Secret superyacht islands, by Tristan Rutherford
Camper & Nicholsons SEA+I Magazine, September 2019
When dinosaurs roamed the planet, limestone coral rose above the Atlantic Ocean, to be stretched and thinned by the earth’s moving crust. Millions of years later the Gulf Stream flooded the western part. The Bahamas was washed away from nearby Florida and Cuba. Sea levels dropped to unveil endless beaches. Winds and waves sculpted limestone blocks in sinkholes and underwater canyons.
When Columbus first set eyes on the New World in 1492 – at the island of San Salvador in the southern Bahamas – he discovered a limitless chain of sand-fringed specks, protected by virgin reef and populated by mango-munching parrots. Ashore many of the nation’s 700 islands, little has changed since then.
Take Hawksbill Cay. It embodies the same snow-white sand splashed by limpid shallows found across the Bahamas. The depth is so laughable that yacht guests could simply stroll to shore if they don't fancy riding the RIB. These sandy-bottomed seas encompass a snorkel-friendly eco-system of sand dollars, starfish and juvenile conch. That’s why the Exuma National Park, which owns the island, broadcasts its only mooring spots at 9am on VHF channel 16. Once these are reserved, latecomers are forced to anchor elsewhere.
Park rules render Hawksbill Cay blissfully deserted. But it wasn’t always thus. As one paddleboards through Pirates Cut or Smugglers Cove, earlier inhabitations spring to mind. Female buccaneers including Nassau-based Mary Read and Anne Bonny – who both hid their gender from the crew of ‘Calico Jack’ Rachham’s sloop Revenge – stopped by. And they didn’t come to dive for lobster.
Smugglers of another kind preferred Norman’s Cay. Its remote sands served as a rough runway for Colombian drug lord Carlos Lehder. In the 1970s he would land contraband and hold debauched parties that would definitely upset the neighbours – if the island had any. Sadly for Lehder, the shallow Bahamian seas became a watery graveyard for several of his planes, including a Curtiss C-46 and a Douglas DC-3. Both have been reclaimed by corals and shoaling fish, in particular mahi-mahi and snapper. Yacht guests can snap Instagrams as they sit in the submerged cockpit wearing a bikini and a pair of flippers.
Another day, another desert island. Rum Cay is the second island that Columbus set foot on. More interestingly, it takes its name from a lost cache of liqueur that washed up on its shores, and has presumably aged to perfection by now. Atlantic drop-offs make it the country’s premier destination for deep ocean dives. A 20m-high coral wall forms the 'Grand Canyon'. The 'Chimney' is a tunnel made by Staghorn coral that burrows through the reef. Both dive sites pale in comparison to the wreck of HMS Conqueror. The 101-gun ship of the line has trembled on the ocean bed since a navigation error sunk her in 1861. Rest assured, divers will rarely see another party. The population of Rum Cay’s sole settlement is a measly 99.
The Bahamian capital of Nassau tempts for a post-boat blowout. The Baha Mar resort, which includes a sushi shop engineered by Philippe Starck, fully opened in 2018. Genteel types may take tea at the British Colonial Hilton. Aptly for this sunny archipelago, Nassau’s first hotel was built on the site of Blackbeard’s lair. The marble lobby was paid for with profits from Prohibition-busting US politicians. They purportedly sailed in for stiff rums and sunsets, like pirates of old.
One could be forgiven for sailing to Phuket solely for the food. Thailand’s largest island lay on the spice route between Portugal and China, and locals borrowed every recipe that sailed through. Ordering a bowl of pad thai won’t win any plaudits. Ordering a green curry brimming with lobster and holy basil will win you a knowing grin.
The Sino-Portuguese architecture of Phuket Old Town enchants. It’s a mini Macao of temples and churches, where guests can sip bubble tea or pineapple lassi while they shop for hand-made suits. Street food highlights a culinary timeline. Bengali traders imported roti flatbreads, which are best stuffed with seafood curry. French colonials came, conquered and left crêpes. At night markets like Chilva locals prefer timeless bites like crispy grasshoppers and silkworm pupa. Thailand’s polyglot melting pot cooks it all.
Yachts came late to these emerald seas. In the 1970s the only boats on the horizon were longtails, which Sir Roger Moore piloted in The Man With The Golden Gun. His nemesis Scaramanga sequestered himself nearby on Khao Phing Kan. A savvy move, as his tropical bolthole – known locally as James Bond Island – basks in the Phang Nga National Park. Here limestone towers shelter giant grouper and 16 species of manta ray. A movie screening on deck can be paired with popcorn and chilled Singha beer. However, Phuket residents swear by Chalong Bay Rum. Flavoured with lemongrass and kaffir lime, it is distilled by a young Parisian couple who deserted careers in high finance to make booze on an island idyll. Who can blame them?
