Exploring Indonesia's exotic archipelagos on the True North

By Emma Sloley
February 16, 2018
Small-boat excursions to secret coves
Courtesy of True North Adventure Cruises

Does your cruise ship have its own helicopter? If not, you might want to rethink your life choices. I'm certainly reflecting on mine as I embark the True North, a handsome, 164-foot ship reminiscent of the sleek pleasure vessels you see in celebrity magazines, usually with people like Leonardo DiCaprio and Rihanna aboard. This sailing isn't about tanning and cocktails, though—or at least not exclusively about those things. The mission of Australian-owned True North Adventure Cruises is to provide intrepid travelers with experiences in some of the world's most dreamy and inaccessible places.

Thanks to my Australian homeland, the Asia-Pacific region is close to my heart, but I'm here to explore a corner unfamiliar to me—the Raja Ampat ("Four Kings") archipelago in West Papua, Indonesia. Even the name sounds somewhat mystical. My pulse quickens by the time we approach our first port of call, the Banda Islands, a onetime epicenter of the world's spice trade, where the ship is escorted to shore by long green war canoes flying various flags. We ride into Banda in tuk-tuks and on scooters, explore the village and its elegantly faded colonial buildings, and then repair to the top of the fort for sunset drinks. There, locals regale us with traditional song and dance, and it feels as if we are being serenaded at the ends of the Earth.

Islands fit for a king in the Raja Ampat archipelago
Frits Meyst

Over the next nine days, we motor, float, and drift—virtually alone on the sea—through scenery that gives CGI a run for its money. I swoon at the undercut limestone cliffs, hidden lagoons, and vibrant birds of the Fakfak Coast, where we leave the ship often to swim, snorkel, and stand beneath the looming Mommon Waterfall, which spills bracing freshwater from the lush jungle high above into the warm ocean.

Cruising in the sapphire waters of the Raja Ampat is also a chance to get acquainted with its marine population; the archipelago is home to manta rays, walking sharks, Pacific leatherback turtles, dugongs, and orcas. I'm content to let others stalk the big game, though. I prefer to stick close to the rocky shore, savoring the bright flashes of inquisitive fish milling with me in the shallows.

Playtime in West Papua
Frits Meyst

The adventures unfold and surprise with every new day at sea. We soak up the mesmerizing beauty of the sacred Tomolol cave system by swim-drifting through a serene, cathedral-like cavern before being served wine and snacks onboard the ship's six "adventure boats," which are lashed together to create a floating cocktail-hour party. Visiting a remote Melanesian village one misty morning, I meet some of the sweetest children this side of the equator, while another pre-dawn excursion has us gliding through the darkness as if on a stealth raid, to stalk the rare red bird of paradise on Gam Island.

Related: For $10, This Island Eco-Resort In Panama Can Be All Yours

And always, after the day's exhilaration, we decompress aboard the True North, plied with delicious Modern Australian–meets–Pan Asian dishes like crab baked over red-gum coals and presented ceviche-style, or congee served with a blizzard of traditional accompaniments. But the rarest privilege of all is climbing into the sleek black helicopter, which perches on the ship's deck like an avian lucky charm. I thrill to it each time, as we lift off to swoop, hover, and soar above the incredible land and seascapes of one of the Earth's most beautiful undiscovered gems.

Emma Sloley is a New York–based travel writer, author, and frequent contributor to Coastal Living.

Take it Home
On the island of Banda, look for the beautiful woven cane baskets traditionally used to gather nutmeg: Locals tend to lay out market wares when ships come into port.

Top Secret
Pack small gifts to present to children in the villages. The True North team recommends items like pencils, pens, basic sporting equipment (footballs, soccer balls), shoes, and small or stuffed toys.

Book it Now
Ten-day cruises to the Raja Ampat depart from Darwin, Australia, with sailings in October. Rates start at $17,245; truenorth.com.au.