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Insider Asia

Indonesia's spice of life

A string of forts in Ternate are a reminder of the battle among colonialists to grab a slice of the island famous for its spices

Published on Jun 15, 2014 7:28 PM

The rich smell of cloves was unmistakeable as we drove through the villages on Ternate, one of two Spice Islands in eastern Indonesia that were the main source of this much- valued aromatic spice for centuries.

Clove trees dot the foothills of Mount Gamalama which towers above the island and whose volcanic soil nourishes the clove, nutmeg, cinnamon and other spices that made this one of the wealthiest and most important trading cities in South-east Asia.

A string of 500-year-old forts scattered along the island's coastline and on its next-door neighbour, Tidore, bears witness to this storied past of how explorers were drawn to the region.

Today, there are no five-star beach resorts but the two islands promise majestic views of nature and secluded beaches, surrounded by crystal clear waters. In some parts, you can snorkel and dive right off the shore to see an array of coral, anemone and fish.

But the highlights of Ternate and Tidore, which together cover an area less than one-third the size of Singapore and are home to about 250,000 people, are their stunningly dramatic volcanoes.

Rising in the middle of Ternate is Mount Gamalama, which takes four hours to climb on average. When we visited, local authorities had closed off access to the peak due to a cold lava flow.

But several vantage points on the island offer a view of the island of Maitara, which has its own volcano, against the backdrop of Tidore and its dormant Mount Kiematubu.

Getting to these sights used to be a logistical challenge but a recently introduced daily direct flight from Jakarta has made visiting much easier. Tourists have yet to arrive in large numbers, making you feel like you are on your private island. Ternate island is the busier of the pair and most of its sights along the coast can be toured in a day.

Our first stop was Floridas restaurant, perched on a cliff overlooking the water, which serves fresh seafood and a spectacular view of yet another volcano on Mai- tara, with Tidore just beyond it.

This is a ritual stop for visitors and the scene is found on the back of the 1,000-rupiah note. The dining hall displays a blown-up version of it.

Next up was Fort Gamlamo, built by the Portuguese in 1522 and known to the locals as Kastela.

Very little remains of its foundations, but murals depict the ambush and murder of then Sultan Khairun by the Portuguese in 1570, which angered the locals who then chased the Portuguese off the island.

We drove on uphill to Danau Tolire Besar (Big Tolire Lake), an emerald green lake nestled beneath Mount Gamalama that locals believe was created by nature's anger when a drunk father took liberties with his daughter. A landslide fell on him and created the lake, while the daughter drowned herself in nearby Small Tolire Lake.

Visitors throng Big Tolire Lake on weekends, tossing stones into the water that never seem to hit the bottom - local legend has it that rocks will never touch the surface. The area is also a popular picnic spot, with vendors selling freshly grilled corn on the cob.

A little further down, we reached Sulamadaha beach, the island's most popular beach. The beach overlooks Hiri Island, where many Japanese soldiers were defeated during World War II. Stalls selling a popular snack - fried bananas eaten with a red chilli dip - line the way to the beach.

Walk up the path that rings the edge of the beach and you hit Saomadaha Bay, with emerald green waters and visibly preserved coral, which is a popular snorkelling spot.

After a short drive along the coast, we stopped at what is arguably the island's most striking natural feature - Batu Angus, or scorched rocks, formed by molten flowing lava from the volcano when it erupted in 1673. The rocks stretch all the way down to the sea, its haunting beauty a reminder of how living on the ring of fire has left its imprint on the landscape.

On our way back, we meandered through sleepy Ternate town which contains a Chinese temple first built 700 years ago and rebuilt in 2007.

An altar in its centre was dedicated to Confucius, with these words in Bahasa Indonesia above a statue of the Master - Fear God, carry out his commands - a vivid reminder of the ongoing easy co-existence of different beliefs that characterises this corner of the world.

Also in town is the house where 19th-century explorer and naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace lived in between his trips to Halmahera and other islands to the east, and a street is named after him.  

Ternate offers a chance to get up close to royalty and royal ceremony, with the sultan tracing the origins of his kingdom back to 1257.

The Portuguese, Spaniards and Dutch arrived in turn, building fortresses here and on Tidore, fighting one another for dominance, before the Dutch prevailed. Fort Oranje, which they built in 1607, is being turned into a museum.

Part of the Sultan's kedaton or palace is also today a museum displaying various regalia as well as portraits and a genealogical tree of past sultans.

