A New Yacht Lets Divers Explore Raja Ampat in Style

A just-launched expedition ship visits the strange creatures and limestone cliffs of Indonesia's Raja Ampat archipelago.
Raja Ampat

I was sitting in a tender in total darkness in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, clutching a ceramic cup of coffee in the hope that the heat and caffeine would wake me up. I had come to Indonesia's Raja Ampat National Park on a shore excursion to chase the elusive bird of paradise. The morning journey was perfectly safe, but as with all things in the predawn hours, it felt three times as long and 10 times as harrowing, especially now as we trudged through knee-deep waters from the boat toward Gam Island.

After a steep climb, we reached a peak known to be a gathering spot for the colorful birds. Frits, our guide, made calls to attract the males, which have glorious red and yellow plumes and whisker-like wire feathers. Frits's family has led treks here for generations. In the 19th century, he told me, an ancestor guided Alfred Russel Wallace, the British naturalist who helped shape the theory of natural selection. After an hour or so, I caught my breath as I watched two males flit into sight and land on a branch, making calling sounds and hopping around to show off their feathers. Frits sat back in satisfaction as we took in this peculiar mating dance, which few visitors get to see.

The lagoon entry to Tolomol Caves, on Raja Ampat's Misool Island

Anthony K Do/Aqua Expeditions

Many visit the Raja Ampat Islands, one of the most biodiverse places in the world, to dive the colorful depths, hoping to spot sharks, manta rays, and seemingly infinite schools of fish. I had come for the inaugural sailing of the Aqua Blu, an expedition vessel that its owner, Aqua Expeditions, has billed as the first luxury yacht of its kind in the archipelago. Built in 1968 as a British naval explorer, Aqua Blu has gotten a full makeover, with 15 spacious suites spread over four decks. Besides Raja Ampat, the ship now sails regularly from Bali to Komodo National Park and around the Spice Islands. As soon as the other guests and I stepped on board, we took our shoes off, and kept them off for the rest of the journey. The close quarters mean that no one stayed a stranger for long. The tight-knit crew included our British cruise director, Glenn, a former Royal Marine; Kaz, a sought-after, ultra-patient dive master poached from Aman resorts; and Gustin and Refly, rambunctious excursion guides who came with us whenever we left the ship.

Searching for birds of paradise on Raja Ampat

Ken Kochey

Aqua Expeditions is striving to present Raja Ampat in new ways, by sailing to less-visited islands and paying painstaking attention to the food, which puts a fine-dining spin on regional flavors, like nasi goreng, or fried rice, at breakfast and spicy sambal sauce with everything. Each morning I woke up to different scenery—limestone cliffs, palm-lined beaches, fog-shrouded mountains. As a non-diver I had been afraid there wouldn't be enough for me to do. But unlike the typical phinisi boats that ply Raja Ampat, Aqua Blu is designed for varied interests. On land there were hikes to waterfalls and visits to pearl farms and villages. We went snorkeling every day, which felt like watching underwater television: The variety of fish and coral was unbelievable, while the salt water was so buoyant we barely had to swim. Though the guides have spent much of their professional lives in the water, they approached each snorkeling excursion with the enthusiasm of beginners, spotting fish in the depths and showing us how to use the ship's underwater camera.

For the Discover Scuba Diving course, Glenn walked us through the basic techniques before we donned the heavy equipment and got into the water. Gustin, my appointed dive instructor, stayed close, communicating with hand signals to check my ear pressure and make sure I was breathing comfortably, pointing out rare fish species all the while. At one point we spotted a manta ray floating beneath us and I found myself trying to clap in my excitement.

Banta Island, a stop on Aqua Blu’s Komodo National Park itinerary

Anthony K Do/Aqua Expeditions

“We always remember our first trips, good or bad,” Glenn said on our first evening. It wasn't just my first trip to Raja Ampat, it was also the ship's first time in the area, and the crew's first time sailing there as a team. We didn't realize how prescient Glenn's words would be until near the end, when the ship ran aground on a sea mound near Wayag Island, in the northern part of the archipelago, around lunchtime. From my perch in the lounge, I saw the crew jump into action. Glenn made sure all the passengers were accounted for, while the guides dived to assess the damage. Throughout it all, I felt safe and taken care of by the crew, who never left us wondering what was going on.

It's easy to be overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of Raja Ampat, from the teal-and-orange sunsets to the bird calls surrounding the volcanic islands to the underwater world. So much of the trip was unforgettable, like a daytime swim across the equator. But what I've held onto the most are the moments of calm: stargazing from the chaises, relaxing with the crew on a beach, and reaching that high peak where the birds of paradise sang and danced, welcoming us to their wild, beautiful home.

Getting here

Arriving in Raja Ampat is a long journey no matter your destination of origin, which is part of the region’s appeal. The final leg, from Jakarta to Sorong—the gateway to Raja Ampat—is essentially a short red-eye flight. If you manage to get some sleep, you'll wake up to the sun rising over the Pacific Ocean, and phinisi boats dotted throughout the water, a welcome sight and an apt way to start off your trip.

The ship

In its previous lives, Aqua Blu was a British naval explorer named the HMS Beagle, and then the private yacht of an Italian family, named M/Y Titan. Now, it has 15 suites in three categories—including two sets of rooms that can connect for families—spread over four decks. The layout of each cabin is different, so make sure to ask about what’s available and best for your group. There are four engines, but the ship typically only runs on two, with a maximum of eight to nine knots in most cases. The top deck is a sun deck, where guests often congregate for sunset cocktails. The bridge is open to guests who want to hang out with the captain, and there’s also a spa, jacuzzi, multiple sun beds, and a workout area.

The food

There’s a big sustainability push on Aqua Blu, and much of that is evident in the food. The onboard dining program was created with Benjamin Cross, the Australian chef behind Bali’s renowned Ku De Ta restaurant. All meals are organized weeks in advance, and mostly prepared in Cross’ production kitchen in Bali. That allows the team to pull off complex sauces with up to 40 ingredients in them, and control consistency and quality while on the ship. The kitchen team includes food and beverage manager and executive chef Adrian Broadhead, two head chefs, a crew cook, and a senior cook.

Expect tons of sustainably sourced seafood, with a focus on Bali and East Indonesia ingredients. The themes varied a bit throughout our trip, with pasta lunches, lighter soup and salad days, and Mediterranean food, but always with local ingredients and twists. As the menus evolve, they’ll focus on dive-friendly meals, given the main audience for the Raja Ampat expedition—high in protein, low on carbs, and light on the acids.

The routes

Aqua Blu sails through Raja Ampat from December to February, Bali to the Komodo Islands from April to September, and the Spice Islands from October to November. Seven-night cruises for all three Indonesia itineraries from $7,525 per person in a double-occupancy cabin.

This article appeared in the April 2020 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.