Sunset gold. Benteng Belgica, Bandaneira.

Snorkel and spice: the Banda Islands

We never had the Banda Islands on our itinerary when we left home. But we kept looking at those pages in the Lonely Planet and heard many good reports from fellow travelers. I am glad we keep our ears and options open, since our finest experiences have been in places that were not entirely on our radar. The Banda Islands are quite possibly the best place we have discovered on this trip. This tiny cluster of islands delivers huge rewards: incredible underwater life, friendly people, volcano views, fascinating history, and idyllic beach huts.

History of the Banda Islands

Old map of the Banda Islands
Old map of the Banda Islands with Gunung Api erupting. Source: Wikimedia Commons

It is amazing to reflect on the fact that these sleepy remote tropical islands were once the epicenter of colonial warring, gross treatment of locals, and an incredibly lucrative trade in highly sought after commodities. Those commodities were, of course, the spices that grew exclusively on the islands. Nutmeg was once more expensive than gold since it was believed to be a cure-all for many a foul affliction including the plague. Britain and Holland clashed for decades over the spice trade and hundreds of locals died as a result. In fact, most of the indigenous Bandanese were wiped out. The Bandanese language only exists now in the Kei Islands further south. Many Bandanese fled there to escape the horrors of 17th century colonial violence.

Getting there and away

Map of the Banda Islands.
Map of the Banda Islands. Source: Wikimedia Commons

As Lonely Planet says, the Banda Islands would be one of the top destinations in Indonesia if they were easy to get to. In the past, the options were really limited. Every year an airline is given the rights to fly a government subsidized flight from Ambon, the main city in Maluku province, to the Bandanese capital, Bandaneira. The airstrip at Banda is tiny so it is serviced by small 20 seater prop plane. This flies three times a week and is canceled if the weather is bad. You cannot book the plane in advance so you have to go to the airport and get on the flight list. If the plane is going you get a phone call, pay, then fly. There were no flights when we were there since the old contract was up and the new service had not been announced. The flight costs around $30.

The other option was to go via the huge Pelni ferries that circulate through the Indonesian archipelago. Currently, the Tidar and Keli Mutu ferries make their way to the Banda Islands. The schedule for them is released every 6 weeks or so and they both arrive in Banda every couple of weeks. Conditions on the Keli Mutu, in particular, are said to be fairly grim. Cockroaches are a big problem as is petty theft. No wonder so few travelers made it out here. The ferry is cheap so it is a good option for those low on funds but have lots of time. The journey takes around seven hours.

Over the last year, there has been an additional route opened up. The Express Bahari ferry company that runs boats around other Malukan Islands has now started a fast hydrofoil service from the Tulehu terminal near Ambon to Bandaneira. The ferry runs Ambon-Banda every Saturday and Tuesday and Banda-Ambon every Sunday and Wednesday. The ferry is meant to leave at 9am but is often late if it is waiting for another ferry to connect from Seram or Lease, or if locals haven’t finished loading up the boat with supplies. Our boat out left an hour late and the return 15 minutes late. The service takes about five and a half hours. The Ambon terminal is 45 minutes out of Ambon town but leave a couple of hours before departure since the rush hour is gnarly. The taxi cost us $15 but maybe with better bargaining skills you could get it much cheaper.

The hydrofoil costs $30. This is pricey for Indonesia but it the service is super efficient and a much needed boost to the Banda Islands’ tourist economy.

Getting around the Banda Islands

Clear water. Hatta, Banda Islands
Local transport in the Bandas. Thankfully, we took boats that were a bit bigger and sturdier than this one.

There are boats, boats, and, er, boats. There are regular daily services to Hatta, Banda Besar, Rhun, and Ai. Check with hotels though since sometimes the boats don’t run on Fridays. All the islands are small and walkable. The boats run from a couple of spots behind the main market in Bandaneira.

Accommodation

Balcony of Cilu Bintang Estate. Bandaneira, Banda Islands
The balcony at Cilu Bintang Estate with a view of Gunung Api.

There are a number of excellent B&B’s in Bandaneira. We stayed at the recently opened and unbelievably plush Cilu Bintang Estate. The hotel was a former colonial mansion lovingly restored by local entrepreneur, Abba Rizal. The standard rooms cost around $28 including breakfast. We splurged on the VIP suite for our first night. At $55 it was one of the most expensive rooms of our trip, but it had a volcano view and looked like a $300 suite out of the pages of Conde Nast magazine. All rooms at the Cilu Bintang have four poster beds, vintage maps and engravings of the islands decorate the walls, and the bathrooms are modern and stylish. A boutique hotel at backpacker prices. His wife, Dila, is a fantastic chef and when there is a large enough group at the hotel she prepares a superb buffet of local foods for only $6. Pound for pound, this is probably the best hotel in Asia. Certainly, the best we have ever stayed in and makes a mockery of the hotels for the same price in Myanmar.

