The South Pacific is far and away the most popular cruise destination for Australians. And there’s a lot more to it than just the headline acts. Lucy Jones goes off the beaten track.
Papua New Guinea With just 3.7 kilometres separating the two countries at their nearest point, PNG is Australia’s closest neighbour. Cruise ships call at a number of ports on the mainland (including the capital Port Moresby) and smaller surrounding islands. It’s rich with distinct tribal cultures and more than 800 languages are spoken across the islands. PNG is home to some of the best snorkelling and diving in the world as well as many historical sites from WWII. The Papuan campaign was one of the most significant fought by Australians during the war and thousands of casualties are buried in war cemeteries. P&O has pioneered new ports away from Port Moresby, which sadly is perhaps best know for its high crime rate. Who goes there: Princess Cruises, P&O Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Holland America Line, P&O World Cruises, Seabourn, Coral Expeditions, North Star Cruises, Silversea, Cunard, Crystal Cruises.
Pitcairn Island Sitting almost halfway between Australia and South America, Pitcairn is one of the remotest places on earth. More people will climb Mount Everest each year than will set foot on its rocky shores. History’s most famous mutineer, Fletcher Christian, arrived on the island in 1790 with a small band of followers and some native Tahitians, and most of the population today is descended directly from them. Cruise passengers can’t actually go ashore at Pitcairn (because the landing is incredibly tricky), but the island comes to you. Locals paddle out in long boats and come aboard to set up market stalls selling local goods and to give a presentation about the island and its rich history. Who goes there: Oceania Cruises, Princess Cruises, Silversea, Cunard, Ponant.
Solomon Islands The Sollys (as they are known) are made up of almost 1,000 islands just to the east of Papua New Guinea. The islands are famed for their rich cultural mix, with Papuan, Melanesian, Polynesian and Micronesian heritage all represented. Visitors can explore bustling waterfront markets, WWII historical sites and museums, or head inland for lush jungle, crashing waterfalls and ancient volcanoes. Large ships stick to the capital Honiara or Gizo, the second largest town and hub of the Western Province, though smaller expedition ships do venture out to other islands. Who goes there: P&O Cruises, Silversea, Seabourn, Princess Cruises, Crystal Cruises.
Cook Islands Just to the southwest of Tahiti, the Cook Islands are one of the quieter corners of the South Pacific. Made up of 15 islands scattered across clear blue water, the Cooks bask in sunshine almost year round. The islands are known for their unique white coral churches, pristine beaches and rugged jungle interiors. The most popular cruise ship port is Rarotonga, the largest of the Cook Islands and home to the capital Avarua. Smaller ships can visit Aitutaki, regarded as one of the prettiest islands in the South Pacific and boasting what is widely considered to be the world’s best lagoon. Who goes there: Paul Gauguin Cruises, Crystal Cruises, Seabourn, Holland America Line, Silversea, P&O Cruises.
Tonga Captain Cook was given such a warm welcome when he landed in Tonga in 1773 that he named it the Friendly Isles. Not much has changed since for the population of just over 100,000. Polynesia’s sole surviving monarchy is a laid-back paradise of 170 islands scattered over 70,000 square kilometres of ocean just west of the international date line. Tonga is famous for whales and from July to October you’re almost guaranteed to see humpbacks. Who goes there: Princess Cruises, Oceania, P&O Cruises, Holland America Line, Royal Caribbean, Crystal Cruises, Cunard.
Samoan Islands Split between Samoa (formerly known as Western Samoa) and American Samoa, the Samoan Islands are made up of just a handful of islands and rocky outcrops about 500 kilometres from Fiji. American Samoa is the smallest and still a relatively exotic cruise port, generally only part of round-the-world or trans-Pacific itineraries. Its small capital, Pago Pago, is a quiet tropical outpost with limited facilities, though locals will head down to the waterfront to set up an impromptu market when a cruise ship arrives. Apia, the capital of Samoa, is a modern, bustling waterfront hub with a number of colonial buildings, including Villa Vailima, the former home of author Robert Louis Stevenson, which is now a museum on the outskirts of town. Make sure you explore further afield as the islands are dotted with pristine beaches, waterfalls, swimming holes, lush jungles and tiny villages. O le Pupu-Pue National Park, the country’s first national park, is just 20 kilometres south of Apia. Who goes there: P&O World Cruises, Cunard, Crystal Cruises, Oceania, Princess Cruises, P&O Cruises, Holland America Line, Seabourn, Regent Seven Seas Cruises.
Closer to Hawaii than Australia, the islands of Kiribati (pronounced Kiribas) stretch for almost 4,000 kilometres along the equator. Ships stop at either Christmas Island (not to be confused with the Australian territory of Christmas Island close to Indonesia) or Fanning Island. Fanning is the most unique and the closest to a true desert-island experience that cruisers can get. There is nothing on the island (not even power or plumbing) so you’ll just have to sit back among the swaying palm trees. Who goes there: Crystal Cruises, Seabourn, Holland America Line.