There I sat on the porch of my Robinson Caruso-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…
In reality, nutmeg’s medicinal properties were probably most effective on the rich and the 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.
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 on Gunung Api. It left me to wonder if it had emerged from the bowels of the mountain when it erupted almost 30 years ago.
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!
Accommodations in the Bandas are reasonable by any standard. The best hotels on Banda Naira with 24-hour electricity run IDR 500,000 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 including three meals a day. No, that’s not a typo. Most accommodations will run around IDR 300,000 including meals.
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 are also once-a-week Susi Air Flights from Ambon. It’s never been easier to get to the Bandas!
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
- Easily accessible 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
- Cold water and bucket baths are the norm with a few exceptions
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
Text & photos by Terry Donohue