Even the saltiest seadog will shed a tear when leaving Royal Phuket Marina. However, a day sail away promises a Robinson Crusoe array of outer islands. Here sandy footprints will be yours alone. Ko Rok Nai and Ko Rok Nok sit 50km from the Thai mainland. The only full time inhabitants are a sun-tanned crew of National Park rangers, who must struggle daily at their beachfront HQ. One of their envy-inducing roles is to police the mile of sheltered seabed between the two islands. This area includes the aptly named dive sites of Seastar Cove and Clownfish Reef. Truly, the heart bleeds.
When Googled from a rainy office in London, Similan Island looks like a joke upon mankind. Topaz seas lap icing sugar sands. The banana curves of beach are overhung with jackfruit trees that dangle lunch within easy reach. Ironwood trees render the interior an impenetrable fortress. Flying foxes and rainbow-plumed Nicobar pigeons are happy escapees from India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands due west. As if to mock those hunched over a computer desk, there isn’t just one island to explore, but 11.
The greater Similan Islands National Park is best navigated by kayak. The chain shimmers like an endless jade necklace for 30km, atop a royal blue Andaman Sea. Hawksbill and Leatherback turtles are regulars on Ko Huyong. Smaller islets like Ko Payu are so isolated that even the macaque monkeys have learnt to eat crabs.
While Phuket parties, the Similans’ waters sway to a different tune. Some 200 species of coral bend and twist to form gulleys and swim-through tunnels. Plus barrel sponges so large a diver could hide inside. That might be necessary, as giant pelagics weave through the island chain like boxers in a mismatched bout. Whale sharks and eagle rays perform menacing processions through these inky depths. Their next port of call might be Myanmar’s virgin Mergui archipelago, or south to Langkawi, the scatter of rainforest islands off Malaysia’s west coast. Your captain should set the GPS for there too.
New Zealand is a fanatical sailing nation. A case in point is when TeamNZ clinched the America’s Cup in 1995. A specially chartered plane carried the trophy to Auckland from San Diego, where Sir Peter Blake’s crew had trounced Dennis Conner in the five-leg sailing match. The Auld Mug had its own First Class seat. With Champagne being sprayed on take-off, the trophy was zipped inside a bespoke trunk made by race sponsor Louis Vuitton, which took three French artisans 400 hours to handcraft.
When the champion sailors made their final descent, the scale of victory become apparent. The pilot performed a fly-by over the Hauraki Gulf, where countless boats had formed a sea of sail. The jet then taxied past rows of airport fire trucks, which sprayed a rainbow through fountains of water. Blake and his helmsman Sir Russell Coutts carried the trophy to the tarmac together. The ensuing parade was witnessed by 350,000 people. New Zealand’s 15,000km of coastline has bred generations of sailors and offers an overwhelming choice of yacht hotspots. Auckland, where one in three families own a boat, is a fine place from which to set sail.
The Coromandel Peninsula sits 60km – and several centuries – beyond Auckland. This Lost World includes Cathedral Cove, a geomorphological palace of stone only reachable by foot, kayak or private yacht. Hot Water Beach allows guests to construct a sand-ringed Jacuzzi, should one’s bath on deck not suffice. The peninsula envelops the Bay of Plenty. Which means it shelters the feeding grounds of Brydes, Minke, Humpback and Blue whales. Indeed, the only invasive species are trendy Aucklanders, who are colonising Coromandel with Flat Whites and Marlborough Sauvignon.
The Poor Knights Islands are due north. Maritime maverick Jacques Cousteau rated them among his best dive sites in the world. Snorkelers can leap from the rear beach to greet 120 species. Fish swim so close it’s as if they’ve read the Marine Reserve rules. Just have a dive master ready to hold your hand when a pod of bottlenose dolphins or pilot whales circles your group. Braver divers can drift into Rikoriko, the largest sea cave in the world. Deep sea coral is tricked by the eerie light into thriving 10m below the blue-black waves. Admittedly the Poor Knights Islands are isolated. Many New Zealanders remain unaware of their existence. But that’s reason enough to sail here in the first place.
Ask a Kiwi captain to recommend a final stop and they’ll choose the Bay of Islands. It’s as if the 144 islands were custom-made for the yachting industry. With the added bonus of all-you-can-eat oysters sprinkled undersea. Here Maori culture is at its most colourful. One may take in a performance, follow a guided hike through kauri forest, or eat barbequed green-lipped mussels on the shore. Sailors should save room for Hole in the Rock. The RIB ride through this 18m-wide sea tunnel is thrilling – even if it doesn’t match winning the America’s Cup.
