Banda Islands in Indonesia are a group of 11 small islands in the Banda Sea in the Pacific ocean, some 2000 km east of Java.
Up until the mid-19th century, they were the only place in the world where the nutmeg tree grew. This fact made them quite valuable real estate and several small, but bloody wars were fought, most recently between the Dutch and the British, with the locals more of a collateral damage.
Nowadays the islands are rarely visited by tourists and offer amazing diving and snorkelling opportunities, with beautiful corals, sea life and clear water. There are a few nice beaches, but if you are after a beach vacation it is better to choose another location, like the relatively closeby Key islands. For the history-oriented, each island holds a piece of the old colonial times, be it a fort, old houses, or just interesting stories.
How to get there
Organizing a trip to Banda Islands is not as easy as taking a single plane ride. Depending on the season, there are various modes of transport available, with varying degree of reliability - flexibility of travel plans is important. Best is to have at least a week's time and to leave a few days to reach Banda and then a few days for the way back.
The most direct way to Banda is in two steps:
- Reach Ambon - there are scheduled flights every day from most major cities in Indonesia
- From Ambon take a plane, a fast boat or a slow ferry to Bandaneira
Getting to Ambon is relatively easy - there are regular flights from Jakarta and Surabaya several times a day, as well as from other big cities in Indonesia. Once in Ambon you may have to spend a day or two in a hotel while organizing the rest of the trip.
Bandaneira, the main town of the Islands, located on Banda Neira island, is the place you will reach from Ambon - the fast and slow ferries stop at its harbour and the only airport for the Banda Islands is on Neira. If your final destination is one of the other islands, you will have to organize another boat to take you there.
One of the diving companies and accommodation on Banda Neira - Dive Blue Motion keeps their website up to date with information about travel to the Islands, I highly recommend to check their web site before travel: https://www.dive-bluemotion.com/travelhere
Plane from Ambon to Bandaneira
The only airline that connects Banda is Susi air. And when I say it "connects", I mean this very loosely. They may operate in the high season October-November and then February-March. Or not. This is something to check a week before your travel. The schedule is done week for week, flights are unreliable - slightly bad weather will ground them.
Even with this in mind, flying is the best option, if available. Usually, there are 2-3 flights per week, going to Banda in the morning and back to Ambon in the afternoon. It is quick - less than an hour - and comfortable. Susi operates from the main airport in Ambon.
Ticket prices are around 400 000 IDR, with 10 kg luggage included (checked and carry-on), everything over that is charged 20 000 IDR per kg.
Buying tickets is a bit tricky - they can be purchased over email, but payment is done only via local bank transfer or local credit card. International cards are not accepted. The only ways to organize this are:
- find a local travel agent (contact us for the details of the person we used)
- have someone send the money locally (ask at your accommodation, they may be able to do that)
- organize yourself once in Ambon - it will require a day or more extra stay in Ambon
Fast boat from Ambon to Bandaneira
There is a fast ferry that takes around 6 hours. It leaves from Tilehu - which is 2 hours by car from Ambon airport and Ambon itself. The ferry runs during high season October-November and then February-March, usually two days a week.
Regular tickets are 400 000 IDR, with VIP ones 650 000 IDR.
Slow ferry from Ambon to Bandaneira
The most reliable mode of transport is the slow ferry - Pelni ships. It takes 12-16 hours, depending on the season runs around 2-4 times every two weeks. It is slow, not as comfortable as the other two options, can be late 4-6-10 hours, but it does run according to the schedule and you can be relatively sure it won't be cancelled last minute. It is also, the only option in low season.
Tickets are cheap, starting at just over 100 000 IDR, once onboard one can get an upgrade for a cabin depending on availability.
The Pelni ships run from Ambon main harbour - very close to the city center. The exact schedule changes every month.
This is the main island of the group. The main town of Bandaneira has the only airport in the region, as well as the main harbour. The main harbour gets the traffic from the fast ferry from Ambon and the slow Pelni ships, it is close to the central mosque. Smaller boats to and from the neighbouring islands use another, smaller jetty, within 5-10 minutes walking distance, close to the market and Delfika 2 guesthouse.
The town center of Bandaneira has an array of lovely Dutch colonial buildings, some better preserved than others. At the top of a hill, visible from the sea is the big Belgica fort, its two-storey main building and the walls nicely restored. Several of the original cannons still line the edges. Closer to the water is what remains of a smaller fort - fort Nassau. For the history buffs, the town museum offers an insight into the past of the area.
