Erik Barreto had been living in Asia for more than 10 years, working in the corporate sector, when he stumbled upon the unlikely idea of building a boat. He and his friends had been heading off on intrepid trips to the most remote parts of Indonesia on their weekends – and it wasn’t long before they realised there was serious potential in the idyllic spots they’d grown to love.
“Most people think of Indonesia only as Bali,” he says, “but we were exploring all these fantastic isolated parts. We’d be staying in very run down local homestays, which was a great experience, but we thought there must be an easier way or even a luxury option. Eventually, we realised there would be no better way to explore than by boat.”
Barreto’s decision to build a luxury version of a phinisi yacht was certainly ahead of the curve, but he soon came to realise that he wasn’t the first to come up with such an idea. Rascal, his 31-metre phinisi yacht, built in Sulawesi, is one of a growing number of boats catering to a new type of traveller, for whom the joy of charter lies in escaping to far-flung beauty spots, kicking off their shoes and basking in barefoot luxury.
Lies Sol, from Northrop & Johnson, a leading charter broker in the region, claims that a boat called Silolona got the ball rolling back in the early noughties, and a slow but steady stream of new boats has been emerging ever since. “I think Silolona was the trendsetter for this kind of luxury charter,” she says. “Before this, Indonesia was being visited mostly by adventure travellers and divers who booked cabins [at low to medium prices] on board diving boats. There was nothing else available.”
Patti Seery, the owner of Silolona, was organising travel tours in Indonesia at the time and decided to bridge the gap with a 45-metre traditional schooner. “After a slow start, the fame spread and the rest is history,” Sol says. “The phinisi evolution is now comparable to the gulets in Europe, which are now a household name.”
Unlike other superyachts, which are built in pristine shipyards with expert teams, phinisi yachts are often built on the beach by locals who have inherited building methods passed down through generations. Barreto remembers watching in awe as Rascal was built. “Day one, and there was just a solid piece of iron wood with a bonfire set underneath it,” he recalls. “They use the heat to start bending it right on the beach. When you’re not familiar with that process it can be a bit scary.”
The finished product retains this traditional flavour but is paired with interiors modelled around a New York Hamptons beach house – a balance of local flavour and luxury, which has proven to be a perfect fit for this new type of charter guest.
So what’s the appeal for those who, by all accounts, can afford to be motored around the region in a far more ostentatious boat?
Veronika Blomgren, who owns the single-cabin phinisi yacht Alexa, thinks much of it comes down to location. “Our clients also charter regular superyachts elsewhere in the world,” she says. “But in Komodo, there aren’t many available and in a remote place like this, they often want a different experience. Being on a traditional boat but with all the comforts you need is ideal.”
Unlike many other phinisi yachts in the region, Alexa has only one cabin, despite being almost 40 metres in length. “I honestly don’t understand why all these superyachts are built for so many people,” she says. “Who has that many friends who are available in the same part of the world all at once?”
She built the boat based around the way that she herself would want to travel, with just her husband or a relative, and has enjoyed remarkable success. “Everybody thought I was completely crazy as these things were just not done – but it has worked and judging by our booking schedule it was the right way to go.”
Phinisi boats tend to sail around tried and tested areas – the likes of Komodo National Park, Sumba and Flores, occasionally making longer trips over to Raja Ampat and West Papua. With 17,000 plus islands to choose from, though, there is little chance of ever crossing paths with anyone else.
“We’ll often have people diving with whale sharks off north Komodo,” Barreto says. “Just last week, we were dropped off in Flores. The currents swept us along about two kilometres so we had a dinghy waiting at either end. It was like being on a travelator; we didn’t have to do anything – we were just floating over turtles and manta rays.”
Paradise, indeed. But just how long will it be until this region hits the tourism mainstream, bringing more boats along for the ride? Blomgren thinks it’s already happening.
“A few years ago Labuan Bajo harbour was very quiet and sleepy, but now it’s packed. It’s like a small city on the water. They are planning to build a proper marina, too.” Now might just be the time to book that trip of a lifetime, before everyone else is in on the secret.
Remote resorts in Indonesia
Indonesia has more than its fair share of luxury hotels, but there is one that stands out from the crowd. Nihiwatu, on Sumba island, might have been labelled “the most luxurious resort in the world” many times over, but just like the luxury offered by phinisi yachts, this resort enjoys luxury living at a different pace, priding itself on its ethos of “responsible luxury”.
The villas are themed around Sumbanese homes with thatched roofs, local antiques and Ikat prints on the walls. Food comes from the resort’s own gardens, with meat from the on-site chicken farm and fish from the surrounding waters. There are opportunities to learn how to spearfish, as well as a beach for horse rides and surfing on swells generated by the Southern Ocean. Barefoot luxury never looked so good.
Situated on a nature reserve on the Indonesian island of Moyo, the Amanwana does barefoot luxury better than most. There are 20 tents across the resort, but with hardwood floors, king-sized beds and writing desks, this is no ordinary camping experience. The on-site spa offers treatments out in the elements, plus there are nighttime snorkelling safaris, nature treks in the surrounding forest and opportunities to get on the water on the resort’s very own cruiser, the Amanikan.
This hotel near Yogyakarta, about an hour from Bali by plane, is surrounded by mountains and pleasingly isolated, with its villas set within 22 hectares of tropical gardens and coffee plants. Food is grown on site and served in the resort using recipes sourced from local Javanese villages. Villas are filled with antiques and kitted out with all the requisite luxuries; book one of the Ambar villas to enjoy views over the Ambar volcano from your balcony.