Saparua, one of the Lease Islands in the Maluku region of Indonesia, is unlikely to be a major destination anytime soon. But, it is a fantastic side trip for travelers wanting to extend a Maluku trip beyond the magnificent Banda Islands. There are white sand palm fringed beaches, snorkeling and diving, and divine tropical fruit. And one really awesome budget beach resort – Putih Lessi Indah.
Why visit Maluku?
Maluku is a mystery that slowly unfolds the more you dig around. The area was never well traveled and the sporadic communal violence that broke out in the early noughties killed off travel for all but the hardiest backpacker. The guide books still do not cover the area in detail and even the blogosphere only lightly touches on the region. The area has no functioning tourist office, contacting hotels and beach bungalows is difficult, the electricity supply is sporadic, and the transport situation is extremely changeable. It probably took me more time to figure out the ferry schedule for Saparua than it did to organize three weeks in Philippines!
The upside is that for the time being, there are relatively few tourists in Maluku.
We had heard really good things about the Putih Lessi Indah beach bungalows on Northern Saparua. We were promised good food, white sand beaches, and great snorkeling. The beach bungalows were rustic but all you need is a bed, mosquito net, some sort of toilet, and running water, right?
Before coming to Maluku, we took a break from travel in Kuala Lumpur and worked on our blog and app ideas. We wanted to keep up the creative momentum we built up in Kuala Lumpur, so we quickly got into a routine in Saparua. Rise early for breakfast, work on Laura’s app until 11.30am, swim until 1.30pm, lunch, develop, Laura second swim at 3pm, dinner at 7.30pm, and then bed time at 9pm. Laura made great gains on her photo app, and I got busy learning Bahasa, practising yoga, and writing blog posts.
Putih Lessi Indah was quite quiet when we were there. We had the place to ourselves for two nights but we were joined by a couple of people on the other two nights. Apparently the resort had been exceptionally busy December through late February. Given the amount the staff slept, I got the impression they were happy with the low occupancy for a few days!
The resort runs boat trips to snorkel spots around Saparua and to Molana Island. The trips are priced per boat but we’re out of our budget range. Its nice having a lovely beach spot to yourselves, but it would have been good to share costs of a trip or two with fellow backpackers. Unlike a lot of resorts, the owner is not pushy about the snorkel trips.
Great beach for swimming at high tide
The beach right in front of the bungalows is glorious soft white sand and fringed with coconut palms. The strip of sand is quite narrow, so it’s not quite the tropical island idyll, but it is pretty nonetheless. Given the amount of young boys clambering up palms and cutting down coconuts, I figured it must be harvesting season. The resort is on a small bay affording magnificent views of the dramatic island of Seram. Despite being only a couple of hours by boat and car from Ambon, the beach feels very remote.
The water was crystal clear but our first forays in were not too promising. In the past there has been a lot of dynamite fishing so underfoot there is a lot of spiky hard dead coral. There are a few spots where it is sandy but it makes sense to go in wearing fins or coral booties. There is some evidence of the coral coming back but it is a slow process and the tiny coral beds are extremely fragile. We saw a couple of tiny moral eels swimming along the shoreline looking for the odd morsel, which hinted at some underwater life. The waters are generally calm until late afternoon when the wind picks up. Swimming is only possible at high tide, which was from 11.30am.
We had to swim out 50m and more to see any decent sea life. I saw a few box fish, morays, and parrotfish. Laura ventured out a little further and saw some healthy coral and a reef shark. Since I was still uncomfortable in deep water without a lifejacket, our explorations were somewhat limited. Laura is an extremely strong swimmer but sensibly prefers to be out in deeper waters when there are other snorkelers around. Hopefully in the near future, one of those other snorkelers will be me.
Plastic on the beach
A lot of plastic crap washes up on the beach, particularly on stormy days, but Asis and staff do an excellent job of keeping the beach clean. We absolutely love Indonesia but there are two issues that constantly bug us about the country- cigarettes and garbage.
Rebuilding Putih Lessi Indah
Putih Lessi Indah was opened in 1990. Asis, the friendly owner, told us that he had to abandon the place for 7 years due to the communal violence that exploded in Maluku in the noughties. He worked all over Indonesia to pay his way. He eventually returned to Saparua in 2007, and found that termites had devoured his property. He set about rebuilding his home and business.
Over the years, locals and travelers alike have contributed works of art to decorate the new buildings. The main building contains a curious mixture of wood carvings, carved coconut heads, Bob Marley portrait, new age Buddhas, and sea life inspired sculptures. I think ‘backpacker chic’ is an appropriate descriptor!
The Sweet Durians of Saparua
We picked up some mangoes, mangosteens, and durians from the local market on the way to the resort. The durians were insanely cheap: Rp20,000 ($1.50) for three. They were some of the best durians we have tasted. Fragrant, sweet, and custardy. Laura, who used to be a sworn durian hater, declared them to be almost palatable. High praise!
We arrived in Maluku at an auspicious time. There was to be a solar eclipse and parts of Maluku were in the path of the eclipse. A full eclipse was visible further north on the Islands of Tidore and Ternate. We had about 85% coverage on Saparua, which was good enough for us.
