Exploring far-flung destinations in five-star seafaring style

A new profusion of luxury liveaboards is ratcheting up the potential for seaborne exploration. Maria Shollenbarger sizes up the boats that trade in ultimate exclusivity – and access to the remotest corners of the earth

Alila Villas and Resorts’ Alila Purnama, a custom-built, 46m phinisi schooner, near Komodo island, Indonesia
Alila Villas and Resorts’ Alila Purnama, a custom-built, 46m phinisi schooner, near Komodo island, Indonesia | Image: Paul Charles

At 6am, the sun is just visible behind the jurassic peaks at the easternmost tip of Komodo island; from our mooring deep in the generous horseshoe of Slawi Bay, it silhouettes the jungled lava rock in liquid bronze. All night, heat lightning had shot in forked tongues along the island’s western ridge, while a full moon traced a languid course across the sky, like a slow-moving Klieg light, its almost daytime brightness erasing the stars. Lying on the wide teak deck, we had watched its primeval progression; the windless night cloaked in balmy near-silence, the warm sea barely lapping us at port side – all traces of humanity, except our own and those of a handful of rangers on the island’s far shore, utterly absent from the land- and soundscape.

Because we are on board Alila Purnama – the new 46m, custom-built phinisi schooner launched in December by Singapore-based Alila Villas and Resorts – our impromptu midnight desire to spend the night on deck, despite all the comforts of a luxury hotel available to us in elegantly appointed cabins below, was instantly accommodated. Egyptian-cotton bedding was smoothed, pillows arranged, bottles of water placed on side tables within minutes. In the end, ironically, we were almost entirely unable to sleep – the moon was simply too bright.

On board Alila Purnama
On board Alila Purnama | Image: Alila Hotels

By 7am that same morning, three of us are on the wheelhouse roof, being led in sun salutations by Purnama’s Italian cruise director, who is also a dive master and certified yoga instructor. Extravagant platters of tropical fruits, sambal-laced eggs and French presses of Sumatran coffee await us when we finish. By around 11am, at least half-a-dozen other craft, from thick-set barges to the fishing boats of locals, will be puttering their way into the bay, many en route to the Komodo National Park. But we’ll have long since pulled anchor, off to hike some of the tiny deserted islands in the farther reaches of the archipelago.

Fifteen-odd years ago, this place would have been close to empty much of the day, throughout the year; in 2013, there’s a cruiseship dock under construction, and the buzz of boat traffic in the high season goes all day long. The Komodo archipelago remains a beautiful and unique site, well worth visiting, but to retrieve a degree of that now-endangered fantasy-island solitude requires local savvy and fluid access beyond the norm – the ability to be in and out, at the right time and in serious comfort.

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This is where Alila Purnama and her ilk come in. Because beyond her fine French and South African wine cellar and on-board massage therapist and slick library/entertainment room, her raison d’être is the exclusivity that her mobility affords her clients. A new profusion of such luxury liveaboard boats represents a marked ratcheting-up of the private-charter offering throughout southeast Asia. It’s a localised manifestation of a growing interest in experiencing the world’s further-flung destinations – those where the luxury accommodation isn’t particularly interesting, or doesn’t yet exist, or else will logistically simply never work – by boat, surrounded by the finest creature comforts or authentic ambience (or, in Alila Purnama’s case, both).

Bucking the yachting classes’ reliably predictable tastes – the Caribbean in winter, the Mediterranean in summer – a small but growing number of blue-chip sailing and power yachts is helping to lead the way, passing seasons in more adventurous seas, from Tonga and the Whitsundays to Borneo and Antarctica. The firms that charter them say their owners are younger, often destination enthusiasts, open to keeping their boats in these waters for months or years at a time because they relish the thrill of exploration (and again because, as often as not, no land accommodation in the vicinity begins to match what their craft and crew provide). And because – yacht ownership being ultimately, for all but the very wealthiest, a business – demand for charter in these places appears to be growing.

The 67.2m sailing yacht Vertigo, offered for charter by Y.CO
The 67.2m sailing yacht Vertigo, offered for charter by Y.CO | Image: Y.CO

“There is a new profile for destinations with no five-star correlative on shore,” says Mark Upton, founder and managing director of MGMT, whose firm specialises in matching clients to the right yacht brokers and charterers. “We’re definitely seeing more requests for remote areas; there’s even a yacht available to go through the Northwest Passage.” Robert Shepherd, director of Americas for Edmiston, seconds this, citing recent requests for Palau, Borneo and the (much) less-explored South Seas. “If you’re in Polynesia to explore Polynesia, you want the Marquesas, the Tuamotus. And there are no St Regises or Four Seasons there.” He notes the current presence in the South Pacific of a star of the Edmiston portfolio – a 79m Lursson power yacht called TV scheduled to cruise Palau, the Java Sea and the Philippines for three years. “She’s there because [the owners] themselves are interested in the region. If you want to see these kinds of places, and you have the money” – in TV’s case, a fairly staggering €850,000-a-week charter fee – “this is the way to go.”