Abba also runs the Mutiara B&B, which is a tad cheaper at $20 but you get to use all the services at Cilu Bintang too. Abba also runs day trips to the outer islands and helps organize onward travel.

There are small homestays on Rhun, Pulau Ai, and Banda Besar. On Pulau Hatta, there are six sets of beach bungalows. We stayed at Neira Dive, a couple of rustic beach bungalows just across from where the public boat drops off. The room had a large double bed with mosquito nets. The bathrooms were very rustic- bucket showers and toilets. The room cost $15 per person each and was full board.

Food

Nutmeg. Bandaneira, Banda Islands
Nutmeg

The food in the Banda Islands is the best we have found in Indonesia. These are the Spice Islands and the food is appropriately spicy. Aside from Cilu Bintang, there are a couple of other little cafes on Bandaneira worth checking out. The Nutmeg Cafe serves delicious and cheap local favorites, juices, and divine pancakes with nutmeg jam. The newly opened Spice Island Cafe, run by an American woman and Banda guy, serves excellent coffee, unbelievably tasty juices (mango, soursop, and avocado/coconut), and fiery local dishes (fish soups and chicken curries). Local kenari nuts, similar to buttery almonds, are ubiquitous garnishes. WiFi is hard to find but there are reliable services at Spice Island and Cilu Bintang.

The beach bungalow on Hatta was full board. Breakfast was small: some kind of pastry, bread, or fried banana with nutmeg jam and coffee. Lunch and dinner were various combinations of salad, rice, and fish or eggs. Coffee, tea, and mineral water were available all day.

You can pick up tropical fruit straight off the tree from the small market on Bandaneira. The other specialty is of course spices. The nutmeg that we grate into pies and cakes is the seed of a tree fruit similar to a tart peach or apricot. Guesthouses in Bandaneira make delicious jam from the nutmeg fruit. The fruit is also sliced and dried to make a sharp but sweet dried fruit snack.

Around the Banda Islands: Bandaneira

The last twinkle. Sunset at Bandaneira, Banda Islands
The sun sets behind Gunung Api, seen from Benteng Belgica in Bandaneira.

Bandaneira is the main town on the Banda Islands. Climb up to Benteng Belgica, the fort that dominates the main town, for glorious sunsets behind the volcano, Gunung Api, that looms over the island. Make sure you wander around the town too since it is a lovely hodgepodge of colonial and tropical buildings. And be prepared for the constant chorus of ‘hello, misters’ from locals. They are a very friendly and sociable bunch out here. You can snorkel at a couple of spots on the island but the beaches are not great. For incredible snorkeling and beaches, you should head out to Hatta or Ai. Laura swam around the waters near the Blue Motion dive shop and saw a couple of beautiful but elusive Mandarin fish. Blue Motion arranges dives around the Islands and also teaches Open Water and Advanced Dive courses. In the main though, Bandaneira is a place to seriously chill out and get away from it all.

Banda Besar

The grove. Pulau Banda Besar, Banda Islands
Nutmeg and kenari nut grove. Banda Besar

This is the biggest island in the archipelago and the source of much of the spices that were the mainstay of the Banda Islands’ economy. Local guides, organized by hotels and Spice Island Cafe, organize half-day tours through the spice plantations introducing you to the spice life cycle and trade, and the bloody history of the colonial domination of the area in the 17th century. We did the 3 hour tour one afternoon and it was absolutely fascinating. I winced a number of times though when the guide made reference to the wicked behavior of my fellow countrymen in the past.

The natural and social history of the nutmeg tree is fascinating. Nutmeg originally grew only in the Banda Islands, bringing enormous wealth but also bloodshed to the islands. The islands lost the monopoly on the nutmeg trade when someone finally succeeded in smuggling out nutmeg saplings and establishing plantations in Sri Lanka. The nutmeg tree is also part of an evolutionary partnership. The tree requires lots of shade, so it always grows in the shadow of the towering kenari nut tree. This unique partnership is one of the many quirks of natural history that we’ve seen in the Indonesian archipelago.

Gunung Api

Gunung Api from the fort on Banda Besar, Banda Islands.
Gunung Api seen from the viewpoint on Banda Besar.

Gunung Api is the volcano that is visible from just about everywhere in Bandaneira. It looks like Gunung Api, Bandaneira, and Banda Besar are the remnants of an old volcano, and the bay separating the islands is the old caldera. We didn’t climb Gunung Api on this trip, but we will next time. Another traveler showed us his photos of the view over the islands from the top.

Pulau Ai

We never actually landed on Ai but we had a nice late afternoon snorkel off the back of a boat in the waters just off the island. Pulau Ai was the main destination for snorkel and beach life until Hatta upped its game with newer accommodation and a dive shop.

