I first heard of Raja Ampat from a diving buddy of mine. It was one of those destinations whispered by avid scuba divers over a few cold beers, its mention so often followed by a moment of silent wonder and reflection. You fly to Jakarta, so the story went, and then travel the length of the world’s largest archipelago, leaving civilization behind as you reached the island of Papua, a wild place of isolated tribes, headhunting and piracy. There you would find a paradise like no other. As a traveller already swoon by the many faces of Indonesia, I was determined to visit, but its remoteness from the modern world for years kept it just beyond my grasp. Until now.
From the top deck of the Alila Purnama, I watch tiny, unassuming Sorong, Raja Ampat’s big smoke, fade beyond the horizon as we motor west towards one of the most dramatic sunset as I’ve ever seen. The sky is an explosion of colours - reds, violets, indigos and peach plumed - framed on either side by the deep blue of the sea and the inky darkness of night. The waters around us are calm and shimmer in the dusk, and my fellow travellers, cocktails in hand, are awed into a collective silence. It’s an unforgettable start to an unforgettable journey.
A beautifully-constructed liveaboard built in the style of the traditional twin-masted phinisis that once plied Indonesia’s trade routes, the Alila Purnama, or Full Moon, is operated by Alila Hotels & Resorts as one of the most lavish liveaboards in Asia. A member of the coveted Secret Retreats collection, she has just five luxurious cabins, including a sumptuous master suite with its own soak tub and balcony; a crew of 14; expansive decks cooled by the trade winds; and a barman who never ceases to impress with his knowledge of vintage sundowners. I’m immediately convinced that there’s no other way to explore this remote and exotic locale.
Raja Ampat, which means ‘Four Kings’, takes its name from the four main islands of an archipelago that counts more than 1,500 isles, cays, and shoals. Like a lost Eden, is has wide open seas, fresh air, uninhabited, jungle-encrusted islands, powder white sand beaches, pods of resident dolphins and manta, and locals bound by both Indonesian and Papuan blood. However, people come to Raja Ampat for one thing: to dive. The Pacific and Indian Ocean currents which flow through this geographic bottleneck breathe life into Raja Ampat’s kaleidoscopic coral gardens, which have proven resilient against the bleaching and coral disease encountered around the equator. This, combined with a blissful lack of human interaction, ensures Raja Ampat is home to the greatest marine diversity on the planet, not to mention some pretty sensational dive experiences.
Alila Purnama’s general manager, a charismatic, world-wandering Spaniard named Mario, doubles as the ship’s senior dive instructor and with his trusty sidekick Zhou “Tiger” Taige, a young Chinese dive instructor from Hangzhou, leads double-daily dive excursions. From Balbulol Lagoon, a series of shallow, sun-kissed pools nestled in a labyrinth of limestone islands; to the whipping currents that swirl around Nudie Rock, popular with schools of jackfish; and Yillet Island, loved for its wall dives, every site offers its own challenges and its own adventures.
I’m joined on the Purnama by four other guests – Sayan and Tina, a young couple from Bali who still have that honeymoon vibe seven months in, and acclaimed Spanish painter Miquel Barceló and his Thai wife Rose, a notable chef. Although Rose and Tina are new to diving and spend much of their time in the tutelage of the ever-smiling by tyrannical Taige, they are soon diving with the group, tracking the samba sways of reef sharks and learning to adjust their buoyance in the ever-present and sometimes formidable tidal currents.
At the Boo Windows, we trace a wall punctuated with vibrant soft corals and nudibranches to a series of submerged ‘windows’ in the rock. Here we hook on to rocky outcrops and join inquisitive batfish and the odd camouflaged wobegong shark as we soar in the wake of the following current. Off the coast of Tomolol Island, we dive deep to enter Eddie’s Cave, which emerges again in a vast coral garden popular with shoals of glass and lion fish. I don’t know who Eddie was but I’m sure he couldn’t have been prouder.
But it’s not all about diving; each day we return to the ship to a smiling crew who dish out fruit cocktails and warm towels, relieving us of our gear like beaming butlers. Evenings climax with gourmet dinners with distinct regional twists, often using seafood brought from passing local fishermen (Rose even commandeers the kitchen to cook up a Thai feast one night). There’s a tiny library and shaded sun loungers on the foredeck, and there’s always time for cocktails to herald the sunset.
After a week cruising and diving, our last night is a parting gift from Mario and we’re transferred to a deserted beach clearing where burning torches ring a dining table decorated with fresh flowers. Under a startling canopy of stars, we toast the beauty of Raja Ampat, and to the mesmerizing underwater paradise of its four kings. May they reign forever.
IF YOU GO
Cruising: Alila Purnama, a member of Secret Retreats, offers private charters and single cabin buy-ins from US$14,000 per couple for 6 nights. http://secret-collections.com