Ambon, in the Maluku Islands, is one of the legendary Spice Islands that so fascinated early European explorers. Ambon was the center of the international clove trade from the 17th to the 19th century—a trade that the Dutch, English and Portuguese squabbled over. To protect their monopoly, the Dutch banned the planting of clove anywhere in the archipelago except on the nearby islands of Ternate and Tidore. The monopoly lasted until the advent of refrigerators and the successful planting of the spice by the British in Sri Lanka.

Unfortunately, the historic strife of the area has continued into more recent years with horrendous intercommunal violence between Muslims and Christians from 1999 to late 2002. Although the situation has largely settled down since then, the area is still considered volatile, with small outbreaks of violence flaring through July 2010. Those planning travel to this area of Indonesia should keep abreast of current affairs and check with your embassy before traveling.

The island's main city, also known as Ambon, is the capital of Indonesia's Maluku Province. Blessed with an abundance of beaches, the island is known for its volcanic landscape: a mix of gorgeous curved bays and steep mountains surrounded by translucent waters. The best coral reefs and beaches on the island are found around the northern Hitu Peninsula.

Take a ferry from the city of Ambon to one of the neighboring Lease Islands, where you have a choice of fine, unsullied stretches of beach adjacent to coral gardens. Spend three or four days on Ambon enjoying the tropical beauty. Another side trip can be made to Seram Island, which is nonvolcanic and the largest of the Maluku Islands. (Manusela National Park occupies 20% of the islands.) Tribal people live there, but the focus is on bird-watching—the cassowary and bird of paradise thrive in some of Indonesia's rapidly disappearing rain forests.

An hour's flight south of Ambon, the Banda Islands offer some of Indonesia's most spectacular diving. Ambon can be reached by air service from Jakarta and Surabaya. Passenger ships of Indonesia's Pelni Line dock in Ambon, too, although just once every two weeks.

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