So lushly fertile is Ambon’s soil, so densely packed up to the shoreline are its vivid tropical trees, that the island looks from above like a halfsubmerged rainforest rising out of the crystalline Banda Sea. Its dramatic green peaks sweep up through the centre of the isle on great undulating mountains that dwarf the hamlets and strips of beach peeking out from beneath the leaves.
For centuries, the richness of the fauna in Ambon and the surrounding Maluku Islands has attracted the world’s adventurers – first for trade, then for colonial plunder. Now, at last, as the islands ease back into peaceful tranquillity after years of turmoil, they have started to welcome those who wish only to savour their stunning natural beauty. The two huge bays that almost cut Ambon in half made this an ideal base for colonial traders seeking out the treasures that grew on the trees of nearby islands – particularly the cloves from Pulau Ternate in the north and nutmeg from the tiny Banda Islands to the southeast. So valuable were these exotic plants – particularly nutmeg, which was considered a cure for the plague – that the islands are thought to have inspired the very idea of colonisation, with the Portuguese seizing control of Ambon in 1513 and fighting a rearguard action against angry locals for decades after.
They were evicted by the Dutch in 1605 and Ambon served as the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company up to 1619, remaining the global centre of clove production well into the 19th century. None of Ambon’s often troubled history has cooled the warm hospitality of its residents. To journey through its coastal villages is to be transported into a world of simple serenity.Our car ambles along the bottom of the northern peninsula towards the villages of Hatu and Laha – a particularly picturesque stretch of coastal road. Children play in the tranquil early-morning waters, backflipping off narrow boats anchored near the shore. Neat little homes in washed pastels line the narrow walkways of the villages. Life is out in the open here – ladies gossip in the streets or play bingo on the corner, while old men chat over coffee and cigarettes in the shade of a pavilion. They unfailingly greet foreigners with huge grins and waves.
We head up to an impressive, elegant church perched on a hill in Laha. The faithful are making their way up the steep steps to the service, splendid in their Sunday best. More warm greetings, more smiles and handshakes, as hymns drift out over the bay. Back down the coast, we stop in at Maluku Divers Resort, the island’s first dedicated diving centre and hotel. For those addicted to the underwater there are few places in the world that can beat Ambon. Its shallow waters boast some of the most colourful and bizarre marine species on the planet, including rhinopias, mandarin fish, blue ring, hairy octopi and pygmy seahorses. Ambon is regarded as one of the best ‘muck-diving’ regions in the world – a reference to its shallow dive sites that allow easy access to the creatures living among the sediment floor – ideal for marine photographers.
There are pleasant stretches of sandy beach dotted around the island, but Ambon’s coastline is best when rough and dramatic. The bay at Pintu Kota is perhaps the most arresting view on the island – sheer granite cliffs, sparkling waters and a huge natural arch carved from the rock. From the top of the slope, we watch the brightly coloured narrow-boats of the fishermen head out to sea, as they have for centuries. We head into the island’s capital, Kota Ambon, to explore what dry land has to offer. Our first stop is Sibu Sibu, the island’s hippest café, where we bump into a group of Dutch Ambonese, members of a generation who were born in the Netherlands after their fathers emigrated as part of the colonial army. Now in their fifties, they are full of fascinating tales from a youth spent in political radicalism and the region’s complex relationship with its political masters in Jakarta. They kindly invite us to dinner at the Lunterse Boer guesthouse they run on Natsepa beach, a beautiful strip of sand where they provide homely local cuisine such as grilled mackerel that we dip in a delicious fruity sauce known as chola-chola.
Fish are central to life in Ambon, providing the main source of employment and meals so fresh that you can still taste the seawater. There are lots of great hole-in-the-wall joints dotted around the town serving simple, homespun food. There’s one just next door to Sibu Sibu, an unassuming little canteen that nonetheless offers mouth-watering plates brimming with local fare, such as barbecued snapper and mackerel, papaya salads, fried banana-flower, kohu-kohu (a mix of coconut, fish and vegetables) and parcels of coconut rice wrapped in palm leaves. Looking for somewhere to stroll off our lunch, we head over to Museum Siwalima just outside town – a recently renovated tour through the island’s cultural history with an impressive range of tribal artefacts, including items used in animist rituals and ancient jewellery of bone and brass. Its best feature may be its location – set on a beautiful cliff top that offers great views over the bay.
or a little more colonial history, we make our way to the very northern edge of the island and the village of Hila, which is home to Bentang Amsterdam, a 17th-century fort built as a defensive post by the Dutch. Restored in the 1990s, it now serves as a huge birdhouse for the hundreds of swallows that dart between its wooden rafters and out through the narrow windows across the waterfront. A stone’s throw away is an even older Catholic church built by the Portuguese, replete with the soaring thatched roof that is common to stately buildings on the island. Hila is a testament to the revived spirit of communal harmony that has come to Ambon in recent years, with Christians and Muslims living happily side by side. This town still has a sultan – these days a largely ceremonial role that he conducts from a beautiful open-plan mosque just a few hundred metres from the church. Ambon is also a hub for travel throughout the Maluku Islands. We take a day trip to Saparua – part of the nearby Lease Islands, and only a couple of hours away by passenger ferry.
This is where to come for an even more relaxed vibe. The pristine golden sands of the Putih Lessi bungalow retreat at Kulur or the lush and labyrinthine gardens of Mahu Resort make very pleasant diversions and offer another range of world-beating dive locations. With its heady mix of history, culture, cuisine and natural splendour, Ambon is rapidly becoming one of the most soughtafter destinations for travellers in Indonesia. Whether you’re seeking unforgettable experiences underwater or the beauty of dramatic coastlines and rainforest backdrops above the waterline, Ambon will live on in your memories.
5 Senses – Touch
DIVING IN AMBON
Get up close and personal with some of the most astonishing marine wildlife on the planet with Ambon’s world-class
diving locations. The island’s vast bay offers dozens of unique muck-diving opportunities where you can spot wildly
colourful species such as the recently discovered Ambon frogfish. Further out are deep-water locations where you can swim with dolphins, sharks, giant turtles and manta rays. The Maluku Divers Resort offers inclusive packages to stay in its beautiful bungalows and explore the island’s many underwater marvels. www.divingmaluku.com
5 Senses – Taste
SARI GURIH RESTAURANT
Fish doesn’t come much fresher than at Sari Gurih, where a line of freezer boxes along the entrance is filled with the day’s catch of snapper, grouper, crabs, lobsters and much more for you to select. Cassava and papaya salads and big steaming bowls of kuah-ikan (a spicy fish soup) are among the delicious accompaniments at this popular local eatery, where you can also catch old-timers crooning at the karaoke machine in the back room. Jl. Kopra, Ambon, Maluku
5 Senses – Sight
AMBON WAR CEMETERY
Just outside the city is the final resting place of around 2,000 Allied servicemen from the Second World War. Ambon fell to the Japanese in 1942 and was the site of bloody battles in the following years. Today, it is a place of supreme beauty and serenity, the vast arms of banyan trees stretching out over manicured lawns and gravestones inscribed with the touching messages of family members. A moving natural counterpoint to the traumas of the past.