Bandaneira Sunset over Gunung Api

Return to the Banda Islands

We love the Banda Islands! The beautiful beaches, incredible coral gardens, fascinating history, friendly islanders, great accommodation, and delicious food enticed us to down backpacks for a couple of weeks last year. It is a our perfect tropical paradise in all senses of the phrase. When we were looking for a place to relax for a few weeks this year, there was no competition. We headed back to Banda.

Why go back to the Banda Islands?

We wanted a place that had all the above plus reasonable wifi so that we could work on a few ideas for mobile apps. We had an idea for a new kind of guide book in app form. The Banda Islands were the perfect subject for a prototype. There were several Islands with lots to do but they were small enough that we could do our research quickly. Banda was an up and coming destination which wasn’t covered well by current guides and blogs. So, we knew there would be interest.

It was also a good place for me to push on with with my swimming. The waters were generally safe and calm plus there was the distraction of big fish, turtles, and stupendous coral.

So, how was the trip?

Bandaneira Sunset
Sunset from Belgica fort in Bandaneira.

Ah! The tropical paradise was still all we expected. However, unlike last year the tropical weather was a little more tempestuous. The main high season for the Banda Islands is October to mid-December. We returned in March, which is meant to be the second best time to visit. This is when the rainy season tails off. Unfortunately, the wind and rain hung on in there. The thick clouds cast a gloom over the islands and the strong winds often made it impossible to travel between the islands.

Many people across Eastern Indonesia have commented on the extended rainy season this year. I guess something had to balance the long drought and high temperatures of 2015!

Still, we were here to work and relax so we were hoping to do just that. Trouble is the air was heavy, it rained a lot, and it was damn difficult to not end up a little gloomy ourselves!

Our Story

Well, at least we could still snorkel on the few days when the sun broke out. Abba, our genial host at Mutiara Guesthouse and Cilu Bintang Estate, organized fantastic all day snorkel trips around the islands. Laura also got in a couple of days of diving with Blue Motion.

Snorkeling at Banda Besar, Pulau Pisang, and Gunung Api

Coral gardens in a drop of water.
Coral gardens in a splash of water.

Our first trip was a three island special. Abba charges 200,000 idr per person for his snorkel trips. He has just bought a new boat that is sturdy, fast, and has lots of life vests. The captain is an ex-fisherman so he knows the conditions and best snorkel spots well.

We snorkeled off the big island of Banda Besar, the tiny island of Pisang, and at the lava flow just off Gunung Api. Paul was still in his afraid of deep water phase despite the added safety of a life vest. It really is hard to explain the irrational belief that somehow I am the one person who will ‘spontaneously sink’ upon contact with water!

Anyways while I remained stubbornly boat-bound, Laura enjoyed splashing around Besar and Pisang.

Gunung Api from Pulau Pisang
Gunung Api from the sea in front of Pulau Pisang.

Snorkeling at Banda Besar, Banda Islands
Snorkeling at Banda Besar.

We took a lunch break at a quiet shallow cove just off Pisang. After lunch, Laura encouraged-cum-nagged me to jump in. Oh, what the hell! Sploosh! And, guess what? Yes, I floated. And, yes, I loved it! There wasn’t much to see, but at least I had crossed a mental barrier: fear of jumping off a boat.

For our last stop, we headed over to the lava flow on Gunung Api. The volcano erupted less than 30 years ago and the coral seems to love growing around the Laval deposits. I surprised Laura by leaping straight on in. No moans. No whines. Just a happy swimming Buxton. The coral dropped down a few meters in a series of small trenches. So, while Laura and the real swimmers went wandering off following Blue Whales or whatever I amused myself swimming over the trenches. There was some beautiful coral. And, like everywhere else in the Bandas, an abundance of fish.

The real swimmers decided to swim around a small headland to deeper waters. I took the easy route and jumped back in the boat. We moved on and encouraged by a French couple we had hung out with the last few days, I leapt straight back in.

One section of coral resembles a vast rolling green meadow. The English countryside underwater. With weird fish. For some reason, one particular species of luminous green coral has flourished here. I whizzed around quite contentedly heading out to ever deeper waters. Laura eventually caught up with us. And, looked very surprised at my progress. And, as a little treat, a small Black Tipped Reef Shark paid us a visit. This was the first shark I had seen in Banda. Not quite the fifty Hammerheads Laura saw on our last visit to Banda but it was a start.

Snorkeling at Hatta

Paul on his first snorkel in deep water at Hatta.

