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In my last post, I explained the highlights of our Papua New Guinea cruise and why we absolutely loved this vacation. It combined up close encounters with tribal villages, beautiful beaches and marine life and the luxury of a P&O cruise, our first as a family. PNG is just emerging as a cruise destination from Australia and it is a rare opportunity to be able to charter these untouched islands. I was tremendously excited to discover P&O’s Papua New Guinea itineraries and would do another PNG cruise in a heartbeat.
When planning our cruise, we couldn’t find a lot of information about cruises to PNG and the ports we would be visiting. I am preparing a post that I would have loved to have read before our trip, so I hope you find it useful if you are planning a cruise to PNG. This a really long and detailed post, but I hope it is interesting to read our trip experience and also helpful for those planning a PNG cruise. It is also a very photo heavy post as there are so many great photos to share and I really want you to be able to get a sense for these islands.
Our cruise was a 7-night cruise aboard the P&O Pacific Eden in October 2017. We departed from Cairns and had 4 ports of call in PNG: Alatou, Kitava, Kiriwina and the Conflict Islands. The cruise was absolute magic and I feel so fortunate to have been able to visit such an untouched area of the world. From spectacular turquoise waters and white sand beaches to traditional tribal villages unchanged for hundreds of years, this itinerary offered an incredible insight into Australia’s nearest neighbor.
With four ports on a 7-night cruise, it was an action-packed week.
PNG Cruise Quick Notes
- Get the local currency Kina before you arrive. The villagers will accept Australian or US dollars, but then have trouble exchanging it into Kina. They will often ask cruise passengers to help exchange Aussie dollars for them. You can order Kina in advance at TravelEx or can exchange on the first few days aboard the ship. Next time I would order extra to help exchange for the villagers and children. The working exchange rate is 2 Kina to $1 AUD. We brought $300 AUD in Kina with us.
- Bring school supplies and items to donate to the villages. In Kitava and Kiriwina, people live in very simple conditions without electricity. We wish we had brought even more than we did. The best items to pack are school supplies (books, stationary, pens, pencils, texters, etc). The islanders are known for their beautiful woodcarvings; shoe polish and sandpaper are really appreciated. Fish hooks and clothes are also really useful. Sports equipment like balls are another great thing to bring. I would discourage you from bringing plastic cheap toys, balloons and candy.
- In Alotau and the Conflict Islands there were P&O shore excursions you could book. We didn’t do any of those tours, but instead opted to organise our own local “guides”. In all the ports of call (except the Conflict Islands which is a private, uninhabited island) locals meet the passengers and will offer to show you around the villages. This is a fantastic opportunity to learn about their culture and a great way to introduce some money into their economy.
- Especially in Kiriwina and Kitava we found the locals to be quite timid and shy. A smile was generally rewarded with a huge smile back. We were often presented with flower chains with no expectation of reciprocation. Tourism is so new here and the locals are not very sophisticated in marketing what they have to offer. This made the whole experience so authentic because their motivations are not profit-motivated.
- There are gorgeous wood carvings for sale on Kitava and Kiriwina. On both islands, it seems that the whole island comes out to greet the ship and the main path is lined with locals selling carvings, baskets, shells and other homemade souvenirs. The prices are incredibly low and villagers will simply smile and hold up their wares for you to inspect. Many feel unconfident and shy with their English skills. You have to declare the products you bring back to Australia, but we had no trouble bringing anything back. They do a very thorough inspection back in Australia and some products we were told to put in the freezer for a couple of weeks just in case. We didn’t see any one have anything taken away at Quarantine.
- We did not negotiate for the carvings and souvenirs we purchased. We found the prices were extremely modest and felt good supporting the carvers. Examples of prices we paid: woven purse (10K), carved drum (30K), outrigger model boat (20K), carved seahorse necklace (5K), woven fan (5K), traditional painting (50K), small bowl, carved fish and ray (10-20K each).
- Chewing betel nut is central to life here and immediately upon disembarking you will notice the red smiles of the locals. Everywhere you walk there will be both men, women and even children chewing and spitting the red juice. In the markets, it seemed that half the produce for sale was betel nut.
