conflict islands, png

How to get to Papua new guinea

Going “Dutch” on Holland America

Papua New Guinea is one of the most remote islands on the planet and is often described as “a last frontier” by travel aficionados. The first time I saw photos of this exotic country, I was instantly intrigued. It appeared to be a country untouched by tourism and time. It’s increasingly difficult to find destinations that aren’t overrun by tourist buses and chain hotels. Papua New Guinea seemed  like the perfect antidote as well as an incredible adventure off the normal travel grid.

There was just one problem. Actually a few. Getting to Port Moresby is one of the most expensive flights in the world. It’s seldom that prices dip below $2500 for an economy seat from the US. Secondly, this capital city is not a place where you want to spend any significant amount of time.It has an extremely nasty reputation for crime. Good roads are nonexistent. Flying is the only practical way of getting anywhere and pricing for even short distances can add up quickly. There’s not much of a tourist infrastructure, so you might not have a lot of options (or any) for lodging. 

This is why I didn’t travel there.

A few months ago I was sharing my bucket list with an Australian traveler and the subject of PNG came up. They told me that some cruise lines had recently started doing stops from Australia to various spots in the PNG archipelago. I checked into the cruise ship line they suggested only to discover that the next cruise they offered to New Guinea was over a year away. After fruitless searching, I decided to take a look at vacationstogo.com. At first my results just turned up Tahiti and Hawaii cruises. I changed the filters to depart from Sydney and also selected longer cruises in the South Pacific. Suddenly several itineraries appeared. I found a 17-day cruise that stopped at 4 ports in Papua New Guinea and 7 on the east coast of Australia for less than $800! At the time Holland America was having a promotion that included gratuities. For less than $50/day, I could travel in style to New Guinea as well as other great stops Down Under. The price was ridiculously good. All I had to do was get to Australia. The flight takes about 20 hours from Houston and if you shop wisely and have good timing, you can score a round trip ticket for as low as $600. I booked everything the next day. 

Fast forward two months.

Two weeks ago, I boarded Holland America’s Maasdam. It’a been a long cruise but Papua New Guinea’s ports on this cruise have been spectacular. We stopped in Alotau, Kiriwina, Kitava and Conflict Islands. With the exception of Alotau, the ports are all tendered.Usually we’ve been greeted by scantily clad villagers that look like Nat Geo models dancing and drumming. The waters are a shocking turquoise blue. In spite of cruise ships being relatively new to the area, the natives walk miles barefoot to meet the ship and sell shells, wooden fish, masks, and other handmade crafts. Since most people survive by fishing and growing their own food, there’s no trash on the islands. 

Imagine a beach without plastic bottles and Coke cans and nothing to spend money on. Other than paying a guide, buying souvenirs, or donating money to a village, you’ll find little use for your PNG kinas.

New Guineans were the last nation to end cannibalism and that was just a few decades ago. Almost every stop has some sort of “skull cave” harboring a few bones and skulls for tourist photos. Whether they’re genuine locations is up for debate, but if you are looking for a creepy photo, you’re in luck. Villages are simple and picturesque. Most natives build their homes from wood and palm fronds and you can often see old men weaving mats and elderly ladies cooking coconut rice in clay pots. It’s the simplest kind of existence. In spite of the fact that these basic shelters don’t have doors or furniture, there’s often beautiful gardens and flowers surrounding the villages.

There’s as many differences as there are similarities between the island populations, but I found each island offered a unique experience. Our final stop was Conflict Island.

Originally this atoll was named after the 19th century HMS Conflict and has been owned by various private investors, until it became the property of Ian Gowrie-Smith, an Australian investor who bought it before he ever saw it. Rumors of turning the property into a private vacation island for millionaires abound, but at present Ian allows cruise ships to stop in this idyllic paradise and spend the day. No one lives here permanently other than a few staff members, but on ship days Ian flies in and brings in local musicians and dancers in full tribal costumes. He has cold beer, a restaurant, clear kayaks, world class scuba diving, and some of the most beautiful white sand beaches you can imagine. Tourist trap? Only if you don’t want to get caught. After three days of ports where you can’t buy a cold drink, cruisers are happy to get rid of their unused PNG currency and just be tourists. 

I loved visiting Papua Guinea, but the trip was far from being over

Visiting the eastern coast of Australia has been an amazing bonus. Travel in this country can be very expensive traveling on your own. Having your transport, food, accommodation,entertainment and travel consultants all included in your cruise price can save you thousands of dollars in hotels, car rental and pricy restaurants. Australia is currently one of the most expensive travel destinations on the planet. A meal here is often double what you’d pay in the USA. The downside is you have to cut your days a little short to get back on the ship and there’s no overnight stays in any ports. The positive side is that it’s nice to not have to lug a suitcase from town to town, drive thousands of miles, and pay $5 for a gallon of gasoline. Win. Win. Some of our stops included Cairns, Brisbane, Townsville, and Airlie Beach.

As I write this, I’m  on the home stretch of this cruise. Tomorrow we visit Moreton island, famous for it’s shipwreck snorkeling, marine life and for being the filming location for the Scooby Doo movie Spooky Island. I can’t recommend Holland America enough. The food is great, service is fantastic and on itineraries such as this one, there’s more emphasis on educational talks about the destinations, marine life and sustainable travel. Most of the guests are an older demographic, but are experienced travelers and appreciate exotic destinations. 

Trying to get Papua New Guinea off your bucket list? This is how you do it. 

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