Scales glinting, this Komodo dragon looks, well… stoned.
We’re cruising Indonesia on the Alila Purnama. And today we’re taking a break from diving Komodo National Park – we’re ashore on a Komodo island tour looking for the island’s fearsome dragons. And we’ve found one.
Komodo Island tour of the dragons
Never mind that the Komodo dragon is the world’s largest and most lethal lizard – in 2009, two dragons attacked and killed a fisherman picking wild apples when he fell from a tree. Or that the deadly creatures (which lunch on goats, deer, wild boar and yes, occasionally humans) have inch-long serrated teeth that drip hemorrhagic venom.
This dragon looks harmless, dozing in the sun. Like a college student on a Sunday, lazing about with earbuds plugged in.
This is the dangerous beast we’d so wanted to see?
But whoah, when it starts to move, spitting out its menacing tongue and throwing its body from side to side, with its powerful muscular tail snaking behind, it’s another story.
“Dragons run fast, up to 12 mph,” warns Tasrif, our ranger-guide as he hustles us out of its way.
Curiously, Tasrif has no gun, just a large forked stick which he holds at the ready.
But no one fancies being the animal’s next meal. So we cautiously walk around this specimen and continue our hunt for more sightings – the infamous dragons are found only on Komodo and neighboring Indonesian islands.
Meet the stylish Alila Purnama
Sailing Indonesia on the Alila Purnama to Komodo National Park offers a host of surprises and thrills, of which the dragons are just one.
Indeed, one of the biggest surprises is how luxurious a bespoke sailing ship experience can be.
Built as a phinisi:
Launched in 2012, the Alila Purnama (translated, the “Full Moon”) was hand-built in the style of a traditional phinisi. These two-masted ships were originally used by the Bugis seafarers plying Indonesian waters in days gone by, trading in bird-of-paradise feathers and other exotic goods.
All polished teak and rattan, with billowing camel-colored sails, the Alila Purnama is a 150-foot beauty.
Though nautical in feel, her five staterooms could be mistaken for stylish hotel rooms (Singapore-based Alila Hotels and Resorts manages the ship) – with queen-size beds, 400-threadcount linens, mother-of-pearl mosaic tiled showers and individually-controlled air-conditioning.
And oh the goodies we discover!
Pillow-soft bathrobes and slippers, a wicker beachbag, sunhats and sarongs, a yoga mat and a huge wooden box filled with lemongrass body lotions, after-sun cooling gels and face mist.
Daybeds on deck:
Up top, on the sweeping bow deck, there are cushioned double daybeds under parasols for each couple to lounge on (iced cappuccinos anyone?).
There’s lots of space for privacy too, even a small library with books on the colorful local sea life.
Most important, the service onboard is first-class. In no time at all, the Indonesian waiters know each guest’s individual preferences for drinks, coffees (double shot? extra foam?) and teas, which magically appear at each meal before anyone can ask.
If this is sailing, sign us up!
Flying to Komodo Island
Our voyage starts with a 95-minute prop flight from the island of Bali over a sprinkling of velvety green islands, ringed by different shades of turquoise ocean.
Indonesia is a vast archipelago of over 17,000 islands (only 1,000 inhabited), so we’ll be sailing to a select few.
In Labuan Bajo on Flores island – a tiny speck of a town with tin roof houses and feisty chickens scurrying across red dirt roads – we transfer to the Alila Purnama, anchored in the bay.
Barefoot luxury on our Komodo liveaboard
Up first? Surrendering our shoes and sandals.
Going barefoot is the rule sailing Indonesia on this ultra-luxury Komodo liveaboard.
Over lunch around the massive dining table, we meet our six fellow guests – a Singapore-based couple celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary, two French women friends and a honeymoon couple from Mexico City.
Later, the certified scuba divers among us suit up for an easy reef dive, surfacing at sunset beneath an apricot sky.
The Alila Purnama has its own fully licensed PADI dive center onboard catering to beginner and expert divers.
All the diving in Komodo we could possibly want is included.
Over the course of our cruise, divemaster Johnny and our cruise director Mario (also a master dive guide) take us out on up to three dives a day, even a night dive.
Our eyes pop with the underwater sights we see diving Komodo National Park.
We explore garden upon garden of candy-colored corals in wonderful and weird shapes – lilac fingers, monster brain coral and yellow heart valves.
Bug-eyed garden eels peek out from their sand holes.
Blue-spotted stingrays coast by, and enormous sea cucumbers shaped like Styrofoam boxes rest on the sandy bottom.
Yellow-and-black striped Moorish Idols, their graceful dorsal fins fluttering behind them, nibble away.
