We were just 50 miles away from Singapore, on a boat cruising through the Riau archipelago in the South China Sea, but we might as well have been lost in the middle of nowhere. We skimmed over water of ever-shifting shades of blue, the sky dotted with the occasional fluffy cloud. I was traveling with Australian banker turned hotelier Andrew Dixon, and our destination was the private Indonesian island of Cempedak—a new resort made almost entirely out of bamboo that will open next March. As we approached, I could make out the curved roofs of the finished villas, looking like the backs of enormous armadillos nestled into the surrounding jungle. Our boat docked at the end of a narrow wooden jetty and we made our way to shore. To our right, in a tiny sandy cove, was a tower made of black bamboo with a cone-shaped thatched roof of grasses harvested in Sumatra. “That will be the bar,” Dixon said with a grin. I marveled at its height—some two stories—and wondered aloud how bamboo could possibly support such a structure. “It has a tensile strength greater than steel, and it’s a grass, so when you cut it, the plant doesn’t die,” he explained. “It grows faster than any other plant. Some species can grow three feet in a day. And it doesn’t require irrigation or fertilizer.”
I originally met Dixon—who is often barefoot and in worn T-shirts— in 2007, when he began to wrap his mind around this concept. He had just opened his first private-island resort, Nikoi, not too far from Cempedak. He and his wife, Julia, had bought a small island in 2004 with a group of friends. They intended to turn it into a laid back holiday escape for family and friends, but decided they could do better. “Why not train and employ locals who would get a share of the revenue?” he told me. “It makes a bigger, more positive impact.”
But Cempedak—whose name refers to a native fruit tree—is on another level entirely. Aside from having the same socially beneficial practices as Nikoi, it is a pioneer in its radical use of bamboo, along with other zero- and low-waste materials and processes. Bamboo is widely used as a traditional building material in Southeast Asia, and in recent years, a small but focused group of hoteliers and designers—many of them now working on Cempedak— have banded together, hoping to test its limits and change our understanding of what sustainable accommodations can look and feel like.
Over the past decade, Nikoi has won an impressive number of eco-awards and earns Dixon and his investors a healthy profit. With 15 private houses and an idyllic beach, grass tennis courts, and, at other end of the island, two stone pools, it is both wildly paradisiacal and refined. “I am a strong believer that people won’t pay just because it’s sustainable. They’ll come because it’s a great experience,” he said.
As I followed Dixon along a narrow, shaded path that sloped upward toward one of Cempedak’s villas, I saw that it was lined by several dark granite boulders that had been split in half. Dixon explained that the island was littered with them, and that his team had been burning them for months in order to make room for the walkway. The process allowed them to avoid shipping in compressors and jackhammers and wasting precious energy. “The objective here,” he said, “was to minimize the breaking of rocks and cutting of trees, and to create villas that look like they have grown out of the ground.”
Dixon introduced me to his architectural team: Bali based and New Zealand–born architect Miles Humphreys (he recently designed the Mandapa in Ubud, Bali, a Ritz- Carlton Reserve, which is like a temple complex surrounded by jungle gardens) and Emma Maxwell, one of Dixon’s interior designers. Also present were Cempedak’s two Balinese architects: Chiko Wirahadi and Ketut Indra Saputra, both of whom have spent their careers working on bamboo structures. Bali is where some of the world’s most innovative and unique bamboo buildings are being made, and the innovations there have received international attention. Colleagues of Dixon and his team, such as jewelers John and Cynthia Hardy, also the founders of the environmentally focused and all-bamboo Green School, in Bali, and their daughter Elora Hardy have led the effort. Elora’s company, Ibuku, designs some of the most breathtaking bamboo buildings you’ll ever see. Both father and daughter have given TED Talks as bamboo evangelists, singing its praises and its possibilities for changing how we live.
Standing with me in a mock-up villa, Humphreys explained how they had manipulated and treated the bamboo to create a two-story structure with a cresting wave of a roof, floors polished the color of caramel, and walls tightly woven in an intricate pattern. A small, elegant garden surrounded the plunge pool at the back. Dixon had hesitated about adding pools, only moving forward with the design when he discovered he could maintain them with concentrated salt water generated by the desalination process used to convert seawater to drinking water for the resort.
Dixon pointed to a standing fan with radiating bamboo spokes and commented on how he found the plastic material of regular fans not just esthetically unappealing but also wasteful. “A year ago I challenged Chiko to create one made from bamboo. It took him a while, but he did. We’ll be using them here,” he said. If Wirahadi and Saputra are bamboo wizards, Humphreys and Maxwell are relative novices with the material. It’s this kind of unorthodox collaboration that leads to new design, Dixon believes. He wanted Cempedak to break from the hippie-and-humble associations attached to bamboo by creating interiors that were more updated and luxurious. “But in a contemporary way that does not compete with the beautiful bamboo forms,” Maxwell added. Other materials they plan to use include recycled teak, lava stone, petrified wood, and bronze, which will be used for the bar top. The restaurant’s open kitchen will not be made of bamboo, but it will have walls built from locally salvaged granite.
We ambled over to the towering black-bamboo bar, accessible on one side by steep stairs and on another by Stylea Raiders of the Lost Ark–style bamboo bridge that linked us back to the main restaurant. “The topography here, with all the huge boulders and steep inclines, is so mad, we are constantly thinking on the move,” Maxwell said. The height of the bar, situated on a terrace, was chosen so that sitting there would make you feel as if you were floating above the tree line. The conical bamboo roof looked to me like the spiraling interior of a giant conch shell. “It’s such a simple material,” Humphreys explained of the thatch. “It’s grass. But it is not primitive. You can make amazing shapes from it.”
Dixon was most excited to show me the resort’s back-of-house. We walked down a path that led to dormitory-style buildings with beautifully woven bamboo walls and sleeping quarters for the staff that were as pleasing as the villas. We stopped at the wastewater garden, a string of beds filled with papyrus plants and Poaceae grasses blooming with large purple flowers. When wastewater passes through the roots of these plants, they extract toxins and clean the water so it can be reused for irrigation. “We’ll also collect rainwater like we do at Nikoi, but Cempedak is my opportunity to improve on Nikoi,” Dixon said. “Here I can take the infrastructure up a notch in terms of efficacy and the latest technologies.”
When the Balinese architects, who brought with them dozens of Balinese workers, originally broke ground, they insisted on bringing in priests to bless the project and the island’s ancestors. Dixon happily obliged. “This is a sacred island,” Saputra said. He pointed to a crooked andong tree. “The priests said a woman spirit lives in that old tree. So we built around it.” The priests also created an altar that sits under another tree nearby.
We returned to Nikoi, where Dixon showed me a small contraption hidden in the growth: four dishes, half-filled with water, that attract mosquitoes to lay their eggs. The vessels are programmed to flood and kill the eggs. “It’s more effective than spraying pesticides,” he explained. “I’m not in this for the marketing. Being less wasteful is also excellent for your bottom line.” Every detail is considered with two equal criteria in mind: luxury and ecology.
The sun was setting as we joined Humphreys for a dinner of fresh prawns—the seafood, and as much produce as possible, is sourced locally—at a table overlooking Nikoi’s beach. The sky was washed in vivid pinks and purples. I understood why a person would never want to leave. And I admired Dixon’s effort to minimize his footprint. “There are hundreds of uninhabited islands in this and the neighboring archipelagoes,” Dixon said, adding that he was looking into buying another. “If you sailed to it from here it would take twenty-four hours,” he said. “A seaplane would be useful.” Maybe he’ll build one out of bamboo. cempedak.com; doubles from $400.