The Banda Islands, a little archipelago in the middle of the Deep Banda Sea in East Indonesia spoiled us with its breathtaking beauty, tragic history and pristine underwater world. Even though the islands are often omitted from maps, Banda was a secret place which Europeans desperately tried to reach during the 15th century. Find out when is the best time to visit the almost forgotten paradise, where t0 stay and the best dive and snorkel spots.
When is the Best Time to Visit the Banda Islands?
We researched online for quite a long time and still didn’t really know when it is the best time to visit the lovely archipelago. Now we know the best time to visit is October, November and March, April. During these months you have calm seas and sunshine every day. But also it is more crowded on the islands and as there are only a limited amount of guesthouses and dive shops you should book in advance.
During the shoulder season like September, December, February and May the weather conditions are uncertain. We visited in May and had a mix of sunny and cloudy days. It rained almost every day, but mostly only very short showers. The sea was quite rough during our visit so on some days we couldn’t access all snorkelling and dive sites. But 5 out of 9 days were fine.
If you want to see schools of hammer heads you need to come in October/November when the water is a little bit cooler. During the warmer water months, the hammer heads stay deeper so you have no chance to see them. If you are curious how to get to this incredible place check out our post and click here.
Where to Stay in Banda Neira?
We spend time at The Nutmeg Tree Hotel & Dive as well as at Cilu Bintang Estate and we absolutely loved both places. Cilu Bintang is a beautiful newly build house lovely decorated in colonial style. It is full of artefacts from the colonial time. We had the best vegan almond pancakes here with fresh cinnamon and homemade nutmeg jam.
The Nutmeg Tree Hotel & Dive is in a lovely renovated colonial house in vintage style with access to the sea. From here you can directly jump into the water and snorkel to find the Mandarin fish. The owner Reza is really lovely and fun to hang out with. He helped us to arrange Everything, whatever we wanted to do. We loved relaxing in the garden with view on Gunung Api or just talk about the latest gossip in town. We really felt like home at Reza’s place and had a hard time leaving. Check the prices here.
What to do on the Banda Islands?
You will never be bored during your stay on the sun-drenched volcanic islands. There is lots to explore like the volcano, forts, amazing dive sites and more:
Visit the Colonial Sights like Forts, Museum and the Chinese Temple
Walking through Banda Neira town immediately sets you back in time. Pompous colonial buildings dominate the town centre. Some are well preserved like the church, college, museum and Captain Coles house and others just falling apart. Take some time to explore the streets around the little market. Rusting cannons are littering the side of the road. If you want to visit Des Alwi’s private museum you need to ask somebody in your hotel to call the people who have the key. Same counts for the antiquated Chinese temple, it is usually locked. We just asked Reza to help us to find the Chinese family who has the key. This temple is at least 400 years old, it was already mentioned to be in the bustling town centre during the Dutch time in the 17th century.
Fort Belgica is another relict of the colonial time. Make your way up the hill to explore the old fort. You can climb up the towers and enjoy a spectacular view over Banda Neira with picture-perfect Gunung Api in the background. Close by there are the ruins of Fort Nassau which is now home of several charming cows.
Take a Stroll to the Air Strip
That might sound a little bit strange, but the air strip is the meeting point for the local youngsters in Banda Neira. It is very busy in the evenings when the young Bandanese take their girlfriends out for a date. The airstrip is famous for stunning views on Gunung Api and the surrounding islands. It is a nice one hour roundtrip from town and somehow an interesting experience to walk on an air strip.
Best Dive Sites on the Banda Islands
There are only two dive operators In Banda Neira. One is Blue Motion which is Padi certified and the other one is the The Nutmeg Tree Hotel and Dive. During our visit Blue Motion was already closed because of low season, so all people were diving with the The Nutmeg Tree Hotel & Dive.
Around Banda Neira the best dive site is Batu Kapal. This little island is just on the edge of the continental shelf and therefore surrounded by deep water. The visibility here is 30+ metres and you have the chance to see pelagic. The corals around the pinnacles are pristine and you can find different types of big moray eels. Batu Kapal is more suitable for experienced divers because it has current and you need to go around 30m to see the pinnacles. Easier dive sites are Lava Flow and around Pulau Pisang. Lava Flow has a very nice coral garden with smaller fish. If you want to see the famous mandarin fish mating you can do a night dive in front of The Nutmeg Tree. Every evening after sunset you can find them here.
The highlight of diving in Banda is Pulau Hatta and its schools of hammerheads. If you want to see them you need to visit in October when the water is a bit colder. During the rest of the year they stay deeper so the chance to encounter them is smaller. At any time of the year you will not leave Hatta disappointed. There are so many sharks, turtles and colourful fish that you don’t know where to look first. Diving around Pulau Ai is also stunning, the corals are pristine and you can see pelagic like eagle rays and sharks.
Best Places for Snorkelling on the Banda Islands
The snorkelling around the Banda Islands is just incredible. This is one of the rare places in the world where you can still find pristine coral reefs with sharks, turtles and many types of colourful fishes.
