Exploring Indonesia’s 17,000 islands one month at a time

Ocean Pure 1

Exploring Indonesia’s 17,000 islands one month at a time

Ocean Pure 1

Journeys

Exploring Indonesia’s 17,000 islands one month at a time

Noelle Bonnemaison on her annual voyage of adventure and discovery aboard her beautiful phinisi, Ocean Pure 1.

By Dominique Afacan | 9 July 2024

Imagine that for one month every year, you could escape to a true tropical wilderness – where uninhabited islands await, complete with pristine white sand beaches, majestic waterfalls and unique wildlife. Imagine that – despite there being no hotels, no restaurants and often no people at all in this archipelagic paradise – you could explore it in true comfort and luxury. 

Noelle Bonnemaison doesn’t have to imagine. For this French adventurer, it is a reality every October, when she departs her native St Tropez and flies to Indonesia – where her phinisi superyacht OCEAN PURE 1 awaits. 

Exploring Indonesia’s 17,000 islands one month at a time

Noelle Bonnemaison

Exploring Indonesia’s 17,000 islands one month at a time

Noelle Bonnemaison

A destination made for discovery 

Noelle’s love affair with Asia originally began on land in Bali where, fifteen years ago, she bought a rice field and built a villa, but when it became too busy and overdeveloped she decided to explore further afield. “There are more than 17,000 islands in Indonesia,” she explains. “You never need to go to the same place twice.” Having grown up on and around boats in the South of France, she decided that the best way to explore would be on one of Indonesia’s famed traditional sailing boats – a wooden phinisi yacht. “They’ve been building them on the beach on the island of Sulawesi for generations,” she says. “It’s crazy!” 

After a couple of false starts, Noelle’s very own Ocean Pure 1 was ready – and by all accounts, it was worth the wait. “My husband Jean-Louis owns five-star hotels in St Tropez, St Barths, Provence and in the Alps, so for us it was very important to have high standards when it came to interiors, food and service,” explains Noelle. “We’ve applied the same standards to our boat. Today, it feels more like a private villa than a private yacht.”

With six cabins on board, Noelle invites Jean-Louis and selected friends and family each year – including their children. “Everyone who comes says it’s the best holiday they ever had,” she says. “Some friends worry that it will be boring because there are no restaurants or shops or marinas, but of course it is anything but boring. There is so much to discover – plus excellent service and food – and a beautiful sunset every evening. And, of course, the diving is fantastic – there are whales, sharks, turtles and beautiful coral reefs. Everything.”

Exploring Indonesia’s 17,000 islands one month at a time

Deck of Ocean Pure 1

Exploring Indonesia’s 17,000 islands one month at a time

Deck of Ocean Pure 1

A team to help make the magic 

Although Noelle built the boat primarily for private use, it is also chartered to cover the high running costs, including 18 loyal crew. “We’ve had the same crew right from the start,” she says. “The chef is excellent; we trained him to combine Asian and Mediterranean food and encourage him to use fresh, local produce as much as possible. Before, they used to do a huge shopping trip and put everything in the freezer, but now we prefer to buy fish from the local boats; whenever we see one, we go to them with the tender and ask what they have. They don’t really use money so instead we swap produce – we might get fish and we give them rice or fuel or whatever they need. It’s a real adventure.” 

Noelle talks about both completely uninhabited islands and islands with tiny populations that have never seen tourists before. “I am very tall so they look at me like I am a devil!” she jokes. “Meanwhile, I have a friend with blonde hair – they think she must be a movie star!” And there is something else unexpected about many of these islands, too. “Very often, there are only women and babies living there – the older children go to the bigger islands for school and the same for men and work. So there are just women and kids up to about six years old who come out to greet you.”

Exploring Indonesia’s 17,000 islands one month at a time

Buying fish for Ocean Pure 1

Exploring Indonesia’s 17,000 islands one month at a time

Buying fish for Ocean Pure 1

Of course, getting to such remote islands takes time – and even though Noelle is only on board for a month, she has to take a month and a half out of her busy schedule as a magazine editor to account for all the travel time. “You arrive in Bali or Jakarta and then you might need to take one, two or even three more planes to get to the boat. It follows the best weather, so it can be difficult to get to. It’s a lot of effort, but that’s why it’s wild. Sometimes I don’t see any other boats for the whole month.” 

Back in Europe, Noelle and her husband keep another sailing yacht in Greece, ready for Mediterranean summer adventures – but nothing is quite as exotic as their Indonesian escapes.

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