2 July 2014

Northern Maluku: Island hopping off the beaten track

Riding in a bento (motorbike tricycle) in Tobelo
Ternate island was nice, but staying a full week in one place was not our intention. Thanks to its good flight connections, Ternate functions as base to explore Northern Maluku. And Northern Maluku means a lot of islands. The biggest island is just about 40 minutes by speedboat from Ternate: Halmahera.

As a kid, I was fascinated by geography and history. I still remember the attraction that strangely shaped islands like Sulawesi and Halmahera used to have on me. My geographical attraction is today much more focused on finding ways to get to places with beautiful landscapes. And that brought us to Halmahera.

Deserted terminal in Sidangoli
As the best connections and travel options in Indonesia are usually early in the day, we woke up at 6am and by 7am we already sat at the jetty in Ternate. A short wait later we reached the minimum amount of passengers (twelve) for the crossing and our journey started. We arrived in Sidangoli, as this is supposed to be the best place to get somewhere in Northern Halmahera by car. Sidangoli is a nice little waterfront village with many houses on stilts but little other attractions. A short walk brought us from the pier to the completely deserted terminal. We asked some guys hanging around with their motorbikes and yes, there would be cars from here to Tobelo, our destination for the day.

Downtown Tobelo
The first drivers arrived and tried to talk us into chartering a full Kijang (big car with five to six passenger seats) for 400-500'000 IDR/27-33 EUR. As we insisted on “biasa” (normal) they desisted and settled for the steep but regular 100'000 IDR/6.5 EUR. Once the car was full two hours later, we set off for a three hour journey through the beautiful forests, villages and coconut plantations of Northern Halmahera.

As the journey took longer than expected (Fabian read somewhere that the distance was 120km, but the car reached Tobelo only at km 175), we were happy to arrive in the midday heat in Tobelo. As we hadn't heard about any nice hotels and not found any information online, we checked out two hotels before settling in the guesthouse Meraksi Flower (or actually in the newer part, the Meraksi Flower II). It's a typical Indonesian guesthouse, but with a caring owner and thus seemed to be the best offer in town.

Kupa-Kupa beach
Tobelo itself, we learned fast, is not a very attractive town. It's a port and administrative centre for Northern Halmahera. The attraction lies in the beaches north and south of the city, in the many offshore islands and in the rainforest covered mountains nearby. As we didn't have enough time for a longer trip to the outer islands, we settled for a day-trip to one of the nice beaches the locals told us about. After asking around, where we could find white sand, we took a minibus to Kupa-Kupa. Thanks to the friendly ladies in the microlet (5'000 IDR/0.3 EUR), the driver brought us directly to the beach from the village, quite a detour for no extra charge!

The beach in Kupa-Kupa is small but lovely. White and very fine sand, covered by the shades of large trees that offer some protection from the fierce tropical sun. Snorkeling is definitely an option, as you can see the small but coral-dotted reef already from the beach. But the best surprise lay on firm ground. We approached the restaurant directly on the beach and ordered lunch. The friendly local lady took our order and told us to have a look at her garden and the beautiful cottages in it. Walking to the other side of her house, she introduced us to her husband, a retired German Mister. We spent most of our afternoon talking with Lutz and Ona, co-owners of Kupa-Kupa Beach Cottages, about life on Halmahera, things to do and see, while sipping a cold Bintang on the beach. If any of you ever makes it to Northern Halmahera, we definitely recommend you to stay there. Friendly hosts always up for a chat, good food and beach accommodation between 200'000 IDR/13 EUR (small cottages with fan directly on the beach) and 450'000 IDR/30 EUR (spacious cottages with fan, your own bathroom and porch). Definitely worth it.

Kupa-Kupa beach cottages in a beautiful palm garden
In order to avoid the risk of getting stuck on Halmahera and miss our flight (boats don't go if the sea is too rough), we had the opportunity for another day-trip from Ternate. We went to Tidore, another volcanic island, just ten minutes south of Ternate by speedboat (going constantly as soon as full, 10'000 IDR/0.7 EUR). During centuries, Ternate and Tidore were fighting each other for power and influence. There isn't much left of that. As administrative center of Northern Maluku with a university and a large army base, Ternate is definitely more important today. Tidore, on the other hand, is much more relaxed and laid back. But relaxed and laid back also means that there is not much to do. There are some hot springs you can visit and you could climb the (inactive) volcano, but that's about it. Some beaches at the southern end of the island offer some snorkeling possibilities and beautiful views on the islands to the south.

In summary, we enjoyed our week in the Northern Maluku and can definitely recommend off the beaten track travelers to go there. If you expect amenities like Western food, swimming pools or shopping malls, you should probably reconsider. We think spending too much time in Ternate is not worth it. We rather recommend to explore the islands offshore from Tobelo (ask Lutz and Ona from Kupa-Kupa for information and contacts) or the islands to the south of Tidore (most with at least daily connections to Ternate or Tidore) as the beauty of Northern Maluku lies it's remoteness and not yet spoiled nature and not in Ternate city.

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