Far in the east of Indonesia, between Sulawesi, west Papua and Alor, there is a collection of 10 islands that were, once upon a time, the most expensive pieces of real estate in the world.
Five hundred years ago the Banda islands – also called the Maluku or Spice Islands – were the world’s only source of nutmeg trees. The two spices produced from the fruit were highly prized back then: nutmeg was used to flavor foods while mace was used to preserve meat and was thought to be a cure for the bubonic plague.
These remote islands have had foreigners passing through them for more than 500 years, and yet they still feel very much off the beaten track. Tourists here are few and far between, despite the outrageously beautiful beaches – white sand, palm trees, turquoise water – and stunning coral gardens.
The waters around these islands are teeming with marine life and the diving here is an absolute treat. The larger pelagics are drawn to the Banda Sea’s plankton-rich water after the southeast monsoon in August and September, and there is excellent visibility from February until May and again from October until December.
Regarded by many travelers as the most pristine and spectacular diving destination in Indonesia, the laid-back Bandas make for an unforgettable holiday with an idyllic island vibe.
Moyo Island, tucked off the north coast of Sumbawa, is home to just 21 small villages – and an ultra luxurious tented camp that must be one of the most romantic destinations in Asia.
Most of the island and its surrounding water is a protected reserve, and Moyo is teeming with wildlife. Long-tail macaque monkeys, barking deer, monitor lizards, endangered yellow headed parrots, orioles, sunbirds, flying foxes and 21 species of bat form part of the list of Moyo’s terrestrial inhabitants.
Underwater, the pristine forests of soft and hard corals host a wide variety of brightly colored fish as well as eels, reef sharks, groupers and manta rays.
Moyo has some spectacular waterfalls, too, and a trip to see Matu Jitu is an absolute must. Here, water cascades softly down a series of ledges and shallow pools and drifts away through the jungle as a turquoise river.
Secluded Moyo is a short cruise or one-hour seaplane flight from Bali – a very quick transfer to one of Indonesia’s loveliest secret spots.
Misool, one of the four big islands of Raja Ampat, is one of only a handful of places in the world where biodiversity is increasing, not declining. It is a wonderworld of marine life: a sanctuary for nesting turtles and manta rays, a nursery for baby sharks, an unforgettable destination for discerning travelers.
Surrounding Misool is an archipelago of dramatic uninhabited islands that rise from the sea like shards of forest-covered glass. Some of them are fringed with beaches of powder-white sand, backed by tropical rainforests.
Kayaking the seemingly quiet crystal-clear water around the islands is a very special way to experience the area ... although beneath the boat the water is anything but quiet!
Raja Ampat is the equatorial Garden of Eden; it has the highest level of marine biodiversity on the planet. Around Misool and the other islands in Raja Ampat you’ll find 75% of the world’s known species of coral and ornamental fish and, depending on where and when you snorkel or dive, you’re likely to come across marine life ranging from the tiny pygmy seahorse to the enormous whaleshark.
In this remote hideaway of islands, there are just a few luxurious resorts and homestays; it’s a wonderful place to escape the world.
If you’re looking for a quirky place to dive, a place where the location itself is the drawcard and not just the marine life, then add Gili Banta to your underwater bucket list.
This small ink-splodge-shaped island, between Sumbawa and Komodo, is a partially submerged volcano – and here you’ll get to dive inside what’s left of the volcano’s caldera.
The sweeping northern curve of the island is actually the southern rim of the crater, which forms a sheltered bay that benefits from the nutrients left from the last volcanic activity, which was about 60 years ago.
This bay holds a variety of dive sites, from Star Wars (plenty of small fish, great corals and sometimes mantas), to GPS Point (your chance to see sharks, tuna and barracuda), K2 (good for corals, barramundi, scorpionfish and eels) and Small World (a popular night-dive spot).
The Komodo National Park has become a really popular area for diving but secluded Gili Banta, off the northwest coast of Komodo island, remains uncrowded.
On a map the islands of Wayag are so tiny, they look like insignificant drops in the ocean... but don’t let their size fool you: in real life these islands form what is perhaps the most spectacular scenery in all of Raja Ampat.
A hike to one of the islands’ peaks will reveal a breathtaking (literally!) panorama of picturesque karst spires that loom from clear turquoise waters and colorful coral reefs. There are lagoons and coves, inlets, channels, sublime beaches, forested islands and shards of rocks... beyond doubt, it’s a landscape you’ll remember forever.
The water here is so clear and the coral so bright and colorful, you don’t even need to be underwater to appreciate it and while the diving and snorkeling around Wayag is almost unbeatable, you’ll be tempted into enjoying the area in other ways. Explore the maze of islands and their shorelines in a kayak or standup paddleboard, zip around in a RIB or jetski, or settle into one of the secluded beaches for a few hours.
However you choose to enjoy the exquisite islands of Wayag, be sure to have your camera batteries charged!
When Sir David Attenborough once famously said, “who needs Jurassic Park? It’s all here!” he was talking about Komodo National Park, an area known for the brutal Komodo dragons that prowl the land. These prehistoric creatures, which measure up to three meters in length and can weigh 90 kilograms, literally are the descendants of dinosaurs.
But it’s not just the dragons that make this area “Jurassic Park” – it’s the landscape too. Out here, it looks like the end of the world.
While so much of Indonesia is mountains of rainforests, in the south of Komodo the jagged mountain peaks appear bare. There are hard streaks of rocks, slopes of dry grass and the occasional dot of lontar palms: it looks like the last of the land was ripped away by the mouth of a giant dragon.
That said, there is an intense beauty out here: the shape of the islands and the dramatic sunsets are captivating, and the shallow bays and coral gardens are captivating.
The currents in the Komodo archipelago are particularly strong, giving divers the opportunity to see some of the bigger pelagics. For snorkelers, the corals off some of the protected beaches and bays offer the chance to swim with turtles and reef sharks.
Both above and below the water, the south of Komodo is all about visual drama – and it is utterly captivating.