Not Your Average Honeymoon Destination: Banda Islands of Maluku, Indonesia

Tey Kher Ying
By Tey Kher Ying April 13, 2017

The Bahari express boat finally leaves Tulehu port at 10 in the morning, an hour after its stipulated time of 9am. Now that the boat is finally on its way, my husband, Chris, and I let out a sigh of relief.

We’ve checked out of Ibis Airport Hotel at 2.30am in order to board our 4.00am flight at Makassar International Airport to Ambon and haven’t slept a wink since.

When our Garuda flight finally touched down, we rushed to get a taxi driver to get us to the harbor. As our taxi driver overtook one red Angkot after another, we crossed all our fingers and prayed that we wouldn’t miss the only form of transportation that leaves for the Banda Islands this week.

If we’ve had missed it, we wouldn’t be able to catch another one until Saturday. Today is only Tuesday. So far, so good.

Banda Islands - Tulehu Port, Ambon

The twice-weekly Bahari Express Boat docking at Tulehu port, Ambon.

Despite our sleep deprivation and non-stop anxiety since pre-dawn, we have a good feeling about the start of our honeymoon trip.

I look at my watch. 5 minutes past and 5 more hours to go. Banda Islands, why is getting to you such a pain in the butt?
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YOU’RE GOING WHERE?

Banda Islands view

Source: Shutterstock.com

We’ve loved the looks on people’s faces when we tell them that we were going to the Banda Islands for our honeymoon.

Huh, where?

Eyebrows furrow and blank looks all around. One was even suspicious that I was actually pulling his leg.

No one has heard of the Banda Islands before. I don’t blame them. I didn’t too–until I ran a deep search about Indonesia’s lesser-known islands, especially the small ones that deliver huge rewards.

Despite the lack of updated and elaborate information about the Banda Islands, those that we found reported these cluster of volcanic islands to be amazing. Lonely Planet apparently claims that the islands, one that’s known for its spices and magical underwater realm, would have become one of Indonesia’s top destinations if not for its remoteness and difficulty to get to.

We thought a little adventure to kick off our honeymoon vacation before we succumb to easy and relaxing travels through Bali and Gili Islands would be fun. After all, how else would a pair of well-traveled newlyweds make their honeymoon memorable?
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Banda Islands - Nutmeg seeds

Nutmeg seeds being dried out under the sun.

History has coined these islands as the fabled Spice Islands and is not without sound reason. Today these islands may be almost unheard of, but they’ve played an important role in the European history from the 16th to the 18th centuries.

Located in the far eastern shores of Indonesia, somewhere sprawled across the Banda Sea, closer to West Papua than Java, these ten islands are home to one of the most prized and fought-over commodities in the past: nutmeg.

Did you know that nutmeg was more expensive than gold in ancient times? Just the sale of a small amount of nutmeg in Europe could make a man rich beyond his dreams.

As nutmeg trees grew exclusively on these islands then, wars have been raged and blood was shed over the control of the islands. In the end, a treaty was signed to end the Dutch-English hostilities and the Dutch gave up New York (it was called New Amsterdam under the Dutch rule) for Pulau Rhun, one of the Banda islands, which was under the English.

Imagine the significance of the Banda islands in the olden days!

WELCOME TO THE MODERN-DAY BANDA ISLANDS

Banda Islands - Boat

When our boat pulls up to Banda Neira, the main island which holds a settlement of a significant size, all around we see only lush green vegetation, a view of an active volcano dominating the skyline from across, a rundown fort from afar, a small atmospheric town along the fringes of the coast and locals waving.

We cannot imagine all the history that had transpired.

Banda Islands - Street

After exiting the port’s gates, we turn left and walk down the main path between shops and stalls, hoping it’ll somehow lead to Mutiara Guesthouse, where we’ve planned to stay for the night. There were only about eight to ten other tourists with us on the boat, but they are now nowhere to be seen.

We ask the first local man we see, whose face lit up when he saw us.

“Hotel? Hotel?” he asks. I tell him in broken Indonesian that we are looking for a  guesthouse. Initially I thought he’ll be hustling us to go to the guesthouse he has in mind, but he doesn’t. He tells us to follow the road till the end and then turn right. He grins again and waves us goodbye warmly.

Okay, that was easy, I tell Chris, surprised. Usually in tourist congested places like Bali or Lombok, or even in Sulawesi, there will be lots of hassling and pushiness. Half the time, we normally would be doubtful or skeptical about the price or information given. Here, information was given with pleasure and without pushing you to buy something further.

We walk for another few metres before two motorbikes roar from behind to approach us. Oh no, not now, I mutter, thinking that the hassling now starts. But in fact, it was just Abba Rizal, the owner of Mutiara Guesthouse and his staff. He has heard that we’ve been asking for his place so he has come to get us. We are asked to hop on the motorbikes and they drive us to his newer and plusher accommodation, the Cilu Bintang Resort. Word sure does get around here fast.

In the resort’s courtyard, we put down our backpacks and are given a cup of cinnamon tea and nutmeg cookies to make us feel welcome. They then take us to Mutiara, their older yet still beautiful guesthouse that has been tastefully decorated with vintage decor and rooms with our budget.

Tomorrow we have to make our way to Pulau Hatta, the famed island for its world-class snorkeling and diving and long stretches of white sandy beach.

NAVIGATING OUR WAY AROUND THE ISLANDS

Banda Islands - Shopkeeper

Harris, a shopkeeper, who gave us his phone number and some souvenirs to take home.

We have no problems making friends on Banda Neira but we had a problem getting the right transport information from them. By evening, we are no longer surprised by the locals’ friendliness and curiosity but are perplexed with the lack of standard information.

