Cruising: Fairytale encounters

On a cruise through an irresistible archipelago, Rachel Williams discovers that dragons really do exist.

Komodo dragons bask in the sun as they wait for prey; top, a beautiful Bali sunset; above, white sands and clear water on an Indonesian beach; inset, a Barong dancer in Bali.

Tentatively creeping through the shady forest, we’re all on high alert. Speaking in hushed tones, only our feet crunching on the man-made shell path give away our position. Eerily, the white stones resemble tiny bones, which adds to the nail-biting mood.

“What’s that?” someone whispers, excitedly.

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We all look round eagerly, cameras at the ready, but to our disappointment, it’s only a group of skittish wild deer. What we’re really looking for is the dangerous, Komodo dragon - a creature I’d previously imagined only existed in fairy tales.

There are more than 2,000 roaming freely in the group of lush green Indonesian islands that make up Komodo National Park, ranked as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature.

The world’s largest lizard can grow up to 10ft, has shark-like teeth and poisonous saliva, so it’s no surprise we’re not allowed off our Holland America Line cruise ship, Ms Rotterdam, without a planned excursion.

As well as preying on other animals living on the islands, the cannibalistic dragons feast on their young... and, to our horror, humans.

If you do survive their initial bite, it’s likely you’ll die a few days later from blood poisoning. But flanked by two guides clutching fork sticks for protection, we’re daring to trek through Komodo Island in search of these incredible reptiles.

As with all wild animals though, there’s no guarantee we’ll find them. After 45 minutes in the blistering midday heat, we’re about to give up hope when suddenly, our guides stop and usher us to move forward very slowly.

We enter a clearing to find six huge dragons, deliciously evil looking, with scaly skin, long tongues and black beady eyes.

My heart is hammering as one creeps behind us and sprawls lazily under a tree. It’s easy to see why this is the most talked about excursion on our two-week Indonesia cruise itinerary.

Clicking away, and trying not to attract their attention, everyone gets the photos they’re after and, feeling satisfied, we head back to the ship to sip cocktails on sun loungers while listening to jazz.

That’s the beauty of cruising ‘round South-East Asia. After exploring historic temples and perusing bustling local markets, you can retreat to the luxury of the mid-sized ship with its champagne bars, fine dining restaurants, casino and lavish spa. Most exciting of all, you nearly always wake up in a new destination every day.

We had started our adventure in Bogor, about 38 miles south of Jakarta, with a visit to the Taman Safari Park, one of the world’s most successful breeding centres for endangered species such as tigers, rhinos and Chinese bears.

But organised tours can be a bit rushed, so when we reach Lombok, we decide to explore alone. We barter with a taxi driver for a fair price, then for the next five hours, he amazes us with his knowledge.

“Lombok is the Bali of 25 years ago,” he tells us.

A new, bigger airport opened there a few years ago, but the island remains unspoiled and lush. Fringed by beaches strewn with coconut palms and covered with rainforest, it has all the beauty of a honeymoon destination.

We visit Sukarara, a weaving village, to watch women at work.

It takes a whole month to make one sarong, and we can’t resist buying one of their intricate designs. Afterwards, we find a boutique hotel on Mangsit beach for a spicy Indonesian lunch.

But the food is just as delicious on the ship and we enjoy meals of succulent lamb, juicy prime rib and hot chocolate puds.

This is our first cruise, and three days in we are still discovering new things – like the library, quizzes and dance classes.

It’s also possible to while away the hours doing nothing at all. Little nooks with comfy seating and giant windows can be found around the ship.

The evening entertainment is also impressive. Talented musicians and dancers cater for all tastes and languages.

One waiter in the Italian restaurant, Canaletto, used to be a guide in Bali, and over a feast of Tuscan steak and delicious red wine, he recommends the best beaches to visit.

Following his suggestions, we head to Kuta Beach for our first of two days in Bali. Tourists of all ages are learning to surf or shopping at stalls selling cheap beachwear and jewellery.

On our second day, we opt for another ship excursion and witness a traditional Barong Dance performance, where a battle between good and evil is represented with colourful masks and acrobatic moves. For lunch, we enjoy an Indonesian buffet at a restaurant overlooking active volcano Mount Batur and the biggest lake in Bali.

Full from the food and relishing the stunning views, we head to Tirta Empul, the temple of holy springs. Balinese people travel from across the island to bathe in its protective waters.

Our hilarious guide keeps us entertained with fascinating stories of Balinese beliefs, religion and culture. He tells us there’s only a 0.2 per cent divorce rate here, and because I am the firstborn in my family, my Balinese name would be Wayan.

We finish the day at an art gallery in Ubad, and while some travellers treat themselves to some souvenirs and others collapse in the shade. Some don’t get off the bus at all.

But back on the ship, there’s plenty of time to relax. We have completely forgotten what day of the week it is, and are only reminded by “calendar” carpets in the lift, which staff change every 24 hours.

I spend every spare minute sunbathing on the top deck or looking out to sea, and I even glimpse a pod of dolphins on one occasion. It’s like a scene from a fairy tale, and I can hardly believe it’s real. Just like those mysterious dragons.

• Rachel Williams was a guest of Holland America Line (0843 374 2300, who offer the 14-night Passage To The Far East cruise from £998 per person, cruise-only, based on two sharing an inside room. The next departure is on February 17, 2015 with further departures in the 2015/6 season.