It all speaks to the timeless appeal of boat travel – something undiminished by the exigencies of 21st-century life. Thousands of years before Magellan eschewed the Church’s flat-earth doctrine to set sail on his faith in “the shadow on the moon”, men were traversing seas in search of fortune, or freedom, or simply the new. To arrive at a remote place by boat is still to meet it on a manifestly human scale; to do so with state-of-the-art technology and unparalleled destination expertise represents the best of what travel offers today.

Asmat canoes, with warriors in traditional dress, greet Patti Seery’s 50m phinisi schooner Silolona at Syuru, Indonesia
Asmat canoes, with warriors in traditional dress, greet Patti Seery’s 50m phinisi schooner Silolona at Syuru, Indonesia | Image: John Everingham

Therein lies the challenge: catering as they do to a clientele with daunting standards, those who run the yachts and liveaboards must provide not just access to the  destination but also, once arrived, a unique and unforgettable experience of it. While most yacht charter firms collaborate on a project-to-project basis with specialist ground operators, London-based Y.CO moved the model a step forward not long ago by marking an official partnership with the ultra-exclusive travel designer Based On A True Story. Its founder, Niel Fox, a seasoned expedition adventurer, counts among his clients various royal families and Forbes Rich List denizens, and last year most of his itinerary prices stretched to seven figures; he is renowned for the breadth of his resources and access anywhere in the world.

Fox has never repeated a trip in a decade of planning them; this lends itself well to mapping boast-worthy ground experiences for Y.CO charter clients. In the South Pacific, Y.CO clients might be greeted by 200-odd bare-chested Tahitians in war canoes, “just as Cook would have been two and a half centuries ago”, says Fox; shore entertainment by nationally recognised dance and arts troupes, as well as access to private homes, ceremonies and cultural sites not open to tourism, are par for the course. On those occasions when an overnight on land is called for – however short the notice – Fox has accommodation prepared on the spot, whether erecting a temporary beach villa or subjecting a fisherman’s hut to a rigorous interiors upgrade. An itinerary in Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago saw the first superyacht charter in the region, thanks to Fox’s extensive reconnaissance, which involved painstaking relationship-building with local fisherman to secure passage and anchorage amid, and visits to, some of the 800-odd islands, many of them uninhabited. “Among other things, they don’t have any hotel infrastructure, so a boat is absolutely the best way to see it. There are shamanistic tribes, there are sea gypsies. It’s an extraordinary place,” says Fox.

Palau in the South Pacific Ocean
Palau in the South Pacific Ocean | Image: Roberto Rinaldi/SIME/SIME

Culturally rich, with the cachet associated with places not many have alighted, the Mergui is top of a list of destinations – which also includes the Andaman Islands (“Absolutely epic possibilities,” says Fox. “There are three or four completely Stone Age cultures”) and Palau – with serious buzz among the cognoscenti. Vertigo, a stunning Alloy-constructed and -designed, 67.2m sailing yacht built in 2011 and offered for charter by Y.CO, sailed for several weeks during spring 2012 off Myanmar, as well as in Palau; the motor-yacht Princess Iolanthe (available for charter from Edmiston), is based in the Mergui for the foreseeable future, due to demand, says Shepherd.

Indonesia is also on this list. The country stretches over 3,000 miles, comprising the Banda, Savu, Flores and Ceram seas, the majestic Raja Ampat – home of the country’s largest marine national park, world-class dive sites and the greatest biodiversity on earth – and roughly 17,500 islands, of which about 4,000 are populated. Its identity is inextricably linked with sea exploration; Buddhist and Hindu dynasties, various sultanates, Dutch, Portuguese and English all meet in the dense Venn diagram of its history, a palimpsest of cultures and trade-route dominions. Here, the Victorian naturalist Alfred Wallace uncovered several thousand new-to-science species on 70-plus expeditions over eight years, throughout what was then known as the Malay Archipelago. Its far eastern reaches remain ideal for exploration by boat – indeed, in significant part this is the only way they can be accessed.

