By Rachna Sachasinh
April 26, 2019
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I had been wandering Komodo for over an hour when I encountered its most famous resident.

Covered in muddy, chainmail-like scales, the world’s largest lizard half-heartedly flicked his long, forked tongue, then heaved his awkward limbs and kept moving. A grinning ranger walked up to me, wielding a stick and playing twangy Bahasa ballads from his cell phone: “I guess you didn’t look good enough to eat.”

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Though they often measure 10 feet long and upwards of 300 pounds, Komodo dragons have spent much of their four-million-year history drifting under the radar. Locals knew, but 16th-century Portuguese and Dutch merchants sailed right past them, en route to raid Timor of its spices and sandalwood — hearing only rumors of the primordial creatures. It wasn’t until 1912 that the first outsider set eyes on one.

As a wildlife buff, seeing a Komodo dragon in its natural habitat was always high on my bucket list. But getting to them hasn’t always been easy. East of Java, the Indonesian archipelago trails off into an emerald constellation known as the Lesser Sunda Islands, where you’ll find the 29 freckle-like islets that make up Komodo National Park. The dragons there number around 3,000 and are considered both endangered and dangerous. They wander the 630-acre preserve practically unbothered, foraging on wild buffalo, deer, and each other. Until recently, seeing them meant enduring a day-long ferry ride from Bali to Flores island, the gateway to the park, before hopping aboard another boat for a three-hour transfer.

Luckily, my trip was made easier by the now-daily flights connecting Bali to Labuan Bajo, Flores’ main port of call, a fishing village turned dive outpost with a quirky expat community. Last year saw the opening of AYANA Komodo Resort, Waecicu Beach, the island’s first luxury resort and a truly Indonesian one (the company is Bali-based; 80 percent of the staff at the Flores property is local). But what brought me there was the accompanying debut of the Lako di’a: a 177-foot, handcrafted, teak-and-ironwood phinisi, the indigenous sailing vessel of the region. It’s available to resort guests for journeys around the archipelago, mooring at Komodo, Padar, and Rinca — stomping grounds of the dragons. I practically sprinted down the pier to get aboard.

Courtesy of AYANA Komodo Resort, Waecicu Beach

Lako di’a means “safe journey” in Manggarai, the indigenous language of Flores. Handcrafted by local builders in Sulawesi, the ship houses eight spacious luxury suites on the lower deck and a luxurious master suite at the stern. Each comes with rain showers, Balinese brass sinks, and private balconies right on the waterline to take in the views of narrow straights, volcanic islands, mangrove forests, and stilted fishing villages.

On our first full day, after my shipmates and I rose early for sunrise yoga on the upper deck, we chatted over a breakfast laden with tropical fruits and questioned our choice to sail right into the dragon’s lair. Thomas Demesmaeker, our cruise director, egged us on: “We have three captains onboard, in case one gets eaten!”

We moored for lunch on the pink sands of Padar, picnicking on fresh fish tacos before snorkeling and paddle-boarding in the company of sea turtles and baby sharks. Later, I trekked to the top of a peak where I saw miles of ocean all around me, dotted with a craggy ridge of islands resembling the spine of a giant, slumbering reptile. As we sailed on, we called out dolphin sightings while watching the smoldering tropical sunset. Dinner on deck was grilled snapper with sambal matah, a spicy Balinese shallot-and-chili salsa, and aperitifs under a star-streaked sky.

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We made landfall at Komodo the next day, feverish with excitement. Even the utterly chill Thomas was on alert. Our only directive, barked out by a young guide who seemed to fancy himself modern-day dragon slayer: don’t wander off. Following him closely, we embarked on an hour-long trek through the island’s distinctive coastal savannah and cloud forest trails. A mile in, I began to wonder if we’d see anything.

Until, just like that, Komodo dragons were everywhere: an adult relaxing under a patch of brambles, a baby perched on a high branch, a grumpy, geriatric dragon flicking his tongue and huffing and puffing across our path.

Approaching a wildlife watering hole, we nearly tripped on a stocky, 10-foot dragon slumped at the base of a tamarind tree. Looking not so different from his 3.8 million year-old ancestors, this one had just finished a meal — likely a Timor deer or a baby dragon. We backed up as our guide traced a line with his foot, warning us not to cross it. The dragon, he said, could pounce and outrun any of us at any minute. My pulse raced. I stood awestruck, marveling at my presence on this remote island, inhabited by real-life dragons which had evaded the outside world for millennia. But there was no need to be alarmed; this particular specimen had lapsed into a serious food coma. Sensing the coast was clear, a wild deer cautiously came in for a drink.

Courtesy of AYANA Komodo Resort, Waecicu Beach

After trekking back through the sepia-tinged landscape, we retired to our suites on board. Framing the headboards are artist Justine Missen’s sublime indigo batiks, at once evocative of celestial objects and the phosphorescent creatures of the deep sea — where we swam the next morning, after an impromptu stop on the way back to the resort, glistening onyx manta rays all around us.

T+L reported in October 2019 that the Indonesian government is considering a fee-based permit system for visitors to Komodo Island. Padar, Rinca, and other islands in the park would not be affected. 3-day sailings aboard Lako di’a are available from $1,250 per person. Doubles at AYANA Komodo Resort, Waecicu Beach start at $500 per night.

AYANA provided support for the reporting of this story.