I was really pleased to read this week that Telunas Beach Resort has been chosen in TripAdvisor’s Travelers Choice 2012 awards as the Number 3 in Asia and Number 17 in the world for the ‘All-inclusive Resort’ category.
This is extraordinary when you consider how many resorts there are. Heaps of them. It’s an amazing achievement for a place which started with absolutely nothing but a beach in 2004. I’ve watched it grow since I first went there in 2005, and I am in awe of the work the team have done.
I declare an interest here. Telunas Beach organises for me to visit them each year to run writing workshops for international school students from Singapore. I’ve visited at least ten times on this basis. I love it.
So how does Telunas score so highly, in competition with places that can offer five star luxury, reef diving, golf courses, skiing in spectacular alps or herds of elephants wandering past a safari camp?
Here’s the thing. Telunas Beach, located in Indonesia’s Riau Islands south of Singapore, is not luxurious. It is nothing like your typical resort, and it’s only fair to say it may not be for everyone.
Facilities are basic – ‘rustic’, the owners like to call them. That means traditional-style huts built on jetties over the water, with the sea lapping gently beneath and visible through the floorboards. There is no air conditioning, though there are ceiling fans and the weather is balmy. A few rooms have hot water for showers; most do not. The sea water is warm too.
There is beer available but no bar, no swimming pool, no jet-skis, no surf. There is no gym, spa or massage and wellness centre. There is no piped music and no house band. There is mobile phone coverage, but no internet access. There is no TV. The best coffee you can get there is made with the plunger.
So what’s so good about it, and why does anybody go there?
It is a staggeringly beautiful location. It is totally quiet, except for the lap of the waves and the gentle hum of the Telunas generator. There are no roads on Sugi Island so the nearest car is at least 50km away. Few resorts in the world can make that claim.
There is a modest library, mostly of books left by guests (including a few of mine). Staff and guests are encouraged to play music together and there are spontaneous jam sessions whenever I’m there.
Guests can choose to relax on the private beach, swim with the kids (it’s shallow enough to be very safe by the beach, and deep enough for diving from the end of the jetty), read a book or do nothing. Or if they are energetic, they can do some kayaking, fishing or shrimping, hike with guides into the jungle to swim in a waterfall, or visit a local fishing village.
Many of the staff are doing their first paid work. The guides, hosts recruited mainly from Java, all speak excellent English. The kitchen staff are women from local villages, none of whom had ever worked in a commercial kitchen until they came to Telunas. The maintenance staff and boatmen are also locals, used to plying their trades in villages rather than having paid jobs.
The food is excellent without being haute cuisine, a mix of western and Indonesian, with vegetarian and child-friendly options. You have special dietary requirements? No problem.
When we visit local villages, getting there on open pancung boats, there is nobody hassling visitors to buy things. There are no souvenirs or crafts for sale. There are no hawkers plucking sleeves. There is no begging. The island villages have no hotels, restaurants and usually no tourists either.
People go about their ordinary business, smile and wave at us, and if they have time, they come and talk, whether we understand them or not.
I suspect that a large number of Telunas’ votes on TripAdvisor came from Singaporeans, who all too seldom get away from it all, and Americans, who all too seldom get the chance to mix with people from developing countries. Telunas’s Indonesian staff are wonderful catalysts for this interaction. They know how to make us feel like family guests rather than employers.
In the TripAdvisor reviews of Telunas the most used words are ‘relax’, ‘peace’, ‘quiet’, ‘wonderful staff’ and ‘paradise’. People value these things more highly than all the luxury in the world.
I was out at Telunas last week, and the good news is, I’m going back there tomorrow.
No internet access, remember? Hope you don’t miss me too much and I’ll be back in cyberspace soon.