Melanesia small ship cruises

Less of a vacation than an expedition, a Melanesia cruise takes you some of the world’s least traversed seas, where you’ll explore remote archipelagos and visit isolated communities that have managed to preserve their traditional lifestyles away from the gaze of the modern world. As well as absorbing the history and culture of this most enticing of regions, adventurous souls can throw themselves into their surroundings with gusto: swimming in pristine waters, visiting deserted beaches and encountering rare and endemic species in the skies, jungles and ocean.

Where is Melanesia?

Sprawled across the ocean to the north and east of Australia, Melanesia covers an area of some 998,000sq km and is made up of the independent nations of Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, plus two dependent colonies – New Caledonia and Western New Guinea. It’s one of the most culturally diverse regions on the planet, with over 1,000 different languages spoken and a rich human history dating as far back as 45,000 years.

It’s also a region that holds fast to its traditions. Community ties are strong; life focuses around the local village, people live in extended family units and trading routes and cultural practices remain as they have for centuries.

Where do the trips go?

Melanesia cruises focus on Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. You’ll either start in Madang, on the north coast of Papua New Guinea, and spend 14 days island hopping your way down to the Solomon Islands’ capital of Honiara; or start in Honiara and make your way south to Port Vila in Vanuatu over 12 days.

Highlights include the Sepik River, the longest in Papua New Guinea and an area rich in wildlife and culture; the cone-shaped volcanoes, hot springs and age-old cultural rituals of Rabaul; the rich marine environments of Santa Isabel Island; the mangrove forests and villages of Makira Island; and beautiful Malaita, where the local currency is polished shell discs threaded onto string.

When can I go on a Melanesia cruise?

Melanesia cruises run in October, during the drier, cooler season and before the November rains set in. It’s a great opportunity to explore the islands without the sometimes oppressive heat and humidity.

What’s life like on board?

Unlike the ships that cruise the South Pacific waters around Fiji and French Polynesia, the specialist boat that delivers you to Melanesia’s palm-fringed lagoons and wild islands is small, with a maximum capacity of 50. An expedition vessel built in the 1980s for polar and oceanographic research, the Spirit of Enderby doesn’t offer on-board swimming pools, cocktail bars or light entertainment, and it’s comfortable rather than plush, with simple suites and cabins, about half of which have private bathrooms.

On board you’ll find a dining room, a library and lounge area, a medical center and a lecture room, where you can listen to regular talks by seasoned naturalists and other experts on the local environment, history and culture, as well the challenges facing the islands due to rising sea levels. You’ll get three meals a day, including a multi-course dinner, and snacks and hot drinks are always available. Special diets can be catered for, but this has to be flagged up in advance, as there are limited supplies on board.

The ship’s small size and lack of bling means you’ll have time to get to know your fellow passengers as well as to really appreciate your surroundings. You’ll also get a warm welcome wherever you stop. This is partly because Melanesians are friendly types, but also because smaller groups of visitors can be more easily accommodated. For shore expeditions you’ll board Zodiacs, small inflatable motor boats that deliver you to shore complete with a face full of sea spray.

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What will I be doing on a Melanesia cruise?

A Melanesia small ship cruise isn’t about chilling out on a swanky vessel. The focus and emphasis of these trips is always about getting you onto the islands as often as possible to explore untamed landscapes, spot wildlife, kayak, swim, snorkel, enjoy welcome ceremonies performed by traditionally-dresses dancers… you get the picture. You’ll also be in safe hands as you do so. Each trip is accompanied by experienced guides, who’ll not only chaperone you on your onshore excursions but provide you with background knowledge on the culture and history of these islands, too.
A major plus of a visit to this region is the chance to visit remote communities and spend time learning about their history and culture. In these far flung archipelagos, feathers and shells are sometimes still used for currency, young boys take to the waves on hand carved palm wood surfboards and local sailors still use time-honoured navigation practices and dugout canoes to travel between the islands. You’ll get to witness some of these ancient traditions as well as share songs, dances and meals with the local people.
Melanesia offers some of the best underwater experiences on the planet and you’ll visit deserted spots where there are as many treats below the water as above. This area is teeming with rich coral gardens and a startling array of marine life, but it’s also a top spot for wreck diving and snorkelling. The battles that raged across the South Pacific during the Second World War have left an entrancing underwater seascape of sunken battleships, war planes and even bulldozers, cranes and forklifts. These rusty hulks of metal have now become reefs, and they’re rainbow bright with fish and corals.
Your waterbound experiences can continue with optional kayaking. Not only is this an excellent way of fitting in with the local people, who often cruise the waters in dugout canoes, it also gets you to the places that Zodiacs can’t reach, allowing you to paddle upriver, along mangroves and into tropical jungle.

On dry land, there’s plenty to occupy you too. You’ll be taken on nature walks to see endemic plants and flowers, climb through waterfalls and up hills for wide ranging views across the ocean and visit war memorials, markets and galleries in Melanesia’s rare urban landscapes.

Melanesia small ship cruises are also bliss for bird watchers. The remote nature of these islands means that they’re home to some extraordinary and endemic species including the Solomon sea eagle and the Roviana rail. If you’re keen you can opt to join a specialised birding programme and increase your chances of sightings though customised, small group excursions.
Written by Nana Luckham
Photo credits: [Page banner: Roderick Eime] [Local culture: Heritage Expeditions] [Exploring on Zodiac: Heritage Expeditions] [Setting out to scuba: Meghan Kelly - Heritage Expeditions]