It’s 5.30am, and perching on the bow of our yacht for the week, Mutiara Laut, cruising through an archipelago of deserted islands through the glass-calm waters of Indonesia as the sunrise glints over the sea, I realise that moments like this are what the charter experience is all about. The silence surrounding us is absolute, and from my vantage point, the water shimmers, smooth and uninterrupted, all the way to the horizon. Within minutes, the stresses and worries of life back home have glided away. There is only this morning, this place. Nothing else matters.
We’d begun our journey the previous afternoon from Lombok, an island easily reached by sea or air from Bali and worth staying on for its rustic villages and five-star resorts, as well as its proximity to the famed Gilli Islands. The route, west to Flores, cuts a path through some of the 17,000 islands of the Indonesian archipelago, taking in this extraordinary chain of volcanic islands known as the Lesser Sunda. Mutiara Laut is an Indonesian schooner (or phinisi) launched in Bali in 2010. General manager Leo van Oostenbrugge is an experienced Dutch yacht builder and built this 46-metre having cruised the waters of Indonesia on charters and seeing the need for a sailing yacht that could be used to explore the islands in high-end accommodation of the kind found on European yachts. Everything about this yacht is sourced from the area it cruises, including wood from Borneo.
My sunrise experience was the perfect set up to a day of discovery, beginning with the volcanic Satonda Island, uninhabited save for a few fishermen in huts on the beach. Its magical feature, hidden from view on approach from the water, is its crater lake, created tens of thousands of years ago and filled with saltwater from an 1815 tsunami. With its waters hot-tub warm (a decidedly odd sensation in temperatures of 30ºC) this was an ideal place to try out Mutiara Laut’s paddleboards. If the sea and the yacht had already instilled a sense of peace, this was something altogether more profound. Paddling around this secret place, surrounded by the towering sides of the crater, thick with cascading plants housing monkeys and fruit bats, in the knowledge that we were among some of the only people ever to have been here, was unforgettable. Perhaps the sense of magic came from the ‘wishing’ trees on the lake’s shores, hung with rocks on strings by locals and visitors hoping for their dreams to come true.
For guests looking for faster thrills on the water, the yacht’s game and fun-loving crew hooked up wakeboards and kneeboards to one of the RIBs later that day. Even the amateur watersports enthusiasts among us managed to stay afloat as we sped around the yacht, cheered on by the others on board. And at the helm of the tender, the first mate was pleasingly receptive to encouragement from other supportive passengers to tow their friends faster and faster until they were flipped into the water.
In such surroundings after a morning’s exertions, it was impossible to resist the temptation to flop onto one of the sunbeds on the spacious deck to relax and snooze in the shade of the biminis. There is nowhere on earth like this place: island after island, rising gently from that turquoise sea, fringed with beaches that have not felt a human footprint in months or years.
As the light began to fade, we moved to the aft deck and cast a couple of fishing rods out into the wake, hoping to catch something we could enjoy that evening. A cosy, sociable spot on board with deep seating, this is the ideal early-evening spot for relaxing with cocktails before dinner. While the only fish we caught broke our line before we could see it, itineraries manager Phil Benoist says parties have caught dogtooth and yellowfin tuna and mahi mahi trolling behind the tenders. The Indonesian chef makes sashimi and barbecue dishes from the keepers. Other cuisine served on board is, as usual, dependant on guest preferences, but often includes Japanese wagyu beef and lobster as well as traditional Indonesian specialities and simple Western dishes.
Leaving the sealife untouched kept our consciences clear the following day when we snorkelled the reefs around Komodo, a marine park as well as an island. The area is abundant with coral, so you don’t have to swim far to find a site that stops you in your tracks: these reefs, teeming with iridescent fish of all colours and sizes, had a cinematic beauty, keeping us captivated for hours. Rocks were plastered with huge electric-blue sea stars (also called linckia laevigata, found only in the shallow waters of the Indo-Pacific). Angelfish species number over 80 in Indonesia and we spotted the enchanting regal variety, in vivid orange and purple, as well as trumpetfish (named for their resemblance to the instrument), lionfish, the venomous scorpion fish and stunning, intricately marked blue squamosa clams.
Part of the fun was in the infectious enthusiasm of our group, varied in levels of diving experience, and in each moment of excitement as someone found a new animal and called the rest over to see. The waters were shallow and warm, and the hours slipped by as we escaped to this other world. Benoist says charter groups have spotted all kinds of sealife, from manta rays to sea turtles, on previous trips. Dolphins and 14 species of whale are often spotted in the Komodo National Park, and hammerhead sharks are frequently seen in the waters around Lombok.
When you’ve had your fill of wildlife underwater, there is enough on land to explore in the area, and that was particularly true of Komodo Island, one of the only natural habitats of the Komodo dragon, a lizard of gigantic proportions (the largest are close to 3 metres long) that looks alarmingly similar to a baby dinosaur. The best way to see them is on a guided hike around the island, through Jurassic Park-style terrains of damp woodland, dry hills of long grasses and muddy streams. Hikes can be tailored by length and difficulty for individual groups. We spotted a few dragons in the shade, as well as water buffalo, as our guide explained the grisly hunting pattern of this extraordinary animal.
After an hour’s hiking, we reached a peak with glorious views out to the islands and over the Indian Ocean, and all the effort had been worthwhile. And when the tender finally returned us to the yacht, there was no better way to cool off than by jumping in unison from the bow into the welcoming ocean.
One of the most special parts on this itinerary is Sumba, a forgotten island where Mutiara Laut’s charter guests are often the first outside visitors for months. Ancient traditions abound in this island – at the annual pasola festival, locals fight a sometimes-deadly game on horseback with spears. Living quarters are tall thatched huts and the villagers adorn their homes with buffalo horns to display wealth and weave carpets in the streets. Not far away is Mojo Island, with its marine nature park and hunting park. Home to woodland waterfalls, lagoons and wildlife including deer, macaque monkeys, parrots and cockatoos, it also houses a truly remote high-end resort, Amanwana – think tents with hardwood floors and king-sized beds.
For our party, though, we were always happy to be welcomed back on board. As we spent our last afternoon discovering more places on deck to relax (a popular and fought-over spot being the rope nets on the bowsprit), the crew prepared a celebratory beach barbecue for our final night, on a secluded island a couple of hours’ cruise from Komodo. As we sipped wine under the light of the moon, the crew built a fire, brought out a guitar and drums, and roused the group into a chorus of traditional local songs. Soon we were all dancing together on the sand, hoping the night – and this charter – would never end.