Travel: Paradise with a taste of old spice: Sarah Marsh visits the Banda islands, a tropical hideaway flavoured with nutmegs, cloves and its colonial past

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The Bandas?' asked a puzzled friend. 'Somewhere in South-east Asia, aren't they?' On most maps these islands are mere pinpricks in the former Dutch East Indies, midway between Sulawesi and Irian Jaya in the Indonesian archipelago. And in the manner of the best tropical hideaways, they are densely palmed and coral- fringed in wide, clear seas.

After weeks of struggling womanfully up rivers and through tracts of jungle, they were the last stop in my travels around Indonesia. From Ambon, a former Dutch capital, there are two equally unreliable means of arriving - cargo boat or plane.

Down at the docks in Ambon I was directed to a rusty hulk, flaking into the water. The captain assured me he would weigh anchor tomorrow, the day after or, definitely, the day after that. So I flew.

'This pioneer flight, nothing certain - maybe something wrong with engine,' explained a harassed official. My 11 fellow passengers included a couple of portly Dutch women, wearing sturdy walking boots. They stabbed the hot air with their umbrellas and barked colonial curses on Indonesian inefficiency.

An hour after take-off we flew over the 12 Banda islands, circled the edge of a volcanic crater and landed on Pulau Neira. This island is tiny, so it did not take long to reach the small town of Bandanaira, once the pride of the Dutch East India Company.

This is what the Dutch matrons had come to see. They puffed out their chests, sensibly safari covered. The colonial settlers had long since departed, leaving streets of flaking classical facades and rows of heroic columns. Their cousins from the motherland seemed unfazed by this evidence of the empire's decay and made for the European-style sanctuary of the only smart hotel.

Meanwhile, I set out to find a more unusual alternative. Then a youth puffing a kretek, the ubiquitous Indonesian clove cigarette, attracted my attention.

'You want stay in perkenier place?' (Perkeniers were Dutch planters.) Yes, I did. The boy led me to an 18th-century mansion where an old woman sat in a huge, empty room listening to the radio. She showed me an enormous bedroom whose sole piece of furniture was an iron bed, draped in mosquito netting. Too minimalist for me. We moved on.

The street had a Wild West feel, lined with houses whose dusty verandas were hung with creaking boards. These advertised 'Home Stay', or tropical B & Bs, some of which were cosy to the point of claustrophobia, cluttered with the debris of colonialism: foxed wall maps, chipped delftware, marble- topped washstands.

Suddenly it began to pour, so I dived into the blue-painted 'Delfika Homestay'. This just wasn't on, I thought, leafing through my dog-eared guidebook. And there it was in print: 'dry season, September to March'. The Delfika's owner twitched his moustache and looked apologetic.

'This week much sun but some rain also. No good for tennis.' Tennis? Where, I wondered, peering into his courtyard garden in which a sodden parrot squawked furiously. It seemed a good place to stay.

The downpour provided an excuse to stretch out on a planter's chair and catch up on background reading. European fleets embarked on a race to find the nutmegs, cloves and cinnamon of the East Indies in the 16th century: not an easy venture, as Arab traders were naturally anxious to keep their source a secret. The Portuguese got here first, but the Dutch won control in the 17th century.

My head swimming with spicy tales of voyage and discovery, I went in search of solid history. I found it in the museum. But there was not much to see, just some well-dusted military hardware in deserted rooms. I wandered on. Small boys were playing marbles outside the Harmonie Club, where starched officials had once sipped sundowners. The governor's residence next door has been recently restored. I went to the door.

'It's locked, I've tried,' said a man in baggy shorts and sandals, reading under its colonade. I said I must get in, there was something I wanted to see. The Dutch ambassador, even if on holiday, seemed an unlikely accomplice, but together we gained entry through a window.

I was looking for a suicide note scratched on a window pane. The last governor (who couldn't hack the pace of life in paradise) had used his diamond ring to immortalise himself. The final lines of his lament translate:

When shall strike the bell which sounds the hour,

The moment that I return to the arms of my country,

The care of my family which I love

Then he blew his brains out - although a ghoulish little boy who had followed us in mimed that he had hanged himself.

