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Why Raja Ampat, Indonesia Is a Nature Lover's Paradise

John Bowe sets out on two singular experiences that offer guests the chance to help protect this otherworldly ocean paradise.


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By the time I tumbled onto the landing dock at Misool Resort, I’d spent a total of 35 hours on various airplanes and five more on a moderately punitive ferry, so I was functioning more or less at wet-brain level. On meeting Marit Miners, Misool’s co-proprietor, my first thought was, “Oh my God, she’s a mermaid.” It wasn’t just the jet lag. All around me, the ocean pulsated with a dozen distinct, opalescent shades of blue-green; among them were scattered twice that number of jungle-capped islands. It felt as if I’d entered someone’s slightly over-the-top notion of a fantasy maritime kingdom. With her long, braided blonde hair and jewel-studded dimples, it seemed logical to assume that Miners must be queen of this not-so-real water world.

I had come to Raja Ampat, Indonesia, perhaps the least explored, least accessible marine paradise on the planet, to experience two visions of the way travel can help protect such vulnerable places. Miners’s project—at once shrewd, utopian, and Edenic—was built on the notion that high-end tourism can promote meaningful conservation. On checking out of Misool, I would take the idea of treading lightly one step further by touring the region in a traditional wooden sailboat, sampling Indonesia’s diverse ecosystems and cultures while altering nothing in my wake.

But first, I needed to sleep. Miners pointed across the resort’s private cove to the semicircle of thatch-roofed overwater cottages where I’d be staying. Picture-perfect as they were—and really, they were— the big draw, she made clear, is what lies beneath the waterline. As if to prove her point, on the weathered boardwalk that led to my room we passed two baby sharks, a massive school of electric blue damselfish, and an enclosure in the sand with a sign that read sea turtle eggs.

Raja Ampat (“four kings” in Indonesian) sparsely populated archipelago off the northwestern tip of West Papua. The area, about 1½ times the size of Massachusetts, consists of approximately 1,500 islands and countless bays, cays, channels, and atolls. The region lies at the heart of what’s known as the Coral Triangle: an extraordinarily fertile area of shallow reefs and nutrient-rich deepwater currents loosely bordered by the Philippines, Bali, and the Solomon Islands. During the 200-year colonial reign of the Dutch East India Company, mapmaking throughout Indonesia was forbidden— even punishable by death. Systematic surveys began after World War II, though Raja Ampat, more water than land, more peak than valley, more hassle than economic opportunity, remained largely uncharted.

Miners, a Swedish American raised in the States, first explored this remote corner of the world on a 2005 diving trip. Cruising from island to island with Andrew, her British now-husband, on a basic live-aboard boat, they eventually reached tiny Batbitim Island— today the site of their resort. They were taken by the region’s beauty but outraged when they happened upon an itinerant shark-finning camp. They didn’t see a shark for a whole month. “The area had been established as the most biodiverse marine ecosystem in the world,” Miners told me. “And it was being wholesale strip-mined.”

When fisheries are depleted, it’s not only the wildlife that suffers; indigenous populations are also denied a source of income. According to traditional Papuan rights, the local villages are the putative owners of the reef. So when Andrew toured the villages and suggested that the shark farmers destroying the reef might be chased away, a partnership was born. It was at that point that an idea began to take shape. Why not build a luxury resort (never mind that no one involved had any hotel experience or the funds for such an undertaking)? Why not hire primarily from nearby communities, and use proceeds from the hotel to enforce a 470-square-mile “no-take zone” and marine reserve policed by local rangers? No, wait, why not aim to do it without felling a single tree, and try to operate with a zero-carbon footprint? Two and a half years later—having scavenged driftwood and abandoned caches of illegally logged timber; having waited months for tens of thousands of imported screws, nuts, bolts, tiles, and fixtures to arrive; after camping out and suffering food shortages, food poisoning, and malnourishment caused by excessive consumption of instant noodles—the couple opened the doors of Misool.

At dinner, I asked if Miners had ever for a minute imagined making her home—and raising a son, now age six—in such a remote, exotic place. “Yeah, pretty much,” she nodded. Since she was a girl, her tastes had run toward adolescent nature adventure: Island of the Blue Dolphins, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Treasure Island. “I was addicted,” she said. To run away, to live at sea, to helm one’s own schooner— that was always the game plan. She laughed. “But of course, every girl has that dream.”

I’ve dived and snorkeled intermittently since childhood—off the Florida Keys, Grand Cayman, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Thailand. It never occurred to me that most of the coral I’d seen was either dead or dying. On a failing reef, the dominant color is graywhite, which may be why spending time underwater had never been a preoccupation of mine.

