Once known as the Spice Islands, an epithet also applied to the entire Maluku area, the Bandas were famous as a source of spices, especially nutmeg (buah pala). First colonized by the Portuguese, the Dutch soon wrested control of the islands and fought the Spice Wars with the British. In the Treaty of Breda in 1667, the British agreed to withdraw and gave up Pulau Run to the Dutch, partly in exchange for one small island on the other side of the world: New Amsterdam, now better known as Manhattan.
Since 2017, the local government is arranging a yearly 'Banda Folks Festival' in the month of November. Accommodation booking will be very tough for this period, and the past couple of years there were violent disagreement over the competitions results.
There is a traditional boat race in Banda called Manggurebe Belang has been held every year.
The Bandas were really off the beaten track, but transport offers (from Ambon) are increasing and making it easier to access these islands. Flight or boat cancellations are very frequent, and therefore you should only go to Banda Islands while having plenty of time (i.e. not having a visa expiring soon, or booked flights). Transport offers and schedules are highly subject to changes, so check schedule when arriving in Ambon.
The Banda Islands are served by the small 1 Bandaneira Airport (or Banda Neira, NDA IATA). SAM Air serves the flight to Banda Neira. It uses a very small propeller plane (12 people capacity). You may book the ticket from the agent in Ambon.
In addition, since there are regular airlines (Wings and Garuda) flying between Kei islands and Ambon, going to/from Ambon through Karel Sadsuitubun Airport (LUV IATA) in the Kei Islands can also be an option, if everything else is cancelled.
- A fast boat (6 hours) goes from Ambon (Tulehu Harbour) to Banda Neira twice a week, on Tuesday and Saturday. The boat returns the next day from Banda to Ambon and costs Rp 410,000 as of Feb 2016. Note that the fast boat can be cancelled if the weather is bad! For example, there was no service in January 2017.
- PELNI's ship runs twice monthly from Ambon, stops in Banda Neira, and continues to Kei Islands. Though uncomfortable and inconvenient, this is the cheapest option. The regular PELNI ship KM. Nggapulu and KM. Pangrango serve the passenger to Bandaneira. Check the schedule at the PELNI office in Ambon or by the PELNI app.
Getting around on Bandaneira is either by foot, ojek (motorbike taxi) or becak (cycle rickshaw). The furthermost village in the north is a 45-minute walk. However, most places of interest to tourists (airport, harbour, market, colonial houses, Pelni office) are within quicker walking distance or within the town of Banda Neira.
Other Banda islands (Ai, Run, Banda Besar, Hatta) can be by accessed by public boat on the Southwest of the Neira Island (near the market). There is no fixed inter-island system, as you will be tagging along with the locals. If you ask different locals, you will get different information. In general, there is one boat per day from each island. Boat to Hatta Island sometime is going every two days. The boats arrive in the Neira Island the morning to buy things in the market, and then return to the other Banda Islands around 11:00-12:00 after they are done with shopping or until their boat is filled with passengers. The rate is about Rp30,000-50,000 depending on destinations and boat owners (as of Oct 2018). Public boats do not run on Fridays. All boats can be cancelled randomly for various reasons.
Chartered boats can be used to reach other islands. Day trips by chartered boats: Pulau Hatta Rp600,000/day; Pulau Pisang + Batu Kapal Rp350,000/day; half-day tour to the Lava Stream north of Gunung Api Rp120,000.
When you come to the spice island, you have to visit nutmeg plantations in Banda Besar or Run Island. Besides that, you may see a lot of historical sites in Banda Neira, structures from Dutch colonization, also buildings during the struggle for Indonesian independence, the stars are Fort Belgica and Mohammad Hatta Exile House.
- Snorkeling. Day-trips can be arranged through guest houses in Banda Neira or locals owning boats. Great drop-offs include Pulau Hatta, Pulau Pisang, Batu Kapal, Pulau Ai and the northern shore of Pulau Gunung Api just off the cold lava stream. Make sure that your boat captain knows the sites and make arrangements for lunch as there are no warungs on most islands! If you're staying in Pulau Ai or Hatta, you can go snorkelling straight out of your room.
