The fortunes of eastern Indonesia’s Spice Islands may have waned since the days when cloves and nutmeg were worth more than their weight in gold, but a cruise aboard a traditional-style yacht reveals that there are still plenty of riches to explore.
Photographs by Christopher P. Hill
“Bad news folks — there’s a crocodile in the lagoon.” It’s early morning in the remote Raja Ampat islands of eastern Indonesia as our tender glides up to the lonely pier at Goa Keramat, and already the day’s itinerary has taken an unscripted turn. Following a wooden walkway toward the mouth of the half-submerged cave, we scan the turquoise water for signs of the croc, which a local fisherman claims to have spotted the previous day. The only life forms I can see are juvenile needlefish flitting about in the shadows of the craggy limestone cliff. Still, Simon Marsh, our English cruise director, is not taking any chances, no matter how placid and inviting the lagoon looks. “No swimming here today,” he sighs.
Thankfully, the creatures awaiting us at our next swimming spot pose no threat at all. They’re a species of stingless jellyfish that inhabit a brackish lake on a nearby island. Donning masks and snorkels, we slip into the water and in no time are floating among thousands of harmless, undulating blobs. It’s a surreal experience.
Misool, the southernmost of the four main islands of Raja Ampat (the name means “Four Kings”), is the first stop on our seven-night cruise aboard the Dunia Baru, a two-masted wooden charter yacht built in the style of a traditional phinisi schooner. Though the vessel’s seven cabins can accommodate up to 14 guests, there are just three passengers on this trip: myself and my old friends Frédéric and Gretchen, who have been residing in Bali since the start of the pandemic. We all flew in to the West Papuan port town of Sorong the previous morning on an approach that took us over a harbor filled with tourist boats riding out a season that had seen almost no tourists. The Dunia Baru herself was about to embark on a repositioning voyage to the cruising grounds of Komodo National Park in East Nusa Tenggara. Frédéric, an accomplished photographer, had been invited along as far as Ambon in the Maluku Islands to shoot a story for a glossy American lifestyle magazine. I’d been able to finagle a berth too. For the next week, we will enjoy the pleasures of a private cruise on a journey that will cover some 450 nautical miles and cross one of the world’s deepest seas, with an extended stop in the Banda Islands, a tiny volcanic archipelago where Europe’s most powerful nations once tussled for control of the spice trade.
Advocates of slow travel will appreciate the durations involved in the various stages of our passage: 11 hours to motor from Sorong to Misool, 17 hours from Misool to the desert isle of Pulau Koon, and another 13 hours from there to the Bandas. Most of those hours pass while we sleep, trusting that Captain Lawuso, a sea-hardened mariner from Sulawesi, will guide us safely through the night. By dawn, we’ll have already dropped anchor at our next stop, leaving the better part of the day to explore our surrounds.
Off the east coast of Misool, those surrounds are Tomolol Bay and a chain of splintered limestone islands known locally as the “Thousand Temples.” We visit Goa Keramat and the jellyfish lake before lunch, and in the afternoon climb a winding wooden stairway to the 200-meter peak of Puncak Harfat, which juts above a bewildering seascape of azure channels and tide-sculpted karst formations. There are no villages to be seen, but human habitation here dates back millennia. On the boat ride back to the Dunia Baru, we detour around a sheer-sided island to gawk at a limestone overhang adorned with 10,000-year-old rock paintings.
The next day we wake up to find ourselves bobbing in the waters off Pulau Koon, a convenient midway point between Sorong and the Bandas. Pancake-flat and palm-fringed, Koon is decidedly uninhabited, though villagers from neighboring islands visit to collect coconuts. Soon enough, a motorized canoe pulls alongside laden with the big green fruit, a few of which are procured to accompany our afternoon snacks.
Though Koon’s terrestrial attractions are sparse, the marine life is prodigious. Eastern Indonesia lies at the heart of the Coral Triangle, home to the most richly biodiverse waters on the planet. Koon itself is said to be the largest breeding area for reef fish in this part of the country, a claim that seems borne out by our first dive of the trip. The name of the dive site says it all: Too Many Fishes. With Simon leading the way, we drift over a coral-festooned reef top amid schools of Napoleon wrasse, parrotfish, batfish, and more. A big turtle glides lazily into the deep blue void beyond the reef, drawing our eyes toward the unmistakable form of a patrolling barracuda. A moray eel glares at us from its lair.
