Posts Tagged ‘cheap’

Banda Quest: Visiting the Islands

10 August, 2011

It took me 18 years to reach the Banda Islands, Indonesia’s fabled original Spice Islands. But once there, the wait was worth it. The islands are beautiful, still scented by nutmeg, loaded with old colonial lore and only visited by about 600 people a year (Bali gets 2.3 million).

[Read the first post in the series, Banda Quest 1: Journey Begins here]

And having made the trip, I am surprised at how easy it was. Even more surprising was the cost: shockingly cheap. Read on.

Lion Air to Ambon

Getting There

By Air: Fly to the Bandas from Ambon, an interesting city in the Maluku province in eastern Indonesia. There are plenty of flights here from Jakarta, Bali etc. The three main carriers serving Ambon are:

Batavia Air Non-stops to/from Jakarta

Garuda Indonesia Flight connections from across Indonesia

Lion Air Budget airline with good connections from Bali and major cities, offers passengers prayer cards for safe flights

Once in Ambon, use the services of Michael “no problem” Erenst, a ubiquitous presence at the airport and the star of Banda Quest 2. He can set you up with a room, transport for the hour-long jaunt to Ambon etc (he works with the Banda guesthouses to smooth your journey).

For the short and slow flight to the Bandas from Ambon, your only choice is NBA, a one-airplane airline. There are full details of my flight in Banda Quest 2 but the key considerations are the following:

  • Flights only operate one or two days a week, usually Wednesday and one other day
  • Flights on the ancient plane are often cancelled because of weather, when this happens you have to wait until the next scheduled flight and a) try to get a seat, b) hope for the best. This can mean hanging out in Ambon for up to an extra week (obviously the same can happen in reverse, leaving you stuck in the Bandas for days longer than you intended – not such a bad thing really).
  • NBA has no real phone, email or website. The best way to get a ticket is through your lodging in the Bandas. Details below.

By boat: Pelni, Indonesia’s notorious shipping line, has boats that run on various schedules to the Bandas from Ambon and other more remote islands. But these trips can be an adventure in ways you might wish to avoid. Read more in Banda Quest 5. (The website is good for schedules.)

Public transport

Where to Stay

There are two hotels dating from the 1970s on the waterfront in Bandaneira, the main town: the Hotel Maulana and the Laguna Inn. Both were built by legendary local booster Des Alwi, but since his death (at age 82) they’ve been adrift as his offspring debate their future. Instead I would recommend any of the following guesthouses in Bandaneira, which average about US$15-20 per night (most rooms have air-con). Any of these three can sort out your flights from Ambon as part of your reservation.

Mutiara Guest House (+62 (0)813 3034 3377 • Run by the tireless Abba (who sadly doesn’t answer to Fernando), the four rooms here are clean, simple and built around a small garden. Abba can arrange trips to other islands, tours of nutmeg forests and much more. His wife, Dilla, is the best cook in the Bandas – even if you stay elsewhere, it’s worth booking in here for the bounteous buffet. There’s a fast internet connection.

Vita Guest House (+62 (0)910 21332 • A very mellow place with long verandas, views of the ever-ready-to-blow Gunung Api across the harbor and hammocks ready to swing. Lovely, helpful owners.

Delfika (+62 (0)910 21027 • Has two locations, one in an old Dutch colonial building across from the museum, the other in a newish building overlooking the harbor. The cafe in the original building opens onto a long tropical porch.

Boats to other islands from Bandaneira

What to Do

Read Banda Quest 3 and Banda Quest 4 to get an idea of the many pleasures and adventures that await. A brief run-down by island (pulau):

Neira The main town of Bandaneira, streets lined with evocative old Dutch buildings, old forts, a museum, the airport, port (tiny) and market; enjoy hours of good strolling from one end to the other

Gunung Api The pint-sized but active volcano which looms over Neira, climb it and see if the earth moves under you

Banda Besar Largest island and just across the channel from Neira; villages filled with winsome locals who will show you the secrets of nutmeg harvesting while you savor the air that’s scented with same (see Banda Quest 4)

Ai About an hour’s boat-ride west of Neira, triangular Ai has nutmeg, almonds and other treats growing in profusion. It has beautiful, untrod beaches (see Banda Quest 4), ruins of colonial plantations and a couple of dead-simple homestays that offer solitude and endless beach time – reserve by turning up

Run Farthest west and dedicated to fishing, notable as the island the Dutch so desperately wanted that they cheerfully gave the English Manhattan in trade; little-visited, this is real exploration

Diving and snorkeling are good. For the former, the Hotel Maulana rents gear and tanks but otherwise the lack of a pro or guides means you’re on your own. Anyone with a boat knows the best places for snorkeling – especially around tiny islands like Pulau Karaka

What to Read

The Bandas are the kind of destination where you can easily knock off your reading backlog, but bring your own. Books about the islands include:

Indonesian Banda by Willard Hanna. A lost gem that’s both irreverent and packed with detail. Highly readable, it makes the most of the bizarre and often-horrific legacy of the over-dressed Dutch colonialists and their English tormenters. Impossible to find before your trip, it’s found at Banda guesthouses and the museum [read excerpts in Banda Quest 3]

Nathaniel’s Nutmeg by Giles Milton. The first half is almost as readable as Hanna but then the book goes off the rails with endless descriptions of English swells tortured in places far from the Bandas. A tacked-on page at the end trying to justify the bombastic subtitle “Or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History” fails. Easily found online

Ring of Fire by Lawrence Blair. Superbly written adventure across Indonesia by the scholarly Blair. The section on the Bandas sings, especially the description of the glow-in-the-dark eyes of a local fish that kids use as creepy bedside reading lights. Sold online

The bill, smaller than it looks


Despite the challenges of reaching the islands, your journey and time there are crazily cheap. You’ll be hard-pressed to spend US$50 a day, making these “most amazing islands ever” an incredible bargain. Highlights of my bill for the two days I was there researching, converted to US dollars include (Abba arranged everything, which is typical of the Banda guesthouses I recommend):

Room – 2 nights @$15 – $30
Tasty dinner buffet @$7 – $14
Flight to Bandas – $37
Voyage of the Damned boat – $40
Daytrip and tour of Banda Nera & Ai – $15

Total cost of trip – $156

Three Final Thoughts

  • Stay on the Bandas for a week but give yourself two weeks to allow for transport fiascos
  • Bring cash as the one ATM is finicky and credit cards are as useful as a dead nutmeg tree
  • Don’t delay, as sooner or later the word on these amazing islands will get out

Which island next?