Expedition Cruising in the South Pacific

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Dei Dei Island Expedition South Pacific
On Dei Dei Island, Papua New Guinea with the locals in the photo that got me punished on Facebook!

                                       

Meeting Tribesmen on Stunning, Remote Islands of the Pacific on a Spectacular Silversea Expedition Cruise

By Tab Hauser
GoNOMAD Senior Writer

You know you have been to the remote islands of the South Pacific when your photos look like the cover story for an old copy of National Geographic Magazine.

Mock Attack Solomon Islands
Mock Attack Solomon Islands

To get to these out-of-the-way places, with the occasional stop on a beautiful beach or coral reef, we boarded a Silversea expedition ship. Silversea has been running expedition-class ships since 2008.

With 115 passengers and 90 crew, the Silversea Explorer departed Cairns, Australia to Papeete, Tahiti. She covered 6300 miles, five time zones, and crossed the International Date Line. Our 28-day voyage cruised through parts of Melanesia and Polynesia.

This included Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Fiji, and Cook Islands ending in Tahiti. During our voyage, we visited a few islands in each country. There we encountered several OMG moments and one bucket list item ticked off.

Expedition Cruising Ships

Expedition ships are different from large cruisers. They are smaller and go to places you cannot get to by large ship, plane, train, or automobile. They are also more personal because they only carry between 100 and 250 passengers. 

Silversea Explorer Expedition cruising (TabHauser)
Silversea Explorer at Dei Dei Island

On board, lectures replace Broadway-type shows. Evening entertainment is a leisurely four-course dinner with new friends followed by an after-dinner drink and piano music at the bar.  

Bedtime is on the earlier side due to the next day’s start. There were two nights of dancing under the stars.

With a small ship, passengers tend to make friends easily. It also helps that everyone shares a common sense of adventure. We also enjoyed catching up with passengers from previous expeditions. Crew members by the second day know your name and bartenders and servers quickly know your favorite drink, food allergies, or dislikes. 

 We chose Silversea because of its inclusive policy of premium drinks, shore excursions, internet, and tipping. It also has a reputation for good food and shared butler service. (We liked getting unpacked on arrival)

Comfort in Rustic Locations  

Solomon Islands
One of the primitive villages visited in the Pacific.

An advantage of being on a Silversea expedition is that by evening you dine and sleep aboard your five-star floating resort. By day, you venture out into the rustic and beautiful. We met the friendly tribesman in their simple villages a bit removed from civilization as we know it. These places are not easy to get to, nor stay the night, and most people reading this would not want to.  

Expedition Cruise South Pacific
For some children, it was their first selfie

This is important because, without sounding like a snob, I prefer to sleep in the tropics on a nice bed in a place having windows, air conditioning, and plumbing.

Some of the villages we visited had one or two-room homes built on four-foot stilts to stay cool or to allow for the occasional animal to pass under.

 They had thatched walls and roofs with no windows to keep the bugs and heat out. Bathrooms in one village were outhouses over the sea or you simply did your business in the jungle surrounding the village.

Happy Children

Their way of life works for them, it is different and what they are used to. We did see healthy-looking families with many happy playful children.

Alotau, Papua New Guinea
Alotau, Papua New Guinea

When calling on these remote islands, local transportation can be “very local”. This means getting to that special destination starts on a zodiac (inflatable RIB boat) with a beach landing. From there you may hop on an open truck, a small bus, or an old SUV without air conditioning. Many times, island visits simply required a good pair of shoes to see the incredible.

Silversea’s Ports of Call

Baining Dance Rabaul (TabHauser)
Baining Dance, near Rabaul Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea: Alotau, Dei Dei, Dobu Island, Kuiawa, Jaquinout, and Rabaul.

In Papua New Guinea we stopped in six diverse places. Highlights included seeing the special Baining fire dance, walking through an area of geothermal bubbling pools, and visiting a volcanic monitoring station that protects a small city.  

Expedition Cruise Rabaul
WWII Japanese barge boat rusting in a cave.

