A sentimental journey
Expect the unexpected on a lively cruise to Papua New Guinea
‘‘LADIES and gentlemen, I would just like to let you know that the volcano is erupting.’’ Now there’s an announcement guaranteed to disrupt your plans.
It is ‘‘sail away’’ drinks time aboard Pacific Dawn, which is preparing to leave Rabaul’s Simpson Harbour. Scampering up to the Oasis Deck, we stand openmouthed as vast plumes of smoke belch from Mount Tavurvur, spilling into the sky and obscuring roads we had driven along a few hours earlier.
It’s late afternoon and the sun provides technicolour hues to the island greenery and the bright blue water around us while the volcano does its best to turn the sky various shades of grey. This display is truly awesome — nature showing off its power.
Somewhat surreally but, let’s be honest, rather magically, a waiter appears at my elbow: ‘‘Margarita, madam?’’
I lived in Papua New Guinea for eight years in the 1980s, four of those on the nearby island of Bougainville, when Mount Tavurvur was rumbling and roiling in preparation for the massive eruption that destroyed Rabaul in 1994. This 10-day cruise, with its island-hopping itinerary around Milne Bay, the Trobriands and Gazelle Peninsula, is both a new adventure for a first-time cruiser and a trip into the past.
Back in the 80s, the country’s tourism slogan was Expect the Unexpected. As far as PNG goes, that advice is timeless; as for cruising, I don’t know what to imagine.
I didn’t expect our cabin to be so spacious and the ensuite to be better designed than many I have encountered on land. And we have a little balcony — a room with a view. The second surprise is that the sea is as calm as a millpond, and stays that way for the entire voyage.
I didn’t expect 1800 passengers to dissipate so easily into 798 cabins, 11 decks, five restaurants, two cafes, various bars and leisure spaces. While the main recreation deck, with its pools and giant entertainment screen, is usually busy, other places — the Oasis Deck, for example, which is an 18+ zone — are not. And although the daily program is designed to provide nonstop entertainment, with effervescent cruise director Zoltina-J exhorting everyone to join in activities — from cocktail-making and learn-to-knit classes to exercises for body and mind (think trivia quizzes, talks and lectures) — those so inclined can simply recline and watch the world go by.
Also a surprise is that a huge majority of the passengers have chosen this cruise because of their connections to wartime PNG: they, or their loved ones, fought in World War II. Three veterans of the Battle of Milne Bay are on board. Lectures by PNG historian Jonathan Ritchie pack the 800-seat Marquee to overflowing.
P&Osays an age range of 35 to 50, including 400 children, is usual. On this cruise the average age is 65 and there are only 162 juniors, but arriving in Milne Bay and Rabaul by sea is easier than travelling by air and road.
In fact, cruising (as I have been told to expect) is a pretty easy option all round and, after a few days at sea, the most frequent question is: ‘‘What day is it?’’
On day four we arrive in Alotau, capital of Milne Bay Province, to a welcome by tribal dancers seemingly