- We found the sun to be incredibly strong in PNG since you are right at the Equator. Even with sunscreen, we often felt sunbaked by the end of the day. Come prepared with sunscreen, a hat, long sleeves and drink lots of water.
- Bring your own snorkel gear. You can buy and rent equipment from the ship, but if you are a keen snorkeler, I would recommend bringing your own. We just brought masks and snorkels, not fins to save space. You don’t want to miss the opportunity to explore the pristine underwater world of PNG.
- Although in some areas of PNG, travelers must be very careful with their safety, we found the ports of PNG we visited very safe. Kiriwina and Kitava, being islands made up of small villages were both easy to walk around comfortably. In fact, we found the locals to be very shy and timid on these islands. Since Alotau is a regional hub it does have a grittier feel, but we still felt very comfortable and safe walking around.
- Some of the islands visited are so remote and untouched that some might worry about the degradation of their tribal culture with the cruise ship visits. We didn’t find any evidence of this on our visit and felt that tourism was being introduced in a small-scale, sustainable way. The ships allow the villages to benefit directly from the tourists through income brought in from guiding and selling souvenirs. So few ships visit each year that I think there is minimal effect on their cultural way of life. The islanders want the opportunity to earn income to advance their islands and this small-scale tourism provides important economic activity.
- P&O set up water stations on shore at each port, along with a First Aid station.
- This PNG itinerary may not be well suited for people with mobility issues as 3 of the 4 ports are tendered ports with little infrastructure.
Papua New Guinea Cruise Ports
Port 1: Alotau
Alotau is the regional centre of Milne Bay province. The villagers in the surrounding area come to Alotau for supplies and so it feels busier than a city of its size. Alotau was the only port where we were docked, making disembarking simple. Due to high winds on our way from Australia to PNG, we arrived a couple of hours later than planned. The boat docks about 1.5-2 km from the town centre and you can walk into town on your own alongside the road or take a taxi for $5 AUD.
While Alotau was our least favourite port, it was a good introduction to PNG and we definitely still enjoyed going ashore. There are many World War II sites that can be visited and P&O offers tours to highlight these sites. We opted to just walk off the ship with the aim of finding a local tour to join. As we walked off the ship there were children and adults in traditional dress dancing, which was a great welcome to the country.
There are lots of locals holding up signs for tours as you exit the dock area. It is a bit overwhelming to try to decide which person to go with. They all advertised similar itineraries: World War II memorials, the local market, the craft market, a look out, a local village and school. Most charged $25-30pp AUD or 50-60K for a 2.5 hour tour in 15-seater older vans.
I think choosing a tour and guide is a bit like the lottery and we ended up picking a dud. The first place she took us was the airport, which we all didn’t really understand why she took us there. We did get to see villages and homes outside the town on the drive, which was interesting. She then took us to the local market where we were supposed to have 5 minutes, but I could have had much longer. There were lots of local fruits, peanuts, coconuts, fish and of course betal nut for sale. We bought some peanuts, coconuts to drink and tried the rose apple red fruit which we saw throughout PNG.
Our next stop was the craft market where there were T-shirts, hats, sarongs, carvings, baskets on offer. I would recommend buying any manufactured souvenirs here, but buying carvings and handmade souvenirs on the islands. Our tour had only been going for 1.5 hours and she indicated that she was taking us all back now. In hind sight we should have spoken up because we had not visited most of the places promised. We asked her to let us out at the market where we could continue to explore on our own.
We spent a couple of hours walking around the harbor and the six shops on the main street. I love the opportunity to see local shops and we picked up a few t-shirts for the kids in the stores. While Alotau is not the most exciting port, we still thought it gave us an interesting introduction to PNG.
Port 2: Kitava
The small island of Kitava in the Trobriand Islands has 7,000 inhabitants in three villages. While Alotau has been touched by outside influences, Kitava truly is an intact tribal village where the people live a life unchanged for hundreds of years. They live in one room thatch houses without electricity or any regular contact with the modern world. While the locals wear modern clothing, albeit very old, they do not wear shoes and are able to walk easily through the forest and coral rocks.
