Hop aboard a newly-launched adventure cruise to discover some of Indonesia’s most stunning uninhabited islands where the sand is pink, the crystal clear water is alive with marine life and Komodo dragons rule the land.
The low, full moon paves a silvery path across the ocean. Over my shoulder the sky is streaked pink and blue as the sun pushes its way up and over the volcanic crags of a nearby island. With just a cup of tea and the sound of frilly waves gently slapping against the bow of the ship for company, this perfect moment, when night and day flirt briefly on the ocean, is all mine. At least it feels that way. The ship’s captain is also up and hard at work guiding our floating home, MS Panorama II, to new adventures, and below deck, my 45 fellow passengers are beginning to stir, woken by the promise of another untouched Indonesian island surprise.
This is not the cruise for those seeking to pillage endless on-board buffets, or to lounge lizard-like and leathery by a top deck pool. Nor will you find a casino, though a raucous round of UNO does occasionally break out in the lounge. This is a cruise for travellers with a sense of adventure and a desire to get off the grid. Starting and ending in Bali, ‘the island of the gods’, Peregine Adventures’ Indonesian Island Cruise is an eight-day voyage through waters less travelled to an archipelago of islands you won’t find on the average tourist’s radar. These little known and mostly uninhabited paradises of sunkissed sand and incandescent blue lagoons are so enchanting, I’m convinced this must be where Bali’s deities take their holidays.
Small But Mighty
Panorama II is a boutique beauty. The two-masted, three-deck, 50m motor sailboat offers just 25 light and bright air-conditioned cabins with private ensuites. There is zero dress code and you can pop in for a casual chat with Captain Leontios and his crew whenever you fancy. Amenities are limited, but there’s ample space with a large fore deck, and an aft deck that becomes the ship’s social hub each evening. Inside, there’s a large air-conditioned lounge and bar and on the upper deck, shaded open-air dining. Guests can still binge on buffets but dining on Panorama II is not an all-day affair. The selection is smaller but there’s plenty to fuel hungry adventurers. Meals, prepared by a team of local chefs, showcase market-fresh, locally sourced produce and flavours including Balinese fish curries, beef rendang and sate lilit, along with western choices. And when we pile into Zodiacs to explore island after untouched island, our local guides conjure up fresh coconuts and beachside barbecues.
The Indonesia Less Travelled
The adventures begin after our first sunrise, with a short trek through grassland up a hill to see the necklace of turquoise blue surrounding Kenawa. It’s hot and steamy so I march back down at double speed and throw myself into the refreshing waters of coral and colour, a snarky clownfish the only thing standing between me and the silky tentacles of an anemone as I float over the reef. Then it’s on to Bidil, a pretty blip of sand I circumnavigate in five minutes. Covered with coconut palms, Bidil’s only inhabitants are the caretaker and his family, who generously offer us a taste of the freshly fallen fruit. My chin sticky and dripping with coconut water, there’s no choice but to wash it away in the warm water lapping the island. It’s a beautiful bath indeed and we snorkel until the sun sets in fiery orange style.
The tranquillity is shattered post cocktails and dinner, when our hotel manager, Mark, pulls out the karaoke machine. You see, there’s no need for on-board theatre spectaculars when you can DIY, busting out epic power ballads that float fractured out over the sea, frightening passing fish. It’s a clever icebreaker and by day two we’re all firm friends. That camaraderie proves useful the following morning on a steep hike up to a lookout located high on Satonda. It’s sweaty work but we egg each other upwards to soak up the view of the island’s saltwater crater lake, created by the eruption of nearby Mount Tambora in 1815, the resulting tsunami filling the 80m-deep void. The trek down proves easier, and paddleboards and kayaks have materialised for us to explore the salty lake.
More underwater gold is found later that day at beautiful Banta. The brilliant blue water that fringes this deserted island is a marine life ‘super highway’, with thousands of busy marine critters flitting through stunning coral gardens just metres from shore. It’s not all snorkelling and lazing on beaches. Rinca (pronounced Rincha) – one of 29 islands off the coast of Flores that form the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Komodo National Park – is surrounded by more sparkling water, but it’s no swim spot, unless you want to merengue through mangroves with man-eating reptiles.
