Published in - Cruise & Travel Lifestyle Magazine - Fall/Winter 2015
A FINE PHINISI: CRUISING INDONESIA ON THE ALILA PURNAMA
Scuba diving in coral gardens, idyllic beach forays and… OMG, Komodo dragons! Sailing Indonesia aboard the stylish Alila Purnama is an exercise in adventure.
Scales glinting, the Komodo dragon looks… well… stoned. Never mind that it’s the world’s largest and most lethal lizard – in 2009, two dragons attacked and killed a fisherman when he fell from a wild apple tree. Or that the deadly creatures (which usually lunch on goats, deer and wild boar) have inch-long serrated teeth that drip hemorrhagic venom. This dragon looks harmless, dozing in the sun. Like a college student on a Sunday, lazing about with earbuds plugged in. This is the beast we’d so wanted to see?
But whoah! When it moves, spitting out its menacing tongue and throwing its body from side to side, its powerful tail snaking behind, it’s another story.
“Dragons run fast, up to 12 mph,” warns Tasrif, our ranger-guide as he hustles us out of its way.
Curiously, Tasrif has no gun, just a large forked stick, which he holds at the ready as we cautiously walk around this specimen and continue our hunt for more sightings – the infamous dragons are found only on Komodo and neighboring Indonesian islands.
Cruising on the Alila Purnama to Komodo National Park throws up a host of surprises, of which the dragons are just one. Indeed, one of the biggest surprises is how luxurious a bespoke sailing experience can be.
Launched in 2012, the Alila Purnama (translated, the “Full Moon”) was hand-built in the style of a traditional phinisi. These two-masted ships were used by the Bugis, Indonesian seafaring traders in days gone by.
All polished teak and rattan, with billowing camel-colored sails, the Purnama is a 150-foot beauty. Her five nautical staterooms could be mistaken for stylish hotel rooms (Singapore-based Alila Hotels and Resorts manages the ship) – with queen-size beds, 400-threadcount linens, mother-of-pearl mosaic tiled showers and individually-controlled airconditioning. And oh the goodies! Pillow-soft bathrobes, a wicker beachbag, sunhats and sarongs, a yoga mat and a huge wooden box filled with lemongrass body lotions, after-sun cooling gels, face mist and more.
Up top, on the sweeping bow deck, there are cushioned double daybeds under parasols for each couple to lounge on (iced cappuccinos anyone?). There’s lots of space for privacy too, even a small library with books on the colorful local sea life.
Most important, the service onboard is first-class. In no time at all, the Indonesian staff know each guest’s individual preferences for drinks, teas and coffees (double shot? extra foam?), which magically appear before anyone can ask.
If this is sailing, Jack Sparrow can sign us up.
Our voyage starts with a 95-minute prop flight from Bali over velvety green islands, ringed by different shades of turquoise ocean. Indonesia is a vast archipelago of over 17,000 islands (only 1,000 inhabited); we’ll be sailing to a select few. In Labuan Bajo on Flores island – a tiny speck of a town with tin roof houses and feisty chickens scurrying across red dirt roads – we transfer to the Purnama.
Up first? Surrendering our shoes and sandals. Going comfortably barefoot is the rule onboard. Over lunch around the massive dining table, we meet our six fellow guests – a Singapore-based couple celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary, two French women friends and a honeymoon couple from Mexico City.
Later, the certified scuba divers among us suit up for an easy reef dive, surfacing at sunset beneath an apricot sky. The Purnama has its own licensed PADI dive center. All the diving beginner and expert divers could possibly want is included. Over the course of our cruise, divemaster Johnny and cruise director Mario (also a master dive guide) take us out on up to three dives a day, even a night dive.
Our eyes pop with the sights in these remote ocean waters. We explore garden upon garden of candy-colored corals in wonderful and weird shapes – lilac fingers, monster brain coral and yellow heart valves. Bug-eyed garden eels peek from their sand holes. Blue-spotted stingrays float by. Yellow-and-black striped Moorish Idols, their graceful dorsal fins fluttering behind, nibble away.
At Castle Rock, a colossal coral-encrusted underwater pinnacle – rated one of the world’s 10 best dive sites – Mario expertly guides us into the muted currents of a fish superhighway. We’re engulfed by marine life – schools of silvery jackfish, white-tipped reef sharks, slow-cruising turtles, lionfish, fat puffer fish, even a pair of lacy, superbly camouflaged leaf scorpion fish.
When we clamber back into the zodiac, we’re handed fluffy towels. Minutes later on the Purnama, we’re welcomed back with glacier-cold facecloths and fresh-squeezed tropical juices. One of the 16 staff always starts helping us off with our wetsuits. “Sit, please sit!” we’re cajoled, and the neoprene is peeled off us while we snack on smoked salmon appies. Diving has never been so pampered!
Sometimes we join in the non-diving guests’ activities – kayaking (the Purnama carries its own sea kayaks), snorkeling, going for a spin on the “doughnut” inflatable pulled behind a high-speed boat. On a couple of occasions, discreet hands set up cushions under umbrellas on deserted islands and haul over coolers of sodas (and face mist too) – so we can lie back and revel in being the only souls on a strip of talc-white sand.
One afternoon, we all scramble up an islet’s rocky cliffs for a sunset view of the islands below and Mount Sangeang (“mountain of spirits” in Balinese) in the distance. The volcanic mountain sits in Indonesia’s notorious Ring of Fire. Thankfully, its spirits are feeling kindly this day and the mountain slumbers in peace for us.
And then, in the sweltering heat, we arrive at Komodo for our walk through the nature park. About 50 to 60 intrepid visitors set foot on the island each day to look for the dragons (over 1,800 call the island home). Tasrif tells us one dragon is occasionally fed so it stays close to the ranger hut, guaranteeing expectant visitors at least one sighting. We’re lucky to spy two more in the bush.
Back at the landing site, the biggest threat we face is to our souvenir money. “Real” black pearl necklaces go for $10 or less, and we’re mobbed by a crowd of friendly young men hawking carved dragons and local artefacts. Of course, a two-foot wooden dragon comes home with us.
Our last evening brings a special surprise. For dinner, a motorboat takes everyone to a beach, where the staff has created a restaurant in the sand. We’re led to our table along a sandy path bordered by hand-placed seashells, past a lovingly-built Komodo sand dragon. Lanterns hang on sticks and candles glimmer in holes in driftwood and rocks. Our meal is served, course after course of lobster and seafood. At the urging of his staff, Mario picks up a guitar and starts singing. We join in too – we’ve all become family over this week – and can’t believe this once-in-a-lifetime adventure must end soon.
If you go:
The deluxe Alila Purnama sails two six-night itineraries: Komodo Island from May to September and the remote Raja Ampat (in Indonesia’s West Papua province) from October to March. Rates include all scuba diving, activities and meals (but not alcohol). www.alilahotels.com/purnama