P&O does not have any shore excursions on Kitava and so I would recommend doing these four things on your visit:
- Browse and purchase the carvings and souvenirs offered for sale by the islanders. Buy a coconut and taste the freshest, tastiest coconut water you have ever had.
- If you are fit and capable, walk the 30 minutes to the school with a local guide. You will pass traditional houses and your guide can explain and answer questions about their way of life.
- Take a traditional PNG sailing vessel 300 m across to Nuratu Island. These can be hired for 5K/person and are a thrill to experience.
- Explore underwater – there is fantastic snorkeling off the island with incredibly diverse coral.
The islands were the topic of an anthropologist’s study in the 1920s, made famous by the book, The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia. Visiting left me emotional, gave me goose bumps as I noted how untouched this island was. We found the locals to be very shy and we usually had to take the lead. For instance, a local villager might come up to you and just stand with you and you might strike up a conversation. These people often had Kitava Guide shirts on and spoke English well enough to carry on a conversation. We met a man this way and asked him if he could show us around the village and the school. There was no mention of money changing hands, but of course we did pay him for his services at the end (50 Kina, which was probably too much, but we were so thankful for him answering our questions and teaching us about his culture and village).
This is a port where tenders are used to get ashore. In was quite rolly getting into the tenders and the queues were fairly long and we heard of groups waiting a couple of hours. However, you aren’t waiting in a line; you gather in the Marquee to get a departure time and ticket. We were told that the last few times they had been to Kitava it had been too rough to tender, so we felt lucky that we were able to get ashore.
Once ashore it becomes apparent that almost the whole island has come to the beach for the cruise ship’s arrival (our guide had walked 3 hours from his village to be there for the day). There are some school groups dressed up in traditional attire singing and accepting donations for the schools.
The school is about a 30-minute walk up a coral pathway away from the beach. Along the way and along the beach, the path was lined with people selling their carvings, shells, coconuts and palm creations. As we headed with our guide inland towards the schools, there were streams of people headed towards the beach carrying all their items on their heads, saying “hello” with welcoming smiles.
After touring around the school and village, we headed to the beautiful tropical island 300m from Kitava for some spectacular snorkeling. Locals will take you across to the island in home-made outrigger sailing canoes that our kids nick named “Moana boats” (5 Kina/person). I loved watching them put up the sails sewn together from tarps and riding in one was quite a thrill. Be prepared to possible get wet as you make your way across.
Once on the small island, you can enjoy swimming in the clear waters or go snorkeling. We found the coral to be really healthy and incredibly diverse. The coral is not far off the beach; as you move farther out, the water is clearer and coral most impressive.
On the main island there are some skull caves you can visit, which we didn’t do. There is no food for purchase except local fruits, but you can buy fresh coconuts to drinks, along with soda and local beer.
Interesting Things We Learned
- 7,000 people live on the island in three main villages, giving Kitava a high population for its small size
- The school on the island goes until grade 8, at which point students go to Kiriwina for grades 9 and 10 and Alatou for grade 11 and 12
- It is bad luck to build a house bigger then the chief’s house. As evidence of this we were shown a house that an ex-teacher built and two years later he died.
- The staple diet is root plants (yams, cassava), fruits (coconut, breadfruit, papaya), fish, nuts and wild boars and chickens and eggs
- There is a small medical clinic on the island and the doctor visits infrequently
- The ships sometimes have trouble tendering there and the Pacific Eden hadn’t been able to tender the last few times they visited the island
Port 3: Kiriwina
Kiriwina is actually very close to Kitava, so I imagine we floated around that evening on our way to Kiriwina. Kiriwina is the largest and most populous island (12,000 residents) in the Trobriand Islands. The ship tenders at Kaibola village, the northern most point of the island and furthest from the largest settlement of Losuia. This port is very similar to Kitava with no ship excursions available.
Once again there were so many people gathered on the beach and in the village. Carvers and weavers displayed their wares, groups of traditionally attired school children sung for donations, and tour guides loitered around. The residents of Kiriwina seemed marginally more prepared for tourists and we found them more comfortable approaching and talking with tourists.
