The former HMS Beagle, built in 1968, was sold in 2002 and converted to a private yacht, acquired by Aqua Expeditions in 2019. With its newly revamped interiors done out in tasteful soft greys and creams, with gold and silver accents and covetable objets d'art dotted around, the ship set sail in November 2019.
Aqua Blu is permanently based in Indonesia, alternating between three regions in the Coral Triangle: the Komodo National Park, the Spice Islands, and the remote archipelago of Raja Ampat, where I spent a week on board.
This ship, I quickly realised, is as close to a superyacht as you'll get without chartering or buying one. Her elegant profile is unchanged since the Navy years and the original engines are still used, albeit reconditioned. Everything else is new, from the chic grey of the hull to the two powerful tenders, upholstered in cream and navy. Oversized, cream-coloured day beds adorn one of the aft decks, while big potted palms add to the stylish boutique hotel vibe. No detail has been overlooked, from the place mats made from tiny beads of shell to the perfectly plumped cushions and artfully arranged orchids in the Salon, the ship's living room.
In true yachting style, your shoes are politely taken away on embarkation and everybody, crew included, is barefoot for the entire cruise; no hardship, given the deep pile cream carpet that lines the cabins and corridors, absolutely delicious underfoot. I just wish I hadn't packed so many shoes.
This luxurious base is an extremely comfortable way to explore the glorious scenery of Raja Ampat, a high-definition world of sugarloaf limestone towers, draped in bottle green jungle and scattered across 15,000 square miles of aquamarine sea. Two thirds of the world's coral species are found here, and more than 1,600 species of reef fish, in carnival colours of electric blue, shocking pink and sunshine yellow.
You don't need to be a diver to appreciate the extraordinary underwater world, although diving is included. On twice-daily guided excursions, I snorkelled over dazzling coral gardens and drifted on the strong currents across underwater canyons where black-tipped reef sharks cruised the blue depths.
Twice during the week, the crew set up umbrellas, towels and kayaks on deserted beaches, offering a full bar and dainty canapes from the shade of the trees. At Mioskon, or Bat Island, coolers of wine were loaded into the tenders for a sunset cruise to watch thousands of fruit bats take to the sky as the last light faded.
Returning to the ship was always blissful, with iced towels and fresh watermelon juice to greet us. Every meal, without exception, was sublime, the food fresh, light, local and sustainably sourced, ranging from grilled barramundi with tangy Vietnamese salad for lunch to a rich brioche pudding with home-made ice cream to round off one of many laughter-filled evenings. Decent wines from Australia and New Zealand flow with meals, although spirits cost extra, which seems strangely penny-pinching, given the high price tag of the cruise.
The 15 cabins are extremely comfortable, with masses of space, marble-lined bathrooms and super-king sized beds, although in truth, you're on deck or in the water most of the time. The Indonesian crew are smiling and enthusiastic, with the leadership of cruise director Serge Saliba and food and beverage manager Adrian Broadhead adding that level of intuitive service you'd expect on Seabourn or SeaDream Yacht Club.
There are few downsides. The journey is arduous; I'd recommend overnighting in Singapore as the outward trip involves two consecutive nights of flying. The itinerary wouldn't suit everybody, either; gorgeous scenery aside, there are few distractions if you don't like snorkelling. In that case, the Komodo and Spice Island itineraries would offer more variety. The ship, though, is a triumph - barefoot luxury at its absolute best.