A ball of glowing ember rises from the horizon, slowly lighting the skies with a tie-dye tapestry of reds and yellows. Near the bow of the ship where a strong wind has me in a bracing hold, I feel like I am in another dimension. Out here where there’s no other indication of life for as far as the eye can see, there’s a surreal peace in the stillness of the moment. Until the silence is shattered by the loud, dull thud of anchor dropping, drawing me back into reality.
I’m not alone on board the Amandira, a 52-m luxury liveaboard built in the fashion of a traditional Indonesian phinisi that can sleep up to 10 guests, in the midst of the Komodo National Park — home to the prehistoric reptile and part of the Lesser Sunda chain of Indonesian islands. Three years ago, guests on the ships plying these routes might not see another boat everyday. Now, at least one other shimmies past us daily. Boat owners put the increase in number of liveaboards in this region at 20 percent year-on-year, while local authorities have deemed the demand so great that a cruise-only dock is being built.
Komodo National Park
While there have been liveaboards for more than a decade, it’s only in the last four years that an uber-luxe class catering to small groups has emerged: The one-cabin Alexa and the three-cabin Si Datu Bua by the same owner of Silolona. Besides Amandira, the other super luxurious launch last year was the Lamima, the largest wooden vessel there at 65m.
Modernisation has not dampened man’s wanderlust for crossing strange seas to discover new frontiers. With 71 percent of earth made up of water, much of the world, especially the furthest-flung destinations remain little ventured. With no five-star accommodation onshore most of these remote islands, a boat fitted with state-of-the-art mod cons, all the finest creature comforts you can dream of and a sterling crew including a masseur, is essential.
Dining on board the Amandira at sunset
In countries where a boating culture amongst the very affluent has existed for much longer, there are more expeditions on family yachts, private charters or even individual cabin bookings to explore the deepest ends of the world. In May, a retrofitted former Swedish National Maritime Administration vessel, the M/S Stockholm launched trips to Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, one of Arctic Circle’s most remote areas, where guests can see polar bears and walruses while traversing through fjords. Just this August, a luxury cruise liner, the Crystal Serenity, made her first voyage through the Arctic’s Northwest Passage. Tickets for the excursion sold out way in advance, despite the fact that the 32-day expedition is not without risks — just 10 percent of the Canadian Arctic’s waters are mapped properly. A research vessel with ice-breaking capabilities accompanies Crystal Serenity and guests must have insurance coverage of at least $50,000 for emergency evacuation.
Closer to home, the Indonesian archipelago beckons explorers. Made up of 17,500 islands of which only 4,000 are inhabited, there are lots to attract tourists. There are history and culture in these parts — the Dutch, English and Portuguese had come here to trade and evangelise, evident in churches where locals worship while keeping stone age animist practices. There is biodiversity. Raja Ampat, where the Pacific and Indian Oceans meet, is home to 75 percent of the earth’s known coral species and an estimated 1,400 fish species, many of which were discovered by Victorian naturalist Alfred Wallace. Today it is the holy grail of divers and one of the two main expedition routes covered by Amandira. The other is further down south in the Komodo National Park.
Komodo’s allure as a mystical island of misty green forested peaks and venomous dragons is under threat. A reserve guide at Rinca says he now sees three times more tourists than before. Therefore, picking the right charter like the Amandira is very important, as it will come with the expertise and know-how of when to sail in and out of secret bays for a private picnic on a beach and to scale the cliffs at Padar before dawn for an unrivalled sunrise view of the pink, white and black volcanic beaches that dot Nusa Tenggara. While trekking at Rinca island to see komodo dragons, vigilant guides flank our group armed with large forked sticks, ready to stand between us and the lizards with a highly venomous bite that is troublesome to treat.
In between these treks, we snorkel, dive or simply laze around. On Amandira, there are only suggestions of what’s available at each islet that we sail through; no schedules. You can go and do as you will, weather permitting. Since I am an avid scuba diver and there is a dive master and sparkling equipment on board, I dive. At Manta Point, at least five giant mantas with a wing span of 3m drop by to say hello while teasing one another with their mating antics. At Gili Lawa Darat, I watch a shoal of anthias flitting around, resembling magenta, yellow, fuschia and gold butterflies in a choreographed dance. At some places, the visibility averaging 30m allows us to see the colourful coral reefs and furtive blue spotted stingrays hiding in sand beds. Every time we come out of the water, there’s a chilled towel and a fresh juice awaiting, whether we are clambering out of a tender that has taken us out to the blue, or we have swum onshore a beach where crew members have set up day beds, parasols and more towels. The masseur also comes along if that’s your wish. If paddleboarding is your thing, it can be arranged as well. Or you could simply while away the days at sea on board, with wind in your face and a cocktail in hand.
Marine life in the Panjang Reef
The 52-m Amandira (made of teak and hardwood in Kalimantan) with its eight sails and two 36-m masts, is designed for doing nothing too. On the lower deck, there are two generously sized cabins with spacious showers and delicious-smelling toiletries, and two small rooms with bunk beds for the children or help. The master cabin is on the main deck with all-round glass doors and a private sundeck at the stern. Besides the masseur who is always on call, there are 13 other crew members, including the cruise director who is also a dive master and instructor. Though the kitchen is manned only by two staff, the spread they turn out at every meal is impressive. Be it nasi goreng, bubur ayam, eggs benedict, oat porridge, or English sausages with HP sauce that you crave, you will get it. One of the main dining highlights for me is the surprise BBQ the crew prepare for us one evening. For that operation, we are spirited away to a secret beach where hundreds of tea lights sit lighted in the little nooks of limestone cliffs while the crew grill lobsters, steaks and calamari. After dinner, crew members play guitars and drums while belting out local songs of friendship and love, urging guests to join them in dance.
The lure of distant lands yet unspoiled by tourist masses is strong. There are industry players who feel there are routes yet undiscovered and gaps in the market yet to be plugged. The phenomenal increase in the number of luxury cruisers plying Indonesian waters in recent years has not deterred Francesco Galli Zugaro, founder and CEO of Aqua Expeditions. Known for creating bar-setting experiences on his splendidly designed Aria Amazon and for taking guests through unchartered tributaries of the mighty Mekong River on the Aqua Mekong, Galli Zugaro thinks there’s still an unmet demand in the Indonesian Archipelago, which his new 60-m long luxury expedition vessel can fill. If the success of his two award-winning yachts is anything to go by, one is inclined to take Galli Zugaro seriously even if this new baby will only be launched in Q3 2017.
After five days of sailing, our boat closes in on Moyo Island where Amanwana, a glamourous tented camp, awaits and Aman’s other phinisi, the Amanikan, is moored when not at sail. As this is Aman, the magic continues. In the still of the night, guests are treated to an orchestra played out by skittish Sika deer running around, naughty macques fighting on tented roofs and grunting wild boars foraging. During the day, we hike through a waterfall with inviting emerald pools while being serenaded by birdsong streaming through thick foliage. We also get a taste of Aman’s holistic treatments for mindfulness from Aman’s spa master trainer who is visiting, fresh Moyo crabs and cloyingly sweet moyo honey ice-cream that is extremely addictive. Aman has completely spoiled me — I can do what I want when I want and this includes eating ice-cream at breakfast.
Amandira runs the Komodo Expedition from April to October and the Raja Ampat Expedition from November to March. This month, its inaugural Spice Island Expedition will pass through Raja Ampat and the Banda Sea archipelago; aman.com