Posts Tagged ‘nutmeg’

Banda Quest: My Amazing Journey

27 August, 2011

Follow me to Indonesia’s fabled Banda Islands, one of the best places I’ve visited. Start here


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?

Banda Quest 4: Fruits, Nuts & Beaches

24 July, 2011

Four hundred years ago nutmeg was a spice worth more than its weight in gold, a rare seasoning used as a status symbol by European royalty, swells and miscellaneous knobs. Its trade funded Dutch colonialism in Asia and was the heart of their epic struggles to preserve what was ultimately a doomed monopoly on the remote Banda Islands in eastern Indonesia.


Today I’m off from Bandaneira, the main town on the tiny island of Neira, to explore some of the other 10 islands. First stop is Pulau Banda Besar, the largest island and still the center today of nutmeg production. We hop in one of the boats that shuttle constantly across the main channel between the islands and I’m struck how there’s a certain resemblance between the main cluster of islands and nutmeg itself: the irritable volcano Gunung Api is the nutmeg with Pulau Neira wrapped around one side like the mace, which surrounds the nut in the wild. Finally the much larger Banda Besar wraps around the first two just as the nutmeg fruit surrounds the nut and the mace.


Landing at Banda Besar’s main town Lonthoir (pop 2000), our host, the tireless Abba, leads us on a jaunty walk through the village. Joining me are Banda-roots-seeking Danny plus Joachim and Flore from Amsterdam. Together we comprise 50% of the visitors in the Bandas this day.

Wanna help?

Nutmeg harvesting is a family occupation and as we wander the waterside houses there’s a woodpecker-like “tap, tap, tap” in the air. It’s a school holiday and as kids whom are part of family businesses the world over know, days off from school don’t mean days off from work. One girl whacking nutmeg shows a wisdom beyond her years by giving us the opportunity to crack nutmeg shells ourselves. While we set to it, she giggles with her sister in the best tradition of Tom Sawyer. Unsurprisingly the work proves quite tricky, with the shells needing a just-right whack to properly split open. We are soon shooed away.

A basket full of nutmeg, note the bright red mace

While most people live down by the water in Lonthoir village, the nutmeg trees are up the hill in the slightly cooler forest.  Climbing the 400+ concrete steps we meet a woman on the way down with her morning’s harvest. The fruit looks like a small peach and ripens twice a year – although rogue elements don’t follow the calendar and ripen at random. When ready, the nutmeg – the tree’s actual nut – pops out, encased by the shockingly blood-red lacy mace.

Hey mister!

We climb the 400+ steps and I think of the François Truffaut’s classic The 400 Blows, probably because I’m a huffin’ and a blowin’ by the time I’m halfway – a point where a really irritating dude zips past effortlessly carrying a refrigerator-sized speaker bound for a wedding celebration on his back. Up top we stop by a flowing well where moppets spared nut-cracking duty ponder the spectacle of big white people so drenched in sweat we look like we’ve been yanked out of the well.

Goat on a Boat

In the deeply shaded forest, women wander about plucking fresh nutmeg hidden amongst the leaves on the ground. Huge mahogany trees arch overhead and one has been shorn of some huge branches that are being used to construct a new boat. A goat chilling out gives us a doleful look from its odd perch on the upturned hull.

Nutmeg and mace dry in the sun

Nutmeg is mostly familiar today as a spice sprinkled on eggnog at Christmas or used to “enliven” the flavor of slow-cooked (aka boiled-to-death) brussels sprouts in English and Dutch holiday meals. The Greeks use it memorably in their luscious honey dripping pastries while in India is turns up in curries and other stews. You can buy it in a powder but you might as well just use pencil shavings because unlike the stench of the Dutch colonials, the sweet, slightly spicy flavor rapidly dissipates once grated. [Trivia buffs note: “the nutmeg state” is the less-than-salubrious nickname Connecticut garnered because early colonials thought the wily residents were carving fake nutmeg out of wood and selling it to unsuspecting dupes for grating.] Mace is much less widely known but has a flavor more delicate than nutmeg and can be used to give dishes a rich, orangish-brown color. Oh, did I mention that in the Caribbean islands around Grenada, where the English started nutmeg plantations with purloined Banda cuttings, you can swill some very tasty rum drinks seasoned with the spice?

Old Dutch plantation entrance

Bam! Crash! Boom! Yow! are a few of the noises and cries from the speedboat as we blast through ocean swells to our next stop Palau Ai, an island about five miles west of Palau Banda Besar. It’s warp factor eight as the skipper meets the sea head-on and we have our spines rearranged as if by a mad chiropractor using a sledgehammer. Arrowhead-shaped Ai is the second most important producer of nutmeg and was the center for many of the plantations in Dutch times. Wandering the one main road/path that circles the island there are many artifacts of the Dutch plantations dating back to the 1700s. You can just make out the names of dead colonials in the fading carvings on stones bleached white in the sun. Of the thousands of islanders who were killed by the Dutch during the same period, there are no memorials.

Fresh almonds in a flash

Walking amidst the tidy little houses, we hear the familiar “tap, tap, tap” of the kids cracking nutmeg. But there is a much louder “whack, whack, whack” and I follow it to find a young woman with a large machete shelling almonds. About 10 locals are arrayed languidly in the shade watching her toil and one explains: “she’s faster that the rest of us so we just watch.” It’s hard to tell if the almond-whacker’s grim look is a commentary on the indolence of her companions or simply concentration. I try to take a picture of the blade as it cleaves into the odd tri-holed shells but she is simply too fast. Briefly, however, her stern visage cracks and I get a smile that proves as fleeting as the flash of her machete. I also get a handful of fresh almonds that are soft, luscious and utterly unlike the sad little salty numbers sold in foil pouches.

Worthwhile clichés

A brief 10-minute hike through bunches of wild banana trees brings us to the best beach of the trip. Encircling a few kilometers of Ai’s coast, the powdery white sands live up to the full, awww-invoking promise of the cliché. And the beach is utterly deserted. My three tourist companions strip down to swimsuits and are soon frolicking in the – another cliché alert! – turquoise waters. But I’ve made a strategic blunder: I have no swimsuit, instead toting tediously useful items like a clipboard, notes, camera and other workish ephemera. Stripping down completely might cause a mutiny amongst my companions so that’s not an option, yet there’s no escaping the remorseless allure of the – cliché alert! – gently lapping surf. “Wait!” I think, remembering my basic black undies… Soon I’m frolicking with sufficient modesty in the utterly perfect waters. On shore, Abba and the two boatmen look at each other, shrug their shoulders with a laugh and also take the underwear-clad plunge. It’s the first and likely last time I’ll set any kind of fashion example.

I'll take Manhattan, you'll get hot, dusty Run island in return

Back lounging in the shade, I gaze out at Palau Run, a small rock of an island visible from the beach. In colonial times it was the only one of the 10 Banda Islands the Dutch didn’t hold as the English had laid claim first. Not blessed with much water and not especially good for nutmeg the island was worth little – except to the English, who used it to taunt the Dutch not unlike the French taunted the English in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. During sporadic visits, various rogueish, part-pirate English captains raised their flags on Run simply to irritate their wool-clad rivals on the other islands. By 1667 the Dutch were driven to make one of the worst real estate deals in history: in return for receiving hot, dusty Run from the English, they gave up their claim to New Amsterdam, otherwise known as Manhattan.

All too soon, we’re bouncing across the water back to Palau Neira. In just a few short hours I’ll be fondly recalling the wind whipping my ears, fresh salty water spraying my face and even the constant compression of my spine as I find myself trapped aboard the worst boat ever.

Next: Voyage of the Damned