Sailing Into Indonesia's Gili Islands, Komodo and More

Sailing Into Indonesia's Gili Islands, Komodo and More

A week of dragons, pink-sand beaches, crater lakes and precious few people By: Mindy Poder
<p>Star Clippers introduced Indonesia itineraries this year and will continue the cruises next year. // © 2017 Mindy Poder</p><p>Feature image...

Star Clippers introduced Indonesia itineraries this year and will continue the cruises next year. // © 2017 Mindy Poder

Feature image (above): The intinerary includes great beaches with opportunities for snorkeling and watersports. // © 2017 Getty Images


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The Details

Our captain steered our tow boat away from shore into a quiet expanse of water. My partner jumped into the ocean and fumbled with his wakeboarding gear. I listened intently. The call to prayer was distant but audible, coming in with the breeze from the island in front of us.

Earlier we had explored that island, the sixth and most touristy destination on Star Clippers’ seven-night itinerary in Indonesia. Gili Trawangan (also known as “Gili T”) has a reputation of being a “party island” thanks to the droves of young Westerners who frequent its casual hotels, scuba schools, beachfront bars and restaurants. But after nearly a week sailing and stopping at small islands (known as gili in the Sasak language), I was on the hunt for good food and a convenience store to buy essentials. 

Our group of 12 quickly dissolved into three entities as we were all baited by what we missed most from civilization. My partner and I were lured by a sign promising “the yoga place” and an accompanying vegetarian cafe. Like Dorothy and Toto, we followed the signs but, instead of a yellow brick road, we charted a winding dirt path studded with wild chickens, rubble and even a woman cleaning the innards of dead animals. We passed a large open-air mosque — perhaps the one we heard later — as well as markers of island life such as bamboo stockpiles and yellowing bags of coconut shells. 

Finally, we reached the yoga cafe where we ate our bright-pink smoothie bowls to the sounds of crowing roosters and power drills. After buying some supplies, we were ready to retreat back to quiet island life.

It only took 10 minutes to reach peaceful Gili Meno, but it felt like a lifetime away. Similar to most of the other islands we visited, Gili Meno is only reachable by taking a tender to a small boat, making a water landing and trudging through a rocky sea floor to the shore. No one on our 170-passenger Star Clipper ship seemed to mind, though; water shoes and wet clothing are a reasonable trade-off for an itinerary that visits places other ships don’t. 

“This itinerary has the character of an expedition, like those that go to Antarctica and the Amazon,” said Peter Kissner, cruise director for Star Clippers.

Two years ago, Kissner rented a small boat and hired a local skipper in order to vet the islands that would eventually be included on Star Clippers’ new itineraries. 

Indonesia has more than 17,500 choices, but several factors helped the line develop its 7-, 10-, 11- and 14-night tall ship sailings in the country. For example, the geographic range of the cruises was decided by a desire to visit Komodo National Park and to sail in and out of Benoa, Bali. And though some commercial cruises stop at Komodo and Bali, the bulk of the itinerary aims to travel far from the nearest tourist routes. 

Photos & Videos
Star Clippers’ new Indonesia itinerary travels off the beaten path to several uninhabited, small islands. // © 2017 Mindy Poder

Star Clippers’ new Indonesia itinerary travels off the beaten path to several uninhabited, small islands. // © 2017 Mindy Poder

Satonda Island is inhabited by a colony of fruit bats, and is the site of a crater lake and caldera hike. // © 2017 Mindy Poder

Satonda Island is inhabited by a colony of fruit bats, and is the site of a crater lake and caldera hike. // © 2017 Mindy Poder

The itinerary features mostly destinations for snorkeling and watersports. // © 2017 Mindy Poder

The itinerary features mostly destinations for snorkeling and watersports. // © 2017 Mindy Poder

In Komodo National Park, guests break off in small groups and are guided by a park ranger. // © 2017 Mindy Poder

In Komodo National Park, guests break off in small groups and are guided by a park ranger. // © 2017 Mindy Poder

Guides at Komodo carry a long, narrow forked stick that resembles the Komodo dragon’s tongue. // © 2017 Mindy Poder

Guides at Komodo carry a long, narrow forked stick that resembles the Komodo dragon’s tongue. // © 2017 Mindy Poder

The Komodo Lizard is called a dragon because of its aggressive and potentially deadly behavior. // © 2017 Mindy Poder

The Komodo Lizard is called a dragon because of its aggressive and potentially deadly behavior. // © 2017 Mindy Poder

Pink Beach is one of the most beautiful beaches and snorkeling sites on the itinerary. // © 2017 Mindy Poder

Pink Beach is one of the most beautiful beaches and snorkeling sites on the itinerary. // © 2017 Mindy Poder

Of all the stops on the itinerary, Gili Trawangan is the most inhabited and touristy. // © 2017 Mindy Poder

Of all the stops on the itinerary, Gili Trawangan is the most inhabited and touristy. // © 2017 Mindy Poder

Those who walk the length of Gili Nanggu might find a private beach. // © 2017 Mindy Poder

Those who walk the length of Gili Nanggu might find a private beach. // © 2017 Mindy Poder

At our first stop, Gili Bidara in eastern Lombok, we had the island to ourselves (save for a few groups of locals coming in on jukungs or outrigger canoes). Our notes for the day spelled it out: “Island has no facilities, just sand and sea.” Like most of the islands on the itinerary, Gili Bidara is great for snorkeling and is home to some of the most vibrant blue sea stars I’ve ever seen. The lapis-lazuli starfish — which really looked like a latex glove blown up in five directions — are known to inhabit sunny and shallow parts of the reef, meaning even a mediocre swimmer with a fogged-up mask can spot them (ahem).

More difficult to discover are Komodo dragons during mating season — but we tried anyway the next morning at Komodo National Park. 

“Like humans, they’re not having sex in public,” advised Kissner, who said our chances of spotting Komodo Lizards (also known as “dragons” due to their large size and aggressive behavior) were slim. 

The park — which was founded in 1980 and recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991 — is one of the few places where the animals still roam. 

My naturalist guide vehemently denied a rumor that rangers feed dragons who come by the ranger station, but we saw a large, adult dragon — one of about 5,700 that live in the park — minutes upon entering. 

The park walk was the itinerary’s attraction highlight, but Pink Beach — located at another part of Komodo — was a favorite water stop for many. We were told that it was rare to see Komodos there, and that they’re not particularly fond of swimming, but park rangers armed with long, forked sticks monitored the beach just in case. 

Instead of watching for deadly lizards, I became transfixed by the beach’s white sand as it comingled with fragments of coral, stained red from microscopic animals called foraminifera. Every time the glassy waves broke at the shore, the white sand rose to the top, clouding the water. But as the water settled, the sand once again mixed with the broken coral and created a rosy canvas. 

We enjoyed our next stop, Satonda Island, all to ourselves — there weren’t even locals around. After checking out the island’s crater lake, I joined a few friends for a hike along its caldera. Butterflies flew by, lizards scurried in the leaves and, gradually, the trail became little more than loosely assembled dirt and rocks. A German man, clad in a shirt made a shade darker by his own sweat, nearly pummeled into us while making a rushed descent. 

A bit anxious, I continued on, but not far enough to discover the island’s sizeable community of fruit bats hanging upside down from trees. 

Our last stop, Gili Nanggu, more than remedied the sting of that missed connection. Here, I savored my favorite aspects of the itinerary — tracing the length of an entire island, scrambling over rocks, snorkeling with fish and discovering a vacant beach to adore in private.  

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