The tender of Patti Seery’s 40m phinisi Si Datu Bua on Padar Island, Komodo National Park, Indonesia
The tender of Patti Seery’s 40m phinisi Si Datu Bua on Padar Island, Komodo National Park, Indonesia

In 2013, liveaboards are a phenomenon writ large here, redefining the destination. While they aren’t necessarily new – the American Patti Seery launched the 50m, 10-berth phinisi schooner Silolona in 2004; Dive Damai has specialised in high-end diving charters here since 2008; and Aman Resorts’ Amanikan, based at Amanwana on Moyo island, has been around since 2009 – there is increased demand for stylish, well-serviced, expert access. This is evident in the arrival of Alila Purnama, the smaller and more “boutique” (and more affordable) Tiger Blue, launched in 2011, and Seery’s second phinisi, the 40m three-cabin Si Datu Bua, launched in 2012.

But Fox makes the point that well-managed private boat charter can – indeed should – provide a revelatory experience anywhere one drops anchor. “Around Phuket or in the Maldives, it’s not all resorts, it’s not all ‘done’. There are hundreds of uninhabited islands in the Maldives,” he says. “The foresight and research is what’s required” to access the lesser-known and bring it to life even in the most well-trod destinations.

Y.CO Vertigo’s Master Cabin
Y.CO Vertigo’s Master Cabin | Image: Y.CO

Sonu Shivdasani, founder of Six Senses and chairman of Soneva resorts, agrees. Soneva in Aqua, which is scheduled to launch in January 2014, is a 19.5m, custom-built sailing junk with two master suites (one with a glass-bottomed soaking tub), 40sq m living and dining rooms, and multiple outdoor decks. “In designing her, we looked at the 35m yacht ranges – the Sunseekers, the Benettis. They’re so often chartered by a couple or two, or families; a boat that size can have 10 berths and they’re using two. So we recalibrated the interiors to maximise space.” Soneva in Aqua, like Alila Purnama, will be finished to an exacting spec, with sustainable, high-quality materials; staffed with dive masters, spa therapists and “Fridays”, the resort’s signature butlers; and based in the waters to the north and east of Soneva Fushi – which Shivdasani notes are some of the least populated in the northern atolls. Guests will cruise up to 120 nautical miles from the resort, on customisable charters (from one night) into waters where they will likely encounter pristine reefs and fine far-offshore breaks – but little in the way of unwanted company. Unlike the multi-cabin Four Seasons Explorer, which has plied these waters for some years, Soneva in Aqua is a seaborne private villa. Shivdasani sees one or two Soneva in Aqua craft eventually based at each of the resorts in the Maldives and Thailand

It is in Phuket that I board Si Datu Bua, to cruise the islands of Phang Nga Bay on a route to the Langkawi archipelago. Phang Nga is something of a crucible for Fox’s theory. Many of its towering limestone islands were only lightly touched by tourism until the mid‑1990s; now, at certain coordinates, the longtails and tourist motorboats scrumming around crescents of beach and crisscrossing each other’s wakes recall the Land Cruisers of Kruger Park.

Edmiston’s 79m Lursson power yacht TV, in the South Pacific
Edmiston’s 79m Lursson power yacht TV, in the South Pacific | Image: Edmiston

Our itinerary was a model of success. We gave Ko Phi Phi and Ko Tapu – aka James Bond Island – a wide berth, making quickly south for the smaller island groups. Seery’s knowledge of the region, and when to best experience it in solitude, is formidable. At her convincing behest, we were up with the sun the first day to kayak to Koh Muk, where lounging mats had been laid in advance of our arrival on the hollow island’s sand-floored, cathedral-like interior. By 10am, just as a faint motor buzz augured the imminent arrival of others, we were collected by the tender and returned to find massage tables erected in the breezy shade of the aft deck. Near Tarutao Natural Marine Park, on the Thai-Malaysian border, we waded the tiny circumference of a deserted Ko Chuku, collecting sea shells before enjoying a kingly breakfast under an enfilade of umbrellas on the beach. We spelunked in empty caves and spotted marine life in pristine waters. One evening just after dark we were sped in the tender to a beach that glowed with dozens of lanterns dug into the sand and hanging from the casuarinas and palms, from one side of the cove to the other; loungers and rugs were laid out on the packed sand and a table set for eight. Prawn and fish skewers hissed on a barbecue, and the crew – 11 strong, many having worked with Seery for years – sang, played guitar and danced around a bonfire, delighting themselves and us for hours while we feasted.

If Alila Purnama’s and Soneva in Aqua’s genius is in the sleek finishes and easy pairing with like-branded resorts, that of Si Datu Bua is in the heritage that’s evident in every detail. On board, everything – each sarong, framed map, song sung by the crew – elicits a story. The beadwork satchels and textile hangings in the suites were gifted to Seery by tribes in East Flores, Sumba and Raja Ampat, by whom she has been adopted – and deep into whose communities she can escort Si Datu Bua’s guests when chartered in those regions. It’s access like this that leaves one, in the wake of having experienced it, hard-pressed to shake the beauty and spirit of a place. And that puts one in mind of setting sail again, as soon as possible.

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