The swell of our boat’s white sail has turned a pale pink. The sandbars are rose, from crushed red coral, while the sea and distant islands are washed in the same blush palette. It is late in the day, and the ash rising in a column from Sangeang Api volcano is filtering the sunlight. Two weeks earlier, however, the scene had been considerably less romantic. The deck was covered in two centimetres of ash from the volcano, which on May 30 emitted a vast plume, grounding flights all over the region.
Perhaps that’s why I like to watch the smouldering crater. Without some threat of darkness, this trip – a three-night island-hopping cruise for couples, around Flores and Komodo in Eeastern Indonesia – might feel too much like the rose-tinted fantasy of the honeymoon industry.
The new boat I’m travelling on, Alexa, is probably the most exclusive single-cabin boat on the market – not just in Indonesia but anywhere in the world. When I first catch sight of it in the port of Labuan Bajo, Alexa is moored beside the black-sailed Alila Purnama – another new luxury phinisi, which sleeps 10 guests. Alexa – for two – doesn’t appear dramatically smaller than the other double-masted traditional schooners in the harbour, but its all-white colour scheme turns heads like no other, giving it the air of a swan on the water. The only shots of colour are cobalt cushions, ammonite-shaped plates, and some caramel Russian cut-crystal glasses that are constantly topped up by a staff of eight, which includes a scuba-diving master, chef, masseur and German cruise director. The latter manages the itinerary, be it swimming with manta rays, setting up beach barbecues, or searching for Komodo dragons along the shorelines.
Veronika Blomgren, Alexa’s Bali-based owner, describes visiting Bira, a bustling shipyard in Sulawesi, and how the boatbuilders thought her mad for tearing apart a traditional cargo ship only to put back in a single cabin. “I was in love,” is all Blomgren says by way of explanation. She is now designing an entire fleet, all sharing the same white livery.
The concept of a single-cabin boat may be mad, but Alexa isn’t the only vessel catering for honeymooners who want to throw off the conventions of a hotel for the freedom of a boat. For example, Inshallah, a traditional 40ft sailing dhow newly launched at Ibo Island Lodge in northern Mozambique, may sleep six, but a quarter of all August’s upcoming charters are for honeymooning couples. They cruise the Quirimbas archipelago with a guide, butler and local crew, sleeping in mobile fly-camps set up on uninhabited islands. Burgess, a charter company with offices in London, Monaco and the US, reports a similar demand.
But single-cabin boats – built for two, as opposed to larger vessels chartered by couples – have a particular cachet. “To be comfortable, a boat needs to be of a reasonable size,” says Michael Fenton, founder of The Yacht House, which specialises in all-inclusive charters in unusual parts of the world. “The cost of outfitting that space with one or four bedrooms comes to more or less the same. So when you see those [economic] rules broken – Alexa being the best example – it is incredibly seductive.”
Among the boats on offer is Bastarda, in the Aegean, newly built by one of Bodrum’s most important traditional boatbuilders, Mustafa Kivircik. This sailing tirhandil – a “double-ender”, the boat of choice for sponge divers for the past two centuries in these waters – is constructed in teak and mahogany with a V-shaped main bed in the master cabin (the skipper sleeps on deck or in the salon).
Operating on the Mekong Delta, in southwest Vietnam, the Song Xanh Sampans are four 60ft-long boats, each with a double room and crew of four. They are nothing fancy, but they are appropriate to place, with bamboo and rattan furniture, an en suite shower and an aft-deck for meals and watching the river traffic pass. They carry bikes on board so one can potter off and explore villages among the rice paddies, as well as a rowing boat, or xuong, to access small canals on the one-, two- or three-night cruises out of Ho Chi Minh City.
In the backwaters of Kerala, southern India, are a number of single-cabin houseboats converted from rice barges. Among the best is Discovery, designed by Joerg Drechsel and Txuku Iriarte, the German-Spanish couple who created the Cochin boutique hotel, Malabar House Residency. The classic wide-bellied hull is there, but the superstructure is a single air-conditioned contemporary suite in teak, whites, bright limes and scarlets. The crew of four navigate a three-night, four-day journey through lakes, rivers and channels blanketed in lilies.
In the Maldives, Remote Lands, a high-end tour operator to Asia, uses three traditional dhonis – fishing boats indigenous to the archipelago – based at Huvafen Fushi resort. Fully-staffed, these cosy one-cabin, wind-powered vessels are chartered for one or two nights on bespoke island-hopping itineraries, with stops for picnics and snorkelling reefs. Princess Junk in Halong Bay in Vietnam is another of the company’s single-cabin favourites: a traditional junk cruising Halong’s Unesco-recognised waters. “When those blood-red sails are filled with wind, you feel the old-style romance of Indochina in all its glory,” says Victoria Hilley, general manager at Remote Lands’ New York office.
But ultimately, a boat for two is really about the bed, which Alexa nails better than all its competitors by virtue of her generous rear end. The single cabin feels like a proper suite, with space for trunks, chairs and rugs. Still, I don’t want to sleep in it – attractive though it is – as I want to miss nothing of this star-pricked wilderness. Instead I sleep in the open on the upper deck.
I lie back and look at the white rigging against the Southern Cross, see the new crescent moon, the flying fish that look like sprays of liquid mercury, and the phosphorescence that plays in our silent wake. The moon lights distant curls of sand and picks out the shapes of islands we pass – more jagged the nearer to Komodo we sail.
As I lie there sleepless, it strikes me there are too few places like this left on earth, and those that do remain, one usually has to share. Since leaving Labuan Bajo, I’ve seen just three other tourist boats. I’ve hiked on empty islands and collected shells on sandbars circled with whirling currents. I’ve eaten dinner around a bonfire, without even the light of a single fishing boat on the horizon. The solitude reminds me of the owl and pussycat: “hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,/ They danced by the light of the moon”.
There is also everything to like in the lack of cliché: Alexa may be a boat for two, but it is without any of the usual canned “romance” perpetuated by the honeymoon business. There are no Jacuzzis for two with an awkward waiter proffering champagne, nor rose petals arranged into a love-heart on the bed.
The vibe is cooler than that, more relaxed. So when I learn that art dealer Jay Jopling, founder of London’s White Cube gallery, recently chartered Alexa, it makes sense. Of course he’d get it – the sophistication of simplicity, the power of the colour white. I, on the other hand, am struggling a bit. On this journey I’m travelling with a photographer, a colleague I respect, but frankly (how to put this elegantly?): this is a boat built for a love affair, nothing less.
Sophy Roberts travelled as a guest of Alexa; a three-night cruise for two people from Flores costs from $10,500. Three nights at Ibo Island Lodge and four on Inshallah cost from $3,500 per person. Bastarda (southerncrossbluecruising.com) costs from €300 per day. Song Xanh Sampans (theyacht house.com) cost from $572 for two nights. Huvafen Fushi’s dhonis (huvafenfushi.peraquum.com; from $1,600 a night) and Princess Junk (from $588) can be chartered through Remote Lands. Discovery (malabarhouse.com) costs from €980 for three nights