Carolyn Beasley explores one of the world’s most biodiverse marine environments on private luxury vessel, Rascal
Bouncing across a lightly choppy ocean in a small tender boat, I’m getting tangled up in my haste to don my snorkelling gear. I’m with a dozen of my closest family and friends, travelling on a luxury charter boat called Rascal. We’re approaching Manta Sandy, an underwater cleaning station for the harmless, gigantic rays.
I’m bobbing on the surface when I hear Cruise Director Gaz Phillips shout: “Manta coming!” Children and adults alike squeal through their snorkels in excitement as a giant shadow approaches and then another. While we hover, two majestic mantas, up to four metres wide, seem to fly and bank through the water, enjoying the services of cleaner fish right below us.
This kind of spectacle is common in the Raja Ampat Islands, in Indonesia’s West Papua province. The island chain consists of more than 1500 beautiful islands and is touted by scientists as the richest marine environment in the world.
With 75 per cent of the planet’s hard coral species, 1300 varieties of fish, five types of sea turtles, two kinds of manta rays, and forests thick with birds, the area is an eco-enthusiast’s dream.
To fully experience this natural wonder, my family and two others have chartered our own boat. Raja Ampat translates to ‘four kings’, and this week we’re being treated like royalty on Rascal, launched in 2017.
The remote location means Raja Ampat has mostly attracted only dedicated divers, and while this boat certainly caters for them, non-divers here are just as spoilt. Rascal is a wooden phinisi; built by traditional Konjo boat builders of Sulawesi. By forgoing the largely ornamental sails and masts, the boat instead provides four large communal deck areas for gatherings.
Checking in to the master cabin, I’m struck by the 180-degree ocean views, the modern ‘Hamptons’ styling and the oversized bathroom. According to co-owner Erik Barreto, this is the only phinisi charter boat in Indonesia with five double ensuite cabins, all of which are above deck, meaning everyone enjoys a view. The boat is built from light timbers, decorated with tropical art works and finished with fresh nautical blue and white cushions.
Our party is introduced to the crew of 10, including our private chef, who we come to love very much for his superb multi-course meals and homemade cakes. We steam out of Sorong harbour and into a remote paradise, and WiFi networks and work emails are replaced with spinner dolphins and diving frigate birds. As we motor through islands, we pass the occasional tiny Papuan fishing village and whole families wave to us from their fishing canoes.
The luxury of Rascal is not only the boat itself, but also the lack of a structured itinerary. Phillips, formerly of Aman Resorts, has great experience in the area and, knowing that our group consists of divers, non-divers and children, offers expert suggestions.
“Would you like to set up a private beach party on this island for the afternoon?” he asks, and the crew zip across the aqua water to the perfect white beach with a gazebo, snorkelling equipment, stand-up paddleboards and kayaks, plus a cooler box of chilled drinks and snacks.
Personally, I’m most looking forward to the diving, and it doesn’t get more bespoke than this. Phillips arranges a dive for two of us at ‘Figure of Eight’, amid challenging surface swell and underwater currents. It’s worth the effort as the underwater life here is mind boggling, with schooling trevally, turtles, sharks, stonefish and a wall crowded with more sponges and soft corals than I’ve seen before. Later, Phillips takes the less experienced divers for an easier dive and on another day, our unqualified ‘tweens’ delight in an introductory scuba experience.
With marine life so prolific, even non-divers are immersed in the action. At Yenbuba Jetty, we snorkel at dusk with a sleepy hawksbill turtle. Drifting on gentle currents, we’re next in the midst of thousands of tuna, barracudas and huge Maori wrasse, and when we’ve had enough, our waiting speedboat whisks us back to Rascal for hot showers.
Hoping to capture a postcard-worthy photo, I clamber up the steep limestone hill of Mount Pindito. Who knew hiking could be luxurious? While one crew member has hovered at the back of our group to assist, another has ascended before us, and as I reach the top, puffing, he greets me with chilled water and a cold towel, presented elegantly on a wooden tray. The view of the Wayag Islands is simply spectacular, and we spy our solitary boat in the coral-rimmed lagoon far below.
After dinner, kids are tucked away in bed and the adults adjourn to the rooftop deck for a nightcap. The nearest town is hundreds of kilometres away, and the view of shooting stars blazing across the night sky is intoxicating (or maybe that’s the pinot noir).
A splash is heard nearby, and we guess it’s another jumping baby manta ray, like one we saw earlier. As we sit, our waitress appears. “I brought you another bottle of the pinot,” she says helpfully, as we raise a glass to great friends, to Raja Ampat, and to travelling like royalty.