Dive travel writer
A person snorkels above a coral reef in the Banda Islands. (Shutterstock.com/Fabio Lamanna)
Tucked away in the south of Maluku, Indonesia’s remote spice islands are a destination far off the beaten path. Consisting of ten lush volcanic islands, they are ideal for outdoor adventurers and history buffs alike.
You can hike a still-active volcano and snorkel over coral-encrusted lava flows one day, then visit a 17th century fort and 300-year-old ruins the next. Once part of the renowned Spice Routes, the history of these islands is fascinating.
March to April and September to December are the best months to take to the seas and visit these diverse islands, meaning now is one of the best times to go.
Banda Besar, the largest of the Banda Islands, is the main location of fragrant nutmeg plantations. Known as the Great Nutmeg Island, you can join a Spice Tour there and learn all about the Spice Islands history as you visit the town and plantations.
Just make sure you take time to look at the horizon. This picturesque island and its surroundings are beautiful.
While you’re on Banda Besar Island, take a detour and visit the overgrown ruins of Benteng Hollandia.
This 1624 Dutch fortress was once the biggest in the East Indies until it was ruined by a 1743 earthquake.
Sitting high above Lonthoir (also known as Lontor or Lonthor) village, the views are incredible and easily accessible with just a 15-minute climb to the ruins.
An aerial view of the Banda Islands. The lava flow of the active volcano Banda Api can be seen from afar. (Shutterstock.com/Fabio Lamanna)
For a more challenging hike and rewarding views, head to the small island of Banda Api.
Sitting at the heart of the Banda Islands group, Banda Api is an active volcano with a huge 7 kilometer-wide caldera.
Once a key location for spice trading when the British, Dutch and Portuguese competed for the nutmeg on the islands, Banda Api is now better known for its hiking.
A 5-minute boat ride from Banda Neira will take you to Banda Api Island, where you can start at sea level and hike to the top of the volcano at 640 meters.
Start early and remember there is little shade thanks to the latest eruption in 1988 destroying much of the larger vegetation.
Watch your footing as you come near the summit; parts of the ground are still hot and smoke drifts lazily out of cracks in the ground.
While the hike is challenging, the surreal volcanic landscapes and magnificent views across the other islands make it worthwhile.
A diver swims over hard coral on a 30-year-old lava flow off Banda Neira in the Banda Sea. (Shutterstock.com/SergeUWPhoto)
After all that hiking, it’s time to dip your toes in the turquoise ocean and see what lies below the surface.
The Banda Islands have some of Indonesia’s best snorkeling, which few people are aware of.
Banda Api’s lava flows extend underwater and you can snorkel over amazing coral gardens that have been growing on the lava since 1988. There are plentiful fish to find, including huge groupers, Napoleon wrasse and reef sharks.
The drop-off at Hatta Island beach is a great place to go snorkeling as well. You can swim with sea turtles, reef sharks, more Napoleon wrasse and schools of colorful reef fish.
While the snorkeling is fantastic at the Banda Islands, the scuba diving is even better.
There are more than 30 dive sites dotted around the Banda Islands, most of which can only be accessed by liveaboard diving thanks to their remote nature.
The Banda Islands diving scene is known for remote dive sites that host huge marine life such as pilot whales, as well as tiny marine life such as pygmy seahorses — which are smaller than your little fingernail.
The real draw though is the dense schools of fish and the sheer variety of marine life you can find. This diversity of life rivals that of popular Raja Ampat but with fewer tourists in the water.
Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for passing spinner dolphins as you dive, plus whales such as melonhead, blue and humpbacks. They are known to visit the area regularly.
The 17th century Fort Belgica on Banda Neira. (Shutterstock.com/Stephane Bidouze)
After all that activity, slow down and discover the rich history of the Banda Islands.
The 17th century Fort Belgica on Banda Neira is a great place to start. It once acted as a fort when the Banda Islands were the only place in the world to produce nutmeg.
Now a UNESCO-nominated site, this classic star-fort built in 1611 has survived numerous earthquakes and is open to visitors. If you find it closed, local guesthouses can track down the key-keeper.
Read also: Banda Islands: Portal into another world
Another Banda Neira highlight, the Sun Tien Kong temple is 300 years old and a relic from when the Chinese were involved in Banda’s spice trade.
This intricate temple is open at Chinese New Year but you can ask for the keys at the local Chinese-run grocery store opposite.
One of Banda Neira’s main historical attractions is the quiet and empty governor’s palace, Istana Mini. This was once the mansion of the all-powerful Dutch inspector.
Built in the 1920s, the palace features huge granite slabs, decorative floor tiles, marble, carved beams, heavy wooden doors and more.
Sitting quietly with a garden hosting a statue of Dutch King Willem III, this unique mansion is silently deteriorating. Visit it while you can.
If you want to learn more about the Dutch past of the Banda Islands, be sure to take a trip to Banda Neira’s Rumah Budaya Museum.
This cultural museum has plenty to while away a couple of hours, including centuries-old items such as Dutch coins, pots, baskets, a functioning gramophone and more.
For a final moment of peace and quiet before heading home, take a short trip over to Palau Neilaka.
This tiny islet just off Pulau Rhun is idyllic and a great place to switch off as you walk along the light-blue waters edge.
Remember to take your mask and snorkel with you or just laze about in the sea.
This article was written by Kathryn, a diver and writer with LiveAboard.co
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.