For WWII history we entered a cave dug out by hand under horrible conditions by mostly Indian POWs. Inside was a small Japanese ship rusting away for the last 75 years. We also visited Admiral Yamamoto’s bunker and a war museum. 

At Dei Dei Island, we anchored off to visit a primitive village where people lived off the land, sea, or on trade. There we had curious children come up to us.

For many, it was the first selfie they had seen. While anchored, the ship had two dozen local’s canoes get close in hopes of trading fruit for things like rice. 

Solomon Islands: Njari, Kennedy, Santa Cruze & Santa Ana

 The Explorer called on Njari and Kennedy Island for the beach and snorkeling. Kennedy Island at only a beautiful three acres was named after President John Kennedy who hid there after his PT-109 was rammed by a Japanese destroyer.

You can see rusted WWII guns and pieces of downed aircraft at the beach. Local artists set up a market when a boat visits. 

Solomon Islands Dance
An emotional dance on Santa Ana, Solomon Is.

Our visit to Santa Cruz started with a mock attack on the zodiacs during our beach landing to show a warrior’s ability from days gone by. This was followed by traditional dancing using large wooden drums shaped like canoes to set the pace. Guests were invited to dance as well as watch local demonstrations on crafts and food. 

The six-square-mile island of Santa Ana was a two-part highlight. Here were witnessed an unusual dance with women in the middle.

Dyed light brown skin males with masks wearing loin clothes circled the ladies with sticks laughing and gyrating their hips. This was followed by an “attack” of dyed darker-skinned males driving the lighter skin males away.

Solomon Island Spirit House
Previous Chief’s bones in the Spirit House

Following the dance, there was a one-hour hike through the humid jungle to the other side of the island to visit a small village. Here we were met by dozens of children who walked with us to the “Spirit House.”

 The open-air Spirit House protects old canoes on a shelf with the bones of previous chiefs neatly stacked in them. Alongside were wood carvings over 250 years old.

The village here is primitive with single-room homes built near the sea out of thatch having no power or running water. A dirt soccer field is in the center of the village.

Vanuatu: Champaign Beach and Ambrym Island

Woman of Water Vanuatu
Woman of Water on Champaign Beach

The 500 feet of Champaign Beach always makes the top 100 list. It has fine powder, a blue bay, and clear waters. The name comes from a fizz escaping at low tide under the sand. 

At the beach, we were treated to an unusual performance by the “Water Music Woman.” Here, 14 women ranging from ages 16 to 60 walked into the water wearing dresses made from leaves.

Then using their arms and hands, beat hard into the sea using different motions to produce different drumming sounds. We were told these women start to train as little girls. This group had the honor to play in Disney for the opening of an exhibit.

After their performance, ladies from the ship were invited into the water for a lesson. This was followed by local snacks and fruits.

The rest of the afternoon was spent floating in the warm tropical sea. To top off the afternoon, I had our Silversea butler pack a bottle of Champaign to sip on Champaign Beach.

Vanuatu Capt. James Cook axe
The Chief with the Capt. James Cook axe

The Ambrym Island visit started off with a “Rom Dance” performed for special occasions and being the first visiting ship in three years, we were deemed special.

Using a tall hollowed-out section of a tree to beat out the deep tones, tribesmen danced wearing nothing but a “penis wrap” stepping lively around other dancers dressed as trees. 

From the dance, we were invited 45 minutes up the hill to visit a village off the grid village of 100. There we saw older ladies cutting yams while the pigs and chickens went about their business.

Here we called on the chief and asked to see the Captain James Cook axe we learned about in a lecture. The chief stepped out and allowed me to touch the first piece of iron on Vanuatu given by Captain Cook.

This axe has been passed down from chief to chief since 1774. Since middle school, I have read much about Captain Cook’s explorations so this was something special moment. 

Fiji: Yasawa, Lautoka, Kevuka, Levuka, Leleuvia, Loma Loma and Fulaga

Of the seven stops in Fiji, five are worth mentioning. The first call was on Yasawa Island. Navigating here was visually appealing as we passed close by several islands and through a narrow channel to anchor. 

