Bucket List Trips

How to Get to Papua New Guinea

A flight to Sydney and a cruise later, paradise awaits.

By Bill Wiatrak December 18, 2019

Glorious beaches abound.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Papua New Guinea is one of the most remote islands on the planet and has often been described as “the 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, and Papua New Guinea seemed like the perfect antidote, an incredible adventure off the normal travel grid.

There was just one problem—actually, a few. Getting to its capital city, Port Moresby, is one of the most expensive flights in the world—seldom do prices dip below $2,500 for an economy seat from the U.S. Plus, it's not really 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've never traveled there. It’s expensive, difficult, and dangerous.

A traditional village.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

A few months ago, though, I was sharing my bucket list with an Australian traveler and the subject of Papua New Guinea came up. They told me that some cruise lines had recently started doing stops from Australia to various spots in the archipelago. I checked it out, only to discover that the next cruise offered to New Guinea was over a year away.

After fruitless searching, I decided to take a look at Vacations To Go. At first, it only turned up results for Tahitian and Hawaiian cruises. I changed the filters to depart from Sydney and selected longer cruises in the South Pacific.

Suddenly, several itineraries appeared. I found a 17-day cruise that stopped at four ports in New Guinea and seven 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 per 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. 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.

That was two month ago.

Holland America's Maasdam. 

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Two weeks ago, I boarded Holland America’s Maasdam. It was a long cruise, but Papua New Guinea’s ports on this itinerary were spectacular. We stopped in Alotau, Kiriwina, Kitava, and the Conflict Islands. With the exception of Alotau, the ports are all tendered. The waters are a shocking turquoise blue.

Despite 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 grow their own food, there’s no trash on the islands.

Shopping for handmade crafts from the locals.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

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 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're looking for a creepy photo, you’re in luck.

"Skull caves" abound.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Villages are picturesque. Most natives build their homes from wood and palm fronds. Old men weave mats. Elderly ladies cook coconut rice in clay pots. It’s the simplest kind of existence. Basic shelters don’t have doors or furniture, but there’s often beautiful gardens and flowers surrounding the villages.

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

Ian Gowrie-Smith, the owner of the islands (left), poses with Bill.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

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 currency and just be tourists. 

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

A villager creates a roof from fronds.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Visiting the eastern coast of Australia has been an amazing bonus.  The country is currently one of the most expensive travel destinations on the planet (a meal here is double what it is in America), so having your transport, food, accommodation, entertainment, and travel consultants all included in the cruise price can save thousands of dollars. 

The downside is you have to cut your days a little short to get back to the ship, and there are 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, or pay $5 per gallon of gasoline. Win, win. Some of our stops included Cairns, Brisbane, Townsville, and Airlie Beach.

Villagers dance for cruise ship passengers.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

As I write this, I’m on the home stretch of this cruise. Tomorrow we visit Moreton island, famous for its 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, the 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 of experienced travelers who appreciate exotic destinations. 

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

Filed under
Show Comments