The fabled Banda Islands in Maluku, Indonesia, are so far off the tourism map that few people know of either their existence or their major historical importance.
The world’s only source of nutmeg in the Middle Ages, these islands shaped the history of the East Indies from the 16th century onwards, when nutmeg was worth more than its weight in gold.
Approaching by sea, I feel on par with the pioneering adventurers. The first island to appear on the distant horizon is Banda Run. As we get closer I can see rows of tiny, pink, yellow and blue houses cascading down to a coral reef.
In the 17th century, Run was the subject of one of the most remarkable real estate deals in history, when the English traded it with the Dutch for the island of Manhattan. Yes, that Manhattan!
I am a guest on the expert-led ‘Spice Routes/Spice Wars’ cruise with SeaTrek Sailing Adventures.
The 12-cabin ‘Ombak Putih’, a traditional ‘Pinisi’ schooner, has navigated the waters all the way from the clove-scented island of Ternate, with daily stops to snorkel and visit some of the remote, palm-fringed islands and fishing villages en route. We have also enjoyed lively evening presentations by Jeffrey Mellefont, a renowned maritime writer, historian and blue-water yachtsman.
We begin our explorations on the island of Bandaneira at the majestic Fort Belgica, built by the Dutch in 1611 in an attempt to gain a monopoly on the nutmeg trade, despite being continually thwarted by the British.
Presiding over the island from its lofty perch, the ramparts of the fort offer a spectacular view of Gunung Api (fire mountain) and the ‘Sonnegat’ (sun’s gap) – the narrow, deep trench of water that separates the volcano from Bandaneira.
Evidence that this was once a great trading centre abounds. The little streets of the town are lined with crumbling colonial houses.
The vibrancy and colour of the bustling market captivates me as I seek shade from the sun and barter for cloves, tamarind, cinnamon and, of course, nutmeg.
I also buy some nutmeg jam, made from the peach-like fruit that envelopes the nut; it’s unbelievably good.
The former palace of the Governor of the Dutch East Indies appears to be closed but I find an unlocked side-door and venture inside, wandering through the empty-yet-once-opulent rooms. In the overgrown garden, I stumble over an old canon lying in the grass, serving as a reminder of the days when the islands’ produce was worth fighting for.
Later, while wandering mesmerised through the nutmeg plantations, I observe hundreds of ripening yellow fruits. The evergreen nutmeg trees grow randomly in the shade of the towering kenari trees – tall like the buildings in Manhattan, planted to protect the nutmeg from the sun.
When ripe, the fruit splits in two, exposing a crimson-coloured membrane-like aril – the mace, surrounding a single shiny, brown seed – the nutmeg.
Finally, we take a local boat to the rocky backwater of Run.
Nutmeg and mace can be seen drying in the sun outside nearly every home on this island, but the villagers aren’t getting rich from their cherished spice.
It sure is a far cry from Manhattan!
For more information or to book a trip with SeaTrek to the Spice Islands go to www.seatrekbali.com
DISCOUNT FOR STARFISH READERS: SeaTrek Sailing Adventures runs many Expert Led tours to the Spice Islands each year, and more besides. Happily, SeaTrek is offering Starfish readers US$695 off on any direct bookings on expert cruises in 2017. Check out the schedule to see what grabs your fancy and contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Just mention The Starfish to receive your discount.