A Visit With the Komodo Dragons

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A Komodo Dragon in Indonesia. Visuals Unlimited-Corbis

In 1910, Lt. van Steyn van Hensbroek of the Dutch colonial administration in Indonesia set out in search of the mysterious "land crocodiles" he had heard about. On Komodo Island he found not crocodiles but the largest species of monitor lizard surviving from the dinosaur age. Known as Komodo dragons, the reptiles have attracted much interest. Back in the mid-1980s, Komodo Island received about 1,140 visitors per year, mostly intrepid backpackers hitching a ride on traditional cargo boats known as pinisi. To guarantee dragon sightings, operators started tethering goats to a site near the beach as bait. By the mid-1990s, the number of visitors had increased 30-fold—but the feedings had become so frequent that the monitor lizards could barely muster the energy to emerge for another gory show. The feedings have stopped as tour operators have come to realize that the island has much more to offer—including an abundance of colorful and exotic marine life that make it one of the world's best diving spots.

A century after van Hensbroek's visit, Komodo island is still accessible only by sea, but nowadays roughing it is no longer the only option. The ever-increasing thirst for authentic luxury has created a small cottage industry of pinisi cruises that transport tourists back in time while incorporating today's latest little luxuries.

The pinisi first appeared in the mid-1850s, its design mixing the rectangular sails found on traditional Indonesian tanjaq-rig boats with the fore-and-aft-type sails popular on European and American spice-trading ships. Over the past 30 years, the original design has been modified to accommodate the use of a motor. The interiors, too, have been updated to reflect modern times. "The clientele are largely people who have cruised the usual destinations and are in search of something new and more exotic—not just sitting on the fantail at St-Tropez, sipping martinis, or the sunburned boredom of the Caribbean," says Eric Kraus, owner of El Aleph, a 39-meter-long (on deck) luxury pinisi launched last year, which is available for charter when not used by Kraus. "Each client is different—some want hard diving and volcano climbing. Others want to lie in the shade with a good book. For kids, it is the experience of a lifetime: swimming and snorkeling and exploring deserted islands, and viewing the famous Komodo dragons."

The 36-meter Silolona kicked off the luxury-pinisi trend when it launched in 2004. The boat was constructed of ironwood and trimmed in teak and a red-hued wood called lengua. The interior design of its five rather spacious cabins is worthy of a five-star resort, with plenty of tasteful ethnic cushions and throws, small sculptures, and even the occasional green plant. El Aleph, while offering modern ethnic décor in its air-conditioned cabins, has also embraced 21st-century technology with satellite communications and powerful battery banks allowing for prolonged quiet-boat operation with all engines off.

Luxury does, of course, come at a price; the Silolona, which can accommodate up to 10 guests, is available for private charter from $13,500 per day, including all meals, scuba diving, and other water sports, such as kayaking in the clear warm waters under the stars. The operator also offers guests a Robinson Crusoe–like experience, anchoring off one of the dozens of deserted islets in the area and temporarily "marooning" the passengers for an afternoon—though not without beach umbrellas and even chilled champagne.