At Castle Rock – a colossal coral-encrusted pinnacle rising to 13 feet underwater, rated one of the world’s 10 best dive sites – Mario expertly guides us during a lull between normally strong currents into a fish superhighway.
We’re engulfed by more sea life than we’ve ever gaped at in our lives – enormous schools of silvery jackfish, white-tipped reef sharks, slow-cruising turtles, lionfish, fat puffer fish, even a pair of lacy, superbly camouflaged, leaf scorpion fish.
Each time we clamber back into the zodiac, we’re handed fluffy towels. Minutes later on our luxurious Komodo liveaboard, we’re welcomed back with glacier-cold facecloths and fresh papaya-and-mango or orange-and-carrot juice.
One of the 16 staff always starts helping us off with our wetsuits.
“Sit, please sit!” we’re cajoled, and the neoprene is peeled off us while we snack on smoked salmon appies.
Diving has never been so pampered!
Sometimes we join in the non-diving guests’ activities – kayaking (the Alila Purnama carries its own sea kayaks), snorkeling and going for a spin on the “doughnut” inflatable, pulled behind a high-speed boat.
On a couple of occasions, discreet hands set up cushions under umbrellas on deserted islands, hauling over coolers of sodas (and face mist too) – so we can lie back and revel in the awesomeness of being the only ones on a strip of talc-white sand, with no other souls in sight.
One afternoon, we all scramble up an islet’s rocky cliffs for a sunset view of the islands below and Mount Sangeang (“mountain of spirits” in Balinese) in the distance.
The volcanic mountain sits in Indonesia’s notorious Ring of Fire.
Thankfully, its spirits are feeling kindly toward us and the mountain slumbers in peace for us. (We hear later it blew its top shortly after our visit.)
Komodo Island trip:
And then, in the sweltering heat, we arrive at Komodo for our walk through the nature park.
After the initial excitement of our first dragon, we spy a couple more resting in the bush.
About 50 to 60 intrepid visitors set foot on the island each day to look for the dragons (over 1,800 call the island home). Tasrif tells us one dragon is occasionally fed so it stays close to the ranger hut, guaranteeing expectant visitors at least one sighting.
Back at the landing site, the biggest danger we face is parting with our souvenir money.
Michael, the shrewd trader from Singapore, shows interest in the “real” black pearl necklaces going for $10 or less, and we’re all mobbed by a crowd of skinny young men hawking carved dragons and other local artefacts. Of course, a two-foot wooden dragon finds its way into our suitcase.
Alila Purnama cruise farewell
Our last evening brings a special surprise.
Instead of dinner onboard, a motorboat takes everyone to a beach, where the staff have created a restaurant in the sand for us.
We’re escorted to our table along a sandy path lined by hand-placed seashells, past a freshly-built Komodo dragon sand sculpture.
Lanterns hang on sticks and candles glimmer in holes in driftwood and rocks.
Our meal is served, course after course – Greek salad, shrimp and barbecued beef, grilled calamari in a spicy tomatoey sauce, fresh fish, and finally chocolate mousse cake. At the urging of his staff, Mario picks up a guitar and sings.
We join in too as best we can – we’ve all become family over this week and can’t believe this sailing adventure must soon come to an end.
Sailing Indonesia: If you decide to treat yourself
The deluxe Alila Purnama sails several itineraries: a Komodo Island cruise from July to September; the remote Raja Ampat (in Indonesia’s West Papua province) from November to February/March; Cendrawasih Bay from March to June; and the Banda Spice Islands in October.
The Komodo Island trip and most Raja Ampat trips are six nights long; Cendrawasih Bay trips are five nights each. Some nine-night voyages are also offered.
Unlimited scuba diving, activities and meals are included in the rates (but not alcohol).
You have to make your own way to Flores island, a 95-minute flight from Bali. We’ve flown EVA Airlines a couple of times now to Asia; they fly to Bali via Taipei and we’ve found their ticket prices and service to be good. See our Eva Air review.
For more information on the Alila Purnama:
See the Alila Purnama website.
Where to stay before or after your cruise:
Alila Hotels and Resorts, which operates the Alila Purnama, also manages several luxury boutique resorts in Indonesia, India and Oman, including the oh-so-deluxe Alila Villas Uluwatu and Alila Villas Soori, where we stayed right before our cruise. (See our reviews here.)
Our magazine feature on the Alila Purnama
How lucky were we! We sailed on the Alila Purnama on assignment for Cruise & Travel Lifestyles magazine. Our story was published in the Fall/Winter 2015 issue. Click on the image below to read a PDF of this article.
Update June 30, 2016
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We’re Janice and George Mucalov, professional award-winning travel writers, sharing tales of luxury travel with a twist of adventure.