With a raw beauty rarely found elsewhere and over 17,000 largely untouched islands to explore, the phenomenal, wide-ranging Indonesian archipelago offers cruising grounds unlike any other. While Bali is perhaps the best known and most commercial isle for tourism, the region abounds with myriad wild coastlines, shimmering beaches and azure bays which you will have all to yourself.
Diving enthusiasts will be blown away by the incredible waters and marine life of Raja Ampat and the Anambas Islands while UNESCO-listed Komodo National Park is home to over 4,000 Komodo dragons. These are just a few of the reasons for choosing to cruise Indonesia despite the downside that foreign flagged vessels are currently not permitted to charter in the region. On the plus side, for yacht owners who can afford to stay in the region without any charter income, cruising in Indonesia is possible year-round across an area equivalent in size to mainland North America.
‘Indonesia is incredibly scenic, the cruising grounds are the perfect place to be lost in nature,’ says Andy Shorten, whose Lighthouse Consultancy provides shore support to visiting yachts. ‘There are attractions above and below the surface, with topside explorations including secluded bays, pristine beaches, uninhabited islands, 16th century forts, dramatic cliffs, grassy hikes and wonderful waterfalls. Dazzling coral reefs, pinnacles and drop-offs can be explored through snorkelling or world class dives.’
Finnish-born Nikko Karki of Indo Yachts agrees. He was drawn to the area 10 years ago by the adventurous spirit of Indonesia. ‘To anyone who has lived in a seasonal climate or cruised in an area that is overcrowded, boating in Indonesia will feel like a dream come true,’ says Nikko, whose Bali-based yacht charter brokerage also devises itineraries combining charters with land accommodation and private jets when required.
'The natural bounties awaiting discovery range from manta rays and whale sharks to the most incredible diving on the planet.
‘The region attracts a different kind of clientele to other destinations. Most of the clients we get out here are families who are very keen on spending time together in nature. It’s a very feel-good segment.
‘We’re on the equator so we have wonderful weather year-round - unlike Finland’s six weeks of summer!. We also have so much open water to cruise that you can have huge areas to yourself for days on end, which is lovely compared to the crowds in the Med.
‘The landscapes vary considerably; you could essentially keep going for months and see the topographies change along with the wildlife and cultures on land. The archipelago is defined by natural wonders and below the surface, marine life offers another layer of activities, whether that’s diving, snorkelling or fishing.’
Getting the message across to captains that Indonesia punches above its weight in terms of experience is the challenge ahead, according to Catalano Shipping’s Richard Lofthouse, who helped develop and now runs Benoa Marina in Bali.
‘We have got to sell the experience to people, which is so far beyond what you can enjoy in Europe,’ he asserts. ‘Sometimes you have to diffuse a few issues in Indonesia as things can go sideways, but once guests and captains come, it blows their minds and they can’t wait to come back.
‘The experience will bring the numbers, the numbers will create the infrastructure, the infrastructure will create the pressure and this will create the changes we need to see. It’s a knock-on effect.’
In the last decade, infrastructure and yachting experience has improved immensely but there is much more to do. ‘We’re still behind the curve,’ admits Andy. ‘However, yachting is in its infancy in SEA, so that is to be expected as it takes time for people to appreciate the potential.
‘As the years pass, more people understand the requirements of visiting vessels and this helps to ensure the guest experiences are at an exceptional level. As facilities improve, marinas evolve and vessels can consider a longer term stay, the yachting industry will also develop and it will be easier to complete some of the support elements that are currently a challenge.’
Infrastructure to support increased arrivals into the region have greatly improved, according to Adam Frost of Seal Superyachts. ‘It's now easy to access all of Asia via commercial flights. If coming in privately, many local airports can accommodate charter flights without too much drama, giving clients the ability to pick and choose where their charters start and finish.
‘High end resorts and spas have also increased in the region, allowing charter guests to add fine dining, spa treatments and hire of day rooms into their yacht-based itineraries.
‘In the past, the itineraries we planned for clients were very much exploration-type cruises. Now with better shore-based amenities and attractions, we are finding that we can offer an improved balance when itinerary planning, incorporating five star resort luxury with exploration cruising, scuba diving and remote beach set-ups where and when guests want.’
With foreign-built yachts attracting high import taxes and foreign-flagged yachts forbidden to charter in Indonesia, the quality of available yachts for charter is an issue that needs to be addressed in order to appeal to the superyacht clientele.
‘Eventually we will have to open up to more foreign yachts if we want to reach a broader market of superyacht clients,’ says Nikko. ‘More privately owned superyachts are coming here in the 50m+ range but a family can take an easier route and do a charter on a locally-flagged yacht.
