Set sail in Indonesia aboard a private hand-built teak yacht and discover the best luxury of all is the sense of freedom.
Words by Ute Junker
Over lunch, we make a decision. This afternoon, we feel like relaxing on a deserted beach. That shouldn’t be difficult to organise: after all, the Raja Ampat archipelago that we are drifting through has hundreds of islands scattered over its 40,000 square kilometre area, only a handful of which are inhabited. We have no end of picturesque islands to choose from, each one with verdant wooded slopes and pristine white sand beaches.
Things tend to happen quickly aboard the Alila Purnama, where the unspoken crew mantra is, ‘Your wish is my command’. We are therefore a little surprised that the Zodiac isn’t waiting to transfer us to the beach by the time we finish our tuna spaghetti. Most of us are ready to go – still wearing our swimsuits and sarongs from earlier this morning, sunscreen and hats close at hand as always – but we linger over our coffees until a crew member comes in and finally announces, “Your beach is waiting”.
When a five-minute Zodiac ride brings us to our afternoon playground, we realise that the wait was worth it. The crew have been busy setting up lounges and umbrellas, cool drinks and cold towels. On the Alila Purnama, even a desert island adventure comes equipped with plenty of little luxuries.
The Alila Purnama – the name means ‘full moon’– is not your average private yacht. The 46-metre long hand-crafted teak boat is shaped like one of the Phinisi boats traditionally used by the Bugis people of southern Sulawesi. Operated by Alila Hotels – whose portfolio includes luxurious properties throughout Asia – and equipped with 15 solicitous staff, it offers plenty of room to spread out.
In keeping with Alila’s commitment to sustainability, the ship’s interiors rely heavily on local materials, such as teak and rattan. The master suite is, of course, the most indulgent accommodation, with its wraparound windows, shower clad in mother-of-pearl tiles and private sundeck, but all the beds are made with Egyptian cotton sheets, and the Wi-Fi is reliable.
The real luxury here is freedom: the freedom to go where you want, and do what you want, whenever you want. The staff will adapt to your schedule. As our group are keen divers, the crew develop the habit of serving us two breakfasts. The first – more of a quick snack – is scoffed down before our morning dive. I rarely bother to eat anything at first breakfast, but by the time I’ve climbed the stairs to the dining room, the staff have my pineapple juice waiting and a flat white on the go.
By the time we resurface after our first dive, we are ready for the main event. Our second breakfast tends to be a more leisurely affair, with most of us opting for seconds or even thirds. Even those who virtuously start their meal with a plate of fresh fruit find themselves succumbing to the lure of poached eggs and bacon, or Indonesian fried noodles.
There is no such thing as a set itinerary. Every evening over drinks, we discuss with our trusty expedition team – cruise director Mario and master diver Elena, who also happens to be a marine biologist – what we feel like doing the next day. For our group Raja Ampat has some of the most pristine reefs on the planet for diving, and each day brings new wonders.
Raja Ampat is home to 1300 species of reef fish, 600 species of coral – that is three quarters of the total number of species in the world – and plenty of soft corals. We find ourselves diving amid a kaleidoscope of underwater wonders, from blazingly bright corals to a bewildering plethora of fish. There are forests of spiky staghorns, fields of feathery crinoids and walls of coral that shimmer in every colour of the rainbow. There are schools of colourful damselfish, huge Napoleon fish and tiny neon tetras, swiftly scudding rays and fierce-looking lionfish.
And every time we haul ourselves on board after a dive, the crew are there, ready to swing into action. They take our air tanks, help us off with our flippers and our wetsuits, and hand us towels to dry ourselves down. Long glasses of juice appear magically to help us wash that taste of salt out of our mouths.
Not into diving? The Alila Purnama’s other Indonesian itineraries include cruising around Cenderawasih Bay, where guests enjoy close encounters with whale sharks, visit local villages and discover World War Two relics. Alternatively, explorations of the Komodo archipelago include strolls along pink sand beaches and superb snorkelling, as well as the opportunity to meet the area’s famous Komodo dragons.
Whichever itinerary you choose, be aware that there is no such thing as a set route. Instead, our itinerary is determined largely by the weather; the crew works out where the bad weather is, and takes us in a different direction and they always have a few surprises up their sleeve.
We soon learn that Mario’s casual enquiry, “Shall we go exploring this afternoon?” means that he has a special treat in store. One day we take the Zodiac into a sheltered lagoon with turquoise waters that are just begging to be showcased on Instagram. Another day we hike up a hill – including a flight of wooden stairs that have trees growing through them – for a stellar view across the islands. On yet another afternoon, we swim through a cave where bats nestle beneath the roof. Anywhere else, there would be queues for these attractions. Here, we are all alone.
In our crowded world, this feeling of having escaped the rest of the human race is a rare pleasure. We occasionally see a fishing boat; once or twice, we spot another yacht on the horizon, but clearly none of us is feeling social. This sense of solitude is one of the most enjoyable parts of the cruise. Well, that, and mealtimes.
Despite operating out of the tiniest kitchen we have ever seen, our chef, Kadek, conjures up multi-course meals that always delight. We might start with a melon gazpacho, or a mango salad, before moving onto a main. Unsurprisingly, seafood features heavily; grilled barramundi with smashed peas and pomelo and a delicate fish curry are among the highlights. Kadek also does a mean dessert: from carrot cake to black rice pudding, the meal always ends on a high.
Alila Purnama is available for charter in Raja Ampat for approximately AU$20,000 per night. Individual suites are available on a small number of specified voyages, starting from about AU$4,000 per night for a five or six-night cruise.
The Raja Ampat itinerary departs from Sorong; connect there via flights from Bali or Jakarta. Australians can travel visa-free in Indonesia for trips of 30 days or less.
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