Above: A phinisi-inspired yacht in progress at the SongLine ‘shipyard.’
With its fascinating maritime heritage and gorgeous coastal setting, Bira has all the makings of Sulawesi’s next hot spot. All it needs now is an airport
By Steve Mollman
Photographs by Steve Mollman
I feel like a kid playing at pirates. Flat on my belly, I’m inching along the bow-sprit of a huge, still-under-construction Bugis schooner. Fifteen meters below me on either side, waves crash into the beach that serves as a boatyard for this and other large wooden vessels. When my boyish excitement gives way to vertigo, I crawl back to the relative safety of the deck, where yawning gaps in the teak planking and unattended power tools oblige me to watch my step. While this is clearly no place for kids, that doesn’t seem to faze the boys who are wandering around amid the hammering, flying sparks, and bustle of workers, their fathers presumably among them.
I’m in Bira, a village in the Bulukumba Regency of South Sulawesi. Along with the neighboring communities of Tanah Beru and Ara, Bira is famous for its boatbuilding heritage. For centuries, the skilled craftsmen of this coast have constructed broad-beamed, gaff-rigged schooners called phinisi, which have powered trade and exploration throughout the region.
Living in the geographical center of Indonesia, the Bugis, as the people of this area are broadly called, have traditionally designed their boats to carry cargo—coffee, rice, cocoa—among the myriad islands of the Indonesian archipelago. But in recent times, more have been built for pleasure sailing. The 54-meter yacht I’m on now is being crafted for a wealthy European businessman.
The builder of the vessel, and other similar ones, is a Jakarta-based outfit called SongLine Yachts. But its founder Robin Engel, a sixtysomething American who grew up around boats, is eager to show me that there’s more to Bira than shipbuilding. From here, he takes me across town to another beach, one better suited to building sand castles rather than boats.
Pantai Bira is an uncluttered stretch of soft white sand where young mothers sit with babies, boys play barefoot soccer, and waves gently toy with picturesque wooden boats. At one end are rugged cliffs overlooking the Flores Sea—the perfect spot for building a luxury resort. Yet for all its sublime beauty, Bira attracts only a trickle of tourists: getting here requires a tedious four-hour drive from Makassar, the provincial capital of South Sulawesi and the air and shipping hub of eastern Indonesia. That’s a showstopper for many potential visitors.
Engel, who worked as a travel agent in Manhattan before graduating to boat chartering in Indonesia, tells me he’s frustrated by the untapped tourism potential of the place. Between the three villages, he notes, lies a flat tract of land that would be ideal for a small coastal airport. Visitors—not so many as to crowd the beaches, but just enough to put Bira on the map—could then fly here from Makassar in a mere 30 minutes. Engel is also lobbying the local government to build a sailing club near Bira’s harbor that would welcome leisure sailors from around the world interested in the area’s rich maritime heritage.
In the meantime, visitors can content themselves with a stay at Amatoa Resort, a cliff-top property opened about three years ago by Amatore Peris Parra, a longtime Bali resident from Valencia, Spain. Parra, with a white goatee and sea-colored eyes, tells me he originally came to Bira a decade ago to get a phinisi built for himself, after having spotted one in Bali and taken a fancy to its style. But when he arrived, he fell in love with Bira itself.
“I came here and I said, ‘Wow, it’s so beautiful.’ It was so quiet, not like Bali,” Parra recalls. “I knew right away I wanted to build something here.”
And build he did: an unexpectedly lavish property with just seven bungalows, each appointed with paintings, rugs, and wooden masks that Parra mostly brought over from Bali.
In front of my room is an infinity pool that overlooks the sea. The stairway from Amatoa’s main terrace extends straight down into the water (or to a waiting boat) where waves and reflected sunlight splash against the cliff’s inward curve.
There are, blessedly, no televisions at Amatoa. For diversions, guests—and I’m surprised to find I’m the only one during my two-night stay—can snorkel, dive, explore offshore islets, or hike through a nearby forest that throngs with monkeys. They can also arrange visits to the shipyards, where small houses sit next to phinisi in various stages of completion.
As for me, I can’t get enough of the friendly vibe on Pantai Bira, especially around sunset. Overlooking the sand is a terrace restaurant belonging to the Bira Beach Hotel. It’s an unremarkable venue aside from its superb location and seafood, but it seems to serve as a default meeting point for Bira’s newcomers and old hands alike. Among the characters I chance upon there is Iain Neish, a stout Canadian whose arm tattoos include images of seaweed. Neish runs an organization called SEAPlant.Net that connects seaweed growers with buyers.
Given the extent of seaweed farming along the coast outside Bira, one might assume this is a long-established industry. It isn’t. Neish tells me that it’s only blossomed here in the past five years or so. Growers can bring in well over US$500 a month, which helps explain the sudden appearance of new motorbikes, cars, and houses in otherwise neglected coastal villages without a tradition of boatbuilding.
But while the regency’s main business remains boatbuilding, ironies lurk there as well. Builders struggle to find trees in the area large enough for masts. In fact, one of the local builders’ better-known projects, the luxury charter yacht Silolona, wasn’t even built on Sulawesi. Instead, the builders, from Ara, went to an area of Borneo still blessed with massive timbers.
There’s debate now on how Bira can stay on top in the business of large wooden boats when the large trees are elsewhere. I got a sense of that debate a few days earlier listening to Engel talk with a property owner and a tourism official in Makassar. It’s a complicated topic involving some tension, perhaps, between cultural preservation and environmental conservation. But it’s nighttime now and I’m in no mood to contemplate such matters. Instead, I wade into Amatoa’s infinity pool and stare out across the sea. The moon shines like a flashlight across a part of the rippling water, and stars twinkle cheerfully overhead. A few puffy clouds stay anchored in place. I feel like I’ve entered a children’s book illustration.
Earlier in the day, Engel pointed out dolphins frolicking in front of the resort, and now I hear what sounds like playful splashes out in the dark. Seeing dolphins silhouetted in the moonlight would be a perfect end to this day of wonders: big boats, painted beach scenes, and starlit skies.
I wait and watch in the luxurious silence. The poolside cacti and bougainvillea stand by, ready to bear witness. Time slows.
In the end, I don’t get my moonlit silhouette of dolphins, but that’s OK. I get something better: My childhood imagination has been reignited, and tonight I’ll see the dolphins dancing in my dreams.
While well linked to domestic hubs such as Jakarta and Bali, Makassar’s Sultan Hasanuddin International Airport has but two international connections: with Singapore, via Garuda Indonesia (garuda-indonesia.com), and with Kuala Kumpur, via AirAsia (airasia.com). From Makassar, it’s a four-hour drive to Bira (transfers can be arranged with Amatoa Resort).
When to Go
Sulawesi’s dry season officially runs from April to October, though even during the wet months, precipitation is relatively mild.
Where to Stay
Amatoa Resort: Jl. Pasir Putih 6, Bira; 62-81/3533-76865; amatoa.com; bungalows from US$206
Originally appeared in the October/November 2011 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Time and Tide”)