The perkeniers used Pulau Neira for a public display of prosperity. Pulau Lonthor was where they cultivated their fortunes. I caught a local boat there with a priest, a bicycle and a boy called Heru who worked at the smart hotel. 'Your name Sarah?' he asked, delighted. 'Last year Sarah Ferguson stay - beautiful red hair.'

The boat coughed its way out of the natural harbour, overshadowed by a volcano, Gunung Api, (Mountain of Fire). Heru told me about the last eruption, in 1988, when he had been unable to go to school because the water was too hot for travel by boat.

Arriving at the island, he pointed out the remains of Fort Hollandia on a ridge and offered to show me the way there. The priest came too, and in single file we climbed a steep path under a canopy of cinnamon and clove trees. The 17th-century fort was built by a megalomanic Dutch governor soon after he had exterminated most of the native population. It's a ruin now, crumbling under vines, with a large mango tree in the keep.

It was hot and I was thirsty so Heru shinned up a tree to cut some green coconuts. Had his family always lived here? No, his great grandparents had come over from Java, after the abolition of slave labour. You can discern mixed origins in the Bandanese today; a racial melting pot added to by the perkeniers when their workers became mistresses or wives.

I found the last surviving perkenier, Heer van der Brooke, sitting on his veranda, sipping lemonade. He spoke passionately about the family plantation - ripped up during the war to plant cassava, confiscated under the Sukarno regime and only recently reinstated.

As we chatted, the rich aroma of roasting nutmeg seeped from the cookhouse. 'Look at that,' he insisted opening its door, 'it takes skill to make a fire like that smoulder.' The nutmegs were sweating and so was I, but Heer van der Brooke stayed cool.

The ripe fruit is one of nature's surprises; peach-like on the outside, a black nut wrapped in red netting inside. It is about as far removed from the shrivelled brown balls on our supermarket shelves as, well, a tropical paradise from the British Isles.

In the evening, Mark, an Australian, and a Dutch girl called Petra arrived on the boat that had made its way from Ambon. We swapped traveller's tales that grew taller by the minute until someone threw down the gauntlet to climb the volcano, a short paddle away across the harbour, at dawn.

But at 10am we were still on the quay, haggling for a canoe. Our business transacted, we paddled across the harbour. Petra and I began climbing at a moderate pace, stopping to admire the view frequently. Mark, however, disappeared with the speed of a runaway convict. You need walking boots for the scree slope, and even then it is a case of two steps up, one back. As I had left my boots in Ambon, I spent much time in reverse.

Mist was gathering when a ghostly figure shot past. 'See you at the bottom mate - don't fall into the crater]' (A quaint mix of Antipodean chivalry and humour.) Waiting in the whiteout was like sitting in a sulphuric sauna. When it cleared we could just make out the distant Pulau Run, former stronghold of the British, who swapped it for an insignificant Dutch island in the New World, called Manhattan.

Far below us lay the small and uninhabited Pulau Karaka around which we had planned to spend the afternoon snorkling. Somehow it looked farther away now, so we decided on a quick dip from the canoe after our climb. The coral around the Bandas is spectacular.

Many Europeans who came here never left. The islands are littered with their graves. I stumbled across one poignant group under a broad tree. Their epitaphs reflected a longing for home: tropical islands like these are a paradise only to those able to leave. Relishing my own freedom, I felt my time was up. So, braving the cargo boat, I sailed off, in splendid cliche, into the sunset.

Getting there: Hermes Travel (071-731 3979) sells London-Jakarta flights on Garuda Indonesia for pounds 485 return. From Jakarta, the domestic airline Sempati flies daily to Ambon; seats are not bookable in the UK.

Red tape: British passport holders need no visa for visits of two months or less.

Further information: Indonesian Tourist Office, 3 Hanover Street, London W1R 9HH (071-493 0030).

(Photograph omitted)