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World's most luxurious 'dragon' hunt
Dragons, restaurants made of sand and more cold towels than an ice hotel -- it can only be Indonesia's most deluxe Komodo cruise
How many glacier-cold, toothpaste-white, tightly wrapped moist towels does it take to make a luxury cruise?
And pastel-shaded, ice-clinking mocktails?
I don’t know, and I’ve a feeling Annalisa Gorelli, cruise director aboard the Alila Purnama, doesn’t either, because both come frequently, before every meal, after every activity, during every quiet moment.
I’m handed a dozen of each over three days cruising the Flores Sea around Indonesia.
The ship was built by a wealthy couple from Jakarta in the form of a traditional Indonesian phinisi.
It’s 46 meters of sun-warmed teak and rattan, meant, originally, for a two-year world voyage for the owners.
That didn’t happen, so they’ve turned it over to the public.
It has huge, flapping, decorative sails, meals explained table-side by the chef and a master cabin designed purely to induce envy in those relegated to the four standard cabins below decks. Sorry, kids.
There’s scuba and snorkeling equipment on board, a small library/video room, even an “IT guy” to fix the Wi-Fi if it goes down while you’re floating miles from civilization.
In other words, in everything but outward appearance, this is anything but a traditional Indonesian phinisi.
“This isn’t just a boat,” says Gorelli. “We provide memorable experiences, five-star service. We’re the most luxurious cruise available around here.”
As I step aboard, welcomed with my first icy cold flannel and a glass of lime juice and ginger, I’m told there’s only one rule: no shoes.
Going barefoot is central to the Purnama experience.
The worst thing about the whole trip in fact is having to squeeze back into my Nikes again at the end.
Somehow they feel not to fit anymore.
Cruises can be tailored, from four nights to any number of nights with any combination of island stops.
I’m turning dragon hunter on mine, headed for Komodo.
This island within Komodo National Park is home to the world’s biggest lizard, the “Komodo dragon.” It grows up to 10 feet and 70 kilos and comes wrapped in tales that have not yet inspired a Hollywood B-movie called “Komodo: one bite and you’re done” -- but very well could.
Its bite is either venomous or full of bacteria (science hasn’t yet decided) and TV shows have promoted the beasts as bloodthirsty killers of both humans and cattle.
It's true that in 1974 a Swedish tourist went missing and four years ago a local boy vanished, both blamed on the dragons.
But the reality for tourists is less sensational.
“We probably don’t see dragon,” says our ranger, Isaac, as he points at a faded trail map at the start of the adventure. “This morning, no dragon. But maybe we lucky.”
That’s not to say a one-hour hike across Komodo isn’t worthwhile.
Isaac points out indigenous plants used as antiseptics, several deer (“Dragon food!”), a tree that flowers after 35 years then immediately dies, and another tree whose fruit can be eaten after several weeks worth of inordinately laborious preparations so it will taste like cassava. (Why not just eat cassava?)
It does seem a little desperate when he highlights snails, fungi and several-days-old komodo poop, but look at the view, who are we to complain?
And we do eventually see the famous dragons, four of them snoozing under the huts back at the start of the trail.
Did it matter that they'd probably been there all day? That we could have walked 50 yards rather than two kilometers to see them?
Did it matter that the rangers were feeding them tidbits so we could see them move, and were probably feeding them other times so they would stay put, as a payoff for otherwise disappointed tourists?
I don’t know.
The rangers have a living to make, and since UNESCO’s inscription of the park onto their World Heritage List in 1991, up to 1,500 tourists make the treks each day, when a cruise ship arrives. The average is 150, says Isaac.
Send them home disappointed and that livelihood may disintegrate.
For a while we did at least feel like pioneers, just like thousands before us.
Back on board
One icy facecloth, hot shower and mango-orange mocktail later, I’m back on the deck of decadence.
Dinner, usually served on board, will tonight be a surprise, we’re told.
We end up on a small motorboat headed for a nearby beach, where the crew has spent several hours fashioning a “restaurant” out of sand, seashells and driftwood.
Sandy steps lead to a sandy platform, on which a table for eight sits. Candles flicker inside small cubbyholes in an upturned tree root.
It’s a meal in a million, the food brought over from the ship, course by course.
Later that night, I sit on the top deck of the Purnama watching the stars in silence, save the creaking and groaning of ropes.
Luxury cruising up
Some 21 million passengers are expected to go on a cruise worldwide in 2013, worth $36 billion to the industry, according to Cruise Market Watch. That’s an increase in spend of 4.5% compared to 2012.
Not huge gains, but perfectly respectable, and luxury operations like the Alila Purnama are primed to take advantage in Asia, so far the world’s second-smallest cruise market representing 3.6% of the total market (behind South America, at 3.4%).
The Singapore-based company managing the Purnama -- Alila Hotels & Resorts -- is traditionally a hotel management company. The Purnama is their first foray into something different.
“We project huge cruise growth in Asia, especially considering international exposure of Raja Ampat and Komodo National Park,” says Guy Heywood, COO of Alila Hotels & Resorts. “These destinations are set to become top diving destinations likely to attract travelers, especially domestic.”
Trips on the Purnama can include stays at their Bali properties, including Alila Villas Uluwatu, the kind of place that would make Croc Dundee balk and Paris Hilton plead for another TV show.
His and hers six-piece toiletry sets sit beside sink-and-mirror combinations you only ever see in design magazines.
Palm trees grope at ocean views that serve as a backdrop to breakfast menus, which change daily.
Swimming pools and other watery channels remind me at every turn I should feel soothed.
The villas are enormous.
“It’s too big. I keep getting lost,” complains one of my co-guests halfheartedly.
And of course there are the cold towels, brought out to drive off even a few second’s worth of sun when I have to walk to my suite rather than ride the resort golf cart.
Further east along the Baliese coast, Alila Villas Soori sits on a black-sand beach that’s also home to a cave of several thousand bats that emerge to feed at 6 p.m. every evening in a long, coiling ribbon.
Among the usual five-star facilities, you can also rent Segways and go on trips to see how they make the region’s “kopi luwak” (coffee “processed” by the intestines of civets).
Alila Purnama is promoting its six-night Raja Ampat expedition, stopping at various dive sites and islands along the way. Full-ship chartering starts at $54,000 all-inclusive for six nights; individual cabins start at $10,500 for a standard suite, $12,000 for the master suite; +65 6735 8300; email@example.com