To get the most out of the clear waters and uninhabited islands in the Indonesian archipelago — the world’s largest comprising more than 17,000 islands — siblings Jason Tabalujan and Jasmine Chong turned to marine hospitality.
With Tabalujan based in Jakarta and Chong in New York City, their shared love for their homeland and the ocean led to the creation of Celestia, a 45-metre phinisi, or traditional Indonesian sailing vessel. Its name means ‘heavenly’ in Latin.
Built by indigenous people from the Konjo tribe in Bulukumba, South Sulawesi, the phinisi or pinisi gets its name from the type of rigging used on the boats. Mainly used by the Buginese and Makassarese as cargo ships in the past, it is crafted by hand and made from ironwood and teak. This traditional art of boatbuilding was named a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2017.
They also enlisted the help of other experts in the field, including Singapore-based interior designer Deirdre Renniers from Cape Town, who’s no stranger to designing luxury yachts such as the Amandira, the flagship yacht for Aman Resorts. Naval architect Tresno Seery was roped in to consult on the drivetrain and systems.
It gets personal
Dressed in a blue and yellow exterior, the phinisi is fitted with seven suites, each with its own bathroom, a sun lounge, and main deck as well as all of the modern comforts for multi-day voyages through Komodo National Park, Raja Ampat, or Banda Islands.
While there’s nothing novel about refitting the traditional phinisi for tourism (resorts such as Alila Hotels & Resorts or Amanwana have acquired a phinisi of their own), the Celestia feels more like a personal project than your run-of-the-mill luxury craft.
For one, both siblings have a direct connection to Sulawesi, where their grandparents hail from. Tabalujan recalls travelling to South Sulawesi from Jakarta, where he works as a fund manager, over the weekends to oversee the boatbuilding team. His sister, fashion designer Chong, would contribute to meetings remotely over video calls from New York.
Together with Renniers, the pair have incorporated design details that hold special meaning. The pale blue Balinese tiles in the bathrooms are inspired by their childhood home, the rattan used on doors and panels is in a similar shade of “burnt honey” as their father’s favourite rattan rocking chair, and the writing desks in the upper deck stateroom and master suite stateroom are a nod to their late grandfather, whom they fondly remember writing at hotel desks on family vacations.
“I worked closely with Deirdre to create a sophisticated sense of space that respected the origins of the phinisi while also allowing a canvas for our guests to live out their special moments,” Chong shares.
Apart from putting together an interior that wouldn’t upstage the scenic landscape outside, Renniers explains that the key challenge was working around the space constraints of the vessel. Comparably smaller than a modern yacht, every detail in the suites of the phinisi had to be chosen carefully for both aesthetic and practical considerations. (All design elements have to be able to withstand constant exposure to the harsh conditions of the sea and sun.)
In keeping with the siblings’ wish to showcase their Indonesian heritage, Celestia’s custom-made furnishings such as the lights, door knobs, bathroom fixtures and fabrics, were sourced as much as possible from local craftsmen.
Wicker products on the boat, for example, are from Du Anyam, a social initiative supporting women weavers in rural Indonesia. “This not only supports the local economy but also facilitates easier maintenance and repairs,” explains Renniers.
A true sign of Indonesian hospitality
They’ve also handpicked a local crew of 17 that has ample experience leading luxury charters, including two members who were part of the boatbuilding team and know the vessel inside out. It’s part of Celestia’s “people first” philosophy for hospitality, a thread that extends from the phinisi’s conception to its day-to-day operations.
Even the food and beverage program is curated by executive chef Wayan Kresna Yasa, a celebrated Balinese chef and co-author of PAON: Real Balinese Cooking. While heading the team at HOME by Chef Wayan on the west coast of Bali, which he owns, he led the kitchen at the G20 Summit luncheon in 2022 and earned restaurant Kaum in Seminyak the title of Best Indonesian Restaurant by Exquisite Magazine.
Having worked in Michelin star-rated kitchens in New York and Chicago, chef Wayan is best known for his inspired signature style, marrying classical French cooking techniques with Southeast Asian flavours, and built himself a notable career in Indonesia and the United States.
Extra care has also been taken to tread lightly to leave the least environmental impact on the majestic yet delicate marine ecosystem. The boat’s shower amenities are reef-safe as well as made of reusable bamboo in place of plastic. “We also encourage guests to participate in beach clean ups and to pick up any trash they see in the ocean,” Tabalujan adds.
With no detail spared, the Celestia truly is the siblings’ love letter to their homeland, evoking a sense of pride and respect for mother nature. Additionally, the vessel offers a way of slow travel to explore and enjoy what the vast archipelago has to offer.
As Tabalujan puts it succinctly, “The island of Manhattan was once swapped on a one-for-one basis with an island in Indonesia’s Banda Sea that grew nutmeg — perhaps one of the best real estate deals in world history. By developing a phinisi that is uniquely Indonesian, we hope that stories like these will be told.”