Indonesia may be one of Australia's closest neighbours, but exploring its lesser-known islands can result in brutal flight itineraries. On a recent trip to remote West Papua – just over 1000 kilometres from Darwin as the crow flies – there's nearly 24 hours of travel, including long layovers and tedious hours in airport terminals.
But one lengthy stopover proves a charming surprise, allowing a six-hour window to explore the island of Ambon. Part of the Moluccas, or Maluku, archipelago – 1027 dots in the Banda Sea – Ambon (meaning pretty in Indonesian) is a small but relatively populated island, with its main city, Kota Ambon, the capital of the province.
Heady with the scent of exotic, precious spices such as nutmeg, cloves and mace, Ambon has lured traders since the 14th century, when seafaring Arab merchants brought the Islam faith to the region. The Portuguese and Dutch later followed, establishing trading companies, subjugating the locals, introducing Christianity and creating ancestry as blended as garam masala.
Today, Ambon's population of around 500,000 is a 60/40 divide between Christian and Muslim, and apart from a brief and violent period of sectarian conflict between 1999 and 2002, the religions co-exist in relative harmony, with a growing grassroots movement towards tolerance.
From a tourist perspective, Ambon is no Bali. Western visitors are few and far between. From the outset, however, we are greeted with huge smiles and an enthusiastic "hello mister!", the ubiquitous salutation given to every Westerner, regardless of gender.
With my travelling companion fluent in Indonesian, finding a guide for our impromptu tour is simple – he simply chats to a taxi driver, negotiates a price and mentions a few destinations we're keen to visit. For those reliant on English, a little more effort may be required – but there are several tourist kiosks in the airport to help with arrangements if necessary.
Heading past the port and across the bay, our driver, Rafael, drops us at our first destination, the Ambon War Cemetery. More commonly known as the Australian Cemetery, this tranquil, manicured park, shaded by sprawling kenari trees, commemorates Australian and Allied soldiers who fell in defence of Ambon during World War II.
There are more than 2000 servicemen buried here – half of them Australian – and 350 of those belonged to the 2/21st Australian Infantry Battalion. Many were prisoners of war, held in the notorious Japanese POW camp that once stood on this site. Not surprising, Anzac Day is a particularly sombre occasion here, with many Australians travelling to pay their respects.
Kota Ambon itself is a sophisticated, attractive city, with its tree-lined streets overlooking the bay housing a range of businesses, from street markets to hipster coffee shops that wouldn't seem out of place in Melbourne.
Beyond the city, however, traditional rural hamlets – marked as either Christian (with white crosses) or Muslim (by the presence of mosques) – are the focus of daily life, with waving passers-by shouting "hello mister!" as we drive along narrow, winding streets lined with spices drying in the sun.
Crossing the lush, mountainous interior of the island, we head to the pretty north coast of the Leihitu peninsula, where brightly painted, thatched fishermen huts cling to the rocky shoreline, fringed by aqua tidal flats and coral reef – views Rafael describes as "super bagus" (beautiful).
The most prominent structure on this coast is Benteng Amsterdam, an impressive walled fort built by the Dutch East India Company in the mid-17th century. The three-storey blockhouse features metre-thick walls, massive beams, wooden floors and shuttered windows with views of Hila beach and Seram Island beyond.
The fort is deserted when we arrive and we take our time to explore, gaze at the dazzling blue sea and puzzle over some bizarre marine sketches – including one of a mermaid – from Renard's Book of Fantastical Fish (originally published in 1719), some of which were painted by a Dutch artist stationed at the fort.
The tranquillity is overwhelming and just the remedy I need for the long haul ahead.
Garuda Airlines flies to Ambon. The town is also a stopover between Tual in the Kei Islands and Jakarta. See garuda-indonesia.com
Hiring a taxi for half a day cost us $US40, plus a full tank of petrol. Book direct with a driver or at the tourist kiosks in the airport.
Julie Miller travelled as a guest of Kudanil Explorer.