There are many accommodation options available in Bandaneira, but don't expect anything too fancy. Most offer running water, electricity and WiFi, unlike the other islands around. There are a few restaurants, food is not expensive and the local cuisine is very tasty. A lively market with fresh produce and spices, clothes and household items is next to the local boat jetty.
If you come to Banda for diving, it is best to base yourself here - there are few dive centres in town. Diving and snorkelling day trips to spots around the neighbouring island can be easily arranged. In addition, there a couple of good off the beach snorkelling spots on the island itself.
The towering volcano can be seen from all islands in the group. Api has very limited options for food and accommodation and is mainly visited by enthusiasts climbing to the top of the mount. Getting there is easy - it is 50-100 m away from Neira and a boat charter can be easily arranged through your guesthouse or face-to-face on the local jetty.
Besar is the biggest island in the group, and it holds the major plantations of nutmeg, kenari (almond), cinnamon and cloves. There aren't any hotels and guesthouses there, only a few basic homestays.
The island is a short boat ride from Neira, but there are no regular boats - it is best to organize it with your guesthouse to avoid waiting and haggling at the jetty.
Delfika guesthouse in Bandanaira has tours to the plantations, which are very informative and enjoyable, with great opportunities to see how spices are harvested, buy them fresh and learn about the life of the local people.
Ai is around an hour away by boat from Neira. The boats leave from the local jetty once a day - sometime in the late morning or the afternoon.
There are limited options for accommodation here and don't expect running water, electricity or WiFi. Electricity is on for a few hours a day thanks to the lone diesel generator in the village. There are no restaurants on the island and every guesthouse stay has 3 meals a day included. Mobile coverage is spotty at best. A perfect place to get away from civilization and spend relaxing days at the beach reading and enjoying the view.
There are great off the beach snorkelling opportunities as the drop off is just 50 m away from shore. Just put on your snorkelling gear and dive. Day trips to the other islands can be arranged, and it is especially good to visit the nearby Rhun island - it is less than 40 minutes away, a lot shorter trip than from the main island.
Most of the island is covered in nutmeg plantations. The big kenari trees needed for the proper life of the nutmeg provide nice shade and a walk in the forest is a nice way to spend an afternoon.
The overgrown ruins of the fort leftover from the Spice Wars is now visited mostly by the local goats, some walls of plantation compounds are still visible around the village.
Hatta island (Rozengain)
Conditions on Hatta are even more basic than Ai and the boats to and from Neira depart 2-3 times a week. Again, there is no electricity, except for a few hours a day, and no restaurants.
The biggest attraction on Hatta is the snorkelling - the drop off is a meter away from the beach, few other places offer such spectacular views with so little effort.
Rhun (Run) island
The small settlement on Rhun is more isolated compared to the other islands. Very few tourists set foot on here, and even less stay for longer than an hour or two. Again, a lone fort is losing the battle with time on the hill above the village, and the biggest building is the brightly coloured mosque.
The most interesting thing about Rhun lays in its history - valued for the precious nutmeg plantations, it was exchanged for Manhattan in the 17th century Spice wars.
The tiny island of Nailaka is located next to Rhun and during low tide, one can swim between the two, if feeling adventurous. Easier access is by boat on a day trip from one of the bigger islands. There isn't much to do here, 15 minutes is enough to go around the island and the main attractions are underwater - beautiful diving and snorkelling spots, with an abundance of fish and good corals.
A small rock with some jungle, Keraka is located between the north ends of Api and Neira. Only 10-15 minutes by boat from Neira, it is surrounded by a good, healthy, shallow coral reef, perfect for snorkelling.
Banana Island (Pisang Island)
Banana Island is located to the east of Neira. It's one and only beach attracts mostly local tourists and can get too noisy and dirty. Good snorkelling spots all around the steep cliffs that form the islands can be reached by boat.
A few hundred meters away from Pisang, this single huge rock, its shape reminiscent of a ghost ship drifting through the ocean, is an island of itself. It is of particular interest for divers, with great diving spots all around it.
Swangy (Suanggi) Island
Swangy is a little further out from the other islands of the group, to the north of Rhun and Ai and visible from both as a small dot rising over the horizon. For some reason, it is not marked on some newer maps. It is supposed to have the ruins of an old lighthouse and several undisturbed bird colonies.