Hunting For Dragons
This parched island provides a suitably prehistoric backdrop to view the 2,000 resident dragons. One of the few places to spot wild Komodo dragons, the world’s largest lizard, Rinca is often overlooked for popular Komodo. According to local media reports, that popularity may see Komodo (though not Rinca) shut to visitors from January 2020 for the year, for conservation purposes.
The dragons on Rinca live freely, feasting on local water buffalo, deer, monkeys, and foolish tourists who don’t follow the ranger’s advice. The ultimate predators, Komodo dragons are fast and ferocious. Battle ready with huge claws and armour-plated skin, they kill with a one-two punch of serrated shark-like teeth and toxic saliva, which we spy dribbling from the jaws of several hefty locals sizing us up for mid-morning munchies.
There are three guided treks on Rinca, the shortest taking just 30 minutes, while a two-hour trek offers the added bonus of breathtaking views. We spy dozens of dragons. Two are in a heated argument and one lurches towards us menacingly, but our guides keep watch and ensure we’re always at a safe distance. We also spy a young mum-to-be, digging a dusty nest where she’ll deposit and incubate up to 20 eggs. Sadly, her maternal instincts stop there. After her babies hatch, they’ll race up the nearest tree to safety, as adults are partial to chomping on the snack-sized youngsters.
We sail to Komodo’s ridiculously pretty Pink Beach, known locally as Pantai Merah Muda. Its pale pink hue comes from the crushed red shells of a tiny sea creature called foraminifera, combined with white sand. But the rosy beach is not the only jewel, with brilliantly turquoise water secreting a riotous underwater world. We spend our afternoon submerged, finding Nemo and his lookalike cousins, spying resting reef sharks and a hawksbill turtle snacking on soft coral, and doing our best to avoid a head on with a lairy lion fish, armed with long, venomous spines. The beauty of small ship sailing is the access it gives us to paradises like these that would be otherwise out of reach. Overnight, Captain Leontios sails us to remote Moyo, a forest-clad island of such famed beauty that Princess Diana once dropped anchor here.
We resist the siren call of the clear blue sea, though swimming is certainly on our agenda. Instead we stroll through the local village, passing random goats and giggling children, then trek inland through the jungle for four hot, humid kilometres. I covetously watch locals fly by on motorcycles, the faster but far more dangerous route. The prize for our sweaty efforts is Mata Jitu Waterfall, a terraced confection of limestone and vividly-hued pools fed by cascading falls and sparkling under filtered streams of sunlight.
Clean and Green
Peregrine’s small group cruises offer a more sustainable alternative to traditional cruising. The cruises are gentle on local communities and the pristine environments they explore, thanks to their smaller footprint and zero single use plastic policy. Guests are offered bamboo straws at cocktail hour and reusable water bottles are given to every passenger, with cool, safe drinking water available on tap. Peregrine is equally committed to social sustainability. We see this first hand when our incredible tour guides, Levi and Swandi, both from Lombok, take us to visit the village of Bonjeruk, Levi’s home, to share the fascinating local customs of its Muslim community.
We’re met by rousing gendang beleq drumming, watch as sarongs are painstakingly woven by hand, fuel up on hand-ground, fire-roasted coffee, hike through rice paddies to a soundtrack of cheeky children’s laughter, and enjoy an incredible lunch created for us by the community. The highlight though is meeting Levi’s wife and four-month old daughter, Chiara, a bubble-cheeked beauty who quickly has us wrapped around her chubby fingers. It is through Peregrine’s social programmes that communities like these are thriving and their traditions preserved. In this village it’s also seen 250 women educated and trained to make an income for their families. And while this afternoon the kids are our shadows, the rest of the week they’re in school.
After an unforgettable week where we’ve come face to face with dragons and sea monsters, been dazzled by jewel-hued waters, played at being castaways and fallen for a community of kind-hearted souls, a return to reality doesn’t hold much appeal. But we’re returning not only sunkissed and a little salty, but far richer for the experience and friendships made on this big little cruise.
For more information visit peregrineadventures.com