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The sun is setting across the becalmed waters of Gili Lawa Laut as we take to the boats in search of dragons. The water is so utterly placid and translucent, we can practically see the ocean floor as a giant manta ray cruises the deep. In the distance a lone fisherman casts his net into the sea while our cruise director, Spanish-born Mario Gonzalez, rides the bow, scanning the horizon for the Komodo dragon, the world's largest lizard, that we've come to see.
We're sailing Indonesia's Komodo archipelago in the Lesser Sunda Islands on a traditional phisini (traditional teak wood schooner), the Alila Purnama, a veritable floating boutique hotel. It belongs to Alila, a resort chain with a network of upscale properties throughout Indonesia, India and Oman.
The region's natural beauty belies its hidden perils — home to volcanoes, lethal prehistoric dragons, parched hills, and waters that churn with violent currents. But on board the Alila Purnama wilderness and comfort meet, enabling us to explore this remote island chain in luxury.
We begin our week-long journey in the port town of Labuan Bajo on Flores, staggered by the scale and shininess of the new airport that has been built optimistically for the predicted growth of tourism. Until now exploring the region, just an 80-minute flight from Bali, has been the domain of the backpacker or independent traveller willing to rough it.
But now high-end expedition ships are joining a fleet of existing, and basic, liveaboard dive boats, while a number of new hotels are in the pipeline. Most people list the Komodo dragon, which can grow to three metres in length and which can pose a danger to humans, and the World Heritage-listed Komodo National Park in the famous Coral Triangle — considered the global heart of marine bio-diversity — as what draws them here.
The Purnama, which sails the Flores and to Raja Ampat in West Papua province, is part of a emerging trend among luxury hotels and resort chains — including Alila, Aman, The Datai, Langkawi, Malaysia and The Strand, Yangon, Myanmar — to capitalise on the global boom in cruising.
Each group offers guests extensions beyond their respective hotels in expedition cruising. Alila Hotels and Resorts launched the Purnama three years ago and has plans for a second ship, the Datai in Langkawi has introduced a replica schooner for day and overnight cruises, while the Aman operates two ships, the Amanikan and the Amandira, as well as offering private jet tours. Aman is considering expanding its cruise ship fleet and exploring the option of a vessel which will circumnavigate Japan's north and south islands, a dive vessel which will be based out of Amanpulo in the Philippines, as well as the possibility of a third ship in Indonesia.
Custom-built ships like Alila's Purnama offer understated elegance with a high crew-to-guest ratio. Guests can immerse themselves in an intrepid cruise where nature and luxury collide with a hotel team on hand to tailor the cruise experience to guest's personal whims — complete with wine cellars, on-board spa treatments, sunset drinks, bespoke activities and private dining on deserted beaches.
Under the searing equatorial sun we board a speedboat with our six other fellow passengers, straining to catch our first glimpse of the Purnama (meaning full moon). The crew — all 16 of them — stand in a line waving, welcoming us as we climb aboard with a cold towel and icy drink.
On board the triple deck vessel, spacious teak-and-rattan interiors feel luxurious yet relaxed. We are instructed to take off our shoes, and as bare feet touch the ship's warm deck, shoulders drop and smiles break out across travel-weary faces and we toast the moment with a chilled lemon grass and mint leaf julep. The sweeping deck of the hand-built hull and its elegant interiors feels every inch a small luxury hotel, until you look up and see the rigging, which holds the seven tea-coloured sails.
Each of the ship's suites is decked out in locally-sourced materials. Our elegant Jawa Suite features textiles and art reflecting the ancient Javanese courts and kingdoms, while the bed is dressed in Egyptian cotton. There's a small writing desk, and a mother of pearl-tiled shower and separate toilet. The master suite on the upper deck, meanwhile, has large wraparound windows, a freestanding bath and, most enviably, a private balcony and large sundeck with daybed and deckchairs to take in the ever-changing scenery, G&T in hand, of course.
Alila's impeccable service standards, found at its design-focussed properties, has been translated to Purnama. On board all the amenities and bespoke activities are delivered, albeit elegantly pared back.
Cool drinks and cold-scented flannels are on hand on return to the ship from the day's adventures, a fresh towel is offered after a cooling dip or a dive, while umbrellas and sun lounges are set up smartly on your own private beach, with Alila's own sunscreen and refreshing face spray. Siesta time is factored in each afternoon to give guests respite from the equatorial heat.
Meals are simple and fresh. Indonesian nasi goreng topped with a fried egg is served for breakfast along with freshly squeezed juice, sweet mango and banana, and espresso coffee; dinners range from seared tuna, Caesar salad, fragrant curries and fresh sashimi.
