Sailing around the Komodo Islands on a luxury schooner

A blue-ringed octopus in the Komodo waters. -- PHOTO: DAN TIRTOWIDJOJO
A blue-ringed octopus in the Komodo waters. -- PHOTO: DAN TIRTOWIDJOJO
Guests on the Tiger Blue schooner can enjoy sumptuous meals on board and sundowners on uninhabited islands. -- PHOTO: TIGER BLUE
Guests on the Tiger Blue schooner can enjoy sumptuous meals on board and sundowners on uninhabited islands. -- PHOTO: TIGER BLUE
Sunset seen aboard the Tiger Blue. -- PHOTO: TIGER BLUE
Sunset seen aboard the Tiger Blue. -- PHOTO: TIGER BLUE
A trek to the summit of Rinca island for a wraparound view of the remote Komodo islands and turquoise bay. -- ST PHOTO: LEE SIEW HUA
A trek to the summit of Rinca island for a wraparound view of the remote Komodo islands and turquoise bay. -- ST PHOTO: LEE SIEW HUA
Tiger Blue, a 34m traditional Bugis schooner with contemporary comforts, sails around Komodo and other parts of Indonesia. -- PHOTO: TIGER BLUE
Tiger Blue, a 34m traditional Bugis schooner with contemporary comforts, sails around Komodo and other parts of Indonesia. -- PHOTO: TIGER BLUE

Sailing around Indonesia's Komodo islands on the luxury schooner Tiger Blue feels like an escape from the real world

Propped up on plush cushions on a day bed, I sip iced latte and look out on a vast seascape with no vessels in sight. It feels like our schooner is a random speck of civilisation bobbing on the far edge of the world.

The Komodo islands of Indonesia are not so distant from Singapore, in reality. Yet the region, east of Bali, is isolated enough for a sensation of pure escape.

I am sailing on the 34m Tiger Blue, a phinisi built in the centuries-old Bugis tradition.

The teak boat is topped with double Bordeaux-red sails and designed with contemporary comforts. The cabins, for up to 12 guests, are amply sized and air- conditioned.

Luxuriously, we have our own Belgian chef. During our three-day voyage, he prepares peppered yellow-fin tuna, Thai fishcakes sprinkled with fresh coriander and lime leaves, silky white chocolate cream - and more luscious food.

It is a big and inventive repertoire from his tiny, bright galley where he works in his chef's whites and shorts, alongside an Indonesian assistant.

A crew of Indonesians navigate the ship - owned by Malaysian and British entrepreneurs - and pamper us fully. They not only run a tight ship, but also do our laundry, proffer towels when we return from our dives or treks and, wonderfully, set up a sundown bar each evening on a different uninhabited island.

I often think of one of our sundowns spent on the pink-sand beach of Mawan, where five guests and our Dutch captain Wouter van den Houten sink into cushy beanbag chairs carted by our crew on a motor boat.

From the sundown bar comes my Tequila Sunrise, then vodka blended with cranberry juice. Plates of canapes keep wafting by - ricotta studded with crunchy cucumber bits, freshly fried anchovy fritters, our chef's homemade pate.

While there is still light, I pick brilliant red coral pieces washed up on the beach. The unusual pink of its sand finds a visual echo in the sunset colours.

We linger in a sheltered cove, just us in the deepening dusk.

Around us, the light changes subtly. The crew build a bonfire while little globular lamps dot the sand, creating another texture of light. We admire our ship in the distance, glowing like a candle.

The sky is dusted with brilliant stars as early as 6.45pm, and we identify the vivid Southern Cross and Scorpio. Moments later, a full moon rises behind inky crags.

Fittingly, a new British friend plays Biophilia, Icelandic artiste Bjork's album about the galaxy.

It is a wistful paradox, as the avant garde music, partly composed on an iPad and released as apps, flows with the ceaseless soundtrack of the waves on a faraway islet untethered to technology.

I think how perfect it is to be here, sequestered in a personal sensurround cocoon of tropical breeze, waves, music, icy cocktails, light-hearted companionship, and travel stories.

By day, life is just as unrushed, or indulgent, even if the activity picks up.

I scuba dive with the captain, also a divemaster, who meticulously instructs me in the basics again as I have not dived in years.

I plunge in and the water swirls with life - coral- chomping humphead parrotfish that can grow to 1.3m, giant clams, playful clownfish colonies.

I am enviously happy for two guests - snorkellers - who tell us later that they unknowingly plopped into the sea amid spaceship-like manta rays with wingspans of several metres.

More than 40 dive sites pepper the region, which has strong currents in places. Twice, I "fly" with the current for a couple of kilometres beyond Tiger Blue alongside my watchful divemaster.

Live-aboard dive-boats also operate around Komodo, a good option for those who love to spend time underwater.

Tiger Blue (www.tigerblue.com) itself is a more full-fledged or family experience, with watersports, treks, a village stroll and lots of island-hopping.

The charter rate for a minimum of seven guests starts at US$3,982 (S$4,983) a day. There are also departures on set dates for solo travellers, couples and smaller groups.

Besides diving, I also try wakeboarding, but am more successful on water skis. It is a joy to whoosh around a sliver of the wild Indonesian archipelago and imagine how vast it is.

I also trek on a couple of islands, on Rinca, which is the habitat of komodo dragons, and on Padar.

From our ship, Padar looks like a dauntingly high, arid rock under a blazing sun, but I am assured that it is scaleable.

It is, but our trio take too long to climb, and it is night when we scamper down to the beach in the light of my smartphone app. The others are already relaxing over sundown drinks.

Once, we watch the men unfurl the red sails and it is dramatic to see and hear the sails catch the wind. Later, we climb up the masts like wannabe sailors, for a wraparound, dizzying vista of sea and sky.

One afternoon, our chef shows us his organised cold room below deck. He says he peers inside the chiller - overflowing with gourmet goodies from jars of olives to yellow tomatoes to house-smoked salmon - and decides what to cook each day.

He has sliced sashimi from yellow fin tuna hooked by guests, including family members from the Kuok conglomerate.

Sometimes, we are happy to do nothing much, except to pull out a book from the mini library. Then we find a cushioned spot on the teak deck or the upper deck above, and it is a stable and shaded cruise on the Sulawesi-built ship, which sailed on its maiden voyage in 2008.

We pass green, conical islands at a relaxed pace of eight to 10 knots. Besides Komodo, Tiger Blue has itineraries to points around the archipelago - Sumba, Flores, Banda and Raja Ampat.

On the third and final night, our crew put up a little concert for us with two guitars and improvised instruments, including an empty plastic container that makes a decent drum.

There is merriment as they sing funny love songs, Indonesian kindergarten tunes and Rasa Sayang, and we dance the dandut.

All around us, the waves are dark, warm and equatorial. In such a remote archipelago, our future feels that bit more unknown.

Tragically, as it turns out, barely a month later, two people on our trip die within days of each other.

A British guest, in her thirties and full of life, dies in unknown circumstances. Our capable, adventurous Dutch captain is killed in an accident in Bali, his home.

But for that moment in Komodo, we are carefree in the bubble of light and civilisation that is Tiger Blue.

siewhua@sph.com.sg

Follow Lee Siew Hua on Twitter @STsiewhua