With black sand beaches, bottomless lakes and ancient forts, the capital of North Maluku is definitely worth more than a day trip
A dramatic cone-shaped island in the Moluccas, the eastern Indonesian tourist spot of Ternate has yet to be invaded by foreign visitors.
Along with its neighbour Tidore, the island was once the world’s major producer of nutmeg and cloves and traded with spice merchants from Europe, India, the Arab world and China.
Located off the west coast of Halmahera and dominated by Mount Gamalama, Ternate is today a bustling city that’s home to a wealth of historic sites plus plenty of unspoilt landscape.
Getting there is easy, with several airlines offering services from major Indonesian cities to Sultan Baabullah Airport. The airport is named after the 24th sultan of Ternate, Baabullah, who triumphed in battle and banished the Portuguese colonisers in 1575.
For the traveller looking to visit nearby islands, Ternate also has several jetties and boats.
Conventional wisdom holds that visitors can explore Ternate by car or motorcycle in an hour – without stops. That’s probably true but a wiser visitor will take more time and enjoy all of the attractions on the island on the way.
We spent a entire day driving and strolling around the island, starting our journey from Ternate’s busiest district where we spotted the island’s one and only shopping mall near the Great Mosque jetty. We took delight on driving along the island's straight, smooth roads that were punctuated by only a few traffic lights.
The first major sight was the Sultan’s palace at the foot of Mount Gamalama. Visitors are free to enter the colonial-style palace built in 1813, which has collections of royal memorabilia. Unfortunately, during our visit, the palace was closed.
Ternate is said to be ideal for mountain climbing and trekking. Cone-shaped Mount Gamalama overshadows – literally – the tourism attractions we were about to experience. We stopped at Batu Angus, heaps of hardened black stone on both sides of the road, the result of a magma flow from Mount Gamalama 300 years ago.
The volcano is far from dormant. As we continued along the road, we saw several areas that were hit by cold lava during Mount Gamalama’s most recent eruption last December.
Tolire Besar and Tolire Kecil (Big and Small Tolire Lakes) are other charms worth seeing. Located 10 kilometres from Ternate, these spectacular lakes are located in deep craters and lie just 200 metres apart, with the smaller Tolire Kecil close to the sea.
Legend has it that a man married his own daughter here, infuriating the villagers and forcing their quick exit. As they left, the ground where they walked became cracked by their fury, forming the lakes.
Another legend has it that Tolire Besar can’t be measured and that it is protected by hundreds of white crocodiles that only a few can see. Locals sell rocks to visitors, inviting them to prove (or disprove) the myth that rocks thrown into the lake will never touch the surface because of a mystical exception to the law of gravity.
The island's colonisers built seven forts in Ternate, build to stave off local residents and their European competitors in the spice trade. We visited Tolukko Fort, three kilometres from the town centre. Built in 1540 by a Portuguese, the fort originally featured underground tunnels that headed to the sea which were filled in during renovations in 1996.
Although the entrance to the fort is free, tipping the guide is expected. Other forts worth a visit are Oranje, built by the Dutch in 1607, and Kalamata, built by the Portuguese in the 1500s.
Beyond its historical sites, Ternate also offers exquisite beaches. The most popular is Sulamadaha Beach, 14 kilometres from the city a black-sand beach that faces lush Hiri Island.
Lined with small warung (traditional cafes) Sulamadaha is a great place to hang out with friends and sample local specialities including mulu bebe fried bananas with dabu-dabu chilli sauce while sipping a ginger coconut milk sarabba concoction with nuts.
To the west of the beach lies Saomadaha Bay, home to white sands and crystal clear waters revealing some glorious coral. It’s a great place to snorkel though you will need to bring you own gear as rental services are not available.
Our road trip ends opposite Maitara Island, positioned between Ternate and Tidore
and which I had only previously seen on the thousand-rupiah banknote.
As night fell, we headed towards the Great Mosque and found the pavements adorned with street stalls. I selected some pisang lumpur (muddy bananas) that come in more than 30 variations. The “muddy” part comes from the chocolate, cheese and nuts poured on top of the fried bananas, which are first rolled in brown sugar.
The sweet, crispy banana was the perfect end to a perfect day.