It's 6:30 a.m., and the check-in counter at the little airport in Ambon, Indonesia, is a madhouse. Edgy tourists like myself wonder whether our "confirmed" reservations to the island of Banda Neira on hapless, uncomputerized Merpati Airlines will get us aboard. The previous day, I had been stuck in Ambon because of one of Merpati's frequent "mechanical problems." Rumors were that the thrice-weekly flight on the 20-seat turboprop was overbooked by 70 passengers. Thankfully, we make it. Little more than two hours later, as we glide over glimmering turquoise waters, white-sand lagoons, and emerald hills, we come to actually appreciate Merpati's mayhem.
The truth is, if it were any more convenient to reach the Banda Islands, located north of Australia and east of Bali, they would be overrun with tourists. The Bandas offer stunning tropical scenery, a remarkable history, friendly villages, and some of the globe's most pristine, biologically diverse coral reefs. The only way to reach them is to island-hop the Indonesian archipelago by small planes, ferry services, or eco-friendly cruises for serious divers. (An Ambon-based boat, the Pindito, costs $3,080 for 12 days. Call 011 62911-51569.)
SPICE ISLANDS. But then, getting to the Bandas has been one of life's great adventures for centuries. From the time of the Roman Empire, the tiny islands, part of the Moluccan chain, were a well-guarded secret of Chinese and Arab traders, and the mysterious source of the entire world supply of cloves, nutmeg, and mace. Christopher Columbus, it is said, was looking for the Spice Islands when he landed in the Americas. In 1512, Portugal located and conquered the Bandas. In 1621, the islands were seized by the Dutch, who amassed fabulous wealth by cornering the spice trade.
Today, except for a renovated 17th century fort and a few old government mansions along the waterfront of Banda Neira, the islands' hub, little has been preserved of the Dutch era, which ended when Indonesia won its independence in 1945. But Banda Neira's tree-lined streets and clapboard buildings recall the grace of colonial design.
The big attractions are the Bandas' reefs, which many marine biologists regard as the world's richest, surpassing even Australia's Great Barrier Reef. From November through April, the waters are generally clear and placid for snorkeling among the angelfish in the brilliantly colored coral gardens.
Even more remarkable, these reefs are unspoiled. In most of Southeast Asia, coral reefs have been seriously damaged by careless tourists, souvenir merchants, or fishermen, who use dynamite to harvest snapper and grouper. One reason Banda's reefs thrive is because local fishermen are unusually vigilant in safeguarding their source of fish. The other reason is Des Alwi, the Bandas' ecotourism-minded orang lima, or "chief of chiefs." As the political power broker, the former independence activist established the tourism industry and has a tight grip on commercial activities. He also owns the islands' main hotel, the Maulana, whose long veranda looks out over the sea and the Gunung Api volcano.
Hiking excursions or diving trips ($42, including boat and gear) can be booked at the Maulana ($80 per night for two; call 011 62213-60372 in Jakarta). Banda Neira and the nearby islands have trails that take you through heavily forested mountain ridges, villages, and 400-year-old nutmeg groves. For a good workout and a breathtaking view, hike to the top of Gunung Api. Easy steps give way to a steep scramble over loose gravel that one of my companions noted is like "scaling a wall of golf balls."
QUIRKY POLITICS. For better or worse, modern tourist resorts are on the way. The Alwi family has signed a joint venture with Indonesia's Aman Group to build an exclusive, 50-room, eco-friendly resort next year. Another first-class hotel is under discussion with ITT Sheraton. Still, Alwi says that he wants all new hotels to be small and to limit the number of guest rooms in the Bandas to 200.
Not all islanders are happy with the Alwis' commercial dominance. But even critics concede that the result of quirky Bandanese politics is that the islands are unlikely to be spoiled soon. Arguing that the Bandas would be ruined by big tour groups, Alwi has fought government plans to expand Banda's tiny airstrip to accommodate large jets. Eventually, though, air service will improve. So the time to see the Bandas is before Merpati ever gets its act together.