On Kiriwina, I would recommend doing the following things:
- Browse and purchase more wood carvings and weaved items. We had already purchased a few things on Kitava, but found the carvings to be more polished on Kiriwina. There were also larger items, like big bowls and tables for sale.
- Pick up one of the local unofficial guides to show you around the villages. We spent 1.5 hours wandering around and learning more about village life on the island.
- Spend time on the beautiful beach and hire a boy to take you out in a small canoe (5-10 Kina)
- Sometimes the locals organize a Trobriand Cricket match near the tender landing. This is a unique game that is part mating ritual, part peaceful alternative to inter-tribal warfare and part singing and dancing.
- Locals do cook fresh lobster tails for sale and there are other fresh items to purchase.
- Visit a skull cave
- You can snorkel off the beach, but we didn’t find it anywhere near as nice as the snorkeling on Kitava the day before.
Right away you will notice that Kiriwina feels more developed then Kitava, but only slightly. While locals still live in the same basic accommodation, there were more buildings made out of manufactured wood. There is a Rotary project in Kaibola where they are building a clinic, school and expanding the one water pump. We saw some generators and a few more pieces of modern life.
Shortly after getting to land we met a lovely man that became our guide for the day. His English was better then our guide from Kitava and he seemed more comfortable with his guide role. He lived in a village a couple of hours walk away and he had a son studying at the University in Rabaul. He walked us around the nearby villages, showing us the yam houses and answering our questions about life on the island.
At one point we stopped to buy a coconut from the owner of a sturdy house being built. Since we didn’t have small change, the owner had to go around looking for change. We continued our walk through the villages and stopped by on our way back. The man was still looking for change so we sat in the shade of his new house with our guide and eventually he showed back up with the change, only charging us 2 Kina for the coconut. I tell this story for two reasons. One, it gives you a sense of how time moves slower on the islands and no one was in any rush. Secondly, the locals we encountered were extremely honest and did not try to take advantage of us visitors, like we often encounter in developing countries.
We learned that this man could afford to build such a sturdy house because he had two sons with good jobs: one a teacher and one worked in the medical clinic.
Once again, we donated school supplies to the schools and the kids enjoyed giving out bouncy balls and pencils to children as we were walking around. It really was magic to see our kids understanding how good it feels to give. They loved high-fiving the kids as they walked by and greeting the villagers with a big smile and hello.
I did ask our guide how the island felt about the cruise ships visiting and he was adamant that it is a really good thing for them. He said that the ships coming keep the peace between the villages and inject cash into their island. He said that while he was a farmer and carver, that does not provide money for him to pay his son’s university fees.
We walked back to the beach and spent a few hours swimming and relaxing. Our guide offered to watch our things for us, but we felt like our things were safe and encouraged him to meet other tourists to tour around. We again paid our guide 50K because we really enjoyed our time with him and his openness to answer our questions.
On the beach in Kiriwina there are lots of young boys in dugout canoes offering to take you out in their boats. Some people might tire of the constant visits from these boys, but they are very polite and sweet. We did pay 10K for our kids to be taken out for a ride by one of the boys. We tried snorkeling off the beach, but didn’t find anything really good.
Interesting things we learned:
- The island has a history of inter-tribal disputes (mostly about women) that have flared up in the past few years, but the ships have been a strong motivation to get fighting under control.
- The Kula Ring is a Milne Bay bartering system where shell trinkets circulate between the villages as a way to gain trust and boost social status.
- There are vehicles on this island, although only used by the government and hospital. We only saw one very heavy-loaded truck the whole time we were there.
- The Trobriand Islands are well-known for their different courtship and marriage rituals and we did see the children doing a light-hearted, but slightly erotic tribal dance with lots of hip thrusting.
- There were more groups collecting donations and money. Some were organized groups like schools and others were people collecting donations for a village water pump, midwives, resources to send their children to high school or support handicapped children.
- Our guide really felt strongly about a politician on the island that was really helping the communities by providing metal sheeting for roofs and grants for university schooling.
