Since the first century AD, the Banda islands have been the sole producers of the fragrant nutmeg and mace for which Chinese, Indian, and Arab ships traveled across the seas. These precious spices could be sold at enormous profit in foreign markets.
The people of Banda thrived on their natural resources, but in later years suffered at the hands of Dutch colonizers who wanted to dominate the world’s spice trade.
Despite such a big reputation, the fabled Banda islands are only a tiny cluster of islands, composed of three large islands and seven smaller ones. The islands are perched on the rim of Indonesia’s deepest underwater gorge, the Banda Sea, where waters can reach depths of over 6,500 meters.
Two of the biggest islands, Banda Besar and Neira, are covered with nutmeg trees. The third island, Gunung Api or ‘peak of fire’, is an active volcano that emerges from the deep in a perfect cone, and is entirely rugged and highly volcanic. In the waters surrounding these islands you’ll find some of the world’s most spectacular marine gardens, with bright corals and colorful fish, bustling through the crystal-clear waters, making it suitable for diving, snorkeling or even simply sightseeing.
Lying about 132 kilometers southeast of Ambon, the islands are a remote and exquisitely beautiful part of Indonesia. With multi-colored reefs, warm seas and exotic marine life, the Banda’s are a haven for divers who come from around the world to explore some of the most remote and unspoiled dive sites in the world.
Today, Banda attracts divers, sailors and cruise ships from around the world by its sheer natural beauty, both above as below the sea, which can only be matched by Raja Ampat, Papua; another location for ultimate underwater adventures.
The Banda Islands are one of the Indonesia’s most popular destinations for divers. Both experts and beginner divers will enjoy themselves here, as the diving spots vary from the shallow lagoon between Banda neira and Gunung Api, to the vertical walls of Hatta Island. Wherever you go here, you’ll discover stunning tropical scenery, a remarkable history, friendly locals, and some of the globe’s most pristine, biologically diverse coral reefs.
Scuba diving is still relatively new here, but pioneering divers didn’t have to work hard to find a thrill. The undersea world around Ambon and the nearby island of Saparua have top-rate dive sites. As you explore beneath the surface you’ll see everything from sharks, enormous turtles, schools of Napoleon Wrasse, giant groupers, dogtooth tuna, mobula rays, redtooth triggerfish, various species of whales, spinner dolphins, and huge lobsters – neighbors to generous schools of reef fish and endemic Ambon scorpionfish.
Come to Banda islands and visit the best kept secret in Eastern Indonesia. While flights here are not frequent, it’s worth the wait. For this ideal tropical paradise won’t remain deserted for long.
Fresh seafood plucked straight from the ocean is a treat here. Guesthouse staff will be happy for prepare whatever seafood you are after. Usually the fish is grilled to make one portion of delicious ikan bakar, or grilled fish. There a few smaller restaurants serving a variety of Indonesian food.
While you are here in the home of nutmeg, you’ll have the chance to nutmeg jam in mostly every guesthouse in Banda neira. Nutmeg is also available in form of preserved food (manisan pala) and dried fruit slices.
Other local delicacies include eggplant stuffed with almond paste and fish in nutmeg fruit sauce. If you’re traveling in December try anggur fruit which look like olives but taste sweet. Many guesthouses will include full board or cook dinners by arrangement.
Try buying some local souvenirs here or traditional foods and snacks. If you can’t recognize what it is, chances are, it will be traditional food.
It is also common to see local souvenirs made of marine scraps. They can be sometimes very interesting, although they can be too bulky to fit in your luggage. Pearls are also available here and make great souvenirs.
Staying on a live aboard boat is an ideal way to explore the Banda’s. Live aboard cruises last from 7 to 14 days. A live aboard is worth the time and money, especially if you are keen to explore as many dive sites as you can. Check with your travel agent for the best package.
There are not too many hotels around the Banda Islands. The biggest hotels are located right at the lip of white sandy beach. One of the most prominent Chiefs of Banda, Mr. Des Alwi also plans to build one exclusive hotel, with limited number of rooms. Mostly travelers choose to stay in small hotels or guesthouses, as they offer reasonable prices and acceptable service, suggesting a good reason to stay longer.
Hotel Maulana of Banda neira is the most luxurious hotel in the Bandas. Lady Diana, Mick Jagger, and Jacques Cousteau have all stayed in this 40-room hotel. This impressive luxury hotel facing Gunung Api actually belongs to the King of Banda, Des Alwi. With en-suite bathroom, the rooms are facing pearl factory that belongs to the same owner.
Mutiara Guesthouse has spacious air-conditioned rooms with a courtyard where you can daydream. Prices are from between IDR 70,000 to IDR 125,000 (the rate may change without notice). There is internet available in the lobby, although the speed can be very slow. The owner speaks fluent English, German, and Dutch.
Vita Guesthouse is another place recommended for travelers who enjoy detailed information on their destinations. Alan, the manager of the guesthouse, is very resourceful and able to explain details in English. This guesthouse has a private jetty facing Gunung Api, where you can rent a boat and snorkeling gear. The room rates are very competitive.
Diving is the main attraction here. Surrounded by crystal clears waters filled with exotic marine life, the Banda Islands are the ideal place to dive underneath the surface and explore the underwater world. Hordes of colorful fish and other sea critters that even the most experienced diver may never have seen live in these waters. With more than 25 dive sites, you will not get bored. Some of the most popular spots are Pulau Ai (beware during rough sea), Batu Kapal, Hatta Reef (Karang Hatta), Pulau Keraka, and Nusa Laut.
