Maluku’s most prominent island is lush and gently mountainous, indented with two great hoops of bay. Around capital Kota Ambon, villages merge into a long, green, downmarket suburban ribbon. West of the airport, this gives way to a string of charming coastal villages, where light sparkles brilliantly through alluring flower gardens and swaying tropical foliage.
By the region’s dreamy tropical standards, Maluku’s capital, commercial centre and transport hub is a busy, throbbing metropolis. Sights are minimal and architecture wins no prizes, but there is a unique cafe culture, some choice sleeps and decent food. Plus, it's well connected to the Banda and Kei Islands, the real reasons you're here.
Ternate is gorgeous, swathed in jungle and wild clove trees. However, when you first land there, in the shadow of spectacular Gunung Api Gamalama and with several more volcanic islands dotting the deep blue channel beyond, you may be shocked to find it such a frenetic place.
Little Bandaneira has always been the Bandas’ main port and administrative centre. In the Dutch era the townsfolk virtually bankrupted themselves maintaining a European lifestyle in spacious mansions that needed rebuilding whenever Gunung Api’s volcanic huffs burnt them down. Today, Bandaneira’s sleepy, flower-filled streets are so quiet that two becak count as a traffic jam.
Tual & Langgur
Bridging the two central islands, these twin towns together form the Kei Islands’ main commercial centre and transport gateway. Langgur is relaxed with ample space and light. Tual is a jumble of ramshackle humanity which gives it a manic edge and magnifies the 'Hey Mister' quotient a thousand fold.
The trump cards for the Kei Islands are kilometres of stunning, yet almost entirely empty, white-sand beaches and a deeply hospitable population. Beneath the mostly Christian facade, Kei culture is fascinatingly distinctive with three castes, holy trees, bride prices paid in lela (antique table cannons) and a strong belief in sasi (a prohibition spell).
Maluku’s biggest island is eccentrically shaped, like a starfish, with four mountainous peninsulas, several volcanic cones and dozens of offshore islands. As it’s sparsely populated and hard to get around, the island’s potential for diving, birdwatching and beach tourism remains almost entirely untapped.
A sprinkling of offbeat accommodation can be found amid Saparua’s shaggy forests and friendly villages. Here, spiny, football-sized durian are piled in the streets right in front of concrete homes brushed in soft pastels. And crystal-clear waters lap or crash the shore depending upon the season.
Pronounced ‘leh-a-say’, these conveniently accessible yet delightfully laid-back islands have a scattering of old-world villages, lovely bays, and a couple of great-value budget beach retreats. Foreign tourists remain very rare and little English is spoken, but Saparua has some existing tourism inroads.