The Banda Islands are brimming with history. When walking the sleepy streets it's not hard to imagine the battles and skirmishes that took place here under Dutch rule. Cannons still lie around, seemingly in the same place they were left a few hundred years ago. Forts crumble and now provide the perfect shelter for goats. The old Dutch cemetery is overgrown with weeds, a long way from Amsterdam indeed. Nutmeg trees abound and islanders still harvest and dry it along the roadside. Delicious nutmeg treats are sold including candies and jars of nutmeg jam, so you can sample what all the fuss was about. It feels like a trip back in time being here, there are no cars, just ojeks, and the place goes pitch black when the sun sets.
We stayed at the Mutiara (bahasa for “pearl” apparently) hotel for our time on the main island of Banda Neira. This is a well presented boutique-like hotel owned by the very well-known and well-liked Abba (everyone on the island knows Abba it seems). It's away from the waterfront unlike some of the other hotels, but the rooms are very nice (still basic bathroom, with cold shower, non-flushing toilet and oddly no sink), the garden is pretty and the nutmeg pancakes served up by ibu (this is a term of endearment/respect for the lady of the house it seems, literally “mother”) are justly famous. Abba has also just opened a new, posher hotel just up the road called Cilu Bintang. Here you will find the renowned buffets for 90k pp that guests and non-guests indulge in.
Incidentally, I read that Princess Diana and Mick Jagger visited these islands hosted by the “King of the Bandas”, Des Awli but it seems the King's palace, his old hotel has seen better days.
Banda Neira is small and it can be traversed by foot in maybe an hour or so. Beware you may end up looking like the pied piper with a trail of young school kids running behind you for 10 minutes shouting “Mister” or “Photo”. At one point, passing a primary school, I think we must have gathered about half of a class. There are no beaches per se on Banda Neira, and the snorkeling and lounging around should be reserved for the smaller islands like Palau Ai, but the island is pretty and lush with trees and vegetation.
Tip: If you are in need of laundry and don't want to pay big bucks for the “per piece” laundry services most hotels offer, you can walk to the end of the main strip (in the direction past the Vita hotel, not Blue Motion), then take a left, walk straight on past the bank, before finally opposite the hospital you should spot a little local laundry set back off the road a little. It is combined with a Warung offering good Indonesian food. They were friendly, the quality of the wash was great, and it was really cheap for a whole rucksack of washing. Although they did write “Bule” in big letters on the bag my clothes were returned in :)
After the forts, and the spicy history, there's not much to do on Banda Neira, I guess that's the charm, but if you do feel like some exersion, Guning Api looms over the islands daring you to climb it. Standing at a demonic 666m above sea level and a very much still active volcano that last erupted in 1988, make no mistake it is more of a challenge than you might think.
The height doesn't seem much, so we set out brazenly confident at 10am, with a 1.5l water each and a packet of nutmeg sweets to chomp at the summit. The short ferry trip can be arranged with fishermen near the pier costing us 30k for two people, with the fisherman coming picking us up when we were done. The track starts easily enough, but quickly deteriorates into a scramble through a loose avalanche of volcanic pebbles. It is a full body challenge and often more of a scramble than a walk.
Our 1.5l each water had disappeared long before the summit, and we were as sweaty as [choose appropriate similie].
The climb takes around 2-3hrs depending on your level of fitness. The view of Banda Neira on the ascent is great, with a good view of Fort Belgica and the little runway squeezed across the breadth of the island. At the summit, vents spew out hot blasts of water vapor and the ground is hot from the activity below. The view over the lip of the cliff into the blown out caldera in the opposite direction to Banda Neira is a little disconcerting, especially when the sound of mini avalanches echoes below, and Palau Ai can be seen in the distance.
We got back to the sea level and rewarded ourselves with a few soursop juices and a fish and chips at the Nutmeg Cafe. We had no complaints about the cold shower at the hotel that day.
We got the public ferry over at 11am to Palau Ai (45mins approx and 30k pp one way). There are only a handful of homestays on the island, maybe four. We stayed at Green Cocunut. The homestays are all pretty basic, with Mandi Dip bathing and non-flushing toilets being the norm. The food at Green Coconut was all included at 150k pp. It was mostly fish based, but tasty and the family were really friendly. It was quite rainy during our time on Ai, but we rented snorkels anyway and braved the churning sea to do some snorkeling on the house reef. It has a sharp dropoff and lots of big fish like Napolean wrasse to be seen.
The village on Ai is truly tiny, and made Banda Neira seem like a Metropolis, which would have been hard to believe even a few days before. There is a school, a mosque, a tiny shop or two and the remains of Fort Revenge. The sound of generator humming for a few hours each evening, and the bleat of a goat and the only noises permeating the darkness.
We saw each evening the children having boat races in the sea and also trying to catch dragonflies by waving flowers on the end of sticks. What a childhood.
On the horizon from the beach at Ai, the tiny island of Run can be seen which famously the Dutch swapped Manhattan for during the Spice Wars. However, we didn't make it there as the weather was very rainy and we decided to move on to sunnier climes.