The tiny islands of Ambon, Banda, Saumlaki, Ternate and Tidore – among the thousands of islands in the Moluccas seas,- changed the course of world history from the 15th century onwards. These islands were what triggered the European Age of Exploration.
For in search of the Spice Islands in the Far East, Christopher Columbus sailed west – and discovered America. Vasco da Gama sailed south and discovered the long route around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope in 1498 to finally reach India after a long and perilous voyage. Only later did the Portuguese finally discover the sea route to Banda and Ambon. These small islands in the eastern deep seas of the Indonesian archipelago were for centuries the sole producers of the fragrant nutmeg and mace in the world. At the time these spices fetched their weight in gold in Medieval Europe.
The tiny islands of Ternate and Tidore, further north of Ambon were producers of cloves. Ternate is where the Majestic Mount Gamalama and the astonishing Lake Tolire are located. Indian and Arab traders would sell cloves in Europe for exorbitant prices, but kept the location of their source a tightly held secret. These are the Moluccas – or Maluku – the original Spice Islands, that are now divided into the two provinces of Maluku and North Maluku.
It is from these islands that the Dutch East India Company first gained their stranglehold on the spice trade in the archipelago, gradually colonizing the Indonesian islands over three centuries, until it came to be called the Dutch East Indies, the present-day Republic of Indonesia.
As the glory days spices passed, the significance of the Moluccas waned. But it is here where the history of European explorations and colonization began.
Fortunately the beauty of that era still remains. Today, the town of Ambon is the capital of Maluku, occupying a small flat area by the beautiful Ambon Bay that is backed by lush green mountains and facing deep crystal clear waters that are alive with colorful coral gardens and untold species of marine creatures.
Although small in size, Ambon island still offers plenty of experiences for adventurous travelers. From exploring the charming Kota Ambon – the main town of the island, to walking up mountains through lush tropical vegetation, there are many undiscovered gems ready for visitors to experience.
The town of Ambon – Kota Ambon – is known as ‘Ambon Manise’ meaning sweet or beautiful Ambon. The name refers to both the beauty of the people here and the beauty of the tropical island location.
As one of the earliest places in Indonesia to be occupied by colonial powers, Ambon has a rich and ancient history. Many of the Ambonese today have mixed European and Ambonese heritage.
Visit here and discover centuries-old fortresses and the literature of local kingdoms which traces the story of the people, from periods of prosperity to escalating and controlled trades, harsh colonialism, a grueling struggle, and finally, to independence.
The island also played an important role in World War II when Ambon was used as a headquarters for the Japanese military. Remnants from the war still remain, both in museums and the open air. Some war artifacts remain silently underwater. Today, these remnants are among the most valued historical sites in Ambon.
Ambon is multicultural and home to various ethnicities including the native Alifuru tribes, the migrating Javanese, Sumatrans, Minahasans, the Butons, the Arabs who came in the 9th century, the Europeans, and the Chinese who first came in the 7th century to share in the commerce of this prosperous spice island. Between 1999-2002 the island was the scene of Christian-Muslim violence however since 2004 the island has maintained a period of ongoing peace.
Unique delicacies you might want to try in Ambon are : Colo-colo, pronounced cholo-cholo, is a condiment usually served with grilled fish, ikan komu asar or ikan kadondong. Green and reddish tomatoes are diced and red chili peppers and onions are added to give a strong the aroma and flavor. Fresh lime juice and basil are the final touches to make colo-colo perfect. Try it with papeda, the sago starch, and soami. Ikan Komu Asar is smoked tuna fish cooked to order. Try it with original colo-colo or soy sauced colo-colo. Kohu-kohu is a side dish eaten with ikan kadondong.
Ikan Kadondong is skipjack fish wrapped in kadondong (great hog plum) leaves. It is eaten with steamed sweet potatoes. Restaurant Dede’s on Jalan Said Perintis is a very busy and unassuming restaurant, serving Ambon’s best grilled and smoked fish.
Barokah Bakery is on Jalan AM Sangaji, Southern Kota Ambon.
CAFE Restaurant is where you will find great seafood. It is located on Jalan Raya Pattimura, Southern Kota Ambon.
Café Panorama Restaurant is an open-sided terrace café serving various menu items, including western food, located on Jalan CM Tiahahu, Northern Kota Ambon.
Es Teler 21 Kentucky specializes in mixed tropical fruit ice cream, located in Istana Gizi, on Jalan Pantai Mardika, Northern Kota Ambon.
For Western food and beverages try Hotel Amans Rooftop Café is in Hotel Amans.
