The anti-cruise: on board a tall ship touring Indonesia
When sailing includes stalking Komodo dragons and snorkelling around island paradises, why book a cruise? Catherine Dawson March boards a tall ship touring Indonesia, where warm breezes carry the scent of exotic flowers and adventure
Becalmed in the Bali Sea, the water is so still that the ship's reflection stares back at us. Peace has enveloped the decks of the tall ship Star Clipper, and many of its 135 passengers are happy to lounge in the sun. The quiet is a welcome pause in a busy sailing schedule from white, sandy beach to white, sandy beach around the islands of Indonesia.
But the stillness has lasted long enough to unsettle the captain.
At the first breath of wind, shouts ring out and crew members thunder down the decks to run out along the bowsprit – a 30-centimetre-wide pole reaching 14 metres beyond the front of the ship – to prepare sails. Braided ropes slither along the deck then squeal under the strain; metal scrapes against metal as winches increase pressure on the lines; wooden pulleys clank and metal rings dance up the rigging as even small sails are pulled into duty. But they still hang as limp as curtains. Finally, a percussive slap announces that wind has found the main sail, the captain barks more directions and the ship turns to chase it.
Far from a noisy nuisance, the thunderous snapping of wind in the sailcloth is music to my ears. That's one way a sailing ship can change you.
Choosing a cruise lately, I noticed that subtlety had been tossed overboard. Each cruise line offered something stranger than the next: go-kart tracks, 4-D theatres; a tennis-court-sized deck that hangs over the ocean and moves like an elevator. I decided I didn't want the megacruise, I wanted the anti-cruise.
A week of exploring and snorkelling on a tall ship in Indonesia? Now we're talking. A voyage on Star Clipper, I would discover, was like sailing on a private yacht into uncharted waters – with all the drama, human and nautical, that implies.
Our trip on Star Clipper – one of three barques operated by Star Clippers Ltd. – left from and returned to Benoa, the port of Bali. While Bali's active volcano closed its international airport for two days in late 2017, Mount Agung is calming down. The threat level has dropped and tourism on almost all of the island is open for business.
It's an easy 15-minute cab ride from the airport to reach the cruise port. The ship's trip out of Benoa, however, is much harder. The shoals, sandbanks and tides that plague the port make it notoriously tricky to manoeuvre around, or – if you're captain Sergey Tunikov – a beautiful mathematical challenge.
We were leaving Benoa in the dark, and the starry skies and lights strung along the rigging made it feel all the more delightful – at first. Giddy passengers clinked glasses of sparkling wine and waved to parties on passing boats, but I noticed the captain was extremely tense. He paced between the bridge and the ship's rail, checking his charts and GPS readings then constantly assessing our position as we motored backward down the strait. He ordered crew to stand watch for shoals as our 110-metre ship started backing up and turning in the narrow channel; then he had the second in command direct a spotlight at fishing boats now dangerously close.
"Sometimes, we're charting like it's Columbus's times," Tunikov would tell a few of us later. For all the electronic maps and GPS signals at his disposal, for all the wind speed he can monitor and local sailors he can confer with, he still must whip through mental calculations every second, choosing the safest manoeuvre for that moment. "It's interesting on a professional level, but it's challenging."
With his salt-and-pepper hair, Russian accent and figure kept trim by martial arts, Tunikov, who also has a degree in mathematical science, cut a dashing figure in his sailor whites – often wielding a set of nunchucks on the bridge to pass the time. The fact that I learned this much about the man in charge after one casual conversation and after only a day or two on board says a lot about the laid-back, get-to-know-you atmosphere on Star Clipper: Not only do the ship's officers mingle with guests, they share meals in the same fine-dining room, and all crew – from captain to bosun to able seaman – are happy to chat about what they're doing. Passengers are not only encouraged to step onto the bridge to see what's going on but are offered a chance to take the helm, raise a sail and climb the mast – the crew want passengers to understand they're not just cruising, they're sailing.
The vibe on board has earned the cruise line a number of diehard, repeat guests; I met several who'll never sail an ordinary ocean liner again.
"It's so much smaller and more intimate. It doesn't feel like you're going on vacation with the entire state of New Jersey," Virginia lawyer Richard Howard-Smith, 57, said. This was his fourth Star Clipper trip, and he and his wife were already discussing when to lock down their fifth. "It's a real working ship," he made a point of telling me a few days later, "you don't get that anywhere else."
But it's a real working ship that hasn't forgotten a passenger's creature comforts; ensuite staterooms below decks are tight but comfortable, with colourful, nautical decor. Meals are open-seating, allowing you to mingle and share the day's adventures and ship's gossip – after all, with dicey WiFi, this ship is a closed world: Who was the captain sitting with tonight? Those two, again? Did you hear that too many people turned up to climb the mast this morning? A lot of people went away angry. Did you catch the cruise director's 21st-century-pirate lecture? Fascinating!