Back on board, I have the Dunia Baru to myself (not counting the dozen-strong crew) when Frédéric and Gretchen zip across in a tender to Koon to take pictures. The boat’s current owners are a pair of Singaporean siblings who fell in love with it on their own charter cruise a few years back; when the yacht came up for sale, they jumped at the chance. And it’s easy to see why: she’s a rakish beauty. Fifty-one meters long from stern to bowsprit and 11 meters at her beam, Dunia Baru was hand-built by traditional shipwrights from Sulawesi following designs by an American marine architect. The result — originally launched in 2013 after eight years of construction — is a modern superyacht with all the romance of an earlier era. The hull is made of Borneo ironwood, the decks are teak, and the steel masts carry a suit of wine-dark sails that make for a stirring sight when hoisted (which admittedly happens only once during our trip).
The interiors are shipshape too. There are six en-suite cabins below decks, all with brass-rimmed portholes set into the curved wall of the hull just above the waterline. The big aft-facing master suite on the bridge deck — snagged by Frédéric and Gretchen — doesn’t have the same snug appeal (or so I console myself). But it does have a gauze-draped four-poster bed, wraparound windows, and what amounts to a private terrace.
Back on the main deck is a commodious lounge where Simon delivers evening lectures about the history, geography, and zoology of the islands we pass through. (“I’ll never look at coral the same way again,” Gretchen whispers after a particularly thorough disquisition on asexual reproduction.) Behind this is a gourmet galley, where our chef for this voyage, a young Bali-based Chilean named Jorge Valderrama, whips up delicious South American dishes like beef empanadas, snapper ceviche, and paella-like arroz con mariscos. There are bar stools anchored around the kitchen counter, but we eat most of our meals alfresco at the dining table athwart the aft deck. And it’s there, over a dessert of crepes with mango sorbet, that the breeze suddenly becomes a blow one night, chopping up the sea and sending cushions flying. A flying fish lands with a wet plop on the deck. “Save the crepes!” someone yells as we scrabble for the shelter of the galley. The monsoonal winds buffet us for the next four hours. I lay awake in my pitching cabin listening to the timbers creak and the sea swirl around the portholes, like a washing machine on rinse cycle.
The decks are still wet with spindrift when I head up topside at 5 a.m. It’s eerily calm now as we motor under a starry sky toward the dark humps of the three main Banda Islands: Banda Neira, Gunung Api, and Banda Besar, which enclose a beautiful natural harbor overlooked by a 17th-century Dutch fort. By the time we enter the channel at the north end of the harbor, the first rays of dawn are glinting off the domed mosque of the islands’ only town (also called Banda Neira) and the densely forested slopes on either side of us thrum with birdsong.
The tranquility of the setting reveals nothing of the brutality and far-reaching impact of the Bandas’ colonial experience. For this secluded archipelago was once the sole source of nutmeg, a spice so rare and potent (it was thought to ward off the plague) that it fetched astronomical prices by the time it reached the markets — via Arab and Chinese middlemen — of 15th-century Europe. It was only a matter of time before European seafarers would chart their own route to the most coveted spice islands of the East Indies.
The Portuguese were the first to arrive in these waters, in 1512, followed shortly by other adventurers from Holland and England. The Dutch East India Company (VOC) ultimately seized control of the Bandas in 1621, but not before slaughtering countless inhabitants and shipping hundreds more to Java to be sold into servitude. A painting in the museum at Banda Neira depicts an especially bloody incident from those times: a troop of loin-clothed Japanese mercenaries beheading and quartering dozens of native leaders at the behest of Jan Pieterszoon Coen, the VOC’s ruthless governor-general. It is estimated that the islands’ population was 15,000 when the Dutch arrived; after the conquest, it was fewer than 1,000. Today’s Bandanese are largely descended from the slaves and indentured laborers brought in from elsewhere in the Dutch East Indies to work the spice plantations.
