May 30, 2019
The 120-passenger Coral Adventurer is the largest, newest ship in Coral Expedition’s Australia-based fleet. After its maiden voyage from Singapore to Darwin, we joined the inaugural 11-night sailing to West Papua, a province in the far east of Indonesia on the island of New Guinea. Guests, mostly aged in their mid-60s to 80s, hailed from Australia, Europe and the U.S. Here are our hits and misses of this new ship in a rarely visited destination.
Hit: A comfortable, spacious ship to call home
Much bigger than other Coral Expedition vessels, Coral Adventurer may not initially appeal to past passengers but it’s still small by industry standards and easy to get around, thanks to an elevator, wide corridors and large rooms. The pleasant décor, abundance of natural light and a majority of balcony cabins make it a lovely home afloat. Everything feels open -- there’s an open bridge policy so you can watch the officers’ navigation, an open kitchen to see the chefs at work and 1,000 square metres of open deck space. Befitting an Aussie ship, it has more bars than restaurants and a friendly, caring crew from Australia and New Zealand.
Hit: Food, service and crew
The new chefs had a couple of missteps in the first days of the voyage but the standard swiftly and vastly improved until the food became an absolute highlight. No lunch or dinner dishes were repeated, and even passengers on back-to-back cruises did not see the same meal twice. Breakfast always had a few variations, while morning and afternoon tea offered different cakes, scones or cookies every day. The nightly (and quite lively) three-course dinners presented the best dining experience, and the seafood buffet was delicious.
However, all the food was Western-style (except for a dumpling soup) so we would've liked to see some regional cuisine served onboard, or at least an Indonesian-themed dinner. House wine and beers are included during lunch and dinner, along with soft drinks, juice and water. Service by the young wait staff was consistently delightful. In fact the entire team, from housekeeping and the front desk to the highly experienced expedition leaders, were a credit to the company.
Hit: Warm welcomes in wonderful destinations
Everywhere we went, the locals embraced our arrival. At the first stop of Syuru, an Asmat village built on stilts over a mangrove swamp, our vessel was surrounded by hundreds of chanting warriors in tribal gear and war paint, paddling dugout canoes. This memorable spectacle was particularly exciting, considering we had learned yesterday that New Guinea’s Asmat people were once the world’s most feared headhunters and cannibals.
Other islands welcomed us with speeches, ceremonies and dancing. Adults and teenagers (who learn English at school) said hello, shook our hands and asked to take selfies with us; kids giggled and grinned for photos. There was no hard sell at the handicrafts markets. On a trip to view rock art, the chief turned up in a pimped boat to guide us around. Everyday felt like we had West Papua to ourselves. We were the only tourists in town, at snorkel sites and beaches, including Ngurbloat, claimed to have the softest sand in Asia, and the stunning Sebakor Bay.
Hit: Cultural enrichment and education
Two or three lectures were held every day in the lovely Bridge Deck Lounge, furnished with comfy recliners, couches, flat-screens and a coffee machine. Not only are there excellent guest speakers such as an anthropologist and a marine biologist, the ship’s captain also gets fully involved -- something we have never seen on any other cruise ship.
Coral Adventurer’s Captain Gary is so endearingly passionate about Abel Tasman and other early explorers of Australia; his presentations are not to be missed. He also held daily classes on how to use an astrolabe, which each passenger received as a commemorative gift on the maiden voyage, and read excerpts from Tasman's journal each evening.
Guests can learn new skills in the water, too, with two dive instructors on hand to teach and supervise complimentary scuba diving. While other cruise lines charge hundreds of dollars for this activity, Coral Expedition offers it for free and provides all the equipment. After a briefing, even total newbies can try an intro dive on stunning coral reefs.
Hit & Miss: Xplorer vessels for easier transfers and sightseeing
One of Coral Expeditions’ unique features is its signature Xplorers. Fully shaded, equipped with a toilet and easily accessed, the Xplorer is suitable for people who would otherwise struggle to step onto a Zodiac (rubber dinghy) or tinnie (small aluminium boat) bobbing around in choppy water. That’s because you board the vessel, by walking across a short ramp on the Deck 3 marina, before it is smoothly lowered into the sea via a hydraulic platform at the stern (pictured below).
Coral Adventurer has two of these 60-seater vessels, so all passengers can be simultaneously transferred from the ship to shore for excursions. It usually works well, but it can go wrong. For example, on a hot afternoon in the floating village of Agats, one of the Xplorers was delayed when it was being used to transfer some local officials, leaving half the ship’s passengers waiting on the pier for an hour. (This was an isolated case, when the ship had to anchor 45 minutes away from shore due to very low water levels, so it was a lesson learned on the line’s first visit to this port.)
Also, we’re not entirely convinced that the Xplorers are superior for sightseeing. Sometimes it feels like a bus tour with so many people onboard, and when everyone disembarks en masse, it’s reminiscent of a 'big ship' cruise. Furthermore, the Xplorers’ seats are in rows of three, so if you’re sitting in the middle or aisle, your view is obstructed by your fellow travellers, many of them wielding smartphones and iPads to take photos. The driver does spin the vessel around to give people on each side a better view, but it’s still only beneficial for the window seat passengers. Everyone else has to wait til it stops moving and then walk up to the front or back to snap a decent picture. Not a big deal, but worth noting for the less mobile. (Spoiler alert: You receive the crew’s photography collection at the end of the trip, so you don’t need to take many photos at all -- just sit back and enjoy it.)
So, it’s fair to say we’re torn on the Xplorers. Ultimately, they are brilliant for elderly, unsteady adventurers who would otherwise stay on the ship or not cruise at all. And it sure is nice to have proper seats, shade and a toilet (none of which should be underestimated), but they’re definitely more useful for transfers than scenic rides. We would have loved the option to head out on a Zodiac, but this was not offered in West Papua. (Note: Zodiacs were used for diving expeditions and occasionally for transferring people from the beach to Xplorers; they are also used more extensively on other itineraries, such as the Kimberley.)
Miss: The adventure element was waning at times
On the one hand, it was great to cover lots of beautiful places and then come back to the comfort of the ship for meals, but this routine risks becoming more like a cruise than an expedition. In one port, we had to stick with the group and follow the guide; whereas another expediton line (on another day) guests wander around independently. Some activities were rushed, giving us five minutes in a museum or art gallery, or no time to swim at Ngurbloat, and each person was designated only 15 minutes to swim with whale sharks (if they appeared, which they didn’t). Apparently, the company is looking into an extended stay with the whale sharks next time.
Lingering longer in fewer sites would have allowed more exploration, instead of having to choose between snorkelling or land-based tours. Or let us get started earlier -- we would’ve happily skipped a sleep-in for a scenic ride at sunrise, especially around Triton Bay, an exquisite cross between the misty fjords of New Zealand and the scattered limestone stacks of Vietnam’s Halong Bay.
Again, these learning curves are part of the teething process required to figure out the best approach in remote places that nobody (at the cruise line) had been to, while also respecting the local communities and hosts of our welcome ceremonies. Communicaton between ship and shore was an issue at times, and minor hiccups did occur in most ports. After all, an expedition is a journey with the purpose to explore, not predict and control every moment, big-ship cruise-style.
For bookings, go to the Coral Expeditions website.