by Joanna Booth, The Telegraph, July 9, 2019
Take a small ship cruise and you can look forward to swapping the bustling cities you’ll find on mainstream Asia cruise itineraries for some of the world’s least visited spots. Sail the frozen coast of Russia’s extreme east in search of bears and whales, or meet the indigenous sea gypsies who make their home on a tropical archipelago off the Myanmar coast. Small ships trump land-based travel in many of these areas, cruising you beyond the crowds to areas of Thailand and the Philippines still unspoilt by mass tourism. If you’re looking for a deserted beach, then these voyages deliver.
Indonesia’s rare reptiles
Here be dragons. Some remote Indonesian islands are not only relatively unexplored, there are actually dragons there – specifically the Komodo kind. They may not breathe fire, but at a length of up to three metres and weighing in at nearly 100kg, with armoured scales and incredibly powerful jaws lined with teeth coated in anticoagulent, these aggressive monitor lizards aren’t to be trifled with. Although there are less than 6,000 in the wild you’ll have no trouble finding one in the Komodo National Park – just don’t go looking without your guide, who’ll be armed with a big stick. Sail on tall ship Star Clipper and you’ll visit other uninhabited islands with white sands beaches, including Gili Kondo and Satonda, where you can snorkel over coral reefs teeming with tropical fish.
- Book it: From £1,430 for a seven-night Eastbound Bali-Bali cruise on board the 120 passenger Star Clipper, departing July 4, 2020. starclippers.co.uk
Japan’s tropical south
Tokyo’s technicolour hustle and bustle feels a world away in the Yaeyama Islands. This remote archipelago, flung over 1,000 miles south and west from Japan’s capital, is tropical and oh-so-sleepy. Cross two-square-mile Taketomi island by ox-cart, passing traditional stone houses where the population of just 300 people still live. A little further north on Okinawa, you can walk though a working excavation site in the Gangala Valley, where pre-historic remains dating back 18,000 years are being unearthed, and on Amami Oshima the primeval mangrove forests are home to rare kingfishers, jays and butterflies. Caledonian Sky visits all three, plus a range of less-travelled ports on the Seto Inland Sea, which separates Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku, three of Japan’s four main islands.
- Book it: From £7,795 for a 15-night Japan & Her Islands cruise on board the 114-passenger Caledonian Sky, departing March 13, 2020. noble-caledonia.co.uk
While recent years have seen the Myanmar mainland become, if not exactly mainstream, then at least fairly well-trodden, the same can’t be said for the Mergui Archipelago. Most of these 800-odd islands, where beaches like icing sugar are backed by thick jungle, remain resolutely unvisited. There are a few settlements of mainland Burmese, but the indigenous population are Moken, semi-nomadic communities also known as sea-gypsies who divide their time between their boats and stilted villages by the water’s edge. Sailing on the Andaman Explorer, you can meet the Moken, swim in the clear waters, kayak through mangrove forests to spot hornbills and relax on those deserted beaches, smug in the knowledge that there’ve been merely a handful of outsiders here since the colonial explorers who charted the islands, leaving only their incongruously British names behind on the map.
- Book it: From £2,910 for The Mergui Archipelago, a seven-night voyage on the 10-suite Andaman Explorer, departing April 5, 2020. pandaw.com
The Russian Wild East
The frigid beauty of the Russian Far East may prove a harsh environment for humans, but nature thrives in our absence. Along the coasts of Chukotka and the Kamchatka Peninsula, the nutrient-rich waters of the Bering Sea support huge populations of humpback, grey and orca whales, walrus, seals and seabirds, including puffins. On land, this region is the home of the world’s largest bears. On Silversea’s expedition voyages you’ll come face to face with an abundance of wildlife from zodiacs, or on hikes across wildflower-strewn tundra to dramatic waterfalls and glacial valleys, sometimes in areas restricted by permit to less than 500 visitors per year. Meeting indigenous communities such as the Chukchi and Koryak, you’ll gain an insight into their lives and traditions as subsistence hunters.
- Book it: From £9,900 for a 12-day Nome-Nome voyage on board the 144-passenger Silver Explorer, departing August 10, 2020. silversea.com
Peace in the Philippines
Some parts of the Philippines have been victims of their own success. The once-beautiful island of Boracay was closed to tourism for six months last year, after overtourism led President Duterte to label it a "cesspool’". You won’t have this problem in Sibuyan. Nicknamed ‘the Galapagos of Asia’ down to difficulty of access and numerous endemic species, its forested peaks and tumbling waterfalls see only a smattering of tourists. Offshore, the tiny islet of Cresta de Gallo has pristine, peaceful beaches, including a long, white sandbar stretching into the crystalline sea. Le Laperouse, accompanied by a National Geographic expert and photographer, visits Sibuyan and Cresta de Gallo plus a range of other unspoilt spots, including Banda Run, an Indonesian island the British exchanged for Manhattan with the Dutch in 1667, and Sulawesi’s Tangkoko Nature Reserve, home to the world’s smallest primate, the Spectral Tarsier.
- Book it: From £7,270 for the 16-day Exploring the Malay Archipelago with National Geographic itinerary on board the 184-passenger Le Laperouse, departing September 8, 2020. ponant.com
Leave the luxury hotels and busy beaches of Phuket and discover a different side of the Andaman Sea. Baan Talay Nok is a quiet fishing village that was partially destroyed by the 2004 tsunami – 46 inhabitants died, including 16 children. Visit on a cruise with Intrepid Travel and you’ll see how the village has been rebuilt, and sit down with women from the local Islamic community to learn how to make soap and coconut sweets. The itinerary also visits quiet beaches in the Similan and Surin National Parks, where clownfish dance among the anemones and ghost crabs scuttle along the pale, powdery sands. Quiet, protected bays are the perfect places to try out the ship’s stand-up paddleboard and kayaks, and to snorkel on reefs burgeoning with everything from boxfish to barracudas.
- Book it: From £2,480 for a nine-day Cruising the Thai Islands from Phuket itinerary on the 49-passenger Panorama II, departing January 17, 2020. intrepidtravel.com