Grenada isn’t called the spice island for nothing. It produces cinnamon, cloves and ginger. Indeed, a nutmeg seed graces the country’s coat of arms, alongside a banana tree and a sailing ship. As a vast island in the Caribbean’s deep south, Grenada dances to a different beat. That usually means a boogie to calypso or soca on a powder sand beach. With a plate of coconut, guava cheese and saltfish curry in hand.
Not all the spice boats left Grenada. A dozen lay wrecked on the ocean bed, now inundated with sea fans, sponges and rainbow runners. Surely the greatest wreck is that of the ocean liner Bianca C. In 1961 an explosion ripped through the engine room. The 180m-long Italian vessel sunk in 30m of crystalline sea. Stingrays and seahorses emerge from portholes and vents. A current that oozes past the abutting reef allows divers to drift the full length. The Times rate the vessel as one of the ten best wreck dives in the world.
Bring an underwater camera to Molinere Bay. A decade ago artist Jason deCaires Taylor installed the world’s first undersea sculpture exhibition on the seabed. The Viccisitudes artwork ranges in depth from 25m to sea level. Some 75 statues showcase the sometimes harrowing history of Grenada. Taylor’s porous cement structures were built to host marine life. Indeed each piece has been reborn as a living reef with coral skulls and algae hair. As objects appear larger and brighter under the waves, each statue peers eerily through one’s mask. Wetsuits are unnecessary. Water temperatures in the southern Caribbean hover between 24°c and 30°c (75F to 85F). Simply pull on a pair of Vilebrequins and dive right in.
Grenada’s little brother Carriacou is barely explored. For several reasons. Few sailors make it past Anse La Roche beach, a C-shaped curve of sand bookended by virgin forest. Furthermore, the island drink is Jack Iron, a 69% overproof rum that renders movement difficult. Skip the daiquiri to see inland Carriacou. Hiking trails weave through a botanical dream of orchids, bougainvillea and towering mahogany trees. The island summit, 291m North Peak, is a fine spot to gaze upon one's waiting yacht.
On the tiny island of Petite Martinique one can forget the 20th century, let alone the 21st. The population of 900 seems content to build boats and fish for grouper, as opposed to checking their Facebook feeds. There are few attractions, a mere handful of restaurants, and the local museum is so tiny it only costs $1 to enter. Sounds like paradise to me.
The etymology of The Maldives is particularly charming. In Sinhala, the language of nearby Sri Lanka, Maala Divaina means ‘Necklace Islands’. When gazing down on the Maldives from a seaplane – a nation where 1,192 islands are festooned across 90,000km2 of ocean – the reference seems particularly fitting.
Until recently the Maldives were the preserve of honeymooners. Newlyweds would hold hands underwater as they drift-dived schools of giant manta, then flew home the following week. A volley of new marinas has smashed that perception. In 2017 Amilla Fushi opened a Yacht Club and marina. Mid-sized boats can sail right up, or send in the tender when anchoring in the bay. It’s naughty to even mention, but part of the island’s charm is its boutique British chippie that batters Maldivian emperor bream then serves it with Sauvignon Blanc and fries.
Resorts used to be closed shops. Now yachts can drop in to the likes of Cheval Blanc Randheli for chef’s table dining and Guerlain beauty flashes. The cosmopolitanism extends to sipping Manhattans with a resident astronomer or marine biologist. Even the pandanus blooms on its wild sister island of Maakurandhoo seem curated by a Parisian fleuriste. Although, come to think of it, the entire resort is managed by Louis Vuitton.
Zero sign of human habitation is apparent on 80% of the chain. In millennia past, indigenous groups hopped between islands on dugout canoes. These earlier residents simply built homes using coconut fronds, and let their footsteps on the beach wash away. It’s these 1,000 sandy specks that cry out for exploration by yacht. Although one should pack a dive master, a set of binoculars and decent wine cellar before casting off.
A case in point is the northern Raa Atoll. The entire island group was off-limits to foreigners until two decades ago. Of its 88 islands, only 17 show any form of human life. Many host a watery lightshow known as the Sea of Stars, where bioluminescent phytoplankton respond to electric signals and twinkle in the dusky sea.
Raa’s central lagoon is famed for its thilas. These submerged islands rise from the seabed up to snorkel level, and are frequently crowned by the swishy-sway of anemone coral. The Wall is a drop-off reef that sinks from 10m to 60m. Manta rays migrate through like dinosauric birds through an inky ether. In these sheltered seas Napoleon wrasse can outgrow humans, their mottled blue skins mirroring the texture of the coral below. Sail out of the lagoon to find Indian Ocean surf that has seldom embraced a Rusty board. Once again, wetsuits are an unknown concept. Year-round water temperatures undulate between 27°c and 33°c (80F to 90F).
Tristan Rutherford writes about the luxury yacht industry for Boat International and other magazines