Meanwhile, my young daughter Ella is running amok, her long golden locks flowing in the breeze. She's the only child on board, which initially makes me nervous. Will she get bored? Will she drive us mad in our suite (one of just five), which is spacious, but designed for two? But I hadn't factored in the friendly, warm crew (and passengers), who dote on Ella as if she were their own. And I hadn't counted on our daughter becoming fast friends with Taige (pronounced tiger), a petite 28-year-old dive master from China, and the only female crew member, who takes her under her wing: playing games, and chasing her up and down the ship
I lose count of the number of times I find the pair curled up — Ella's honey-coloured tresses pressed against Taige's jet-black locks — reading a book, watching a movie, giggling at some secret joke. At dusk, we sail to Sabayor Kecil, where we moor for the night, enjoying the first of Flores' flamboyant sunsets and getting to know the other passengers. Under the stars on the main deck Mario briefs us about the trip, places we will visit, and we sleep soundly, rocked to sleep by the magnificent twin-masted ship built in Sulawesi by master boat builders.
We wake to a perfectly unruffled sea — our first day exploring the deserted white sand beaches and islands, renowned diving and snorkelling, terraced valleys and horizons marked by volcanoes. Everyone on board has one thing on their mind — Komodo Island, home not only to 1200 hissing, carnivorous dragons but also many ethnic Bugis fishermen and their families — descendants of former convicts who were exiled to the island. Somehow they've learned to coexist with the dragons who are surrounded by myths that dominate the island, and even welcome their existence due to the tourism dollars they bring to their remote island.
The resilient Bugis people, or sea gypsies, are short and slight; their dark brown eyes and sun-weathered faces tell of a simple yet hard life. We meet them on our first day at sea, having set up a makeshift shop on the starboard side of the Purnama, strands of pearls glistening in the bright morning sun. There are three of them — two young boys and their uncle.
The baby-faced boys are in fact teenagers, their earnest young faces creased with frown lines as they implore us to buy their wares. To prove their pearls are not fake, they place the naked flame of a cigarette lighter to the gems. "See, good quality," they declare repeatedly. An anesthetist and his wife, from Nashville, Tennessee, Mary Jo and Steve, buy pearls as gifts, while we pick out a hand-carved wooden dragon for our seven-year-old daughter who shyly chats with the boys.
After breakfast the divers glide off over the mirror surface for a test dive, while the rest of us head for an empty stretch of sand where the crew has erected a temporary beach club complete with sun loungers, umbrellas, snorkel gear and eskies full of cold drinks. Earlier, as I sip a caffe latte on the deck, I spot a pod of bottlenose dolphins swimming close to the boat, a baby calf slapping the surface with its tiny tail.
Our routine over the next seven days happily revolves around eating, drinking, swimming, snorkelling, diving, and afternoon siestas. Days are filled with exploring both above and below the marine rich waters, while nights involve sundowners, conversation, card games and romantic dinners under the stars. The beauty of a small ship like the Purnama is it can access even the region's most remote islands, surrounded by some of the most tempestuous waters in Indonesia. Passengers largely determine each day's itinerary, and wherever we moor, we're typically the only ones there. Each day those on board put forth their desires and whims. We slip into ship life like we were born sailors.
My most memorable experience, for all of the wrong reasons, however occurs on what should have been a routine dive. After saying goodbye to Ella, I head off with the other divers across the deceptively calm looking sea for Castle Rock. Typically, the Purnama has the pick of the dive sites to itself, given we wake up already in position at the most popular spots, while the majority of divers have had to travel to get there.
Today though there are a few boats around and we watch as they arrive and hurriedly offload the divers. Unusually, many of the divers resurface so Mario jumps in himself to test the waters. He gives the thumbs up, so not thinking too much about it, I backward roll off the boat.
Instantly I feel the force of the current and struggle to descend. I become separated from the rest of the divers but Taige, who has descended behind me, stays with me as I cling to a rock about 14 metres below the surface. In a series of bumbling, ill-fated steps of my own doing, somehow my regulator gets knocked out of my mouth and I swallow a sickening amount of water.
Fighting for breath as I choke on the water, I ascend as quickly as I can: Taige, never leaving my side, pulls on me to slow my rapid upward rise. In my panic, I vainly try to push her off, but the highly skilled dive master won't let go. As I break the surface, I rip off the mask and gulp huge breaths of air; crying tears of relief as I float on my back looking at the cloudless sky.
Back on board, with a newfound respect for the island's treacherous current, the crew, caring as ever, asked if I'd like a pot of tea. Taige wraps me in a towel and places a consoling arm around my shoulder. I recover laying on a daybed watching Ella play a game of "Captain's Coming", pretending to scrub the deck, stand to attention and climb the rigging.
Not quite ready to jump back on the dive horse, I head the next day for Shot Gun, where we snorkel the fast-moving waters between the corals of south Gili Lawa Laut. This time, however, the strong current between two islands is fun, and I join the Nashville couple and one of the crew members on a swift drift snorkel, spotting great trevallies, turtles and huge schools of fish before being spat out the other end, all with huge grins on our faces.