Clown Fish Fiji
“Nemo” found on the reef in Fiji

 

While the beach and reef were not ideal, passengers after two days at sea were anxious for a half-day swim. On the reef, we spotted clownfish, eels, and pipefish. Swimming to the left had us against interesting-looking limestone formations.

Levuka Walk About 

The three hours in Levuka had us do a walk around this old town of Fiji firsts. This included the post office, bank, and newspaper along with being the capital.

Levuka is a UNESCO World Heritage site but lacks the luster. There are plaques dedicated to Fiji ceding to the British in 1874 and one honoring the 1970 visit of the Prince of Wales.

Levuka must have been the happening place 150 years ago. The Anglican Church here is worth a quick look. This was a grade “B” stop.

Fiji Water in Fiji
Fiji Water in Fiji

On Lomaloma Island we got to see what was on the land and under the sea. The visit started at the meeting house with village leaders over a Kava ceremony. (It was our fourth Kava ceremony during the cruise).

Here we were welcomed and watched Kava ground out of roots, mixed with water, and handed out in half coconut shells. Kava tends to relax you. 

This was followed by a hike to the highest point on the island. At the top, we got to see what the Fiji Islands and the offshore reefs looked like. On our return, we were treated to tropical fruits, locally baked treats, and a warrior dance.

Sea Cucumber Fiji
Sea Cucumber, Leleuvia Fiji

The Lomaloma reef offshore offered the best snorkeling during our cruise. This reef was almost two acres around and not near land. This meant healthy coral in crystal clear water. The coral bommies and walls started at 20 feet and grew to a few feet below the surface.  I spotted 50 species of fish swimming about.

Leleuvia Island is a pretty tropical island about 1200 feet long. It has a beach on one side with patches of coral for snorkeling. There is a small 3.5-star resort there.

Passengers enjoyed the beach day along with entertainment from a dozen singing women.  

Fulaga Island was our most scenic atoll stop. The goal today was to visit two remote villages of a few hundred people to see what life is like there. 

Getting to the villages was for many the highlight of the day. This included taking a scenic zodiac boat ride through the large lagoon and viewing the tiny mushroom-like limestone islands. 

Fuluga Island Fiji
The lagoon at Fuluga, Fiji\
Fulaga Island
Sharing “grandma” stories on Fuluga Island

After a beach landing, it was a mile walk on a dirt road passing dense jungle. The first village had a few dozen homes having steel sheet or thatch roofing along with a primary school.

Power was solar only. Behind some homes, we saw coconuts cut up and drying on tables. These will be pressed into oil called copra.  Wood carvings produced using simple axes were for sale. The next village a 20 minutes walk was in a little better condition. A long beach ran on this side of the island.

Kingdom of Tonga: Nuku’alofa, Neiafu and Euaiki

Nuku’alofa is the capital of Tonga and is a bustling place. Passengers were offered tours that started in the cultural center. This showed off local dances, kava, and clothing worn on special occasions that guests volunteered to wear.

Fiji Sunset Expedtion Cruise (Tab Hauser)
A firey Fiji sunset
South Pacific traders
On a few occasions, locals would paddle out in hopes of trading

 The half-day island tour stopped at Captain Cook’s landing, royal tombs, and a three-stone arch built around 1200 AD that marked the shortest day of the year.  

 Euaiku Island was an afternoon beach stop. This is a pretty little island has a small resort being restored on it. Euaiku has some interesting rock formations that look like caves near the sea. Floating off the beach in the hot afternoon sun was the perfect ending to the day.

Whales

Tonga Whale
Whale breaches in Tonga

In Neiafu, I passed on the ship’s excursions and went on a 35-foot chartered boat to view and swim with the whales that was arranged by a friend on board. After departing to the outer lagoon the captain and guide spotted a mother and baby 1000 yards away. We watched the baby breach the water twice just for fun. Once the baby settled down the boat followed at a slow pace and turned off its engines.  

Tonga Whale and calf
Tonga Whale and calf underwater

With the whales not moving much, our guide took four of us at a time to swim near them keeping a distance of about 30 feet.

