Everything you need to know about visiting the Kei islands in Maluku.
Tucked away in the east of Maluku lie the pristine and authentic Kei islands. The beaches at Kei islands are known to have some of the whitest, softest sand in the world. The sand is soft as powder and your feet sink away in it, truly incredible to walk on. Remote as Kei is, you’ll not find many tourists here. Reaching it isn’t really much of a challenge, just takes a few more flights. But that makes it harder to reach and a bit more expensive, so many people don’t even consider it. Thanks to that, visiting Kei island is a genuine off the beaten track experience and well worth the extra travel time and money. Most people speak little to no English, but all love to greet you with ‘hello mister’, regardless if you’re man or woman.
About the Kei islands
Kei consists of 2 large islands, Kei Cecil (‘Small Kei’) and Kei Besar (‘Big Kei’). Cecil is much more developed and the transport hub of the area. Besar is said to be really nice, but it’s much harder to travel, because no one speaks any English at all. It’s also much more mountainous and roads are pretty bad, so going around is pretty hard. The island northeast of Cecil is no longer officially part of Kei islands. You won’t find it on any of the local maps either. It’s easy to reach, just cross the bridge from Langgur. You’ll find the harbour, a market and it’s where to get on the boat to Bair island. If you’re tight on time, don’t bother exploring this island, there’s not really much to find here.
There is no tourist office at Kei islands and the map they give you at the airport is rather worthless. Tip: Install the Maps.me app (or whatever other offline map app), download the Indonesia maps and pinpoint the places you want to visit. That way you know where to go and how to get around. Internet is available on the island, but not everywhere. The best connection is in Langgur and Tual, the two main cities.
What to do at the Kei islands
Hire a motorbike for IDR100.000 and cruise around the island, it’s a great ride through some lush vegetation and past nice beaches. Roads are pretty good, except for the west of the island, where a few miles are rough. Don’t feel like getting on a motorbike? Hire a car for roughly IDR500.000 for a full day, driver included. Tukan is a friendly English speaking local, +62 821 99 239147.
Cave pool & swimming pool:
Take the road from Langgur that goes southwest (other roads that show on the map are blocked) to reach the beautiful Goa Hawang cave. It’s an excellent spot to take a swim in crystal clear fresh water. Try to time it around lunchtime when the afternoon light shines inside the cave, looks even more amazing then! About 5 minutes south there’s a public pool in the back of the small town. They sell some nice snacks here like freshly fried banana and a mixture of peanut sauce with different fruits, forgot the name, but you’ll find it in the corner. It’s amazing! You can choose to have it spicy, but even ‘little bit spicy’ is way spicy!
Ngursarnadan beach at Ohoililir (in front of Coaster Cottages, first image of this post) in the northwast is superb. But the beach between Ohoidertutu and Madwaer in the south is the true gem and one of the best beaches you’ll ever visit. Imagine a bay with over 2km of soft white sand and no one on it, absolutely beautiful, see below.
In the north of Kei lies this stunning limestone island with a gorgeous lagoon to swim in. Ask if they take you around through the back side of the area through the rocks when you leave. We heard from other people their boatman did that and it was the best part, we never saw it…
The boat leaves from Dullah (north of Tual), costs IDR500.000 and will include a stop at the deserted and littered Dranan island. Watch your things at all times, I heard a report of theft during the boattrip. If you organise it from Coaster, add IDR350.000 for the ride to Dullah.
During low tide a snake-like sandbank appears at this pretty island. Some say it’s prettier from the sky than the land. I never made it there, because the water was too rough. This is an issue when traveling these parts in rainy season.
Visit the three islands in the northwest of Kei Cecil, you can go snorkelling and there are some nice corals. In March to April you might spot migrating pelicans here. I didn’t get to do this trip myself, but met people who loved it. Price IDR700.000 per boat, not sure where it leaves from though.
