One of the most biodiverse places on Earth, the Indonesian archipelago is a fantasia of coral gardens, limestone peaks and turquoise lagoons
Words by KATHRYN ROMEYN
In a state encompassing 840 miles of coastline, Californians are conditioned to love the ocean. But when the yearning for warmer, clearer waters; more vivid arrays of subaquatic species; and white sand beaches devoid of any other humans hits, the most beautiful and little-known balm is the Raja Ampat archipelago in Indonesia, just west of Papua New Guinea and part of the famed Coral Triangle.
Gloriously remote and wonderfully empty, the hundreds of islands there around four larger masses (the name means “four kings” in Bahasa Indonesia) are the embodiment of heaven on Earth and as close to pristine as it seems possible to find anywhere these days.
Beyond lush, Mother Nature’s playground in Raja Ampat highlights jewel-toned waters, jungle-covered limestone karst outcroppings, and dolphins, turtles and actual birds of paradise. Though its remoteness is one of its best assets, and accommodations are sparse, would-be guests do have a few exceptional options.
Misool Eco Resort is one of the most beloved hideaways, set atop powder-white beaches with easy access to the resort’s “house reef,” where you can snorkel with baby blacktip reef sharks, octopuses, parrotfish and other wildlife among the coral. Limited to just 40 guests, the property feels perfectly private, and offers everything a person could need for a transformative getaway: meals made with the ultimate in fresh ingredients, spa treatments using Indonesian wellness remedies, traditional cooking classes, and a specialized dive center.
Built with reclaimed tropical hardwoods (milled on-site) Misool Eco Resort comprises 11 rustic-chic, Balinese-style open-air villas with gorgeous views of the archipelago and azure waters, in addition to eight cottages situated on stilts directly over the water.
Another option for overnight stays is Prana, a new 180-foot-long chartered yacht built in the UNESCO-protected Indonesian phinisi style. Brought to life by Atzaró, an agrotourism hotel group in Ibiza, it’s the largest and most luxurious phinisi known, in fact, able to cruise the tropical uninhabited islands in style with up to 18 guests and a 12-person crew.
With nine well-appointed suites and nearly 10,000 square feet of Balinese-style living spaces over four decks, Prana also features an outdoor cinema, masseuses and scuba guides, a yoga deck, and a lounge serving Western and Asian fusion dishes made with local ingredients. Paddleboards, kayaks, water skiing and wakeboarding are also on offer. Raja Ampat is Prana’s domain every December through April; guests can charter it to sail in the Spice Islands from May to November, and to Komodo National Park from June to October.
Wherever you choose to anchor for your Balinese holiday, here are three musts while visiting this thriving aquatic wonderland.
Snorkel at Anita and Dive at Melissa’s Garden
The encouraging diving staff of Prana by Atzaró caters to and customizes itineraries around all skill and comfort levels. Cape Kri is the dive site where the most species sightings have been recorded during a single dive, but Melissa’s Garden is an unbelievable place to plunge meters down into the blue and easily spot technicolor tropical fish, anemones, nudibranchs, barracuda and even pygmy seahorses. Nearby, Anita is a small island snorkelers can slowly circle, swimming close to its craggy sides teeming with vivid corals and creatures that gleam like gemstones. Schools of iridescent fish streak through the water while soft corals of unimaginable variety seem to breathe gently with the swell — it’s like you’ve jumped inside a perfectly curated aquarium.
Climb Wayag Peak
Raja Ampat isn’t short on scenic viewpoints, but few steal your breath quite like the peak of a petite isle called Wayag. The reasons are twofold. First, it’s a short but somewhat challenging climb, meaning between the steep limestone scrambling, humidity and equatorial sun you’ll be glistening and panting lightly by the top. It’s also maybe the most awe-inspiring tropical spectacle you’ll find anywhere in the world, a tie-dye of aquamarines and emeralds interspersed with rough-hewn islands whose silhouettes emulate cones and jagged teeth. The eye candy is sweetened by the shallow crystalline water waiting to refresh you after the descent. Swim or paddleboard through the still sea to find even more secluded palm-fringed parcels of powdered sugar sand.
Swim With Sharks
In California, if someone yells “shark!” it sparks immediate action — frantic, panicked movement toward land. In Raja Ampat it’s the exact opposite. A shark spotting is a cue to dive deeper, swim faster toward it. That’s because the species regularly found in this archipelago don’t threaten humans (of course, one is still advised to keep a respectful distance), including impressively sized whale sharks and graceful giant manta rays. Hop a tender off the Prana to reach a beach where baby blacktips swarm your feet in sandy shallows. And lumpy as they are, tasseled wobbegong sharks are still sights to behold, as is the walking shark, a species that uses its fins like legs to move over the shallow reef around the Misool Eco Resort.
Feature image: A view of Padar Island from Komodo Island in Komodo National Park, Labuan Bajo, Flores, Indonesia. Photo by Thrithot/Shutterstock.
Jan. 17, 2020
Discover more TRAVEL news.