In the far reaches of Indonesia, the Spice Islands rise out of the Banda Sea, 1,200 miles northeast of Bali. These dots on a map (labeled Maluku, or the Moluccas) are much more than verdant tropical islands. In the forests, tangled beneath undergrowth, are the ruins of mighty stone fortresses and crenelated bastions. Rusted cannons lie by the roadsides. Children approached me with fistfuls of antique coins, touting treasure they had unearthed; look at the year inscribed on the metal, 1785, and the letters VOC, standing for Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, the Dutch East India Company, a multinational of its day. These are the remnants of a ruthless fight for wealth and power, dating back half a millennium when these islands were at the heart of the global spice trade and the humble nutmeg was worth more than its weight in gold.
Spices aside, these steep volcanic outcrops are also staggering in their beauty, part of the Ring of Fire characterized by violent tectonic movements. Along the coastline—in some places rocky and strewn with lava, elsewhere bordered by soft white sand or mangroves—there are fishing and farming communities built around the glinting dome of a mosque. Tin rooftops peep out between treetops. Some islands are uninhabited or home to only a few peripatetic fishermen and maybe a colony of red-footed boobies.
On the back of pandemic lockdowns, with tourist arrivals in much of Indonesia not yet at normal levels, it’s a particularly good time to come here (not that this region was ever overcrowded). Flight and ferry services are being restored nationwide, and boat operators are relaunching trips on traditional wooden phinisi schooners, liveaboards, and motor cruisers. I was joining the 196-foot Aqua Blu, a four-deck expedition yacht that’s unusual because it doesn’t require a full charter; travelers may opt for one of the 15 cabins.
The seven-night Spice Islands itinerary would be hard to organize independently, requiring linkups with ferries, hitching rides with fishermen, and not always finding even basic accommodation. Aqua Expeditions does it all, with smart suites, an on-board library and spa, dive club, and tiers of sundecks. The attentive crew are on hand with fresh juices and Negronis, depending on the time of day, and there’s a creative powerhouse of a kitchen serving dishes like tuna ceviche with coconut and lime or beef rendang with shallots.
From Jakarta, I flew nearly four hours east to the island of Ambon, where Aqua Blu was docked. At the port, it was like a scene from Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, with rusting tramp steamers, fishing trawlers, and motorized dugouts. I stood on deck, watching the boat being provisioned, while meeting the crew and fellow passengers: an elderly Frenchman who’d just been diving in Raja Ampat; a multigenerational German family; an entertaining Spanish travel agent, and a posse of British and French friends based in Hong Kong and Singapore.
The route for the next week was a figure-eight around the Banda Sea, beginning and ending at Ambon, the provincial capital, with a half-dozen stops en route. Our first landfall was Ambon’s north coast to discover Fort Amsterdam, with its prison, gunpowder magazine, and watchtower. The 400-year-old architecture was impressive, yet I also felt haunted by the ghosts of the past here, conscious of the layers of British and Dutch colonial subjugation. Ironically, next door stood one of Indonesia’s oldest churches, where perhaps the same serving officers who put down local resistance prayed in these pews. A few roads away, I peered through the window of Wapaue Mosque dating back 800 years. It struck me this thatched building, maintained over the centuries, was originally built closer to the time of Muhammad than to now. These islands seem to have forever been tapped, wrested from the people who call this place home.
We sailed southeast, leaving land behind us, with the sonar indicating a water depth of more than three miles. Occasionally we spotted a fisherman in his slender dugout, but little else. The sea was still, more like a lake than ocean, which is, in fact, why Aqua Blu comes here for this very short season in October and November. The wind drops and the sea lulls, bestowing smooth sailing and easy shore excursions.
Outside of these months, the wind blows persistently and reliably, which is what helped put this place on the map. Chinese and Arab merchants, then the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and English took advantage of these trade winds to carry their wares to and fro, their holds crammed with Chinese silks, Indian cottons, Arabic coffee, East African ivory, and, of course, spices. The spices were for more than seasoning and preserving food; when the bubonic plague was ravaging Europe, they were believed to hold prophylactic properties, even a cure. When the European aristocracy heard nutmeg might be an aphrodisiac and hallucinogen, its value was secured.
I love to sail through the night, on the move even when deep in sleep, awakening somewhere new and unseen. By morning, we cruised into the natural protected harbor at Banda Neira. Starboard side was the near-perfect volcanic cone of Gunung Api, and down on the water, Aqua Blu had organized the spectacle of a pair of kora-kora war canoes, manned by villagers chanting and beating drums. In the air, I could smell a whiff of nutmeg, like Christmas.