If you have time and love to go local, you can go to some of the islands in the southwest. Locals travel between the islands and Kei Cecil a few times a week, ask around where to find them. Although there will be no guesthouses on these island, you’ll find a place to sleep with the locals. Just make the head-resting sign and they’ll know what you mean. I wish I had planned more time for it.
Where to stay at the Kei islands
You’ll find some hotels in the main cities Langgur and Tual, but you should really stay near the beach. If you want to go cheap and live like a local, you could try to get a room at one of the towns (Ohoidertutu and Madwaer near the top-spot beach would be ideal!) where you can find locals that will rent a room to you. But most will prefer a guesthouse and Coaster Cottages (Bob +62 81 343 472 978) and Savannah Cottages (Gerson +62 81 343 083 856), both in the northwest, are the two most popular options.
Having stayed at Coaster and checked out Savannah, I say Coaster is your best option. The accommodation is nicer and the location is way better, right on one of the best soft-sand beaches you’ve ever been at. Swimming is excellent here as well and you have a sunset view. Coaster has no phone or internet signal, and I doubt Savannah has it either.
Coaster costs IDR 175.000 per night (in the ‘old cottage’) and since there are no restaurants nearby, all meals all served at the resort. I believe it’s IDR150.000 if you have all 3 meals. If you’re going out, you can ask them to prepare your lunch. From the airport it shouldn’t cost you more than IDR200.000 to get to Coaster or Savannah.
When to go to the Kei islands
June to August and January are off-season; rainy season. Weather gets better in August though. November and December are high season.
I spent 20 days at Kei and Banda in the beginning of August, only about 5 times it rained for a few hours straight. Most days were great and a couple of times it would rain very shortly.
How to get to the Kei islands
To Kei island by air
You’ll have to make your way to Ambon first. From there you can catch a daily flight (Lion or Garuda). Since planes have to land before dark in Kei and delays are very common in Ambon, late afternoon flights are often cancelled. You’ll have to spend a night in the rather uninspiring Ambon. To avoid that, you might want to book an early flight. Garuda will set you up with a hotel room though, Lion doesn’t. In Indonesia I’ve been finding the best flight deals through Traveloka.
To Kei islands by boat
You can catch a boat as well, there are 2 Pelni ships (www.pelni.co.id) that travel between Ambon and Kei. The best boat, the Ngapulu, travels only once every 12 days, the Leuser has a shorter route though. Schedules are made at the beginning of every month. It will be a long ride though, unless you’re stopping at Banda to stay there, reach Kei by plane.
You can get a cabin on the boat. Between Ambon and Banda I paid IDR300.000 (which was half price after negotiation) for a closed cabin. Between Kei and Banda we had a ‘free’ economy cabin that had no door. It had a bathroom, but it cost IDR50.000 to use it. Closed cabins are available for an extra IDR500.000.
Beware: theft occurs near and on the Pelni ships. Keep your eyes on your stuff at all times, especially watch your wallet. Groups of thieves operate on these ships. As aware and careful as I was, they still managed to steal my e-reader from my pants’ pocket while in line to get on the boat.
Conclusion & rating
Kei islands are amazing and a fantastic location to visit if you’re willing to travel the extra mile and spend a bit more. When I was there, there were roughly 10-20 foreigners on the island each day, which is nothing. For example, I was the only foreigner on the plane. It really felt like traveling in the old days and all the people I met, locals and foreigners were great people. I loved cruising around, as I always do. It wasn’t the most scenic ride ever, but nevertheless well worth the time and flat tire.
I stayed here for 5 nights in a large room, had a motorbike for 4 days and went on 1 island trip (Bair). I spent IDR1.400.000 (€90) on the guesthouse and meals and another IDR1.000.000 on other costs. My flight from Ambon to Kei cost me IDR1.000.000 one way. I took the boat to Banda when I left (IDR147.000).
It’s not easy to travel around there though, either you rent a motorbike or hire a car with a driver. Driving itself is fairly easy, there are not many roads and they’re pretty good for the most part.
Rating (out of 10)
OVERALL EXPERIENCE: 9
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK: 9
EASY TO TRAVEL AROUND: 6
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