Tented Paradise – Wilson Island

Editor’s Note: Wilson Island’s tented paradise is currently taking a vacation of its own. Check back for updates on its reopening. In the meantime, check out nearby Heron Island, another southern Great Barrier Reef castaway stay.

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While planning a trip to Australia, my husband and I knew our tropical getaway had to incorporate two things: Glamping and the Great Barrier Reef. Is there a better travel cocktail? To our extreme delight, this combo led us to Wilson Island, a private coral cay with six tents, on-demand wine, and a personal chef in the southern Great Barrier Reef.

Reaching paradise found is no small feat, though, when you’re sipping Champagne at sunset watching baby turtles hatch before your eyes, the plane and two-boat journey fades into oblivion.

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On Wilson, there’s no fancy dock or water toys or plunge pool. The lack of these luxuries only adds to the castaway allure. Upon arrival, our skipper put the speedboat in neutral and let us off three feet from shore. I hiked up my dress, dodged a few waves, waded up to the deserted beach, and stood in awe for a good five minutes.

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Basking in island bliss, I met my host, one of two staff members who tend to guests’ every island need. She welcomed us, explained Wilson’s “island time” flow—breakfast, beach, wine, lunch, snorkel, Champagne, dinner, sleep (repeat)—and carried our bags to the tent. As she was walking away I noticed she had no shoes on, and realized, “what’s the point?” The entire enclave is serenaded in sand.

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Closed on three sides and secluded from other guests by the islet’s thick tropical foliage, my sand-hued safari-style stay was graced with a timber base, a king-sized bed, and a white hammock gently swaying in the wind. The ocean side of our plot was left open offering a view more magnificent than priceless art. It should be noted that I never closed that fourth tent flap, the vista was too soul-soothing.

Keen on exploring the five-acre footprint, we found the central washhouse for when nature calls (or we needed a solar-powered shower), and the Longhouse, where all meals are prepared and served. Peering at the board games, books, and rows of wine, we got stalled here when we met the chef who rushed over during prep to offer us some chocolate and wine.

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Hand-in-hand, we took our pinot gris to the beach and strolled speechless as birds flew overhead and the waves lapped up over our feet. For the next hour, I searched for places to hide, so I’d never have to leave.

For lunch, we sat at a 12-person long table topped in shells and multi-utensil place settings. Over more wine, macadamia nut-crated barramundi—brought to shore by local fisherman—sweet potato purée, and watermelon granita, we traded travel stories with the other island-goers. Despite the formal menu, t-shirts and bathing suit coverups were the most elegant attire. At Wilson, you come as you are, sea-swept hair and all.

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Full and little tipsy from our feast, we spent the afternoon transitioning between sand and surf, snorkelling with turtles, (friendly) reef sharks—yes, I almost peed my bathing suit at the sight—and a gazillion tropical fish in a rainbow of color.

While sharing the water with sharks is bucket list-level, it was nighttime that created the most lasting impression. As we were watching the sun paint a tangerine hue on the horizon, we were summoned to a communal beachfront pavilion where Champagne paired with cheese and crudités was served on a silver platter.

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Just as my bubbly was fizzing over my flute, someone yelled “turtle.” In a flash, I ran over—making sure to keep a respectable distance—and for the next 30 minutes watched a baby turtle hatch from its egg, dodge rocks and driftwood on its way to shore, and flail like a toddler as it learned to swim.

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In a state of is-this-for-real bliss I started weeping, knowing I was experiencing something near otherworldly. Once I composed myself, I asked our host if there were any cancellations for the next night. I knew in advance the island was fully booked, but after my eye-popping day, I felt the universe was on my side.

A few minutes later she came back and informed me there had been a double booking and we could stay another evening. All I had was 24 hours worth of clothes, but I didn’t care. We were shipwrecked in style, and for the next 36 hours, I was on a mission of Great Barrier Reef proportions.

West Bali National Park Retreat – The Menjangan

Set on beholding Bali’s beauty outside of the major tourist zones, we traveled four hours from the buzzy South Isle to the woodsy West Coast. Our goal: To get away. Away from throngs of tourists. Away from same-same shops. Away from beat-pumping beach clubs.

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We were pining after an actual postcard setting. We found it at The Menjangan (Indonesian for deer).
Positioned in a part of Bali where a slower pace of life is de rigueur—case in point: Donkeys pull carts toting branches along the roadside—the jungle retreat occupying 950 acres of Bali Barat National Park rides the line between safari and savvy; beach and beyond.

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At the shorefront, a small collection of villas built using traditional Javanese architecture sit on a private stretch of sand fronting a beach so blue it’s as if the sea is reflecting the sky. Outdoor bathrooms add a touch of rustic to the abodes, while air condoning and upscale minimalist design mingling white linens and a sturdy four-post bed remind you you’re in a villa.

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A mile inland from Sentigi beach the rest of the retreat lingers in the jungle’s shadows. At the Monsoon Lodge, 14 thatched-roof rooms and two suites invoke the glamping aesthetic courtesy of alang-alang grass roofs, Bengkirai wood floors, and the lush setting (read: It’s not abnormal for a gecko to scurry across your ceiling) hugging a glowing pool and hot tub lit by rays of midday sun sneaking through the thick foliage.

