

The area immediately north of the restaurant at low tide. I estimated the tide went out a good 150m here. The guys were pretty conscientious picking up weed/flotsam etc. Structure in background is small floating fishing platform which can be towed out to sea. Horizon was dotted with dozens of bigger versions.

Interestingly guest reports from the sister resorts down the coast said they jumped the free shuttle up to Cabana for a better beach. Okay I checked the beaches at those joints and they are pretty ordinary. But so to is Agro Cabana's.

Some of the same area near high tide. I suppose if you arrived around at this time this would look pretty okay. Water clarity was not pristine, not cloudy.

Cabana guests had access to this pool in an associated villa property across the road. Looks sweet but needed a good clean midweek.

This is Chez Tezza at Agro Cabana. Chalets are duplex with good sound-proofing between. The room was spacious, had a quiet aircon, TV, jug, fridge, big comfy king-size bed. Spacious front patio with sea views.
White sand out front is not part of the beach - there is a retaining wall behind camera with the less white beach/water (depending on the tide) below.


Agro Cabana's airy restaurant is pretty good - okay food at typical Indo non-flash resort prices. 30k rupiah club sangas ($us3.50), 40k sweet and sour fish with rice, 35k large Bintang beer. No extra taxes on top of these menu prices.

The area between our chalet and the sea retaining wall was a nice place to spend time in the sun. The grounds at Agro cabana were nicely landscaped and carefully tended.

These guests were snorkelling around so I grabbed my mask in the hope of finding something interesting - alas, no good coral and few fish. Agro is not a snorkelling location although the resort offers a boat trip (I think it leaves from the sister Agro Beach Resort further south) to an offshore island which according to user-reviews has very good snorkelling, clear water and a white sand beach. It was a bit expensive - remember I'm a budget traveller.


AROUND AGRO CABANA
A few minutes north of Cabana is a small village - just a few houses and very small stores - there didn't seem to be a restaurant aimed at attracting Cabana guests. Above is the village pier - I thought there may be houses on it but when I checked the structures contained fishing equipment etc. This is shot from within the grounds of Cabana.

This rather nice looking resort was another 10 minutes walk north of the village - Prima Bintan Resort. Looked flashpacker standard - seemed deserted on a midweek day. Note typical low tide blues.

Cabana is one of 3 Agro properties - Agro Beach Resort and Yasin Bungalows are about 10/8km south by road. Agro runs a free shuttle several times a day between properties.

Lots of people are looking for an overwater bungalow - Yasin Bungalows can do this. Standard seems to start at backpacker level (the place gets best Indo budget accomm. on one of the backpacker booking sites) and go into lower midrange. I'm kicking myself I didn't find this place in my research. Note the beach is very ordinary here, and is again non-existent at high tide. No pool, but the two at Agro Beach Resort is a 20 minute walk down the road - or catch the shuttle. This is an image I pinched from the website - mine didn't show the overwater position to advantage. The above website has access to the other two Agro properties.

Agro Beach Resort is considerably bigger than the other two. This is the inner pool between the two hotel-wings (the beach-side one out of frame right) - there are also garden cabanas and a few rooms on one of the piers. This also is a website shot - note the lens used makes this pool and the beachside one look considerably longer than they really are. Once again the beach here is pretty ordinary.


GETTING THERE
The nearest pier to the Agro properties is one hour away in the capital, Tanjung Pinang. Ferries arrive from Tanah Merah in Singapore (1 hour plus) and Johor Bahru in Malaysia (3 hours) - plus other Riau Islands including neighbouring Batam. Agro run a free shuttle to/from this pier.
Agro will also pick up from the northern Bandar Bentan Telani pier for $S10 per passenger. This takes about 90 minutes. You see a lot of rainforest and palm oil plantations on this drive - not too much else.
One again - I understand Bintan's new airport is now open which will allow you to access more easily from more distant Indo locations.


IS BINTAN A GREAT DESTINATION?
I enjoyed seeing a new location but I was underwhelmed by the island. Of course my aversion to the high food prices in the Lagoi special tourist zone colours my judgement. More affluent visitors may feel this is no problem. Certainly for Singapore residents, ease of access to a very nice beach area in the north is a big factor, although I personally would spend the extra time to get to the Tioman/Sibu island region in SE peninsula Malaysia . At least the Singaporean visitors to Bintan no longer have to pay the Visa on Arrival which for most tourists is $us25. For budget travellers wanting a quick visit to Bintan this can be a turn-off, as could the less than pristine beaches on the reasonably priced east coast.
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Another shot of Nirwana Garden's longer beach at Nirwana Resort Hotel..

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