Sailing is an activity for those who see the seas as a frontier to conquer. Sail Banda is one of the most prominent events that brings hundreds to the waters amidst the lush volcanic islands. For sailors, Sail Banda 2010 [sailbanda.com] is an event you won’t want to miss. This event attracts the bravest sailors from around the world who will come to Banda to conquer the challenging conditions and windy surroundings.
Bandaneira is a charming sleepy town with tree-line streets. Take a stroll around and see the crumbling remnants of the town’s colonial past. The renovated fort, Belgica Fort, is a 17th century fortification, where for a small entrance fee you can go inside and visit this relic from a period when the spice trade dominated the island. If you are patient and wait for the best lighting, you will be able to capture some stunning photography.
Get some awe inspiring sunrise views and on Pulau Gunung with a climb to the summit of Gunung Api. Scaling this active volcano is a challenging 90 minute hike and guides are available.
Cool off with a relaxing swim at the beaches on the south coast of Banda Besar or on the tiny Pulau Nailaka. Other hiking trips can be booked at the Maulana Hotel to explore other attractions like traditional villages, and four-century old nutmeg groves. There is plenty to see and feel as you walk through the pages of history here.
Major Banda Islands Dive Sites:
• Sonegat : The nearest site for a decent dive is just five minutes by boat from most hotels. It is in the sonegat-sea arm between Banda Neira and Gunung Api, just offshore from a Des Alwi’s little seaside house. The drop off here is steep and the wall extends down 25 meters to a grey, sandy bottom. There are plenty of good sized dogtooth tuna cruising by and some beautiful blue girdled and emperor angel fish.
• Keraka Island : Pulau Keraka or Crab Island is just a few minutes further out, and protects the north entrance of the Neira – Gunung Api sea passage. A nice sandy stretch on the north coast is perfect for a picnic. At the south shore, 18 meters down you will find a mini-wall covered with hundreds of large blue-and-yellow tunicates. To the east shore, there are a good assortment of reef fish and a school of half meter long barracudas.
• Sjahrir Island and Batu Kapal : Sjahrir Island, formerly known as Pisang Island (Banana Island) and Batu Kapal (Boat Stone) are just 20 minutes by boat from Banda neira. These two sites combine well for a morning dive, a picnic on the beach, and an afternoon dive.
• Lontar Island : The outer edge of Lontar Island, which represents part of the rim of a sunken caldera, offers several good dive sites.
• Batu Belanda : On this site, you will find many barrel and tube sponges and small caves and cracks. The fish are varied and plentiful, including a school of snappers, large emperor and blue-girdled angel fish, wrasses, a large pinnate bat-fish and numerous bannerfish.
• Ai Island : Together with Hatta Island, this island offers Banda’s best diving. Both the north coast and the southwest of Ai are ringed with flawless coral walls, which are rugged and full of caves, the kind of habitat that harbors fish.
• Hatta Island : This island is about 25 km by sea from Banda Neira. Skaru atoll, is a barely submerged reef a few hundred meters off the southern point of Hatta. On a coral outcrop, watch the passing parade of Unicornfish, Fusiliers, Jack Fish and Rainbow Runners, Whitetip Sharks (almost 2 meters long) and Dogtoothed Tuna, Napolean Wrasse, and Hawksbill Turtles.
In Banda neira, most people get around on foot as most tourist essentials are in the town and within walking distance. Alternatively, ojek and becak are available for a longer daytrip.
To get from one island to another you will need to hire a boat. The price may vary depending on the distance but normally ranges from IDR 120,000 to IDR 500,000.
The easiest way to reach the Banda’s is to first go to Ambon. Ambon is the capital city of Ambon island, located 132 km north of the Bandas. To get to Ambon you can fly either directly from Denpasar – Bali, or transit in Makassar. Garuda Indonesia flies from Jakarta (CGK) transiting in Hasanuddin-Makassar airport, or Denpasar- Bali (DPS) transiting in makassar (MKS) to Ambon’s Pattimura Airport (AMQ). Other flights are from Langur – Central Maluku (LUV), Juanda – Surabaya (SUB), and Jeffman – Sorong, Papua (SOQ).
Lion Air, Batik Air, and Air Asia Airlines serve Ambon – Jakarta, with transit in Makassar or Surabaya.
From Ambon, you can get to the Banda Islands either by a chartered small plane or using Citilink flying to Banda neira. There is no round-trip flight available. The returning flight must be reserved in Banda neira. The flight operates once a week or every two weeks. This limited accessibility means that one you do get there, you won’t see many other tourists around. Hence, it is an ideal hideaway.
Alternatively, you can cross the Banda Sea by ferry. Pelni provides a twice weekly ferry by KM Ciremai liner from Ambon to Banda neira. Make sure you double check the schedule for and unforeseen changes.
• Diving is possible all year round, but during the monsoon season (July – September) you may be restricted in your choice of dive sites.
• Further information is available at the official website for Maluku (the Moluccas) regional government – www.malukuprov.go.id or Tourist Information Office, Jl. Raya Pattimura 1, Ambon
• There are no ATMs around Banda Islands including in Banda neira so be prepared with cash prior to visiting the islands. It is highly advised to keep your money in a safe place, especially in and around harbor.
• Telecommunications are limited to Indonesian telecommunication providers Telkomsel and XL. You can top up credit in Banda neira.
• Beginner divers are recommended to pay strict attention to their safety since the current can be strong in several spots.
• Diving is usually comfortable, with good visibility (15-30 meters) and calm waters, however some dive sites are only suitable for experienced divers so check with your dive master.
• Depths of the diving spots range from 5 meters to over 40 meters, with temperatures from 26 to 29 degree Celcius.
• Try to hire diving and snorkeling equipment from larger firms as these tend to be more reliable, but remember the responsibility of checking the equipment is ultimately yours.