Some have wanted to take selfies with us, some wanted to give us packets of spicy crisps and murukku, some gave us their phone numbers, insisting that we call them the next time we come back. However, when asked about the time of the public boat leaving for Pulau Hatta, no one could give us a definite answer. We’ve received varying answers, from 8am to 11am and even 2pm.

The next day, Abba tells us at breakfast that there’ll be a boat, called Sinar Hatta, at noon. Trusting him, we turn up at the harbor at 11.30am and find a blue wooden boat waiting.

At noon, the boat doesn’t leave. Only more locals pile into the boat, some dumping their cargo on board–sacks of cement, Indomie boxes, rice sacks, fruits and vegetables-and then leave.

Another tourist, a talkative, tanned, middle-aged Portuguese joins us. After chatting for a while, we realized that the boat hasn’t left the harbor. It’s already 12.30 pm. The locals seem nonchalant and nonplussed–as if the waiting game is something everyone is familiar with.

At about 1.15pm, the captain yells out that they’re finally leaving and more locals who have been squatting around the harbor clamber in hurriedly.

Banda Islands - Boatride to Hatta Island

Another hour later, we arrive at Pulau Hatta. Despite sitting under the shade of the boat’s roof, Chris notices that the sides of my shoulders, the parts not covered by my tank top, are crimson with sunburn.

BAD WEATHER ON PULAU HATTA, THE JEWEL OF BANDA ISLANDS

Banda Islands - Hatta Island

Hatta Island, or Pulau Hatta in Indonesian, can be a wonderful or a bad place to be, depending on its unpredictable weather. Since it’s a tiny island without modern conveniences and restaurants or cafes, there’s nothing much you can do here apart from walking, snorkeling and diving.

When we arrived, the weather seemed welcoming. Gentle breeze and blinding sunshine. The waters looked welcoming–I even saw coral fish swimming as I stepped off the boat.

After we settled into a homestay and went for our first snorkel, the waves got a little choppier. By the time we get out of the sea and start our way back to our guesthouse, the sky opens up and pours. Wet and bummed out, we stare at the grey horizon with a sinking feeling. It’s just today maybe.

To add to our agony, our room has only a bed and nothing more. There’s a small window and no breeze, despite the ongoing downpour. There also isn’t any fan as there isn’t any running electricity. A generator is switched on in the evening, but only to generate enough electricity for light.

In the toilet, matters look grimmer. It’s dark, filthy and filled with the occasional millipede or spider. As there’s no running water, we have to scoop water out of the plastic buckets for shower. Chris has taken one look at the squat toilet and decided that he’ll take a pass on it unless absolutely necessary.

The other guests are elderly Ukrainians and Russians. They neither smile nor speak English. Their wetsuits, under garments and snorkeling equipment, are everywhere, taking up space in most of the chairs within the shared living areas, rendering us uncomfortable and nowhere else to enjoy the sea view.

So much for an adventurous honeymoon.

Thankfully the next day, we find ourselves an available room at a much sunnier and friendlier homestay–Homestay Sarah. One of the guests, a long-time guest from Czech Republic, sings praises of the place when we step in.

Banda Islands - Feast on Hatta Island

Our daily feasts at Homestay Sarah, Hatta Island.

“You’ll never feast better anywhere else better. Sarah is the best!” Petra says, as Sarah makes us some coffee. The room at Sarah’s is just as basic as the other (the whole island doesn’t have constant running electricity nor water) but the room looks so much brighter with a larger window. It’s also cleaner and Sarah’s presence is like a lighthouse. She beams every time she sees us.

We change homestays and our experience instantaneously change for the better. The weather is still fickle with long periods of rain and rough seas, but whatever sunny moments we have, we seize them and snorkel to our heart’s content.

Banda Islands - Snorkeling

The sheer proximity of the reef drop and the vibrant underwater world are why tourists from around the world flock to Pulau Hatta. Despite large waves and lack of visibility caused by constant rain, we still saw a great deal–unicorn fish, triggerfish, starfish, parrotfish, reef sharks – wow!

Banda Islands - Sarah's catch

Our tiny homestay owner, Sarah, showing off her catch. She wants only the freshest for her guests.

At Sarah’s, we also bond well with the other guests from Germany and Austria. They would invite us to the balconies of their bungalows to chat. When it pours, we happily hang out with the others, peeling mace from nutmegs and exchange life stories.

Banda Islands - Long walks

Taking long walks around the tiny Hatta island.

It is refreshing to not do much there. Paying attention to nature, its rhythm and its changes, can be a wonderful meditation. The distraction that comes with the modern world fades into the background. Once while watching the sea for a long time, we suddenly caught sight of hundreds of dolphins making its way back home.

Banda Islands - Watching the sea

Not long after staring out into the horizon, we spotted schools of dolphins.

Unfortunately, our time at our little isolated paradise has to come to an end on Sunday. In a way, our encounter with bad weather at Pulau Hatta has made leaving the Banda Islands a little easier. Some people stay on for months!

Nonetheless, the elusive Express boat has turned up at Banda Naira to take those who wish to leave the Banda Islands back to Ambon city and we are taking it. The adventurous phase of our honeymoon is now over and we’re moving on to somewhere more familiar and comfortable: Bali.

Banda Islands - Separating mace from nutmegs

When we were bored, we’d helped Sarah separate mace from nutmegs.

Despite looking forward to spending the rest of our honeymoon in a villa with a private pool,

I must admit, experiencing discomfort and weathering problems together has only brought us closer.

Retiring to bed right after dinner and talking ourselves to sleep also allowed us to discover a lot more about each other. If anything, I can’t think of a better way to start our marriage!