- Diving. There are two dive operators: Naira Dive Resort is on Hatta Island, and Dive Bluemotion is on Banda Neira.
- Climb Gunung Api. Climbing the highest peak of the Bandas (667 m above sea level) offers great views. The trail starts at the few houses on the eastern shore and although it is unmarked almost impossible to miss. Bring plenty of water as the trail is steep, taking about 2 hours. Hiking boots are advisable as the path is stony and slippery. Guide recommended if going alone. The fare for boat transport from Bandaneira to Gunung Api is Rp10,000 each way.
- Island Walk. Stroll around the island to explore smaller villages in the north and the runway of the airport.
There is an ATM in the Banda Neira that accepts MasterCard and Visa. It doesn't have the Visa logo on the ATM but it works. The local BRI branch will not change any money. You might be able to change US dollars to rupiah at some guesthouses and shops, at an unfavorable rate. Therefore, come prepared and bring sufficient cash from Ambon or Tual.
Typical Bandanese cuisine includes:
- Grilled fish (ikan bakar) of barracuda and tuna, served in guesthouses and rumah makan (restaurants). However, you might need to inform the guesthouse if you intend to eat there. Most rumah makan do not store fish as freezers are uncommon and fresh fish can be bought every morning. Therefore you might need to order fish one day in advance or join the chef to the market and buy the fish yourself.
- Nutmeg products: Nutmeg jam (available in guesthouses and small stores in Banda Neira) and Manisan Pala (candied nutmeg).
- Dishes use nutmeg: Sambal Pala (nutmeg sambal) and Ikan Kuah Asam Pala or famous as ikan kuah pala Banda (fish in nutmeg sour soup). The fish soup dish without using turmeric, is different from ikan kuah kuning.
- Fishball (bakso ikan), similar to regular meatballs (bakso).
- Kue manto, fish roll doused with thick coconut milk and sprinkled with celery and fried shallot.
Popular places to eat:
- Harbor market. Upon the arrival of the PELNI ships, the harbor area comes to life with dozens of street stalls selling fresh grilled fish and vegetable dishes. Try spicy tuna on a stick with sambal.
- Rumah Makan Nusantara. A well-established restaurant to get decent local dishes. Wi-Fi available. Rp30,000-50,000.
- Belgica Cafe (within a short walk from the entrance to Fort Belgica).
The availability of alcoholic drinks in Banda Neira is a bit limited. Some guesthouses have chilled beer (Rp35,000-50,000 per big bottle of Bintang) and fresh fruit juices (Rp15,000).
- Jus Pala, a juice made from nutmeg.
- Kopi Pala, a nutmeg coffee drink.
- Sirup Pala, a nutmeg syrup drink.
There are numerous guesthouses in Banda Islands. For the details, see each island page.
Bandaneira is generally a safe place for tourists, however there are reports of pickpocketing at the ferry terminal or in the Pelni ferry (especially during boarding and disembarkation). The jostle upon arrival of the big Pelni boat is an ideal place to remove the wallet out of your pocket or to cut your money belt. Pay attention and store your valuables safely!
Indonesian ferries have generally low safety standards. In particular, overloaded small boats, for example to Pulau Ai, might be hazardous during rough seas.
All islands are relatively isolated, and you can not find even simple medications on Pulau Ai or Hatta. Dengue fever is common there.
Guesthouses have good free Wi-Fi. Only Telkomsel is operating in Banda Islands (XL ceased operation in the islands around 2016). Mobile phone reception, including data, is better on Neira Island. Top-ups can can be bought in Neira Island. Reception on Pulau Ai is only available at the jetty. Data will not work on Pulau Ai. (as of Oct 2018).
- Ambon: back to the Gateway of Maluku. If you want to fly to Ambon, you can only buy a ticket in Banda. Get the agent's phone number from your accommodation as it sometimes changes (as of Oct 2018).
- Kai Islands: other gorgeous islands, go there with the PELNI ship.