The romance and allure of the South Pacific have entranced sailors and adventurers for centuries, but in recent years, many of the same ports have featured on cruise itineraries. More recently, cruise lines have begun sailing to lesser-known islands to satisfy the growing appetite for year-round sunny destinations. Here's a look at some of our far-flung favourites.
Few people have heard of this privately-owned atoll in Papua New Guinea and yet it is one of the most beautiful pieces of paradise in the world. Exclusive to Carnival brands such as P&O, Princess, Cunard and Holland America Line, it has a higher diversity of fish species than the Great Barrier Reef and beaches that are out of your dreams. Contrary to its name, the Conflict Islands are peaceful and pristine, with no other tourists or residents in sight.
Cruise ship passengers have exclusive access to Panasesa Island. Fringed with native shrubs and palm trees, a long, thin strip of white sand is flanked by calm, clear, turquoise water. At one end is an open-air bar called Due South, offering plenty of shaded seating, a sea breeze and ocean views.
The other side of the island is devoted to water sports including kayaking, stand-up paddle-boarding and snorkelling. Among the shore excursions (bookable in advance) are guided tours on an outrigger canoe or a glass-bottom boat, a nature walk, or a visit to the turtle nursery, where you can hand-feed, adopt and name baby turtles.
The port has recently been upgraded with a second pier on the other side of the island so that ships can gain access under all sea conditions. To keep things simple, all the prices are in Australian dollars.
Pentecost is home to the famous Ni-Vanuatu N'gol 'land divers', the unofficial pioneers of bungy jumping. This dangerous ritual is performed in April, May and June, and whenever a P&O cruise ship calls.
Men attach carefully selected, stretchable, wet vines to their legs before jumping off the top of a flimsy-looking manmade tower (which actually takes five weeks to construct). When their heads touch the ground, it is said to make the soil fertile for the next year's yam crop. Beside the vines, there are no safety measures whatsoever. And before you ask, no, you can't try it.
Back in the post-war days of South Pacific cruising, Tonga would host the occasional cruise ship at the capital of Nuku'alofa where passengers would disembark for city tours and glimpses of the Royal Palace. Today, Vava'u has gained an enviable reputation for nature-based tourism where visitors can cavort with humpback whales or scuba dive in waters with visibility exceeding 30 metres.
Other activities include snorkelling, sailing, visiting the Ene'io Botanical Gardens, and taking a boat cruise to Kapa to glide inside the sea-level Swallows Cave to view its impressive stalactites.
Neiafu, the laidback capital of Vava'u, is perched above the gorgeous Refuge Harbour. A stroll along the shopping strip reveals plenty of quaint boutiques and stores brimming with peculiar souvenirs such as mud-dyed T-shirts.
Located in a sheltered harbour in the far eastern tip of Papua New Guinea, the port of Alotau was the historic centre of the Milne Bay campaign from World War 2. Nowadays it's home to the spectacular Kenu and Kundu Festival that takes place every November, celebrating the significance of canoes and kundu drums in the lives of the local people. A P&O cruise is always timed to coincide with this event.
On other days of the year when a ship is in port, the Alotau Cultural Festival is held at the waterfront Education Milne Bay Centre, a modern complex with an outdoor performance space, cafe and markets. Cruise passengers can enjoy rides in the long, wooden, war canoes, where 10 local men do all the paddling. They can also shop for T-shirts, sarongs and various arts and crafts, watch traditional dances by adults and children, or listen to the talented contemporary singers and musicians in the main building.
Alotau is easy and safe to get around and affords a glimpse of everyday life for locals, even on a busy cruise day. The fresh produce and handicraft market in the town centre is always part of any tour that will likely also take in the scenic view from the hill overlooking the harbour.
For a cooling ale, the Alotau Waterfront Lodge is within 10 minutes' walk of the port. A little further along is the Alotau International Hotel, which has free Wi-Fi, live music, food and drinks served outside on the sprawling lawn.
Known locally by its traditional name, Inyeug, this may be your first taste of a truly deserted tropical island. The southernmost isle of Vanuatu, it's tiny, uninhabited and beautiful. The modern name was bestowed 40 years ago by Sitmar, owners of the Fairstar cruise ship, which used to dock there occasionally.
Nowadays, it's not such a mystery. When a cruise ship arrives, the villagers from neighbouring Aneityum row boats across to Mystery Island to sell souvenirs and cook fabulous, fresh seafood such as painted lobsters. For a bit of a lark, you can have your photo taken in a cauldron with a cannibal. Even though he doesn't really eat humans, it shows the locals have a great sense of humour and enjoy a bit of fun with their guests.
The snorkelling is wonderful, especially in the protected marine reserve, where turtles are often spotted. For a swim or sunbathe, the talcum-powder-like beaches and crystal-clear waters will not disappoint.
It is possible to walk around the island to explore its quieter side and find the grassed World War 2-era airstrip, used by US military aircraft. The strip is still used twice a week, largely for flights transporting live lobsters and crabs (sitting next to passengers) from Aneityum to the restaurants of Port Vila.
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