These days, Maluku (formerly known as the Moluccas) is a backwater within Indonesia, though for travellers it is one of the most rewarding – if sometimes challenging – regions to explore. Once the world’s only source of nutmeg and cloves, these fabled ‘Spice Islands’ tantalised European traders and geographers for centuries. Due to remoteness, Maluku’s two national parks bring in few visitors, but its spice-trade-era and World War II historic sites are of interest to history buffs. It is the sensational diving, however, that lures most visitors. With so much sea, virtually every type of marine topography can be found here.
The best travel tips for visiting Maluku
Scattered across the sea north of Timor and east of Sulawesi like a double-handful of dropped pearls, part of Maluku extends to the Arafura Sea south of Papua.
The diving around Ambon is diverse and exciting. In 2008 Maluku Divers discovered a new species of frogfish, Histiophryne psychedelica, found only on the slopes of The Twilight Zone.
The discovery has generated huge international interest in the destination, which is now extremely popular among underwater photographers. There are several sites off Seram island, too, and the fish-smothered slopes around nearby Pulau Tiga.
The birdlife in Maluku is prolific. The 300-odd species of birds include over 40 different kinds of birds of paradise, which are concentrated in the Aru archipelago; a couple of dozen species of parrot, headed by the large, handsome red-crested palm cockatoo; beautiful crimson lories; and strange mound-building megapods. These can be seen in Maluku’s two national parks.
Planning tip: Maluku can be a challenging destination to visit. Especially when it comes to planning, transportation and accommodation. If you need a hand, our local experts can help you out!
Best things to do in Maluku
Part of the fabled Spice Islands, once coveted by European powers, Maluku today is a sleepy backwater, though for divers and adventurers, there is lots to do. Indeed, this is one of Indonesia’s most prized regions for the brave. Here’s what to do.
#1 Go diving in Ambon
Ambon’s waters are rich in marine life and are renowned for its unique underwater landscapes. It is a popular destination for divers from around the world, and offers something for all levels of diving expertise and experience.
The waters around Ambon are home to a wide variety of fish species, colourful coral formations and several famous dive sites. Waters here can run as deep as 500m, and highlights include Pintu Kota’s stunning underwater arches and swim-throughs, the Duke of Sparta shipwreck, and Laha Pier with its incredible muck diving.
Here, down by the ocean floor, divers can scout out a rainbow of weird and wonderful creatures such as frogfish, manta shrimp, zebra crabs, seahorses, octopus, and pipefish, as well as many other rarely-spotted macro critters.
#2 Spot wildlife at Manusela National Park
Seram, the largest and among the least-known islands in Maluku, hovers over Ambon, Saparua and Molana. Seram lies within the Wallacea Transitional Zone and is a key area for global studies on species evolution. The central Manusela National Park, which is home to 2,000 species of butterflies and moths and 120 species of birds, covers an area of 189,000 hectares (467,103 acres).
Wahai village is the northern entrance to the park, and Sanulo village, overlooking the Bay of Teluti, is the southern gateway. Many of Ambon’s traditions are said to have originated in Seram, including the division into two sets of customs, the patasiwa, and the patalima, as well as the pela alliances between two villages, often located far apart.
#3 Visit the Spice War forts of The Bandas
South of Seram and Ambon is the tiny Banda archipelago. Long the world’s only source of nutmeg, it was tapped into global trade networks since at least the Roman era, but the locals remained in control of their own economy until the Portuguese arrived in 1512, followed by the Dutch a century later, to set up a spice monopoly.
The English, who arrived shortly after the Dutch, attempted to undercut their rivals by shipping nutmeg to Europe from Run – their own toehold in the Bandas. The monopoly was restored when Britain and Holland traded Manhattan for Run, but as spices were increasingly produced elsewhere, the nine Banda islands faded into obscurity.
The Bandas’ importance in the English–Dutch struggle to control the spice trade is evidenced in its remaining forts. A military headquarters until 1860, Benteng Belgica was restored in the early 20th century and dominates Bandaneira, the major island of the archipelago.
#4 Lie back on the powder-white beaches of The Kai Islands
East and southeast of the Banda islands, travel becomes more difficult. But the isolated islands of Kai (also spelt Kei) are emerging as a destination, thanks to their powdery white sands and slowly improving transport links. The airstrip near Tual was built by the Japanese during World War II.
Nearby, on the grounds of the Roman Catholic mission, a relief sculpture depicts the history of Catholicism in the area, starting with the arrival of Jesuits in the late 19th century.
During the war, the Japanese invaded the Kai islands, murdering the bishop and 13 foreign priests. Tual on Dullah island is the capital of the Maluku Tenggara (Southeast Maluku) district and the transportation hub for an extensive network of roads and sea lanes.
A half-hour ride away is Dullah village, where the Museum Belawang displays a splendid ceremonial canoe, complete with carved decorations. Close to Tual is Pasir Panjang, a powder-white beach that stretches for 3km (2 miles).
From Tual, motorised canoes depart for the mountainous Kai Besar island. Occasional boats from Tual also head for Dobo, Maluku’s pearl capital and the largest town of the Kepulauan Aru archipelago.
#5 See the magical crown of Ternate
North of Ambon, the administrative and geographical district of the northern third of Maluku is dominated on maps by Halmahera, but tiny Ternate island is the real centre of power and communications as it is the capital of North Maluku province.
Two-thirds of the island’s people live in Ternate town, the business and market centre of the region. One of the major clove-producing islands of Maluku, Ternate had been trading with Chinese, Arab and Javanese merchants hundreds of years before the first European arrival.
Benteng Oranje here was built by the Dutch in 1667 and is currently used by the Indonesian police and military. There are many ancient cannons in the large complex. On the outskirts of town, towards the airport, there is a mosque whose foundations date back to the 15th century. Its multi-tiered roof covers an airy space, beautifully designed for prayer and meditation.
A bit further out on the road to the airport, the Kedaton, or Sultan’s Palace, built in 1796, houses a museum. Prior arrangements can be made through the local tourism office to see the museum’s jewel, the magical crown reputed to be a personal gift from Allah to the first sultan who submitted to Islam. Some hair attached to the crown is said to be growing, requiring periodic trimming
#6 See some endemic animals at Aketajawa-Lolobata National Park
On the northeastern peninsula of Halmahera is Aketajawe-Lolobata National Park, a small (1,673-sq km/646-sq mile) conservation area by Indonesian standards. Out of 51 mammal species found in North Maluku, seven are endemic to Halmahera island. Equally important are the 211 bird species found in the park, of which 24 are endemic.
Where to stay in Maluku and around
Maluku has a growing number of accommodation options but guesthouses and homestays are generally the norm, especially on smaller islands.
Capital city Ambon has a range of accommodation options, from budget-friendly boltholes to luxury hotels and resorts.
The Banda Islands
If you’re keen to enjoy snorkelling and diving around the Banda Islands then there are a number of modest guesthouses and homestays, as well as a few mid-range and luxury options.
The largest island in Maluku has a range of accommodation options from budget guesthouses to luxury resorts. Good places to look for accommodation are Masohi, and the beach towns Sawai and Ora.
This northern island is known for its stunning volcanic landscapes and historic forts. While there’s a scattering of budget options, comfort lovers will be pleased to know it is mainly mid-range and luxury hotels.
Basic and friendly accommodation is the norm. You’ll find a few hotels on Tual and Langgur, some homestays on Bandaneira and Hatta, with far fewer options on Ai, Run, and Banda Besar.
Best restaurants and bars
The best places to eat in Maluku are on the larger islands, notably Ambon and Ternate. Expect lots of seafood and chicken - plus nutmeg-spiced treats as well. Away from the major islands, visitors tend to eat at their guesthouses.
- Cilu Bintang Estate, Bandaneira Fish, soups and Indonesian fare are all available at this excellent hotel restaurant on Bandaneira.
- Rumah Makan Rahma, Jailolo The best place in Maluku to try coto makassar (a lemongrass soup). Don't worry: it comes with stewed beef, sambal, boiled eggs and coconut rice.
- My Home Cafe, Tobelo This homely place sells good coffee served in a small, lantern-lit courtyard garden.
How to get here
You’ve only got two ways of getting to Maluka: plane or boat. Picking one depends on how long you’ve got to spare. Some of the ferries can take up to 92 hours.
Several times a month, large Pelni ferries head to Maluku from Makassar, Papua and Surabaya. But be warned: trips can be anywhere from 45-92 hours long.
How many days do you need in Maluku?
The number of days needed to explore Maluku depends on your plans but you can see most of the islands in between 10 days and 2 weeks. Most travellers will only visit one or two of the main islands, such as Ambon, Seram, or Ternate. Pick Ambon and you could spend about 5-7 days exploring Fort Belgica, the Banda Islands, Mount Gamalama, and the beaches of Ambon. Give yourself an extra two days if diving.
For the more remote islands, such as the Kai or Banda Islands, you may want to add more days to your itinerary. These islands have fewer tourist facilities and require more time for travel.
Looking for inspiration for your trip? Talk to our Indonesia travel experts.
Tips for getting around Maluku
In mountainous Maluku, the asphalted roads on the big islands can be surprisingly good, but some areas have only dirt tracks or no roads at all. Ojek (motorcycle taxi) is the quickest way to get around, but there are plenty of bemos (minibuses) too. To best way to get between islands is to fly, though there are boats. Here's how to get around Maluku.
It's easy to hop between some of the major islands, like Ambon and Ternate, by plane. There are also daily flights to the Kai Islands.
There are ferries between Ambon, Ternate, and the Kai and Banda Islands but you'll need to use speedboats to visit smaller and middle-distance islands.
By bemo (minibus)
Bemos race around much of Maluku (you’ll mainly hear or see them referred to as ‘auto’ or ‘mobil’ here). On some islands, you’ll see shared seven-seater Toyota Kijangs instead.
Many of the big islands have taxis available but they are but are expensive.
By ojek (motorcycle taxi)
Often the quickest way to get around an island, ojeks are the cheapest way to get around Maluku as well.
Best time to visit
The best time to visit Maluku is during the dry season, which generally runs from April to September. During this time, the weather is generally sunny and pleasant, with lower humidity and less chance of rainfall.
However, it's worth noting that Maluku has a tropical climate and can experience rain throughout the year. The wet season typically runs from October to March, with heavier rainfall and a higher chance of storms. Travel during this season may be more challenging due to rough seas, flooding, and transport disruptions.
Another factor to consider is the high season, which runs from June to August. This period coincides with school holidays and can see a higher influx of domestic and international tourists, resulting in higher prices and more crowded tourist attractions.
Overall, the best time to visit Maluku is during the dry season from April to September, when the weather is generally favorable for outdoor activities and exploring the islands. However, if you prefer to avoid crowds, consider travelling outside the high season.
Find out more about the best time to visit Indonesia.