The current Sultan, Dr Mudaffar Shah, 78, was re-elected recently as a senator to the Regional Representative Council in Jakarta, and the annual Legu Gam festival held every April to mark his birthday has become a main fixture of the local calendar, with tourists flocking here.

The next morning, we accompanied the queen and her royal entourage to nearby Hiri island - the site of a fierce World War II battle between Japanese and Allied forces in 1945 - to introduce the new royal twins to residents.

There, we saw traditional dances unique to this corner of Indonesia staged to ward off evil spirits.

Back on Ternate, we headed to the ferry terminal for a seven-minute speedboat ride to Tidore.

Unlike in Ternate, the forts on Tidore are on higher ground and the climb up Fort Tahula, close by the beach, gives a spectacular view of the coastline and Halmahera island.

Fort Torre, further inland and past the sultan's palace, offers a panoramic view of the eastern half of Tidore, including the verdant slopes of Mount Kiematubu now dotted by vegetable farms.

As the sun set, we made our way back across to Ternate.

The boulevard facing the harbour and Tidore is a popular spot for watching the sunset, and is set against a new two-storey building with fast-food chains, restaurants and supermarkets.

Many such modern buildings are springing up across the archipelago as economic growth spreads.

Soon, more of that wealth will trickle into these sleepy Spice Islands and more travellers will arrive on their shores.

As I breathe in the heavy scent of the cloves on my last day on the island, I make a silent wish: The residents deserve the economic opportunities that tourism will bring but I hope that the economic growth will not come at the expense of the unspoilt beauty of the islands.

This is part of a series on off-the-beaten path places to explore around Asia and beyond.

Trip to Ternate

Getting there

The quickest way from Singapore is to take the last flight out on Garuda Indonesia to Jakarta, and then connect to Garuda's daily direct flight to Ternate that leaves Jakarta at 1.40am and gets in at 7.20am. There are also flights from Manado and Makassar, both served by direct flights from Changi Airport.  

Where to stay  

Villa Marasai (tel: +62-813-9288-9475, +62-821-3733- 7395;, a boutique hotel in Jalan Kampus II, Unkhair, Gambesi, is close to the grounds of a university campus. It has 11 rooms and stunning views of the islands of Maitara and Tidore.

It is run by retired tour guide Hasrun Rasai, who is a treasure trove of information on the Spice Islands and can arrange tours out of Ternate and for diving trips too. He also offers home-cooked dinners of fish and vegetables. Rooms are 550,000 rupiah (S$60) a night, inclusive of breakfast and taxes.

It is located about 15 minutes by car or motorcycle taxi from town, but if you are here for a quiet getaway, the location should not be a drawback.

The 190-room Bela International Hotel (Jalan Jati Raya No. 500, tel: +62-921-3121-800, +62-921-3123800) is by far Ternate's largest and offers a range of rooms and cabanas around a central swimming pool. It frequently plays host to visiting government officials and rooms start from one million rupiah a night, inclusive of breakfast but before tax. Its location at the centre of town makes it a convenient base for sightseeing. The Maitara Coffee Shop hotel restaurant offers a range of local as well as Indonesian and international dishes. 

Where to eat

Perched on a slope along the coast, Floridas (Jalan Raya Ngade, Laguna, tel: +62-921-312-4430) restaurant offers great views of Pulau Maitara and Tidore, and a range of fish and seafood dishes. Try the ikan woku belanga, or spicy fish curry cooked in a traditional pot. Ikan woku kenari, fish marinated in a sauce that includes kenari, a almond-like nut found in the Malukus, and roasted in a banana leaf, is also tasty. Budget 150,000 rupiah for a meal for two.     

Restoran Pondok Katu (Jalan Branjangan No. 28, Ternate, tel: +62-921-312-7332) is a family restaurant may not have views to boast of, but it is popular for its crab dishes.

Ask for the local coconut crabs, so-called because they pry open fallen coconut shells with their claws and feed on the meat. They are delivered almost daily from neighbouring islands. The meat of this crab is soft and has a subtle aroma, and kepiting saos padang, crab cooked in a chilli-based sauce, is a popular choice. A medium-sized crab costs 450,000 to 500,000 rupiah. The restaurant also does prawn and squid dishes well, and a substantial portion of salted egg prawns came up to 55,000 rupiah. Budget 700,000 rupiah for a meal for two.

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