Onshore, I explored the pretty port with its lattice of streets of crumbling colonial mansions, a fish market, boat-building huts, and smokehouses for drying spices. The island’s people are reflective of the entrepôt history; I met an Indonesian man with the last name Van Den Broek, and Mita Alwi, who owns the the Maulana hotel, and who has Yemeni and Chinese roots dating back generations. She is working to prevent these islands from slipping into obscurity, chairing the Banda Heritage and Cultural Foundation and a higher education institute her grandfather founded, which 600 students attend. “Sometimes I have hope we won’t be forgotten, that we won’t lose our identity,” Mita sighed, “but sometimes I have no hope at all.”
Astonishingly, there are as many as five Dutch-built forts in the vicinity, an indication of what was at stake. Some of the constructions have been lost to nature; others are intact, like the pentagon-shaped Fort Belgica with its formidable turrets and 30-foot-thick walls. Locals say the mortar is made of sand, chalk, and egg white, a combination that, it turns out, can endure centuries of earthquakes, volcanic explosions, tsunamis, and typhoons.
On the facing island of Banda Besar, I visited the world’s oldest nutmeg plantations, watching locals shimmy up trunks, pluck the yellow downy pods, splitting them open to reveal the seed (nutmeg) and its vivid red aril (mace). I met Solomon, a farmer, whose wise words seemed to align with his creased face and worn body. “I have a few trees, just enough,” he said, telling me he learned English from the radio. “Anyway, I don’t need much food, only a clean heart. Money doesn’t make you happy, only peace and grandchildren.” Checkmate, I thought to myself. I felt outmaneuvered in the best possible way.
Brutally, it was here, 400 years ago, that the Dutch ordered the massacre of 2,500 Bandanese, killed by mercenaries; the rest were sold into slavery or fled. They say the population of the Banda islands was around 15,000 when the VOC arrived; a dozen or so years later, it was 600. Yet when I asked locals how they felt about their bloody history, I found no ill feeling. Curiously, they were all supporting the Netherlands in the soccer World Cup.
Before we left, we visited the third island in this cluster, Banda Api, and dived the lava flow that sweeps down the flanks of Gunung Api into the ocean. An eruption in 1988 wiped out the reefs here, but the coral recovered more rapidly than expected, put down to the fertile nature of volcanic detritus. In fact, auspiciously, this young reef has a higher than usual diversity and abundance of marine life. I finned down to the seabed to see tiny bubbles of gas escaping and pressed my palm upon the sand to feel the Earth’s heat.
The exceptional biodiversity here was documented nearly 200 years ago by the renowned British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin; he noted there were more species of fish in the Banda Sea than in all the rivers and seas of Europe. It is a hugely significant part of the world when it comes to the theory of evolution by natural selection. While Wallace’s friend Darwin was working on the other side of the Pacific, Wallace conducted 70 expeditions over eight years here, collecting more than 125,000 specimens. It was he who wrote to Darwin, generating the idea of “survival of the fittest,” which he said “suddenly flashed upon (him)” while suffering a fever, probably malaria. Much like the Galápagos, this area is revered for its endemism and biodiversity.
We turned south towards the smoldering crater of Pulau Manuk. As our tender chugged around the island’s perimeter, I watched a noisy colony of red-footed, masked, and brown boobies at play on the steep volcanic flanks. Clumsy on land, they scrabbled awkwardly along the rough terrain. Some were engaging in their gregarious courtship, so flamboyant it seemed comical. Yet when they took flight, these birds morphed into something graceful, evidently powerful; I watched one dive from 60 feet up, folding back its wings into its long tapering body, its heavy-set bill spearing into the ocean. Boobies can dive 30 feet underwater to snap up a fish, swallowing it whole.
As well as being known for clamorous colonies of seabirds, Pulau Manuk is referred to as the “island of snakes” for its quivers of thick-necked olive and black-and-white banded sea snakes; the neurotoxic venom of the latter makes it one of the most lethal marine creatures. On a dive, I watched them slink through the water, sometimes rearing up into S shapes, yet none of them seemed bothered by me or fellow divers. An hour later, out of air, I burst above the waterline looking up at the skies streaked with aerobatic tropicbirds, elegant brown noddies, and gliding frigatebirds, with their pterodactyl-like silhouettes. Treading water between the ocean and atmosphere, teeming with wildlife this way, it was a reminder to me of how the world is supposed to be.