Shops at Jalan Patty offer unique Moluccan souvernirs, from delicate mother-of-pearl collage paintings, to fragrant clove ships and hand woven textiles. Mother-of-pearl workshops are at Batu Merah. Visitors are welcome to watch. Pusat Oleh-oleh is on Petak Sepuluh and Galala across PLN Office at Hative Kecil. Here you can buy handcrafts and delicious delicacies that are uniquely Ambon.
Toko Persada Nusantara is another small shop selling traditional cookies. It is located on Jalan Tulu Kabesi, and accessible by local transport.
If you are wondering why you often see men in Ambon wearing big jewelry made of white iron, it is because local believes that white iron jewelry is lucky and helps to avoid bad luck. White iron jewelry can be found on sale at Ambon Plaza. Here, you can also stock up on souvenirs like T-shirts for your friends and family members back home.
Warung Tenda Nasi Kelapa (Coconut Rice) in the Batu Merah area is a street stall selling flavorsome coconut rice cooked in the Maluku style. Bunga Pepaya (Papaya sprout) is usually added to increase the taste and create a tropical taste sensation. Rumah Kopi or coffee shops are everywhere in Ambon. Spend an hour or two to chat with the locals and sip the aromatic coffee made locally.
In Kota Ambon you will find a range of budget and midrange accommodation. The better hotels have AC, bathrooms with hot showers and some English speaking staff. Prices can be negotiable so it is a good idea to bargain to get the best price.
Go back in time with a visit to Nieuw Victoria Fort or Benteng Victoria. This ancient fort was built in 1575 by a man Portuguese, Sanchos Vanconcelos. As local people began settling around the fort the city began to grow into what we now know as Kota Ambon. The Dutch took over the fort in 1602. Today, you can still see the enormous walls facing Ambon bay. Also in 1575, a mosque was constructed in Batu Merah Village, literally meaning the Red Stone Village. The mosque is known as An Nur Batu Merah Mosque. It was built by the Hatala family and continues to serve the community and is famous for producing the country’s best ulamas (Muslim scholars).
In Tawiri Village, close to Pattimura Airport is an Australian monument to Dolan, a soldier during World War II. Dolan shot down a number of advancing Japanese soldiers on his own and died covering his comrades who were retreating to Ambon island.
The Martha Christina Tiahahu statue is a tribute to an anti colonial resistance hero who fought against the Dutch alongside her father in the early 19th century. When her father was executed for supporting the resistance movement, Martha continued the fight, but starved herself to death when captured by the Dutch. From this memorial you’ll see some splendid views of the town and Ambon bay.
Discover more about the heritage and history of the region with a visit to the Siwa Lima Museum that has Maluku’s best collection of regional and colonial artifacts on display. The lovely gardens here are an ideal place to sit and take a break between exhibits. There are many other sightseeing opportunities in and around Kota Ambon.
Choose from any of these must-visit spots:
1. Pattimura Statue (a national hero from Ambon), at Lapangan Merdeka
2. Tugu Dolan at Kudamati
3. Tugu Trikora at Urimesing
4. Franciscus Xaverius (St. Francis Xavier) Statue (a catholic missionary) at Batu Meja
5. Rumphius monument at Batu Meja
6. Namalatu Beach at Latuhalat
7. Natsepa Indah Beach at Natsepa
8. Santai Beach at Latuhalat
9. Pintu Kota at Airlow
10. Gong Perdamaian Dunia (World Peace Gong)
11. V.O.C. Bunker at Benteng Atas Ambon is blessed with many white beaches ideal for skin diving and snorkeling.
Experienced divers should try diving off Tanjung Setan (Satan’s Cape) at the far southern tip of Seram. Don’t miss a visit to the sacred eels at Waai near Tulehu, 24 km. from Ambon. Here the sacred giant eels emerge from underwater caves when their keeper signals and feeds them with chicken eggs. The locals believe that when the eels and carp swim away, a disaster will occur. In 1960, an epidemic struck the area but once offerings were given, the eels returned and the epidemic stopped.
To get around in the downtown Ambon try a becak – where you will be pushed around in a carriage attached to a bicycle. This local transport may not be quick but it’s definitely unique.
Alternatively bemo’s (local minibus) are also available as well as Ojeks (motorcycle taxi).
To cross Ambon Bay, speedboats are available at the pier where the ferries dock from the other side of the bay.
Travelers visiting Ambon usually start their flights either from Denpasar, Bali (DPS) or Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta (CGK). The airport in the city of Ambon is the Pattimura Airport (AMQ), serving airlines such as:
1. Garuda Indonesia
2. Lion Air
3. Indonesia Air Asia
4. Wings Air, and
5. Sriwijaya Air.