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Safari vehicles link the Beach Villas, the Monsoon Lodge, and the Bali Tower, a five-tier structure busting high above the bush. Most days, we chose to wake up with the jungle and eat our breakfast at the Bali Tower, one of two restaurants onsite. (For the record: Savoring fresh fruit on a perch peering over the lush landscape has made breakfast every day since, a tad lacklustre.)

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After breakfast we made our way to the beach; sometimes on foot, sometimes via safari truck. It’s in moments like this you’re reminded you’re glamping in a national park. Deer roam about freely, monkeys hang from trees, and birds provide the ultimate far-flung soundtrack.

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Aside from one mid-afternoon monsoon “forcing” us to read in our outdoorsy abode, we spent our days alternating between sand and surf. Each morning at 10 a.m. we’d plant ourselves in our preferred lounges under one of the many trees providing shade at the beach. From here our daily itinerary was simple: Snooze, drink Bintang Beer (the local brew), cool off in the Bali Sea, or walk to the resort’s nearby jetty to don our snorkel gear.

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When the sun set, we didn’t long for a scene or street full of restaurants. At The Menjangan, you crave what’s there: A five-seat bar at the beach, and a 10-table restaurant resting above the water. Here, under the glow of blue lanterns we ate local fish, sipped fresh-fruit cocktails, and celebrated a place where everyone had come for the away-from-it-all setting (and nobody cared if your hair still sported an ocean-sculpted hairdo).

Matemwe Retreat, Zanzibar

Zanzibar. The name alone conjures up a mystical, far-off land with exotic charm. This island off the coast of Tanzania in the Indian Ocean has such a rich history of sultans and slave traders and spices markets. It’s all a bit surreal.

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I am sweaty and a bit weary after the flight over from the mainland, then a one-hour drive to the northeast coast of Zanzibar, to Matemwe Beach where I will relax and unwind for two days after doing a safari in the Serengeti. Happy as always to be handed a fresh fruit drink and a refreshing cool towel upon arrival, I leave the regular world behind and enter Matemwe Retreat. Once escorted to my secluded “villa” my jaw drops. What I thought was a public outdoor lounge area is actually mine, all mine.

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My secluded home, “Safina,” is one of four on the property, as well as a lodge of 12 stand-alone rooms, and one private beach house. The open-air villa has shuttered doors all around leading out to a gorgeous, wooden veranda complete with thatched roof, hammock, several couches and seating areas, and an outdoor bar made from what looks like the dhow (traditional Swahili wooden boat) that ply the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean below, which I can see from my deck. Local craftsman built all the villas and most of the furniture was made from locally produced coconut wood.

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It’s not a tent by any means, but the open air and exposure to all the humidity, heat, (and yes bugs—wasps and bees as big as hummingbirds) can make it feel like camping, if camping was living in a massive wooden and terra cotta-washed concrete domain.

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The bedroom and bathrooms are huge and the entire villa is adorned with local touches including gorgeous Arabian-style glass and metal lanterns. Just up a spiral wooden staircase reveals another jaw-dropping surprise—an amazing rooftop terrace with plunge pool, lounge chairs, a large sectional couch and room for a party with 30 of my closest Tanzanian friends, if I had any.

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“Anything you need, you just call me,” says Zuberi my dedicated butler during my stay. He’s from Pemba (another island nearby) and has worked for Asilia, the company that owns Matemwe Retreat for several years. He says he loves his job and has the ability to transfer to other properties they have on mainland Tanzania or Kenya for a change of pace.

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At dinnertime, Zuberi arrives to escort me to the central, open-air dining room restaurant for a special twice-weekly BBQ night. There’s an outdoor bar with comfy sofa seating areas and lanterns all around. It’s a luxurious place, but with a quiet, laid-back vibe that doesn’t take itself too seriously. For all my other meals, I just stay at “home.” I’m thrilled with the idea of just doing nothing…and mostly enjoying my “villa” life for my short visit here.

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For my in-house dining, Zuberi brings my meals right to me to eat on my veranda. I’m spoiled with wonderful French-press coffee, fresh, local fruit, eggs-my way, and anything I want for breakfast. Just watch out for the local crows! These big birds are crafty and the one time I step away from my table to grab my camera, they swoop down and nab my rolls. Zuberi says they’ll eat anything and, he’s right as I later see one dipping his beak into my coffee. Lunch varies, but I enjoy a delicious quiche served on top of some of the tastiest roasted vegetables I’ve ever had. At dinner, I opt for soup, seafood and cous cous and vegetables. And of course, there’s a mini-bar stocked with all the beer and wine I could ever want.

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I have trouble leaving my oasis for the two days, but if I wanted to there are also snorkeling trips, a reef walk, sailing, kayaking, fishing trips, and kite surfing. Beach access is just a short stroll down two different paths on the property. Locals are out every day fishing and looking for octopus and other seafood in the shallow waters.

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I spend much of my time upstairs lounging by the pool. It’s bliss and an amazing romantic getaway, as honeymooners often come here. Next time I’ll just have to not come alone!

Lisa Lubin is an established travel/food writer, three-time Emmy®-award winning TV producer, and travel industry expert. After a decade in broadcast television she took a sabbatical, which turned into three years traveling around the world. She documents her (mis)adventures on her blog, LLworldtour.com. You can follow her adventures on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Lisa Lubin

Lisa Lubin is an established travel/food writer, three-time Emmy®-award winning TV producer, and travel industry expert. After a decade in broadcast television she took a sabbatical, which turned into three years traveling around the world. She documents her adventures on her blog, LLworldtour.com. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.