Once known as the Spice Islands, an epithet also applies to the entire Maluku area, the Bandas were famous as a source of spices, especially nutmeg. 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.
The Bandas were really off the beaten track, but transport offers (from Ambon) are increasing and making it easier to access these islands. It is important to remember that 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.
Aviastar operates two flights a week from Ambon, on Wednesday and Saturday early morning (Feb 2016). As flights are subsidised, this is the least expensive option (Rp 360000, Feb 2016). The very small airplane returns to Ambon on the same day. Flights often get cancelled due to bad weather and engine problems. Tickets can be bought at Ambon Airport. You normally can book the return ticket only at Banda Neira (thought some guesthouses in Ambon may have contacts in Banda Neira and may book it for you).
- Occasionally Merpati serves Bandaneira from Amahai on Pulau Seram. Check upon arrival in Ambon.
In addition, since there are regular airlines (Wings and Garuda) flying between Kei islands and Ambon, going to/from Ambon through Kei Island can also be an option, if everything else is canceled.
A recently started 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!
- Pelni's ferry runs twice monthly from Ambon, stops in Banda Neira, and continues to Kei Islands. Though uncomfortable and inconvenient, this is the cheapest option.
An alternative is the rather more regular but still unpredictable twice-monthly Pelni ferry (KM Ciremai) to Bandaneira, which usually leaves Ambon on Saturday afternoon (7 hrs). Every other week a 150-passenger boat (KM Gravilla) leaves for Banda (Rp 155,000, around 15hrs). Check at the small harbour in Ambon.
Getting around on Bandaneira is either by foot, ojek or becak. 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 located in the town of Bandaneira.
Access to other islands is provided by boat. Regular connections go to Pulau Banda Besar and Pulau Ai (Rp 30.000, Feb 2016), the latter usually leaving during morning hours. Public boats to Pulau Hatta are less frequent (3 or 4 times a week). All boats can be cancelled depending on weather. Other islands can be reached for day-trips by chartered boats (Pulau Hatta Rp 500,000/day; Pulau Pisang + Batu Kapal Rp 350,000/day; half-day tour to the Lava Stream north of Gunung Api Rp 120,000). For mountain hikes up to Gunung Api, local fishermen are more than happy to carry you across for Rp 10,000 each way.
- Benteng Belgica, Bandaneira Island. Old fort ruin that can be visited (Rp 20,000).
- 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 is only one dive operator in Bandaneira. Consider that much of the underwater world can be seen through snorkeling and you might get to see enough for less money!
- Spice Island Divers. The only dive operator in the Banda Islands.
- Climb Gunung Api, Bandanaira Island. Climbing the highest peak of the Bandas (667m above sea level) offers great views and some volcanic insight. The trail starts at the few houses on the eastern shore and although it is unmarked almost impossible to miss. Bring plenty of water (minimum 3l per person!) as the trail is continuously ascending for around 2 hours. Good shoes are advisable as the path is stony and slippery. No guide necessary but not a bad idea if you intend to climb without anyone else. The current fare for boat transport from Bandaneira to Gunung Api is Rp 10,000 per way and boat.
- Island Walk. Stroll around the island to explore smaller villages in the north and the runway of the airport.
There is now an ATM in the Banda Neira, but it only accepts MasterCard, not Visa card ! The local BRI branch will not change any money. You might be able to change US dollars to Rp at some guesthouses and shops, at an unfavorable rate. Therefore, come prepared and bring sufficient cash from Ambon or Tual.
- Barracuda and other fish. Ikan Bakar (grilled fish) is 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 Jam. Available in guesthouses and small stores in Bandaneira.
- Buah Pala. The fruit of the nutmeg tree can be found as a dried sweet snack along the main street in Bandaneira.
- 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.
There are no bars or restaurants serving alcoholic drinks in Bandaneira. However some guesthouses have chilled beer (Rp 30,000 per big bottle Bintang) and fresh juices (Rp 15,000).
In Banda Neira :
- Mutiara Guesthouse, ☎ +62 813 30343377. Mutiara Guesthouse has nicely furnished and clean rooms. It has spacy common rooms and a lovely courtyard. The owner Abba speaks fluent English and some German/Dutch. There is a highly recommendable dinner buffet for Rp. 50,000 per person. Room rates are incl. breakfast: Rooms starting 200.000 Rp (Feb 2016).
- Vita Guesthouse, ☎ +62 819 45090110. This guesthouse is located at the waterside facing Gunung Api. Rooms tend to be a little be time-worn, but the courtyard and the jetty is a wonderful hangout place and Alan, the manager of this homestay, can provide useful information about the Bandas and activities in English language. Snorkeling gear rental and boat charter easily available from the private jetty. The dinner (Rp 50,000 per person) is very tasty. Room rates are incl. breakfast: Fan Room Double Rp 175,000 (Feb 2016); AC Room Double Rp 200.000 (?)
- Delfika Guesthouse. Another well-known guesthouse, in the village. They also have new building on the sea side, near Vita.
- Bintang Laut Guesthouse. Just next door to Vita.
- Cilu Bintang Estate. The most luxury option on the island.
There are several other small homestays on the island (though english speaking will probably be unlikely).
Bandaneira is generally a safe place for tourists and there are no annoyances like in other Indonesian cities. Traffic is very little and calm.
Warning: There have been very frequent 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. It is advised to pay high attention and store your valuables safely!
Keep in mind that 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 Wifi. Mobile phone reception, including data (at least with Telkomsel) is good on Banda Neira. For the time being there are only two mobile phone operators on the Banda Islands: Telkomsel and XL. SIM cards and top-up for the two providers can be bought in Bandaneira. Reception on Pulau Ai is only available at the jetty. Data will not work on Pulau Ai (at least with Telkomsel, Feb 2016)