The cruelly won nutmeg monopoly proved fabulously profitable, but it could only last so long. In 1810, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, a British navy contingent stormed the fortress on Banda Neira and took over the archipelago. The occupation was short-lived, but before handing the islands back to the Dutch, the British uprooted hundreds of nutmeg seedlings and transplanted them to Ceylon, Penang, and other corners of their empire. The value of the once-precious spice began an inexorable decline. By the time the Bandas became part of newly independent Indonesia in 1949, they had faded into an obscure backwater.
Relics of its colonial past are everywhere to be seen in Banda Neira. Beyond a bustling fish market at the water’s edge, an avenue lined with colonnaded villas leads to an old whitewashed church, its aisle paved with the tombstones of Dutch planters. A pair of rust-flecked cannon barrels lie abandoned at the roadside. There are more cannons on the ramparts of Fort Belgica, the island’s hilltop bastion, a massive pentagon of stone that commands sweeping views over the harbor. We climb to the top of one of its towers to survey the neighboring islands: to the south, mountainous Banda Besar, by far the largest of the group; and just across the shallow channel to the west, the looming volcanic cone of Gunung Api, its seaward flanks scarred by lava flows from a 1988 eruption. Save for the absence of sailing ships in the harbor, the scene isn’t all that different from the one depicted in a 19th-century lithograph I spotted back at the museum. This illusion is reinforced by the near-total lack of cars: there are only a dozen vehicles on Neira according to Mita Alwi, the owner of the waterfront Maulana Hotel where we stop for lunch. “And even that’s too many,” she adds. “We like things peaceful here.”
To see where the nutmeg grows, we head across to Banda Besar the next morning. There are still 34 plantations on the island, farmed by village cooperatives. A path leads us up into the hills, past the ruins of another Dutch fort and into a shady grove where nutmeg trees spread out under a canopy of much taller evergreens like kenari, which yields a nut similar in shape and taste to an almond. Here, we’re introduced to a sprightly farmer who calls himself “Sulaiman the Jungle Man.” Wielding a toothed basket attached to the end of a bamboo pole, he plucks a golden-skinned nutmeg fruit from a branch. “When ripe, they split open on their own, like a window,” Sulaiman says. This one’s not quite there yet, so he cuts it open with a knife, revealing an unassuming brown seed — the “nut” — covered in a lacy, vividly red membrane that is itself a spice: mace. The scent is exquisite. “Pala,” Sulaiman grins, using the Indonesian word for nutmeg. “This is our treasure.”
Over the next couple of days, we’ll island-hop around the Bandas before laying a course for Ambon and our flight home. Off Gunung Api, we dive over a reef that was destroyed by a lava flow in 1988, but that has since bounced back with a profusion of hard corals. Another morning we venture across the choppy sea to the outlying island of Run, about 24 kilometers west of Banda Neira. There’s nothing much to see there, just a fishing village of colorfully painted houses backed by steep hills where more nutmeg grows. Yet Run has a deceptively important place in history. For a brief time in the early 17th century, it was home to an English outpost, until the Dutch inevitably besieged and destroyed the settlement. But the British never forgot their claim to Run, and in 1667, during treaty negotiations at the end of the Second Anglo-Dutch War, they demanded its return. This the Dutch were not prepared to do. They would, however, agree to a land swap: in exchange for keeping Run, the Netherlands would relinquish its own claim to a small North American island called … Manhattan.
For our final dinner in the Bandas, the crew sets up a beachside barbecue on the island of Ai, about halfway between Run and Gunung Api. The sky is purpling into yet another stunning sunset when we hop ashore, and soon tiki torches are flickering in the warm evening breeze. At a table set up under a sea almond tree, our feet in the sand, we dine on pork ribs, satay skewers, and plump lobsters, all cooked by chef Jorge over a makeshift grill. Out on the water, the Dunia Baru rocks gently on the tide. Forget nutmeg, I think to myself between sips of pinot grigio. The true treasures of the Banda Islands are moments like this.
The Dunia Baru is available for charter from US$120,000 per week.
This article originally appeared in the June/August 2021 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Banda Bound”).