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Slow boat back to nature
THERE was a time, not so long ago, when it was possible to believe that, when it came to hotels, you'd seen it all. Big suites with big bathrooms? Check. Crazy, stunning views? Why, sure. Flawless service? Yes. Fabulous spa experience? Yawn.
And just when you, jaded traveller and hard-to-please hotel guest, thought there are few genuine surprises left to be had, Amandira literally sails in over the horizon to completely confound you and all your expectations about what an unforgettable holiday should look and feel like.
Launched very quietly last June, this two-masted, 52-metre boat is the Aman group's latest salvo in its battle for market share in an increasingly crowded luxury travel market.
For a start, it helps to know that "boat" hardly begins to describe this floating palace that's straight out of some long-forgotten Spice Island fable. Handcrafted by the Konjo tribe in the style of a classic Phinisi vessel, Amandira stretches 52 metres from bow to stern. Built with polished teak and handsome kayu ulin timber cut from forests in Sulawesi and Kalimantan, it features three generously proportioned suites and two small rooms with two bunk-beds apiece for one's children and staff.
All of which is serviced by a crew of around 14, including a dive master, a masseur, and a chef.
And because the entire boat must be hired in a single booking, there is no danger of spending the next seven days making small talk with complete strangers.
Amandira offers two island-hopping itineraries. The Komodo Expedition sails through the Flores Sea and the Nusa Tenggara archipelago, an idyllic stretch that's dotted with alternating volcanic black and white sandy beaches and the titular Komodo National Park. The Raja Ampat Expedition steers further north towards the confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans for its legendary coral reefs and mangroves, pearl beds, lagoons and wildly colourful marine life.
With Wi-Fi connectivity ranging from patchy to non-existent, time winds down to a long breath. And so, the days pass in cinematic slow motion, the sun-lit horizon giving way to star-speckled nights that look like black velvet dusted with talcum powder.
Activities are parsed according to your mood. If you want to just lie on a beach and read a book while the dive master takes the spouse off to find Nemo in the warm crystal clear waters, Amandira will drop anchor. While you're finishing off a breakfast of eggs Florentine and a milkshake spiked with lime and honey, a small crew is busy prepping a secluded spot on a sea-wet rock with umbrellas, day beds, and towels. And just in case you feel like a pre-prandial dip, snorkels, fins, and kayak are on stand-by.
In this part of the world, the aquatic diversions are mesmerising. Sunlight shatters in the water to light up fields of soft and hard corals painted in shades of green, pink, blue and yellow; shimmering schools of silver-bait and giant manta rays cruise through savannahs of powdery white sand and feathery marine vegetation. For the more agile, there's wakeboarding and paddle-boarding around limpid lagoons.
Feeling peckish? Instructions are murmured urgently into the walkie-talkie. Soon, a motorised dinghy peels away from Amandira, speeding towards shore to deliver freshly made bean crackers, brownies, bottles of freshly squeezed tangerine juice, and fruit platters.
There is no fixed schedule or itinerary, so each day brings its own surprises. One morning might begin with a pre-dawn trek up a steep mountain slope, slippery with shale. We arrive at the summit just in time for a tray of cold towels, a packed breakfast and, almost as an afterthought, sunrise. The day might then end with a dinner of barbecued lobster and steak on a bijou island. Dessert is followed by the release of hot-air paper lanterns, the flickering tubes carried up into the night sky on the breath of a softly whispered wish.
Another day brings a close encounter with Komodo dragons on Rinca Island and, later that evening, a dinner of mango salad and big bowls of nasi goreng and satay on the open deck. Even more memorable is swimming in the cool green pool of a waterfall - the water is so fresh and fragrant and drinkable, you wonder why no one has thought to bottle it.
And while the others are off-boat swimming and snorkelling, the masseur may be summoned for a massage under the canopy of Amandira's upper deck - the dreaded muzak of piped harps and Enya replaced by a gentle salt-tinged breeze and the almost imperceptible rocking of the mirror-flat sea.
And all too soon, Amandira prepares to dock. Both the Komodo and Raja Ampat Expeditions include a two-night stay in the luxury tented camps of Amanwana on Moyo Island, a pristine nature reserve east of Bali. And as Amandira, its sails fully unfurled in majestic splendour, slides into the tree-clad bay, a pod of dolphins splashes into view, speeding alongside the boat like a silvery-gray retinue.
That night, serenaded by the still hum of the jungle and the wash of the sea against the beach just steps from our tent, we sleep the sleep of the innocent, our bodies gently vibrating with the phantom rocking of Amandira.
And we dream of the sea.
- Seven-night Komodo Expedition: from US$43,000 for a couple; and US$52,000 for ten people. Seven-night Raja Ampat Expedition: from US$64,000 for a couple; and US$75,250 for ten people. The once-a-year-only Spice Island Expedition through Raja Ampat and the Banda Sea archipelago takes place between Oct 21-31, 2016. The entire boat must be hired in a single booking. www.aman.com/resorts/amanwana/cruises