There I sat on the porch of my Robinson Crusoe-styled beach shack perched on a small bluff under towering Kenari trees, looking out at the Banda Sea. I smiled. Not a normal smile, but an ear-to-ear smile, big enough to snap off the top of my head. I had made it…
I had made it to the legendary spice islands. In the 1500s these islands were the most sought after real estate on the planet. The spices they produced, like cinnamon, nutmeg, mace and cloves had untold medicinal values and were worth a fortune. Nutmeg alone was purported to cure dysentery, the plague and energize the libido.
In reality, nutmeg’s medicinal properties were probably most effective on the rich and flatulent – and rich you had to be. Every European power wanted to find the fastest way to these islands, corner the spice trade and capitalize on the profits. This alone was the catalyst for the Age of Exploration that led to the eventual “discovery” of the Americas by the Europeans. In short, these little islands changed the world.
Today the Banda Islands sit like green emeralds in a sea of sapphire. Fringed with cliffs and creamy white beaches, reefs abundant with marine life, and vertigo-inducing underwater walls. They are the perfect place for adventurous travelers willing to trade a few conveniences for a slice of paradise. You can dive the walls, hire fishing boats for the day, or just snorkel out and let the currents take you over kilometers of unbroken reef to watch turtles flying up from the blue, blacktip sharks patrolling their territory, eels lazing in their holes and schools of fish swirling in the sunlight. Before you turn into a prune, you can swim up to the nearest beach and walk back, picking up shards of old Chinese, Portuguese and Dutch pottery that wash up on some of the beaches like seashells. Yes, history is never far away.
One stormy morning off Pulau Hatta (Hatta Island), I found myself leaning into a negative backwards roll into a turbulent sea and descending into the blue, where my only point of reference were luminescent sea lice. At 30 meters, I heard a tap on a tank and found myself face-to-face with a group of hammerhead sharks. There was a school of about five of them. They looked rather shocked to see us and at 70cm apart, my big question was “which eye do I look at?”. We were mesmerized by each others company for a couple of minutes, then they swam away. It was a thrilling experience for me, but I haven’t heard back from the hammerheads.
Another day I threw the rope off the back of a fishing boat, put on my mask and snorkel and spent an hour being towed through a large pod of Electra dolphins. The dolphins, who were trying to figure out what I was, swam right up to me to investigate. I caused a lot of high-pitched chatter and only wished I spoke their language.
Sea monsters anyone? I encountered this girthy, dragon-like, two-plus meter eel at the base of a lava flow off of Gunung Api (Mt. Api). It left me to wonder if it had emerged from the bowels of the mountain when it erupted almost 30 years ago.
There is also a lot to be seen on land. Exploring places like the restored Benteng Belgica (Fort Belgica), the vague foundations of El Dorado, or the crumbling bastions of forts Revenge, Nassau and Hollandia gives you time to contemplate the historical significance of the islands and thread the stories together. A walk into the interior of any island will give you insights into plantation life, where people climb trees and use bamboo poles to pick the nutmeg while those below dodge the falling fruit and gather them into baskets. I saw entire families squatting under centuries-old Kenari trees, opening the nuts with impossibly large machetes. Though offered, I resisted the temptation to try it myself and kept my digits intact.
One highlight was beaching myself on the wonderfully deserted Pulau Nailaka, with its curling white sand bars and inviting turquoise swimming holes. This is a dreamy paradise where the footprints you see, will probably be yours.
Many Bandanese are descendants of slaves brought there by the Dutch from Sumatra, Sulawesi and Papua hundreds of years ago, thus the islands are remarkably diverse. The people are genuinely welcoming and much to my surprise they speak Bahasa Indonesia as if they were auditioning for a role in The Godfather!
Bandanese food reflects both the diversity of the people and the availability of ingredients, and is some of the best food in Indonesia. I was served dishes like sweet and sour fish with cinnamon and cloves, and vegetable soup simmered with huge chunks of nutmeg. If you are a coffee freak like I am, you have to try the coffee with chunks of cinnamon.
Accommodations in the Bandas are reasonable by any standard. The best hotels on Banda Naira with 24-hour electricity run IDR 500,000 (US$38) or less for a single including breakfast. On the out islands, where there is electricity only four hours a day, I found an endearingly decrepit hotel overlooking the reef for only IDR 100,000 (US$7.50) including three meals a day. No, that’s not a typo. Most accommodations will run around IDR 300,000 including meals (US$23).
Long ago, explorers took years to get to the Banda Islands or died along the way. Nowadays, you can fly to Ambon and take the five-hour fast boat on any Tuesday and Saturday. Time it right and you can be there on the same day. There is also a Wednesday Susi Air flight from Ambon. It’s never been easier to get to the Bandas!
All the larger islands have beautiful beaches, nutmeg groves, ancient Kenari trees and reefs that are easily accessible from shore and edged by dramatic vertical walls. Here are some other fast facts to help focus your trip:
Pulau Banda Naira
- Largest choice of accommodation and only island with 24-hour electricity
- Hub for all inter-island boat travel
- Key historical sites
- Blue Motion Divers
- Dolphins and an abundance of large marine life
- Live like a castaway
- Naira Divers
- The vague ruins of El Dorado
- Lovely and deserted Pulau Nailaka
- Charming village and historical sites
- A network of footpaths through the nutmeg groves
- Sunrise and sunsets with Gunung Api as a backdrop
- Small, clean and pristine
- Lots of turtles on the windward side
- Arrange accommodations and food in Banda Naira
Pulau Banda Besar
- Historical sites
- Mountain trails to the windward side
- You will only find AC in Banda Naira where there is 24-hour electricity, but I was comfortable without it
- Though there are exceptions, cold water and bucket baths are the norm
Getting There and Back
- Daily flights from Jakarta to Ambon
- The Bahari Express 2B fast boat to and from Ambon and the Bandas
- Susi Air flights to and from Ambon and Bandas currently on Wednesday
- Nathaniel’s Nutmeg by Giles Milton