But the moment I fell backward from Misool’s dive boat into the water, I was Jacques Cousteau. A school of thousands of fusilier fish, azure with bright yellow stripes, surged at me, over me, under me, enveloping me in waves of psychedelic brilliance. Every breath brought into view something new: electric blue starfish; giant clams with purple and pink flutings, opening and closing, embedded within the corals like a chorus. The coral itself—staghorn, elkhorn, brain, table, lettuce, cabbage leather—hummed a living presence through its reds, greens, blues, and ochers, shifting from delicate pastels to Fantasia-era Technicolor. I didn’t know the names of the batfish, angelfish, parrotfish, groupers, gobies, and Napoleon wrasses that nibble, lurk, chase, and defend every nook and cranny. I only knew they were lighting up a part of my brain that had never been activated. It was hard not to compare it to sex, drugs, or the world’s most moving symphony.

The reefs of Raja Ampat are home to some 1,500 species of fish. A randomly chosen, football field-sized patch of any reef near Misool will contain nearly five times as many coral species as the entire 680 million acres of the Caribbean Sea. As statistics go, these are meaningful. As an experience, it’s electrifying. On the boat ride home, I observed my fellow divers: Germans, Australians, a lovely old French couple. The younger divers compared checklists like competitive birders.

After several years’ improvisation, Misool nowturns a happy profit, funding a foundation that operates a kindergarten for local villagers, a recycling operation, and a highly successful manta ray conservation program (manta ray gills are sold as medicine in Asia) outside the resort’s no-take zone, which, by the way, has now doubled and is patrolled 24-7 by rangers supported by the resort.

The couple hope to see their model replicated around the world. A part of me (the part that noticed the carbon output statement on my flight itinerary) was skeptical: Was I really helping the environment? Or was I just polluting my way around the world so I could feel like I was saving the planet? Miners was ready for the question. “I think the net positive result is pretty clear,” she said. A 2013 study conducted by a marine biologist from Australia’s Murdoch University found that biomass on Misool’s reef had increased by more than 250 percent in the previous six years, while Misool’s own internal studies show that illegal fishing on the reef has been reduced by 86 percent. All of which is good news, of course. But I couldn’t help asking Miners what will happen in a few years, when the hundreds of baby sharks I’d seen get bigger. She arched her eyebrows, wickedly: “They’ll eat the guests!”

It was 7 a.m. when my dinghy approached Silolona, the 165-foot traditional wooden phinisi, or Indonesian sailing ship, I was to call home for the next few days. A staff of 17 saronged crewmen playing guitars, tom-toms, and a conch had gathered on deck to serenade me. Like magic, a glass of passion fruit juice materialized in one hand and a croissant in the other. Given our remote location, I assumed the croissant was more of a gesture than, say, something buttery, flaky, and delicious. I was wrong. It was in this way that every aspect of my existence would mysteriously exceed expectations for as long as I remained on board.

Silolona’s creator is Patti Seery, a globe-trotting American who landed in Jakarta in the early 1980s (with her husband, who worked as a chemical engineer for an international oil firm) after stints in Mexico, Italy, India, and Belgium. Variously described as an anthropologist, an art collector, and an Asian textile expert, Seery is all of those things— but is also, above all, an obsessive Indonesia-phile.

Her path to launching the Silolona began as a series of day trips to obscure haunts around the Indonesian capital. Gradually, she started making excursions to other islands. “There weren’t many interisland flights back then,” said Seery. “If you wanted to see the country, you really had to go by boat.” Frustrated with the lack of comfortable options, she decided to take matters into her own hands. In collaboration with traditional shipwrights from an indigenous community on Sulawesi and a staff of 20 workers, she re-created one of the centuries-old trading ships that plied the interisland routes, updating it and kitting it out with every conceivable comfort. “It wasn’t like I set out to run a boat company,” said Seery, who launched Silolona in 2004. “I really just wanted to keep exploring this country—and to allow others to do so as well.”

Silolona’s passengers run to Rockefellers, Silicon Valley moguls, Russian oligarchs, and Hollywood celebrities. Depending on guests’ whims, Silolona and its smaller sister, the Si Datu Bua, cruise the Indonesian archipelago from Flores and Komodo National Park to the south, the Moluccas to the north, and Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, and the Andaman Islands beyond. Most guests are content to dive, snorkel, kayak, paddleboard, waterski, and lounge on the sundecks. As if that weren’t enough, the upper deck of the ship is convertible to a tennis court.

