A sen­ti­men­tal jour­ney

Ex­pect the un­ex­pected on a lively cruise to Pa­pua New Guinea

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - CAR­RIE KABLEAN

‘‘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

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