Snorkelling Around Pulau Ai
You can take a public boat to Pulau Ai and spend 1 or 2 days there to enjoy the colourful underwater world. The best place for snorkelling is the north east part of the island directly in front of Alfredo’s bungalows. You need to pass 100m of sea grass until you reach the drop off. We saw many black tip sharks and turtles as well as bumphead parrot fish. Another great spot for snorkelling is the Long Beach on the west side of Ai. The corals are pristine and the water is so clear that you can see them even from the boat. We stayed 2 nights at Alfredo’s place which is the only accommodation on Ai which is directly on the beach. The bungalows are clean and comfy. The price is IDR 250k per person/night including all meals.
Snorkelling Around Pulau Hatta
With a 60 metre Deep drop off just 10 metres from the beach Pulau Hatta is one of the best places for snorkelling and free diving in the world. The visibility reaches from 30 to 50 metres. Also here we spotted many black tip sharks, turtles, barracudas and a school of around 20 bumphead parrot fish. Pulau Hatta can get very busy and during high-season there are plenty of choices where to stay. We stayed at Sarah’s Homestay for 2 nights and we can highly recommend to stay here. The food is delicious, the bungalows are comfy and directly on the beach and Sarah & her husband are very kind and welcoming.
The public boats from Ai and Hatta to Banda Neira leave always in the mornings around 7am or 8am and will leave Banda Neira for return during noon time. It is the best to go to the pier and ask the locals about the current schedule.
Go on a Spice Tour
For more than 3.000 years Chinese and Arab traders visited the Banda Islands to trade spices, but mainly the desired nutmeg. In the 15th century nutmeg was worth more than gold in Europe. Desperate to find the secret location of Banda the Europeans set sail and started their dangerous voyages. Until 200 years ago, the archipelago was the only place in the world where the desired nutmeg could be produced. This made one of Bandas’ islands more valuable than Manhattan so the Dutch exchanged the nearby Rhun island for Manhattan in the 1600s.
Somehow, before we never wondered where nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and maze, which gives taste to Coca Cola, are coming from. Set over to Lonthor on Banda Besar and walk through the nutmeg plantations to find it out. Watch locals collecting the nutmeg fruit and the whole process of separating the fruit from maze and the nutmeg kernel. On the way through Lonthor you can see nutmeg and maze drying in the sun. As above mentioned, maze is the secret ingredient in Coca-Cola. Just smell it and you will recognise the coke flavour. Huge Kenari trees protecting the nutmeg trees from sun and rain. The Kenari fruit is a local type of almond which is very delicious and used for cooking. Before you go ask the locals if it is harvest time at the moment. Nutmegs is collected 3 times a year.
Dont miss the stunning view point on the old walls of Fort Hollandia. You can either book s spice tour in your hotel or just take the local boat and walk through the plantations by yourself.
Hike the Volcano Gunung Api
Gunung Api looks like a little Mount Fuji and is the highlight of the Banda scenery. You can set over from Neira by public to climb to top of the volcano which is 600 above sea level. There is a clear path to the top so you can’t miss it. The way up takes about 2 hours as well as the way down. It can be quite challenging, especially after or during Heavy rains.
Swim With a School of Pilot Whales
The Banda Islands are home to a big school of pilot whales and it was definitely one of our highlights seeing hundreds of them swimming next to our boat. They are always around so if you are lucky you can see them during one of your snorkel or dive trips. We saw them somewhere between Lava Flow and Batu Kapal (ship Island) on a dive trip. Other travellers we met in Bira (Sulawesi) told us about the pilot whales, but somehow we could hardly believe it until we saw hundreds them with our own eyes. As soon as you spot them don’t hesitate to jump in to watch them under water. If there is a rope on the boat you can hold on to it while the boat is moving.
Vegan Food on the Banda Islands
Bandanese food is exquisite and very vegan friendly. One of the signature dishes is eggplant with Kenari sauce (almond sauce). You can find it in every restaurant. On Banda Neira tofu and tempe are always available just ask the local chefs to prepare it for you. We really loved the tofu in tomato sauce and curry tempe. Another signature dish is spicy vegetables mixed with coconut.
If you should have food at Cilu Bintang ask for the moringa tofu soup, it is not on the menu but we loved it. For breakfast you should try the vegan almond pancake with fresh cinnamon and home-made nutmeg jam.
The Nutmeg Hotel & Dive prepares a whole vegan surprise dinner for IDR 50k per person. The food was super delicious and there were plenty of choices. You can also just let them know if you would like something special. After all the fried rice we had in Indonesia we liked the change.
Before you stay on Hatta and Ai you should go the market and buy some tofu and tempe. On the islands, they only have fish, egg and chicken. If you don’t prepare some food you will probably be hungry. Just Rice and veggies are not really enough to fill you up. We also brought some peanut butter from Ambon for breakfast.
Book Recommendations About the History of the Banda Islands
If you wonder what really happened during the Dutch colonial time on the Banda Islands you should read about its tragic history. As you walk through the Bandas you can really feel and see the past. Old ceramic plates and pots are still on the beach and Dutch canons lying around in the streets.
This is the books we read during our stay: