Maluku, formerly known as the Moluccas, is the Indonesian island-hopper’s dream. Given time, leisure and a basic handle on Indonesian, a journey of discovery beckons, from picture-perfect white sand islets to jungle where nomads still hunt and gather, from the original Spice Islands of medieval legend through to undersea volcanos.
The Indonesian authorities divide Maluku’s many islands into two provinces: North Maluku and South Maluku. Christian-majority South Maluku centres on the island of Ambon, the province’s capital, gateway and focal point. Besides stellar diving on rarely visited sites, Ambon is the gateway to the legendary Banda islands, home of nutmeg, the goal of many of the first explorers, and replete with quirky history and unspoilt beaches even today.
The volcanic cone of little Ternate island remains the gateway to Muslim-majority North Maluku and the region’s largest population centre, although the official capital is now Sofifi on the much larger, but still sparsely populated, island of Halmahera.
So important was the spice trade to the Maluku islands that, at the right time of year, the islands still smell of sundrying cloves. Not only Ternate but neighbouring, and equally tiny, Tidore boasted expansive empires, while there were several sultans on Halmahera too: Ternate is one of Indonesia’s oldest kingdoms.
Violent clashes between Muslims and Christians erupted at the turn of this century yet it’s highly unlikely a visitor will encounter this. It will take considerable time to even scratch the surface of the myriad Maluku islands, so let’s start with Halmahera and surrounding islands.