Cruising by Yacht to Indonesia’s Raja Ampat
Raja Ampat– Pearls, sharks and birds of Paradise, on board the Phinisi Yacht Prana
By Inka Piegsa-Quischotte
Raja Ampat, also known as the Four Kingdoms, is an archipelago of more than 1500 islands, located just off the coast of West Papua in Indonesia.
The islands are mostly known as an exceptionally attractive destination for scuba divers because of the colorful reefs and abundance of fish of all species. Raja Ampat has, for example, 10 times the amount of hard coral species than the Caribbean.
Even if you, like me, only dare to snorkel, you are richly rewarded. The reefs reach nearly to the surface and the fish kiss your mask in an instant.
Of 1500, only four are bigger, the rest are mostly uninhabited or just a floating rock. The big four are Waigeo, Miscool, Salawati, and Batana. Others, which we visited are
Kri, Piaynemo and Aljuy Bay.
The only way to get around, after flying into Sorong on the mainland, is by boat.
I was lucky enough to have been invited on a 4-day cruise on the luxurious Phinisi yacht Prana.
The Yacht Prana
Phinisi means a traditional Indonesian wooden yacht and the Prana calls herself the biggest and most luxurious of the four or five that are around.
Apart from all the wonders of Raja Ampat, underwater as well as on land, the beauty is that there is no trace of over tourism or maddening crowds. Peace, quiet and brilliant nature, you couldn’t ask for more.
With only a maximum of 19 passengers, a cruise like that makes a big difference from the usual behemoths cruising the oceans. Big cabins, 3 decks, food prepared by a Balinese chef and a crew that helps you with just about anything is my idea of floating in luxury. https://pranabyatzaro.com/
Don’t get the wrong idea though. This was a pretty active vacation, with diving, hiking in the jungle, snorkeling, balancing in a canoe and a paddle board, plus early starts jumping into the speed boats, a little relax in between was most welcome.
So was a massage from the relentless Anna! “It may hurt now,” she said, “but will do you good later”. Suffice it to say, that I ended up with bruises and not from falling off a paddleboard.
Apart from that, our rewards were 2nd breakfasts (after an early morning hike watching the mating of birds of paradise), cocktails on the upper deck, some yoga if so desired and an absolute succulent BBQ on the beach with lobster and seafood galore.
In, on and under water
Raja Ampat is not a destination for novice scuba divers. The Prana offers all necessary equipment plus 2 dive masters to supervise things and accompany on the dives.
They wouldn’t allow people without a certificate and with good reason. The dives are deep and the currents can be strong.
But, as I could see from the photographs my diving fellow travelers took, the views are astounding.
The colors and shapes of the reefs alone are incredible, not to mention swimming with giant mantas and other rare fish in such abundance that they looked like clouds.
Snorkeling, however, was equally nice, because the reefs rear up nearly to the surface and I was accompanied by a giant turtle which wasn’t shy at all.
The best dives are around Misool and near Piaynemo, but it doesn’t really matter, there are opportunities everywhere.
Activities under water done for the day, it was time for some fun on the water. Out came the canoes and the paddleboards as well as two floats in the shape and color of an orange and a strawberry for the lazy ones.
For the first time ever, I ventured on a paddle board but found it difficult to keep my balance because the waves were stronger than they appeared. In the end, I opted for the strawberry. Climbing back on board, crew members were lined up with a rolled up hot towel and a fruit drink.
Jungle hikes and birds of paradise
Waigeo, the largest island, is home to several rare species of birds of paradise. To watch them mating, we had to get up at 4 am, got a quick coffee and jumped in the speedboats to be taken to the village of Saporkrem from where a steep jungle path which included climbing rocks, leads up to the trees which the birds of paradise favor for their love life.
All we saw and heard was a lot of flapping feathers and vigorous chirping, you couldn’t really see what the birds looked like. They are at it for exactly one hour, then silence falls until the next morning. The climb back down was even more hair-raising, but no twisted ankles.
This was followed by the 2nd breakfast which became a ritual for our group. And back to visit the village of Saporkrem. You can’t just walk into the island villages, you have to be accompanied by a guide, in our case a crew member, because it is good manners to ask the elder for permission first.
A toothless grin and nod and the locals were happy to point out their houses, the village school and to show us how coconut oil is made. Basically by boiling the flesh for 10 hours in a huge pot. The kids are a delight too.
One of our group was a very tall man and they clung to him like bugs. Everyone likes to pose and have their picture taken, but again, don’t forget to ask permission first.
The next jungle hike was on the island of Wayag where we climbed mount Pindito for an overall view of the ‘typical’ image of Raja Ampat: countless cone-shaped islets, covered in the jungle or with stark cliffs poking out of the ocean like mushrooms.
Surrounded by small but very white beaches and ink blue water.
We recharged batteries with a mouth-watering BBQ on the beach.
The never-tiring crew brought everything including chairs and umbrellas over from the yacht and taking it back the same way so as not to leave any trace behind.
Lunch was followed by a walk along the beach to visit a ranger station and off to the next adventure: swimming with sharks!
The sharks love to gather in the bay and are so close to shore you can sit in the water and (try to) touch them. OK, we were quite safe because most of them were baby sharks and the crew members fed them first with plenty of leftover chicken so they didn’t feel the need to nibble at our toes or worse.
The third jungle hike was on Piaynemo Island, a nature reserve where 392 steps lead up through the rainforest to an observation platform.
This island also features a homestay where you can stay and book a less expensive Raja Ampat tour than on the Prana. Other islands with homestays are Kri and Gam. They’ll arrange diving tours by boat. website www.piaynemo.com/
The last day of the cruise featured a land excursion I was particularly looking forward to a visit to the Atlas Pearl Farm in Aljuy Bay.
It’s an Australian owned enterprise giving jobs to some 200 locals. I love pearls, in fact, I wear a piece of pearl jewelry every day. The process of cultivating and maturing the oysters is a long one, all very well documented in the farm.
Then the highlight: harvesting a pearl. An oyster is selected, clamped into a device and gently blown at with hot air, so it opens. And out pops.. a perfect pearl!
This is also the only occasion where you can actually buy something on the islands, other than a drink from one of the shacks or coconut oil, soap or lotion in the one vending post at the foot of Piaynemo.
A Few things to Consider
Forget about credit cards and the internet. Get plenty of Indonesian Rupees in small notes for tips and minor purchases like to above-mentioned drinks. Internet coverage is next to nonexistent. It flickered on and off the closer we came to Sorong, but otherwise, it’s an ideal occasion to detox from cyberspace.
Wear sun protection at all times. You are at the equator and although most of the time it was overcast, the sun will burn you especially on the water.
The best time to visit is between November and March. From May to October, the islands experience the heaviest rainfalls which will make jungle paths a hazard.
I’ll say it again: ask permission if you want to take pictures. Indonesia is a Muslim country and although most of the islanders are Christians, you never know and it’s common curtsey.
It may be a cliché, but Raja Ampat is one of the last paradises on earth, one can only hope that it remains so.
Additional photos of the Cruise in Raja Ampat by Erica Fong
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Inka Piegsa-Quischotte is a former attorney turned travel writer, photographer and novelist based in Miami and Istanbul who writes with verve and flair about destinations where it’s warm, particularly the Mediterranean World. Her work has appeared in The Expeditioner, Literary Traveler, Travel Thru History, Popular Hispanics, Traveln-on, Smithsonian magazine, Europe Up Close and Turkish Airlines’ inflight magazine, SkyLife.