Luxury and lizards on a grand scale

Ben Hall
Komodo dragon / Picture: Ben Hall

We're standing at the start of the walking track in Komodo National Park and our local guide, Marsel, is telling us that sightings of the island's famous dragons are not always guaranteed. As if watching a pantomime, a few of us in the tour group point behind him as a Komodo dragon lumbers straight towards us but Marsel thinks we're just making fun of him.

Eventually we convince him and he turns his head and, spotting the reptile, ushers us off the track into the forest at the side.

"Give him some room and don't make any sudden movements," he warns.

The dragon is nearly 3m long and in a hurry for some reason, growling at us in warning as it moves past and on to the bridge ahead. The guides get to know most of the Komodo dragons and this one is apparently a male called Warren who is about 25 years old and one of the more even-tempered animals on Komodo Island.

"We can't get that close to some of the other dragons," Marsel says. "They will lash you with their tail and they will bite. One of the guides got bitten a few weeks back and had to be flown to Bali for hospital. Bad infection."

Komodo is one of those dramatic destinations which very few people get to experience, mainly because of its remoteness in the Indonesian islands. But on this day it all seems a little too easy, thanks to the indulgent comfort of an ultra- luxury cruise ship like Seabourn Odyssey combined with a sighting of one of the world's biggest lizards within minutes of stepping ashore.

It's the major highlight of a 20-night cruise from Auckland to Bali via Sydney and the Great Barrier Reef, and when Odyssey returns for an extended Australian season from November to March, Komodo will feature on two itineraries, on December 9 and March 13.

The arrival into Slawi Bay sets the scene for the Komodo dragon experience. Little kids, some as young as five, paddle their canoes out through the sunrise and call out to those aboard the gleaming white ship to toss them soft drinks which they presumably sell for cash back on land.

Around us, towering volcanic mountains more than 1km high drop straight down into the tropical savanna and scrubland of Komodo. Hidden among the cover are the gargantuan reptiles which have made this island famous.

Only to be found here, they are the world's biggest lizards and can reach more than 3m in length, weighing up to 100kg. Although mostly docile, they can break a human leg with their powerful tails and a bite is not just painful but potentially lethal because of the potent bacteria in their jaws.

Two people have reportedly been killed by the reptiles in the past 20 years and, as a result, they're both feared and respected by locals.

Hiking trails crisscross the island but visitors are not allowed to walk unescorted. On our shore excursion, we have three guides and two of them have big sticks just in case one of the Komodo dragons feels threatened by our presence.

It's hot and humid on Komodo but the reward is about a dozen sightings in the space of just two hours, including four big reptiles around a waterhole in the middle of the island.

Back aboard Odyssey, most people confirm they had multiple sightings and the universal agreement is that Komodo is one of the most remarkable places in the world.

And when you can experience this from one of the world's newest luxury cruise ships, it makes for a day that burns deeply into the memory.

Since it was launched in 2009, Seabourn Odyssey has been welcomed as an innovative and refreshing departure from the way traditional cruise ships are built. Quite simply, Odyssey has been hailed as the world's most luxurious cruise ship, one which has set a new benchmark in style on the high seas. Odyssey's identical sister ships, Sojourn and Quest, were launched in 2010 and 2011 and are also all-suite vessels with a maximum of just 450 guests.

Odyssey has one of the highest space-to-guest ratios of any ship at sea but what sets it apart is the contemporary style which basically makes it a floating boutique hotel.

The decor throughout is subtle and tasteful, with marble finishings, soft lighting and understated colours which create a welcoming, sophisticated atmosphere. This is the first giveaway that Odyssey has broken with tradition; the second is that there is no reception area in a central atrium.

Instead, inquiries to staff are made at Seabourn Square on deck seven, which is an area of calm and tranquillity.

The inquiry desks are hidden away to provide privacy, and elsewhere in Seabourn Square are a cafe serving high-quality coffee and pastries and a reading area with the day's newspapers from around the world and some very comfy chairs.

The suites and restaurants reflect the modern design, and even the most basic accommodation has a separate living area and bedroom, good- sized granite bathroom with separate tub and shower with two twin sinks and a flat-screen TV offering of hundreds of movies, television programs, documentaries and music.

The four restaurants aboard take cruise ship dining to another level and one of them, Restaurant2, is gaining a reputation as one of the best as sea with its degustation menu.

On this itinerary, we sailed on to Lombok and then finished in Bali, wrapping up a diverse cruise which also featured Brisbane, Hamilton Island, Townsville, Cairns and Darwin.

But it was the growling dragons on an imposing and desolate island that really captured the imagination.

FACT FILE

All 225 suites have an ocean view and 90 per cent have balconies. All suites have flat-screen TVs with a range of on-demand movies and entertainment, iPod docking stations, wireless internet access, 24-hour room service, complimentary champagne on arrival, fully stocked bar and fridge, walk-in closet, personalised stationary and writing desk and granite bathroom with separate tub and shower.

Dining is open seating - dine when, and with whom you choose - and complimentary beverages, including soft drinks, hot drinks and selected wines and spirits, are served throughout the ship. Other facilities include The Spa at Seabourn, a gym with Kinesis equipment, four bars including two outdoors, a retractable watersports marina, a casino, a library, Grand Salon Theatre, a Sun Terrace and sports area.

A 16-night cruise from Bali to Sydney, calling at Komodo Island along with Lembar and several Australian ports, starts from $5354 per person twin share. Sibling ship Seabourn Sojourn will visit Komodo on March 4 as part of a world cruise which includes Bunbury, Fremantle, Geraldton and Exmouth. Travel agents, seabourn.com or 13 24 02.

Ben Hall was a guest of Seabourn.