My cabin on the Silolona, the Asmat, was named after a tribe in southern Papua famous for headhunting (and cannibalism) up until the second half of the 20th century. The decorations—feathered headdresses, shields, a drum—aren’t curios Seery purchased in a market somewhere. She knows former headhunters, has slept in their villages, and hosted them in her home over decades of interisland travel, taking doctors to remote islands to provide free medical care, collecting art for museums, and sponsoring cultural exchange programs.

In my bathroom, there was a picture of an Asmat warrior with a bone in his nose and daggers made of bone strapped to both arms. The painting isn’t just an artist’s random fancy. When I asked a staffer about the portrait, I was told, “Oh, that’s Patti’s adopted son, Rufus,” an Asmat chief she’s been close to since the ’80s.

Indonesia is legendary for it’s outsized fauna—ten-foot-long Komodo dragons, for instance, and 20-foot-long man-eating snakes. Its remote jungles and volcanoes continue to yield freakish discoveries: bloodsucking vampire moths, four-inch-long Borneo cockroaches, and, as paleontologists in 2003 came upon, a previously unknown species of hominid, the three-foot-tall phinisi. So it shouldn’t have surprised me that this fantastical diversity of life extended underwater. But when Kelly Woolford, our American liveaboard guide on the Silolona, took us out on our first dive, near Batanta Island, and told us to look out for giant rays cruising along the reef shelf, 5, 10, 15 yards down, I assumed it was just the kind of thing people say when you’re traveling in the tropics. Within minutes, I was watching three reef manta rays with wings spanning 18 feet. As they filed back and forth along the shelf, graceful, meditative, and massive, I felt as if the scale and gesture of the terrestrial world had been transposed into the realm of the cosmic.

By Day 4, we’d seen lionfish and rare nudibranchs (a wildly colored variety of sea slug). We’d seen plankton glowing blue in the water and not one but four types of flying fish. The internal high hum of awe had become constant—not least because of the joys of the Silolona itself. Luxury means different things to different people: sumptuous food or accommodation, ease of routine, or hyper-attentive service. Some guests just want Wi-Fi and a big screen. Some seek expert guidance to the inner life of a destination, its people, its language, the stars in the night sky: any insight that allows them to go home feeling like they really got to know the place.

For nature travelers, luxury tends to mean access and exclusivity— seeing the world’s wild spaces with no one else around. Thanks to Raja Ampat’s remoteness, and a limit placed on the number of phinisi permits per year, that was us. At nearly all times, we had the water and the islands to ourselves, from deck to horizon.

We learned in time that everyone on the crew seemed to have the kind of deep experience doing whatever they’re doing that Seery has. Woolford spent 25 years leading hiking tours through the highlands of West Papua. He, too, has lived among former headhunters and counts among his friends guys with nose bones and three-foot penis sheaths. Muh Nasir, the crew supervisor, was the head boatbuilder in the indigenous community that made the Silolona. His family has been making phinisi for centuries. Goris Atawuwur, the dive master, has been diving for 28 years. And so on.

One night, after a feast consisting of pepes ikan (red snapper steamed in banana leaf), beef rendang, and Balinese duck, I asked Brida Wibawa, the self-taught chef, to run me through the ingredients he had used to make the latter two dishes. Sure, he said: galangal, ginger, lemongrass, turmeric, shallots, garlic, Balinese white pepper, red chili, coriander powder, whole coriander seed, star anise, clove, cumin, cinnamon sticks, cardamom, desiccated coconut (dried and ground), lime leaf, palm sugar, and, lastly, kencur. “Kencur?” I repeated. “I don’t know its name in English,” he said. He left and returned a moment later with two books about Indonesian spices, locating the page with the kencur root, a type of galangal I’d never heard of. “Some people refer to it as zedoary.” He smiled. “But that’s not the right name.”

One day we visited an island just above the equator named Wayag, which Woolford called the “poster child” of Raja Ampat. We approached through shallow channels past limestone formations draped with pitcher plants and tiger orchids. It reminded me of Halong Bay in Vietnam, or northern Maine: nothing but rocks, water, and trees. I asked my cohorts if it reminded them of other such places. The Hebrides? The Blekinge archipelago in Sweden? We were shushed by the wisest among us: “It feels like here.”

At the end of the channel we came to a gap in the rocks, opening wide to the vast Pacific. The end of Raja Ampat. The end of Indonesia. It felt strange to confront, or even to remember the existence of, the world beyond our secret kingdom. We tumbled off the dinghy beneath the puffy clouds to wade through shallow water to a tiny spit of land no one had likely ever touched. The sand was so soft and clean it felt almost nourishing, like porridge.

None of us spoke. I guess we were all thinking the same thing. Or not-thinking the same thing. We’d all seen nice beaches. But we’d never seen, nor would we 7 6 ever see again, a beach this perfect.


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