The view underwater was almost surreal. The baby just floated or swam slowly over the mom. At one point they went lip to lip in what looked like a kiss. It was a bucket list wish ticked off.

 Cook Islands: Rarotonga and Aituaki

 

 

 After crossing the International Date Line the ship arrived in Rarotonga. This is the largest of the Cook Island’s with 75% of the country’s population. Upon arriving we were met by a mother whale waving her pectoral fin at us. 

We opted for the 3 ½ hour island tour on a rugged 20-year-old open Land Rover driven by a “manly tour” guide. Rarotonga is the quintessential laid-back tropical island at 21 square miles.

It is pretty, and scenic, and has peaks, thick jungles, hiking trails, and snorkeling all in a laid-back, uncrowded vibe. It is also more westernized than the previous islands due to it being a New Zealand protectorate.

Our tour took us around the island and then up into the crater on some aggressive hills. We visited some preserved meeting areas called marae, viewed birds, and an ancient granite volcanic plug near the island’s peak at 2140 feet. The view from the large crater was beautiful. This is a place I can see coming back to.

Aitutaki and One Foot Island

Aitutaki is on one of the South Pacific’s prettiest atolls. The day’s plan was to snorkel the lagoon and spend the afternoon at One Foot Island for a local BBQ.

To get to One Food Island passengers were required to board local boats that know the shallow lagoon waters.  Arriving dockside, we were met with a vibrant band of ukuleles and the beating of bass and hardwood drums.

Cook Aitutaki atoll
Dancer on Aitutaki Atoll

Activities included walking out to the sandbar, strolling around the island, and floating in the warm waters. One guest packed for a little tropical kite surfing.

Tahiti: Bora Bora

Bora Bora was the ship’s last call. Its tall jagged peaks and atoll make it one of the most recognizable islands in the Pacific. Landing on the island was a bit of a culture shock. For the first time in 27 days, we were in a well-established tourist destination.

 Our morning 4 X 4 excursion was an island tour of Bora Bora.

Bora Bora
Polynesian songs on the water in Bora Bora

After stopping for a beach view, the open Land Rover climbed high into the hills in two places. One was to see the view of the peaks and atoll islands. The other was a look at the WWII artillery guns facing the ocean. 

For the afternoon we boarded a boat tour. Our lead guide showed up with a ukulele and local loincloth singing lively tunes to get the mood going.

Our first stop in chest-deep water was to view black-tip sharks and stingrays. The second stop was at a shallow coral reef with lots of fish.

The Expedition Cruising Sea Days

Jaquinout Dancers
Dancers in Papua New Guinea

Of our 28 days aboard there were six full days and several half days at sea.

During sea days, expedition leaders offered lectures. This included WWII history, birds, marine biology, the migration of people across the Pacific, jungle biodiversity, plants, palm oil history, seismology, and Polynesian tattooing to name several. 

 The geologist got wind of a discussion between guests as to how many continents there are and put together a humorous and interesting lecture on it. (Spoiler: Americans think seven, Europeans see five or six. The lecturer showed us 18 which include microcontinents using geological rules) 

Kava Ceremony, South Pacific
One of the many welcome Kava ceremonies during the voyage

While at sea, there was high tea, trivial pursuit, downtime in the library or sundecks, gym, spa, and wine tasting. If you wanted cabin time, your butler can bring you anything from Champaign and caviar to wings and chocolate mousse while choosing from 25 movies to watch.

Kids Get Pens 

For The Kids: Before our cruise, we accumulated hundreds of pens over the past two years and brought them.

These were handed to children on the most remote islands where school supplies were almost always very limited. On one primitive island, I watched a five-year-old scribble for the first time. When visiting remote areas, we recommend taking pads, pens, or any school supplies you can pack.

For booking information go to www.silversea.com 

For my stories on previous expedition cruises to the remote West African coast, Madagascar, the Antarctica region, Indonesia, and a dozen tiny islands of the Maldives go to my author’s page on GoNOMAD Travel.

Bora Bora
A 50-year-old Land Rover rusting away in Bora Bora
Solomon Islands
Happy boy showing off wood carving over 250 years