As a family of five with kids growing rapidly through their teenage years, we thought it high time to make a pact: let's take a holiday each year that is truly adventurous, memorable and worthy of our collective bucket list.
Not that there is anything wrong with theme parks, island resorts, beach shacks, buffet breakfasts or visiting the family for Christmas. But we all wanted something we could share, that was full of activity, a bit exotic and also a little esoteric. Nowadays, the trend pickers call this the experience economy – we just call it family fun.
Spending two weeks on a "live aboard" boat in the pristine waters of Raja Ampat in the far eastern reaches of the Indonesian archipelago certainly satisfied our criteria, as did our vessel. The Seven Seas is a 45-metre traditionally built Buginese schooner (built for comfort, not speed) and Raja Ampat is a chain of islands in the Birds Head region of West Papua – closer to Papua New Guinea than the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.
It is made up of 1500 islands and surrounding reefs representing some of the richest marine biodiversity in the world – with more than 1300 species of native reef fish and 70 per cent of the world's varieties of soft and hard coral. Unless you're a serious marine biologist or dive aficionado it could sound boring and inaccessible right? But for divers, Raja Ampat is the holy grail of the deep.
Getting there, however, is the first test of family commitment – three flights each way. But what's in it for a family, consisting of me, my wife and our children aged 15, 14 and 11? Or four families, in fact, since our group of 18 (eight adults and 10 kids) are set to share eight airconditioned state rooms over three decks serviced by an incredible crew of 17.
This is true adventure with creature comforts – great food, airconditioned cabins and a massage at day's end, should you so choose. This family holiday is going to be a hard one to top.
These live-aboard boats are ostensibly all about diving, but with such a diverse and varied group, this holiday has to be so much more. One of the parents, James, is quite insistent on this – and thank goodness. It means we pack so much in and there is never a dull moment. James also proves a Zen master at identifying the perfect west-facing beaches for sundowners every day at 5pm.
Adult pleasures aside, what's in it for the kids? Try "skurfing" (ski-surfing from the back of the tenders); boat jumping, kayaking, village visits, hiking, cave exploration, movies, games and even the occasional afternoon nap.
We climb to the top of island hills on rickety walking trails to marvel at stunning scenery; we're shown ceremonial burial sites where skulls and bones still lie; and we viewrock art to rival that of Arnhem Land or the Kimberley in Australia, an indication of how connected these lands once were.
One of the keys to the success of this family adventure is the area's remoteness. There's no phone or Wi-Fi and the kids are without their devices for the entire 12 days. This results in us joining up for long forgotten card games and even a final night talent quest – where the crew produce excellent harmonies.
And then there is the main attraction: the underwater world. Its clarity and diversity is mind-blowing.
Diving at the Magic Mountain site, famous among divers, it feels like we are entering the opening scene of Finding Nemo. The reef buzzes with extraordinary colour and movement. The only thing missing is a large reef manta ray to come and take all these kids to school (though we do spot mantas later in the trip).
Our dive masters, Irwan and Jeffri, know every location intimately and are masterful in spotting the weird and the wonderful on each excursion.
Part of our touring party is Mark Heighes, the owner and founder of the Seven Seas, his wife and Indonesian local Tuti and their kids Ben and Dan. Mark has been exploring this and other nearby regions for more than 20 years and is an original Live Aboard pioneer. His calm and assured nature, command of Bahasa and knowledge of the area (including west-facing beaches) was of enormous value.
Mark is also the nephew of globally famous diver, filmmaker and conservationist Valerie Taylor, who spent more than 50 years exploring and understanding the ocean and its creatures, particularly sharks, with her now late husband, Ron.
Travelling with us on the boat, Valerie Taylor went by the moniker "Aunty". Her command of the undersea environment and the ease with which she moves through it (at the age of 81) was an inspiration as was her patient willingness to share that knowledge. Looking through my dive logs at journey's end, there is a list of discovered sea life that would satisfy the most ardent of dive enthusiasts: parrotfish, trigger fish, long, skinny trumpet fish, cuttlefish, sweetlips, anemone fish including clown fish; scorpion fish, stone fish, weird wobbegongs, lion fish, crustaceans, orang-utan crab, octopus, moray and other eels, turtles and one pygmy seahorse.
Just off the reefs and into the blue we saw barracuda, sharks, manta rays and jellyfish of all persuasions. But most of all, we saw so much of each other – gadget free, curious and constantly motivated by the wonders of Raja Ampat.
Fly with Garuda from Sydney or Melbourne to Denpasar. Then take a domestic connection from Denpasar to Makassar and another from Makassar to Sorong. garuda-indonesia.com
The Seven Seas is one of more than 50 Live Aboard vessels working the remote waters of the region including Raja Ampat, Komodo, the Banda Sea, East of Flores, the Forgotten Islands and Wakatobi. Trips are on set departure dates for between 11 and 15 nights and the ship can be booked individually or as a full charter. See thesevenseas.net
There is so much to do on this trip that even non-divers will find a lot to stimulate them. However, our family arranged dive accreditation in Australia before departure. There are three-day open water dive courses offering Padi or SSI certification from $250-$350 with all the gear included. See divessi.com; padi.com
Andrew McEvoy travelled at his own expense.
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