Pulau Rhun

Rhun is a spot for beautiful views and a quick wander through the spice plantations. It has an interesting history, being the first colonial acquisition of the British crown. In fact, the king at the time gave his full title as King of England, Scotland, Wales, and Rhun! There maybe some decent snorkeling off Rhun but the area seems to be a little overfished and there is evidence of past dynamite fishing.

Nailaka

A tiny island linked to Rhun by a sand spit. We visited it on a day trip along with Ai and Rhun. You could probably walk round it in 5 minutes. There is no accommodation on the island but the beach and waters are very pleasant. The waves on the east side of the island can be a little turbulent but there are fish and coral on the placid waters off the west side. Laura saw a pair of eagle rays winging away over the reef.

Pulau Hatta

Our beach. Hatta
Our beach on Hatta.

This tiny island provided us with some of the finest experiences of our trip to date. You come here to lounge on the fine beach and snorkel in the crystal clear waters and phenomenal coral gardens and drop offs. Read our separate blog post about Pulau Hatta.

Diving the Banda Islands

Laura was having adventures of her own that put my big fish totally in the shade. Here’s Laura to describe the Banda Islands at 30 meters under.

The Banda Islands are known for some of the world’s best diving, with clear water and healthy coral. I am a novice diver, but it will be hard to beat some of the dives I did in the Banda Islands. In anticipation of diving some sites in Thailand that require advanced certification, I did my advanced scuba course with Blue Motion Divers in Bandaneira. I was also lucky to join up with two French divemasters in Hatta. Gigi and Hubert were volunteering their expertise to our bungalow owner to turn his accommodation into a proper dive operation. I did eight dives around the Bandas and can’t wait to go back for more.

I saw a lot of beautiful fish, turtles, and coral, but nothing can beat the school of 50+ hammerhead sharks. I had heard that the Banda Islands offered a good chance of seeing hammerheads. One day, while diving along a wall, a hammerhead swam out of the blue, approached us, and just as quickly flicked around and disappeared into the deep. I had seen photos of hammerheads but seeing one in the flesh was amazing. They are truly bizarre creatures, with a rubbery appearance and eyes on the protruberances on the sides of their heads. My fellow diver, Will from Australia, caught the encounter on a GoPro.


A hammerhead shark in the Banda Islands.

The next day, I did my lifetime dive #11, which may be my lifetime best. We saw a school of 50 or more hammerheads. As we rounded a small cape, the current became strong and we had to grab onto the wall to hold ourselves in place. A school of hammerhead sharks appeared out of the depths, like us swimming against the current to stay in place. The sharks swam in formation in stacked rows. I could clearly count at least 30 and there must have been many more in the gloom behind them. We stayed, hanging onto the wall with our fingers, and watched the sharks for at least 15 minutes. From time to time, a hammerhead would break ranks and swim a few meters closer to us to take a look. Hammerheads don’t normally attack humans, but it was exhilarating every time that happened. The rows and columns of sharks with their strange eyes and bodies looked like some kind of alien army. It was the best wildlife encounter of my life and I will never forget the sight despite not having any photos or videos.

Another memorable dive was off Pulau Hatta, where we saw a family of six bumphead parrotfish within a few seconds of descending. We kept seeing more bumpheads during that dive. I saw two of these massive, buck-toothed fish in the Togean Islands and had been hoping to see more. My dive buddy Will was on this dive and got a great video of the fish.


Bumphead parrotfish in the Banda Islands.

Back to Paul.

Getting out: Flight comedy

We flew into Ambon from Kuala Lumpur via Jakarta. The flight to Ambon was a mostly sane but tiring red eye flight. The flight back to KL was somewhat ludicrous and Monty Python like. We had purchased a flight that was Ambon-Jakarta-KL, but became aware at Ambon airport that our first flight had Makassar and Surabaya as destinations too. At worst, we thought the same plane would touch down and take off again from those two cities on the way. Seemed crazy, but what the hell as long as we arrive. Still, our boarding pass said straight to Jakarta.

Lo and behold, we touched down at Makassar and like a number of locals we stayed on the plane. Except that after everyone else left, the flight attendants ushered us off too. Uh? We were told that we were to transfer to a Jakarta flight that was heading out in ten minutes. Major panic set in. Where was the transfer desk and how would our luggage transfer so quickly? We ran round the airport like lunatics and finally found the transfer desk and new boarding passes. We legged it to the boarding gate and I double checked with the person at the desk which flight this was. ‘Surabaya’ was his immediate reply. WTF!!! My jaw dropped but before I let off an exasperated tirade he quickly corrected himself. ‘Jakarta’, he said… smirking, I am sure. Well, hope the baggage makes it too. Anyways, we boarded for an uneventful flight.