In the dining room, generous pours of wine from congenial waiters go a long way toward making up for menu offerings that, while satisfying, often felt uninspired and out of date (salads swamped with thick, goopy dressing anyone?). And yet when baked Alaska was paraded in to great fanfare one night, the room erupted in whoops and hollers that did not sound ironic. After dinner, the live music also felt as if it was from another era, and not in a good way. Better to take a drink up to the top deck and lounge in a deck chair, searching out stars in the southern sky with your new ship friends.
But when Star Clipper's dining room or entertainment disappointed, the ports of call did not. And the sunsets in this part of the world leave you speechless – sometimes even the crew paused to watch.
Eastbound from Bali, the trip is a beach bum's dream. Bright orange lifeboats were deployed as we neared the beaches or snorkelling reefs of Satonda, Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno, Gili Nanggu and Komodo. They'd bob in the ocean like bath toys, shuttling passengers to dry land. Or, if the tide was low, we would transfer to Zodiac boats, which meant splashing into the surf when there was no dock. It was physical and fun, but not the kind of cruise you'd want to be on with less-agile folk. We snorkelled five out of seven days. The quality of the coral reefs varied – so many in Indonesia have been destroyed and are regrowing slowly – but there was always something incredible to see: octopus, starfish, turtles and fish of all shapes and sizes.
On the volcanic island of Satonda, a sweaty uphill hike around a crater lake ended when we found thousands of screeching fruit bats hanging in the trees and flying overhead. As mesmerizing as it was creepy, we turned back as soon as the bats – and their veiny, metre-plus wingspans – flew too close one too many times.
But it was the idea of traipsing around Komodo Island, home to the deadly monitor lizard, that kept some of us up at night.
We approached Komodo at sunrise, which my friend Martha and I watched from the bowsprit nets, suspended nine metres over the water in front of the ship. As the ship slid past some of the 17,000 islands that make up Indonesia, we lay listening to the Savu Sea lap against the hull. The warm breeze that quiet morning carried the scent of exotic flowers and adventure.
The Komodo dragon is an ugly, dun-coloured beast with enormous, serrated teeth. It can weigh 70 kilograms and grow three metres long in the wild, it eats its young if the babies don't climb a tree fast enough after hatching and it kills by bleeding its victims to death. Septic saliva from a Komodo bite prevents blood from clotting, and the cold-blooded killers can smell blood from four kilometres away. Three months before our ship arrived, a tourist ventured out to explore on his own and had his leg ripped open – he needed 43 stitches and a lot of antibiotics. "Luckily it was a small Komodo that bit him," local police told a reporter at the time.
So why did our national park guide only carry a forked, pointy stick for protection?
"We push them in the neck," demonstrates our guide, Dullah, explaining that's the Komodo's weak spot. With trepidation, our group of 15 heads out and we see a dragon right away. Rushing over to the beach, we get incredibly (stupidly?) close. It's big – maybe 1.5 metres long – but only an adolescent. What a strange thrill to see something so primeval staring right at you. The Komodo sways his tail, flicks his tongue and tries to walk away. But wait, here comes another tour group – suddenly the deadly lizard is surrounded by dozens of camera-toting tourists. Seeing that this may not end well, our guides takes us farther along the trail. But there are too many other groups – one visitor is live-texting his friends at home – and a few of us soon realize any further sightings will be a mob scene.
For the first time on this trip, my anti-cruise excursion is starting to feel more like a megacruise experience. A side deal is negotiated quietly with a guide, and three of us peel off into the brush on our own private excursion – pointy stick at the ready.
Komodo's dusty landscape now comes alive in the quiet of our small group hike; we traipse through open savanna grasslands, dry scrub and tropical deciduous forest. We pause tentatively outside a Komodo's hillside lair, and scurry along dry creekbeds hoping not to see any cobras or green tree vipers as we continue our cautious hunt for more Komodos. By the time we're done, the three of us will have seen six dragons, including two babies, as well as wandering Timor deer and wild boar (i.e., Komodo food).
At one point, we climb up a rocky cliff and follow the ridge line until we break out onto a clearing with a stirring view of the beach and the bay below. Even with her sails tied down, the four-masted Star Clipper is the most imposing, impressive vessel in sight. I realize that this ship, this trip – even this slightly crazy, off-book trek through the Komodo dragon's backyard – is just the kind of unforgettable, anti-cruise adventure I craved.
If you go
The Star Clipper fleet is modelled after historic wooden sailing ships of yore. The line's newest ship, Flying Clipper, is based on a five-masted barque that was once part of the French merchant navy. When it enters service later this year, Flying Clipper will be the largest sailing ship in the world, and the cruise line's most luxurious vessel, with 150 staterooms, balcony cabins and three pools. Expect it to sail in the Caribbean and Mediterranean.
The ship I sailed on – Star Clipper – island hops in Indonesia heading eastbound and westbound from Bali's port of Benoa. Spend seven beachy days (with a stop at Komodo National Park) on the eastern trip. Westbound sailings stop on the north side of Bali, on Java and islands off Lombok. Staterooms start at US$1,395 a person, double occupancy, and flights are not included. If you want to explore Bali proper, book a few extra days pre- or postcruise. For more details, visit starclippers.com.
The writer was a guest of Star Clippers cruises. The company did not review or approve the story.