The snorkel trip returns my confidence so the next day I head for a dive at Pink Beach in one of the park's most spectacular emerald lagoons. We see turtles, cuttle fish and a giant stingray resting between corals. We surface at the beach where Ella is playing in the remarkable pink sand in a utopian setting totally devoid of other tourists. Lolling in the shallows, I tip my face towards the sun.
All week talk has never steered far from dragons and hearing some of the prehistoric lizards are about, the Purnama quickly moves to reach Komodo Island; once again arriving after the crowds have departed. At the ranger station we're met by a local guide, and we stride single file carrying sturdy forked sticks, which we hope we won't need to use.
We've only been walking a short distance, when we see our first dragon, a youngish male, practically comatose in the afternoon heat as if he'd consumed a deer for lunch, (which quite possibly he had given they're a large part of the dragon's diet). He's so spent we're able to get quite close for a family selfie. Ella, wide eyed, even does a short video to send to her classmates back home. We see a further two dragons, including an enormous female near the village kitchen, as our guide tells us about living on the island with the flesh-eating lizards.
As we return from another expedition to Rinca Island, in yet another surprise, the crew unfurls the Purnama's magnificent sails, climbing all over the ship dressed in mock-pirate hats. On board Ella dons her own pirate hat and joins the boisterous crew climbing the rigging.
After mojitos on the top deck at dusk and marvelling at the blinding lights from the plethora of squid boats, we are hustled into speedboats and taken ashore. There, on a deserted beach, the crew has carved out a private beach restaurant in the sand: lanterns and candles flickering around a long table dressed in linen. We feast on crab, lamb, duck, fragrant curry and rice attended by the Purnama crew. Taige slips a naturally formed shell ring she found on one of her dives on my finger. Without saying it, I know it's her way of showing me she's sorry for the fright I received while diving her beloved Indonesian archipelago.
Afterwards we gather on the candlelit beach. Mario picks up a guitar and sings a soulful Indonesian lullaby under the twinkling Milky Way. Someone points out the Southern Cross for those from the northern hemisphere, and a shooting star streaks across the inky sky. With sand between my toes, I look around at newfound friends; Ella asleep in Taige's arms, and I feel like the luckiest person alive.
Can't get enough of your favourite hotel? High-end hotel and resort operators are branching out and offering guests their own exclusive cruise expeditions and private jet tours.
THE DATAI LANGKAWI, MALAYSIA
The Datai offers bespoke and private charters from the resort's Datai Bay aboard Naga Pelangi, a 30-metre traditional wooden schooner-replica hand-built in the famous boat-yards of Duyong Island in Terengganu, a north-east state of Malaysia. See thedatai.com.
THE STRAND, YANGON, MYANMAR
The colonial-era Strand Hotel in Yangon launches its maiden luxury river cruise vessel on Myanmar's Irrawaddy River this month. The 54-passenger ship will feature 23 staterooms and four suites, a pool deck, sun deck for al fresco dining, library, wine bar and a wellness centre offering massages, a mani-pedi salon, a gym and a reflexology station. See thestrandcruise.com
THE FOUR SEASONS, MALDIVES
The Four Seasons Explorer, a 39-metre luxury catamaran featuring two lounges and library, visits virgin dive sites, remote surf breaks and secluded villages between its two Maldives resorts of Kuda Huraa and Landaa Giraavaru. See fourseasons.com/maldivesfse.
AMAN RESORTS, INDONESIA
Owned by the exclusive resorts brand, the Amandira, a custom built five-berth dive vessel, and its predecessor three-berth Amanikan exploring Raja Ampat or Komodo National Park. Voyages are combined with a stay at Amanwana, an encampment of tented suites overlooking the coral-laced beaches on Moyo Island, which can only be reached by seaplane. See aman.com/resorts/amanwana/cruises
Garuda Indonesia flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Bali, and daily to Flores from Denpasar or Jakarta. See garuda-indonesia.com.
Alila Purnama offers a range of departures to Komodo Island and Raja Ampat, plus two new cruises: a 10-night Komodo-Ambon cruise, and a seven-night Ambon-Raja Ampat sailing. A six-night Komodo Island expedition, offering limited sail dates, including all meals, unlimited diving, snorkelling, scheduled excursions, refreshments and non-alcoholic beverages, island hopping, equipment and admission fees to national parks is priced at $14,280 a couple. Private charters are available year-round from $US14,000 a night for 10 persons (minimum four nights). See alilahotels.com/purnama.
If travelling from Australia to Flores, it's necessary to overnight in Bali. A pre-cruise stay at the cliff-hugging Alila Uluwatu, located about 20 minutes from Denpasar International Airport, in a villa costs from $1450 a night. Alila Villas Soori is a terrific, laidback post cruise option, located in a sleepy village between rice fields and the spectacular wild black sand beach of the less visited coast of south-west Bali, from $1100 a night. See alilahotels.com.
Sheriden Rhodes was a guest of Alila Hotels and Resorts.