Cruising for non-cruisers: under sail in the Indonesian archipelago

Photo of Bonita Grima

Don’t fancy a big-ship cruise? The romance of exploring by tall ship sailing from Bali could be just the thing.

To be honest, the idea of going on a cruise had never appealed. There were thoughts of regimentation and awkward encounters with strangers. Thoughts of being held captive by one of those “monsters of the sea”, at the mercy of its floating malls, casinos and Las Vegas-style shows. Worst of all, thoughts of karaoke and dancing the macarena.

But, having grown up on and around sailing boats, I jumped at the opportunity to experience a week aboard a tall ship in Indonesia — sailing being a very different experience to an engine-powered cruise. 

Star Clipper is a four-mast, 16-sail ship, designed after the tall ships of the early 20th century and the tallest of its kind in the world. Made for speed, the first clipper ships were built after the discovery of gold in California and Australia in the mid-1800s.

Mikael Krafft, managing owner of Star Clippers, was inspired by these great ships and in 1991 realised his childhood dream of returning the romance and style of these tall beauties to the sea.

Capt. Brunon Borowka was first to greet us as we walked across the gangway at Bali’s port of Benoa. Stepping on to the ship was like stepping back in time; the nautical decor elegant and reminiscent of the early 1900s, with teak decks, mahogany rails and polished brass, and interiors of warm, rich colours and antique prints.

When dinnertime rolled around that first evening — and I do mean “rolled” — our group of seven couldn’t help but be impressed by the variety of food and service of the staff. I marvelled at the skill of the waiters, compensating for the rocking motion of the boat. It must have been a little bit tricky navigating their way around the tables but they did so with ease, carrying plates and topping up glasses without spilling a drop.

Later, back in my cabin, I enjoyed the sensation of being swayed gently to sleep.

Next morning, we were up early to be introduced to the crew and learn about our cruise, which was Star Clipper’s inaugural journey westwards through Indonesia with stops in Bali, Madura, Java and Lombok.

Peter, our cruise director, explained that Star Clippers’ approach to cruising was unique — they not only want passengers to feel like guests but also like part of the crew. Opportunities to learn about sailing and the history of our ports of call were offered through information sessions and practical activities such as chart reading, sail hoisting, knot tying and mast climbing.

You could also do as little as you liked and on our first full day, somewhere out on the Java Sea, I opted to do just that. Grabbing a cocktail from the Tropical Bar, a lazy afternoon was spent relaxing by one of the ship’s two deck pools beneath billowing sails. Before sunset, I found a better position to take in the view, on the netting of the bowsprit, directly above the waves, chatting with a new-found friend. It amazed us that we had the area all to ourselves — but that, as we discovered, is all a part of the charm of the small-ship cruise.

On our second morning at sea, we arrived at Giligenteng in East Madura, where we were greeted by what must have been half of the village, who were keen to chat and get selfies with us. I opted for the shore excursion to Sumenep. 

Here we visited the palace of the former king and the local museum, where we were impressed to see a 4m-high, 500kg edition of the Koran. We then had the unnecessary but amusing privilege of a police escort to see one of the oldest mosques in Indonesia, built in the late 1700s.

Back on the ship, we gathered at dusk for what was soon to become a special routine, watching the crew as they readied the ship for departure, upping anchor and hoisting the sails to the sounds of Vangelis’ Conquest of Paradise.

On day three we arrived at Probolinggo in Java, where there was the opportunity to hike up part of the active volcano, Mt Bromo. Although tempted, a few of us chose to have our own adventure, which turned out to be a fun-filled day exploring colourful Probolinggo by cyclos and meeting locals at the marketplaces and fishing harbour. 

We woke next at Lovina beach in Bali’s north, where the variety of excursions included a trip to the water temple of Ulun Danu, a hike through the forest of Bali Barat National Park and snorkelling at Menjangan Island. Deciding on the latter, I enjoyed a scenic drive to Labuan Lalang, where our boat waited to take us to the island, where we swam through a kaleidoscope of tropical fish and spotted the resident deer, said to be sacred. 

The next few days were the highlight of the trip for me, with a fascinating excursion to a traditional village in the north of Lombok, where we glimpsed the everyday life of the Sasak people. Our inspiring female guide Katni told us of her hopes for empowering and educating the area’s young women as she led us on a hike through coffee, tobacco and spice plantations and the stunning scenery of Rinjani National Park to the cooling waters of Sendang Gile waterfall. Afterwards we enjoyed a simple but delicious lunch at a local restaurant overlooking the falls.

After an enjoyable night of celebrations at the captain’s dinner, I was up early on the last day for our lesson in mast climbing. As I stepped into my harness and began climbing the rope ladder, I was beginning to think maybe I shouldn’t have had that last mai tai. But before long, the exhilaration combined with the strength of the wind as I neared the top blew away any doubts.

After our usual hearty buffet breakfast it was into the Zodiacs to the picture-perfect island of Gili Sudak. White beaches, aqua water and shady palms greeted us and we spent the day exploring, snorkelling, participating in water sports and working up an appetite for the delicious barbecue prepared for us by the amazing kitchen staff.

What made the Star Clipper most memorable for me was not just the places we visited but the people we met both on and off the ship. We found we all looked forward to getting together at dinner to share the day’s adventures — adventures that often continued well into the balmy night, with musical entertainment provided on deck by the ship’s pianist, Antonio. Of course, there were also the usual quizzes, talent shows and karaoke ... and, dare I say it, I was even persuaded to dance the macarena.

Leaving Star Clipper, I was sad to say goodbye to the ship, the crew and the strangers who had turned into friends. Stepping back over the gangway in Benoa, I remembered Peter’s words from our first day at sea: “Most people will look at a map and think that it is the sea that divides but really it is the sea that connects.” 

I couldn’t agree more.

Fact File


Bonita Grima was a guest of Star Clippers.


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