The hotel workers sat inside and watched it on TV. Probably better for the eyes! We tried the old school method of watching the event reflected in a bowl of water. An eerie atmosphere settled over the island at the height of the eclipse. It was cool but I don’t think I will be spending hundreds of dollars chasing eclipses worldwide like some crazy people we met!
Tourism is picking up. Local guides are doing one trip a year!
On our last night at Putih Lessi Indah, we had dinner with a Dutch-Belgian couple who were the first takers of a new tour booked from home that included Maluku. Their guide, Nico, was a grizzled old dude from Ambon who has a sideline in Maluku tour guiding. He spoke slow and steady with an unbelievably deep voice, coming across like a Malukan Prince Fari! He doesn’t have a website, a phone, Facebook, or an email address and can only be booked through the Mutiara Hotel in Ambon. This was his second guiding gig in two years. I suggested he get connected online a bit more to drum up some business but he brushed off my suggestions.
It is a shame though since he has a wealth of knowledge about the Lease Islands. Years ago he drew up his own maps of Saparua, Ambon, Seram, and Molana, and he passed on copies of these to us. The maps are better than anything you get on Google Maps. I asked him for his card since we figured it could be fun to do a day or two round the island of Ambon with him. He looked at me as if I had insulted his mother! Oh, well!
Eating Papeda in Kota Ambon
Off the beaten track, food in Indonesia can get quite samey. You find dependable warungs (simple street food restaurants) all over and you will eat well. However, you will rarely eat great. Ambon, and Maluku, in general is the exception to the rule. Maluku is famed for its spices and knows how to use them. You will spend at least one night in Ambon if you are traveling in the Banda or Lease Islands, so try and check out the local food.
We highly recommend Sari Gurih restaurant on Jalan Dana Kopra near the Hero Hotel in Ambon. It looks like it is set up for weddings and birthday parties, but don’t be put off. The service is great and the food delicious.
We decided to try papeda, a gloopy concoction made from ground sago and water. It is a traditional staple of east Indonesia and is fiendishly tricky to eat. Think trying to eat elephant semen with chop sticks! It gets served in an enormous bowl and looked like it would feed a Papuan village for weeks. You wind it around your chop sticks, deposit it in a dish, and then mix in a fiery mix of lime and chilis. Once you have figured out how to get it into your mouth, you will find that it has almost no taste, but the chili-lime sauce is tasty.
We had the bitter papaya flower salad and spicy grilled fish as our mains. Both utterly yummy!
When we were there
March 7-11, 2016. The weather was generally good- a mixture of clouds and sun most days. There were a few tropical downpours during the night.
- Bungalow on the beach
- Excellent food
- Decent bay for swimming
- Solar eclipse
- High tide is in the middle of the day
- Evidence of dynamite fishing
- Decent coral and fish are a long way off shore
Getting There and Away
We flew into Ambon with Lion Air. Our itinerary was KL-Jakarta-Makassar-Ambon. It was a red eye flight but cheap at $200 pp return. We booked through the Indonesian agency tiket.com. As ever with flights in Indonesia, there was some confusion with our booking. We were told at check in that there was a problem with our itinerary. We went to the Lion Air counter at KLIA2 to resolve the issue. Not entirely sure what the problem was but we were booked on a later flight for our second leg out of Jakarta. If you are flying with Lion, it pays to play safe and arrive at the airport early. We have never had an issue that has caused us to miss connections yet but there has always been some problem to resolve pre-boarding.
We took the local bus from the airport to Kota Ambon which cost 35000 idr. The bus drops you right in the center of Kota Ambon.
The fast boat to Saparua leaves from Tulehu dock, which is 45 minutes east of Kota Ambon. The boat cost 65000 idr per person. It leaves from Ambon at 9am everyday and takes one hour. The boat from Saparua leaves Haria dock at 7am. There is no fast ferry on Sundays but there are speedboats available for charter in both directions.
We took a taxi to the dock at Tulehu which cost 250000 idr. We took a local bemo back from Tulehu to Ambon. This was extremely cheap at 10000 idr. The bemo dropped us at the main market just east of downtown.
Our hotel in Saparua arranged for a bemo driver to pick us up at the dock in Haria. The bemo cost 200000 idr and took 40 minutes to get to the Putih Lessi Indah resort. The bemo driver took us back to Haria for the boat for the same price.
Food and Drink
Putih Lessi Indah is full board. It costs 350,000 IDR per person. Asis is an excellent chef and every meal was filling and tasty, proving once more that the best food in Indonesia is to be found in Maluku.
Breakfast- pancakes with fresh coconut and tropical fruit
Lunch- fried sweet potato, fresh salads with coconut and lime, pasta, eggplant in kennari sauce
Dinner- fried fish with spicy sambal, salads, and sweet potato
Very few people are going to consider Saparua as a must-see on their travels around Indonesia. However, I can’t imagine a finer month in Indonesia than a combined trip to Saparua, Seram, Ambon, and the incomparable Banda Islands. Remote, friendly, low on tourists, beautiful, and plenty to do. Jungle walks, bird watching, diving, snorkeling, lazing on beaches, excellent food, and intriguing history. The world is waking up to the joys of the area so get there before the Bali-goers turn up en masse!