We had been dying to get back to the tiny island of Hatta. We spent 5 blissful days here in December 2015. It has a quite stupendous coral wall just off shore. We spent hours each day exploring the coral gardens and checking out the fish. However, a mixture of terrible weather, sea conditions, and outbreak of Dengue Fever dissuaded us this time round.

We couldn’t leave the Banda Islands without snorkeling the Hatta reef one more time. We headed out to the island with a motley crew of fellow Americans, who spend their summers working as support staff on Antarctica and their winters traveling in the tropics.

The boat dropped us at the drop off a little ways east of the main beach. To be honest, I was a little panicked when I first dropped in. But, the water was so clear, the coral so gorgeous, and the variety of fish so amazing that I was quickly distracted from my minor freak out. I stuck my head in the water and floated on. We saw some impressive groupers, a bunch of large unicorn fish, and some feisty old titan triggerfish. Titans are super-aggressive and will attack anything that approaches their nests. The odd diver once in a while gets a nasty nip.

Coral at Pulau Hatta
Coral at the dropoff at Pulau Hatta.

Sea turtle at Pulau Hatta
Laura’s sea turtle friend.

We wolfed down lunch on Hatta Beach and headed back into the ocean. The wind had picked up considerably after lunch so it was quite tough for this novice. Laura had fun though! She was befriended by a Green Turtle, who seemed delighted to have her for company for 10 minutes or so. They happily swam together along the dropoff, checking out the fish and the coral. This was another occasion when I had just missed seeing a turtle. Bah!

The VP of Indonesia comes to the Banda Islands

Parade for the vice president. Bandaneira
A procession to greet the vice president.

It seems that this current Indonesian administration is putting a lot of effort into improving the lot of some of the less well-known islands, particularly in Eastern Indonesia. For a long time, the Banda Islands have been seen as the next tourist hotspot in Indonesia but the transport links have never really supported that belief.

The Veep was in town to lend support to the islands and announce a new round of initiatives to help boost tourism. One of the ideas doing the rounds was a proposed expansion of Bandaneira Airport. Apparently, Garuda wants to fly in much bigger prop planes. Currently, the runway can only support 20 seaters. The idea of a bunch of planes, disgorging 100s of tourists a day sounds horrific to us.

However, the islanders were excited and the town spruced itself up for the visit. It was odd seeing cavalcades careering through the narrow streets. A helicopter buzzed overhead transporting the VP from warship to Island. Not entirely sure why he couldn’t just walk down the gangplank from the vessel, which was moored at the dock! I suppose that wouldn’t look imperious enough!

Sometimes you just have to change your plans. Even, if it costs you $$$.

Our beach at the Bruce
We finally got perfect beach weather… 1000 miles away in the Philippines.

We spent the best part of two weeks in the Banda Islands hoping the weather would change. Alas, Weather Underground was a constant source of bad news. It seemed like this bad weather was going to persist. So, we decided to bail and head to bluer skies. It was looking good in the Philippines so that was our next port of call. Cost us a packet, though. Flight change fees,extra flight costs… grrr! Thankfully, Philippines gave us some of the best weather of the trip so we made the right choice.

Highlights

  • Snorkeling at Hatta Reef
  • Snorkeling at Gunung Api
  • Laura’s dives at Hatta, Pisang, and Api
  • Buffet dinners at Cilu Bintang Estate. A great place to meet fellow travelers.
  • A spectacular stormy weather sunset from Fort Belgica

Lowlights

  • The goddamn weather

When we were there

March 13-23, 2016.

Getting There and Away

We flew in and out of Ambon Airport on Lion Air. We took the fast ferry from Ambon’s Tulehu port to Bandaneira. See our previous Banda Islands post for further details.

Hotel and Food

Nutmeg fruits. Bandaneira
A basket of nutmeg at Cilu Bintang.

We stayed at the original Bandaneira boutique hotel, The Mutiara Guesthouse, run by Abba the owner of Cilu Bintang. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, and wifi, were available at the plusher Cilu Bintang just fifty meters away.

Alternative eating spots were:
Spice Island Cafe for great smoothies and Banda staples
Nutmeg Cafe for delicious pancakes, smoothies, and Indonesian staples
Pick up fruit in the local market
Delfika GH has a nice cafe in their courtyard
A few of the local warungs on the main drag also sold cheap but tasty food

Photos

View full size photos on Flickr

One thought on “Return to the Banda Islands

  1. Pingback: Looking Into the Abyss: Getting Over a Fear of Water | Design Think Travel

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