‘We have a few very well-made and highly-maintained yachts at the top of the market that are able to provide exceptional experiences. They feel very much like private villas if compared to a traditional white boat; they are extremely spacious and comfortable with immaculate finishes.’
For the time being, Indonesia’s strength lies in its extraordinary natural assets, rather than its man-made facilities. ‘There are very few places to stop and socialize so the yachts, crews and service concepts have all evolved to take full advantage of the destinations,’ Nikko explains.
‘Diving isn’t mandatory but all the yachts have full dive centres on board. Likewise, the itineraries tend to be more activity-focused than in more crowded areas. We usually plan some activity options morning and afternoon so there is plenty to do even in the most remote places.
‘Alternatively, guests can choose to stay at anchor and enjoy natural beauty for days on end if they prefer, with no one else around for miles.
‘The dinner set-ups on land, pop-up restaurant experiences and beach clubs on private stretches of white sand are like something out of a dream, and combined with Indonesia’s gorgeous landscapes and wildlife, they truly make for spectacular vacations. These are the special experiences that I think cruising in Indonesia will become more and more known for.’
But where's best to go?
Magnificent Komodo Island, located within the UNESCO World Heritage Komodo National Park, is a rugged terrain of volcanic hills, grass savannah, tropical rainforest and, as its name suggests, is also home to the world’s largest lizard, the eponymous Komodo dragon.
It’s a real-life Jurassic Park which will leave you awestruck at its beauty. ‘The signature cruising grounds of Komodo and Raja Ampat quite rightly get the most attention in Indonesia,’ says Andy Shorten. ‘The two regions differ in terms of environment, with Komodo a more concentrated area, more arid and Jurassic than the tropical island vibe you’ll find in Raja Ampat.’
Adam Frost, a former charter yacht captain who has sailed extensively through Indonesia, concurs with Andy. ‘Raja Ampat in Eastern Indonesia has stunning islands and anchorages and the Komodo Islands Marine National Park offers spectacular scuba diving, and of course the chance to see the legendary dragons,’ he says.
Raja Ampat, Indonesia Papua
A veritable paradise for divers and lovers of marine life, Raja Ampat’s four main islands – Waigeo to the north, Misool to the south, Salawati and Batanta in the centre – are surrounded by more than 1,500 smaller isles. It’s no wonder this remote archipelago has been described by scientists as a global epicentre of biodiversity, with a dazzling underwater world teeming with myriad marine life and colourful coral reefs.
Untouched by mass tourism, it’s the ultimate destination for off-grid adventures. ‘I love Raja Ampat and still feel like there is so much to be discovered there,’ adds Nikko. ‘It’s the definition of a tropical paradise and, besides being a lovely place to spend time, I believe there are still plenty of incredible anchorages and dive sites that have yet to be discovered by the masses.’
The Anambas Islands
A tropical paradise, this small and remote archipelago in northern Indonesia is located in the North Natuna Sea between the Malaysian mainland and Borneo, very close to Singapore. Of the 255 islands, just 26 are inhabited. Savour the panoramic views of azure blue seas, lagoons and white sand beaches protected by row after row of coconut trees or dive ad infinitum to explore the colourful and diverse marine life and admire the protected turtle habitats on the islands of Keramut and Mangkal.
At low tide, the islets almost connect through their sandbars, creating white sand-fringed aquamarine lagoons. Andy Treadwell, CEO of Verventia, organiser of the Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong Yacht Shows, is a big fan. ‘You can sail from Singapore to the Anambas in a day, and you arrive in a little piece of heaven that nobody knows about,’ he says. ‘It’s fantastic.’
Situated in the north east of the remote Papua, enormous Cendrawasih Bay is home to the largest marine park in Indonesia. Expect stunning coral gardens and sheer, awe-inspiring vertical walls to dive around. There are more whale sharks to be seen here than anywhere else in the world, and numerous Japanese wrecks left over from the Second World War are another major attraction. The area is one which remains largely undiscovered.
‘Cendrawasih Bay is gaining more attention, with deserted white sand beaches, stunning anchorages and the incredible whale shark interaction in the south of the bay,’ agrees Andy Shorten, a former diving instructor. ‘The national parks of Komodo and Cendrawasih are home to unique animal interactions, with Komodo dragons and whale sharks, and the marine protected areas of Raja Ampat are home to some of the most diverse marine ecosystems in the world. These places are beautiful, majestic and should be on everyone’s bucket list.’