- There were so many villagers gathered in Kaibola village that a whole secondary market seems to emerge when the cruise ships visit. Vendors were selling betel nut, rice, fresh cooked fish and other products to the locals gathered. As a former Economics teacher it was interesting to see this trickle-down effect. As more people had cash to spend, there were more opportunities for these vendors.
Port 4: Conflict Islands
Our last port of call was an uninhabited island in the Conflict Islands, which are located 11 degrees from the equator. While I was sad for the cultural PNG experience to be ending, this island was absolutely amazing. We have been all over the world and visited some amazing tropical islands, but this island was spectacular.
The Conflict Islands are a coral atoll made up of 21 separate islands, 80 km from the nearest points in PNG. Named after the HMS Conflict that first visited the islands in 1886, the Islands are now owned by a wealthy Australian. They embody everything you can imagine in a tropical island paradise and their remoteness adds an extra layer of intrigue.
As you step onto the jetty at Panasesa Island, you know right away that you have stumbled onto a magical place. The super clear, shallow waters are teaming with iridescent fish and the white sand beach beckons.
There is a small eco-resort on the island set away from the main beach where the tenders dock. Recently they have built a more protected jetty on the other side of the island, making it easier for tenders to land each visit. The Conflict Islands use a voucher system to buy things ashore where you can trade in Australian dollars or Kina for vouchers to purchase food, water activities and souvenirs. There are a lot of P&O shore tours to choose from at this port from snorkel tours to glass bottom boat rides to visiting the turtle conservation.
Once you are ashore, turn right off the jetty and you can purchase your vouchers, food and drinks and hire kayaks, paddleboards, lounge chairs and snorkel equipment. I have always wanted to try out a see-thru kayak so we didn’t waste any time hiring a kayak and paddleboard. The equipment was in great shape, with good life jackets and very reasonably priced at $20 AUD/hour.
The beach is absolutely beautiful, lined with shade trees and great for swimming. If you swim or paddle 200-300 m off the beach you will discover the most amazing coral and marine life. At this point there is a drop off and you can snorkel and paddle over the drop off to see a huge variety of coral and fish. If you aren’t a strong snorkeler or swimmer, I would recommend doing one of the ship’s snorkeling tours. They have a snorkel platform that they take you out to in a boat, with a lifeguard, eliminating the longer swim to get to the coral. We took a paddleboard with us to the drop off so the kids had something to hang onto once in awhile.
If you continue to walk right you will come to an incredible sand bar that you can walk really far out on at low tide. This is another great area to snorkel since you don’t have to swim as far to reach the drop off area. You do have to swim over some shallow coral and there was some current, so do take care. We could not believe how alive and vibrant the coral was and how many different types of fish we saw. It really was like swimming in an aquarium and we spent hours in the water. Our kids are really competent swimmers and snorkelers and were able to snorkel with us. We did bring a pool noodle from Australia with us to help our 6-year-old when snorkeling.
We walked around the back side of the island, which was really windy, but had no one around. It was mid-afternoon by the time we made our way back to the central area. Unfortunately they had run out of a lot of the food for sale, which did look pretty good. There is a beach bar where we tried our first PNG beer and they have sodas and slushy cocktails available too. There is an open air shop selling souvenirs like carvings, jewelry, postcards (sadly they were out of stamps), soaps and lotions and t-shirts at reasonable prices.
We spoke to some of the staff on the island who are boated in just for the ship’s visit. They were all very lovely and you can see that environmental stewardship is an important part of the agreement between the owner Ian Gowrie-Smith and P&O.
If you made it to the end you can see that our P&O Papua New Guinea cruise was absolutely amazing. If you are looking for an immersive cultural experience with pristine beaches and marine life, this is the itinerary for you. We have travelled to remote areas before, but I think this is the most untouched area of the world we have visited. Who would have thought it would be a cruise ship that would take us there? If you are thinking about doing a PNG cruise, I wouldn’t hesitate. These PNG itineraries provide a rare opportunity to get a glimpse into these pristine tribal islands.
Do you have any other questions about the cruise and the ports we visited in PNG? Leave me a message in the comments and I will make sure to get back to you.
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