A cruise through Indonesia’s remote Raja Ampat Archipelago showcases the region’s rich biodiversity, near-pristine beaches, and the pleasures of being aboard a well-appointed yacht.
Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. If there is any truth to this ancient nautical maxim—and there is—then the first sunset of our five-day cruise augurs well for the rest of the voyage. As the West Papua harbor town of Sorong fades from view on the darkening horizon behind us, the sinking sun paints the sky ahead in Crayola hues of scarlet and orange, a radiant spectacle that we absorb, glasses of sparkling wine in hand, from our perch at the boat’s high prow. Steering a little north of west toward the Raja Ampat Archipelago, we follow it across a patch of glowing sea that is soon swallowed up by the moonless equatorial night.
The 31-meter teak-and-ironwood charter yacht we’re sailing on is the Rascal, which launched last year as the latest addition to eastern Indonesia’s growing fleet of high-end liveaboards modeled after traditional phinisi schooners. I use the term “sailing” loosely here. While the Rascal was hand-built by phinisi boatwrights in South Sulawesi and sports the steeply raked bow and stern associated with phinisi hull design, it doesn’t have any masts or bowsprit, let alone a set of sails. Instead, its main deck is largely taken up by a two-level superstructure that contains all five passenger cabins, which means, unlike on most phinisi cruisers, none of the guests need to bed down belowdecks. Nor, of course, do they get to enjoy the romance of rigging. But the tradeoff is bright, high-ceilinged berths with large windows that frame the passing scenery.
And what scenery it is. At dawn the next day, I wake to the sound of the anchor chain clanking through its hawsepipe as we moor in a bay on the western side of Waigeo, the northernmost of the four main islands of Raja Ampat (the name means “Four Kings”). All told, the archipelago comprises some 1,500 islands and coral cays strewn across 40,000 square kilometers of ocean off the Bird’s Head Peninsula, which forms the northwestern extremity of New Guinea. Part of Indonesia’s West Papua province, Raja Ampat also lies at the heart of the so-called Coral Triangle, the most biodiverse marine habitat on the planet. A staggering number of coral, mollusk, and fish species thrive here, making it a mecca for divers. But there is plenty to admire above water too, from the karst-strewn bays of Wayag (more on that later) to the luxuriantly forested hills surrounding us now.
Before breakfast, my four fellow passengers —all friends from Singapore—and I clamber into the Rascal’s tender for a visit to Selpele, the only village in the area. It’s little more than a cluster of wooden shacks along the beach, with a blue-trimmed church topped by a corrugated-tin roof signaling that the majority of residents are Christian, as is true throughout West Papua. As Samsul, one of the crewmembers accompanying us, chats with some fishermen at the pier, the rest of us tramp around the village’s sandy paths with a trail of wide-eyed kids in tow, stopping outside the local elementary school for a group photo op with two dozen red-and-white-uniformed students.
Behind us, the jungle rises thick and green toward a series of jagged ridges. Waigeo’s forests are home to several endemic animals, among them the Waigeo cuscus and golden-spotted tree monitor. There’s also a profusion of birdlife, which is what drew the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace to the southern shores of Waigeo in 1860, during his eight-year expedition to what was then the Dutch East Indies. Wallace, who developed a theory of natural selection independent of his more famous peer Charles Darwin, lived on the island for three months collecting bird specimens. His haul came to 73 species, some of them entirely new to science, some of them—like his prized red birds-of-paradise—very rare.
Between the various activities and anchorages on our itinerary, we settle into life aboard the Rascal. Though deck space is limited, there are ample spots for lounging alfresco with a book or cocktail in hand—on the triangular daybed at the bow, for instance, or the dining area at the stern. Most of us end up congregating on the sundeck in front of the bridge when we want some company; when we don’t, it’s easy enough to slip away to our cabins. Each of these is differently laid out and oriented, but all share what the boat’s owners describe as a “Hamptons meets tropical luxe” style, which is to say, clean, white-painted interiors with big plump beds, rainshower heads in the bathrooms, and some well-placed tribal artifacts. (The master cabin on the top deck is the pick of the bunch, with windows on three sides and its own aft-facing terrace.) There are TVs as well, though no one ever switches them on.
Come mealtime, our Jakartan chef, Doni, never disappoints. This is as much a culinary feat as it is a logistical one; after all, there’s nowhere to shop for produce along the way. Lunches and dinners are served communally at an oblong teak table on the aft deck. One day, it’s grilled swordfish topped with diced mango and tomatoes; on another, it’s spaghetti tossed with olive oil, capers, and roasted tomato. Indo-nesian specialties like satay and beef rendang also make it onto the menu.
Doni’s attentive crewmates—there are 10 altogether, including Sulawesi-born Captain Sarbi and our rangy British cruise director Gary “Gaz” Phillips—are another highlight. By day two, Evi, a young Javanese lady who joined the boat after a stint at the acclaimed Nihi Sumba Island resort, knows just how I like my morning Americano. And as this is the Rascal’s first season in Raja Ampat, it’s also the first time most of the crew have laid eyes on these islands. We get to share in some of their excitement. In one particularly enthusiastic moment, Roy, a 20-year-old deckhand from Sumbawa, exclaims, “I can’t believe this is my country!”
This moment occurs on day three, just north of the equator, as Captain Sarbi threads his way through the karst-studded lagoon at Wayag Island. Google “Raja Ampat,” and it’s images of this surreal seascape that pop up first. To get a better perspective, some of us follow Roy to the top of a limestone peak called Mount Pindito. A near-vertical ascent of some 200 meters from the beach, it leaves us giddy and exhausted, but not too exhausted to marvel at the beauty of the labyrinth of shallow, electric-blue channels and forest-tufted islets stretching out below.
Save for a twin-masted phinisi cruiser parked in an adjacent cove, we seem to have Wayag all to ourselves. Some of us head off for a dive with Gaz, an experienced dive master who’s been exploring eastern Indonesia for years. Others go kayaking or snorkeling. I opt for the latter and fin over to the nearest reef. It’s dazzling—a kaleidoscopic coral garden teeming with clown- fish, parrotfish, triggers, sea anemones, and a menagerie of other sea creatures. During one dive beyond the edge of the reef, a shoal of tiny silver fish engulfs me like a cloud.
At our next stop off Wofo Island, some 10 kilometers south of Selpele, another happy afternoon in the water is followed by a surprise: instead of dining aboard, we are to be whisked to a little beach that the staff has cleared and decorated with sand sculptures and lanterns. At a table lit by candles and the orange glow of chef Doni’s makeshift barbecue pit, we feast on grilled snapper, prawns, chicken kebabs, and tender cuts of beef, polishing off one, two, three bottles of wine as the night progresses.
Back aboard the Rascal, we all head up to the roof for some unscripted stargazing, cushioning our backs with whatever mats or beanbags we can find. Red skies at night are all well and good, but lying under an equatorial firmament silvered by starlight on a gently bobbing boat in a wild, empty bay … Well, you’ll just have to try it for yourself.
The Rascal is available for private charter only; nightly rates start at US$9,500, full board. The boat’s cruising grounds depend on the season; from October to April, it plies the waters of Raja Ampat, relocating to Komodo National Park for the rest of the year. Bespoke itineraries are available.
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2018 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Papuan Passage”).