We had another tight connection in Jakarta but it was the same airline so it would be in the same terminal. Right? Not right, we found out on landing! We jumped on the bus that links terminals after we were told we had to switch to terminal 2 and headed straight into one of Jakarta airport’s infamous traffic jams. Shit, shit!! The clock was ticking, the traffic was sticking! We finally arrived at a terminal and I double checked it was terminal 2. ‘No sir, this is 3’. What!!!!!?? We were going to miss our flight. In desperation,trusting no-one now, I yelled out the bus door, ‘Is this terminal 3?’. ‘Terminal two’, the crowd yelled back. We piled off the bus cursing. We ran the length of the terminal, cut to the front of the immigration queue, and made it to the gate just in time. One minute later came the announcement, ‘The flight will be delayed by two hours’. !!!!@@###????.

We liked the Banda Islands so much, we’re coming back!

Us at Benteng Belgica, Banda Islands
Us at Benteng Belgica

We were incredibly sad to leave Banda but we were looking forward to meeting up with Laura’s ma and sister in Thailand. It is clear that tourists numbers will increase in the next couple of years. The hydrofoil is the first step and apparently the national airline, Garuda, wants to extend the airport runway so they can land bigger planes. Hatta is gearing up for a heavier influx, having built 5 homestays/beach resorts in the last six months. Thankfully, all the guest houses are tasteful and fit in with the local vibe. They are all locally owned, which is great too. I would hate to see this place taken over by big global companies.

As I write this from Bagan in Myanmar, we have just returned from Mrauk U, another place we were not sure we would reach. Another one of our top five places we have visited in the last nine months. We have come to realize that we really are fans of off the beaten track places and places where tourists are few. Thankfully, such places still exist and have sufficient tourist infrastructure to make them thoroughly enjoyable and attainable.

Right now you will be sharing these fabulous islands with no more than 30 other tourists at a time. So, what you waiting for?

Photos

View full size photos on Flickr

6 thoughts on “Snorkel and spice: the Banda Islands

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  4. Ying

    Hey guys,

    Thanks for this informative write-up on Banda Islands. How long did you guys spend around the Maluku region? Did you check out other places like Northern and Southern Maluku as well? I’m trying to see if we should do Maluku over Raja Ampat. Was it easy to arrange snorkelling day trips and do they cost a lot? Should we stay a few days at Bandaneira or should we just head of to Ai or Hatta?

    How does the snorkeling compare to the Togean Islands? I read from somewhere that you were there too. My husband and I are avid snorkelers. My experience so far was Sulawesi being the top of the list.

    Cheers!

    Reply
    1. Laura Jacobsen

      Hi Ying,

      We spent a total of about 4 weeks in Maluku over the course of two visits. Most of that was in the Banda Islands, but we visited Pulau Seram for several days and spent a few days in Ambon transiting back and forth between the Banda Islands, Seram, and the rest of Indonesia. Here’s the post about Seram: http://designthinktravel.com/way-off-the-beaten-track-pulau-seram/

      We didn’t check out much of northern or southern Maluku. Halmahera sounds like an interesting, unexplored destination. We spoke to a few travelers who had been to the Kei Islands in the south. It sounds like the Kei islands have amazing white sand beaches, good offshore snorkeling (but not very good snorkeling from the beach), and not much else.

      Snorkeling day trips are easy to arrange from any hotel in the Banda Islands. It’s worth staying in Bandaneira for a few nights to look around the colonial town, do a snorkel trip to Banda Besar/Pulau Pisang, and do a spice tour. Snorkeling day trips are around 200-250k per person if I recall correctly depending how many people share the boat. I’d highly recommend staying on Pulau Hatta for a few days for some of the best snorkeling off the beach you will ever experience. We didn’t stay on Ai, but the people we met who had stayed there really enjoyed it.

      It’s hard to recommend one choice out of the Banda Islands vs. Togean Islands. Snorkeling is amazing at both destinations. The Banda Islands have perhaps slightly more big fish closer to shore, but you will see a lot of coral and marine life at either destination. One way to choose between the Bandas and the Togeans is by the time of year that you plan to travel. The Banda Islands are best from late September to early December and again from roughly February through mid-May. Outside those times, there is a lot of rain, wind, and rough seas. The Togean Islands have a similar climate to the rest of Indonesia with a dry season between May and September/October (although we hear the Togeans get very crowded in the peak July-August season).

      We didn’t go to Raja Ampat, but we spoke to several travelers who raved about it. Raja Ampat is very high on our list of places to visit on our next trip! East Indonesia requires multiple visits because there is so much to see.

      I hope this helps, and I’m glad you enjoyed our blog.
      Laura Jacobsen recently posted…Diving Una Una: Ending a year of travel in styleMy Profile

      Reply

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