Accurately described as “one of the last frontiers of travel,” Papua New Guinea (PNG) is home to daunting mountain ranges, the largest pristine rainforest this side of the Amazon, and countless islands and atolls ringed with magnificent coral to bizarre cultures thriving in feral rainforests. A visit to this Melanesian nation is like journeying to a land that time forgot. The most convenient way to reach the country, incidentally, is from Brisbane, Australia, easily accessible from the U.S.
According to Ally Stoltz, account manager, Papua New Guinea Tourism Promotion Authority, “PNG is a relatively new tourist destination, compared to the rest of the world. So you experience some real connections—interactions with the local people—you’re certainly not viewed as a dollar sign. Instead, you find yourself inside giant spirit houses on the banks of the Sepik River answering questions about your family, or sitting in a smoky men’s house in the Highlands listening to stories that most Americans will never hear.
“In my 10 trips there, I can safely say this is the last corner of the earth to be explored—a place where it’s still possible to visit a village that hasn’t had a visitor all month, or even all year. I’ve even visited a place that hadn’t had a visitor since the ‘90s. I’m not sure where else on the planet something like this is even possible anymore.”
All indications point to the fact that PNG will remain an unspoiled utopia in the future. Ian Swain, president of Swain Destinations, says, “With so few lodges, I don’t see Papua New Guinea becoming a mainstream country—at least not in the immediate future. I believe this to be a positive, as it provides a very special and fascinating experience for those who take on the adventure. There are certain areas that are more ‘popularized’ than others. However, we encourage our travelers to head off into the Highlands or along the Sepik River to experience the authenticity of the place.”
Despite the sense of remoteness, PNG has a number of resorts that stand out due to their exotic flair. One is Walindi Plantation Resort (from $295 pp for bungalows; $210 pp in the main house), a pleasant and quaint property on the shores of Kimbe Bay on New Britain.
A 1-hour flight on Air Niugini—the national airline that’s a vital in-country lifeline for visitors and locals alike because of the lack of roads—takes visitors from Port Moresby, the capital, to Hoskins, a colorful port on New Britain. A 45-minute van ride takes travelers from Hoskins to Walindi, which has the advantage of lying in the Coral Triangle, a spectacular marine region running north from East Indonesia and the Solomon Islands to the Philippines. The property runs along the beachfront and is surrounded by tropical gardens. Dive sites in Kimbe Bay are only five to 45 minutes removed from the resort, and there guests are taken on covered, specially designed day boats. Boom netting with resident pods of dolphins is a highlight, as well as passing orcas and migrating whales. Non-divers, too, will find a rich menu of activities in Walindi. The resort arranges visits to nearby villages to experience the native way of life, as well as excursions to swim in hot, volcanic thermal pools known for their therapeutic value.
Another accommodation option is Karawari Lodge in East Sepik Province, found deep in one of the country’s most remote and inaccessible areas. It’s owned and operated by Trans Niugini Tours. Karawari stands atop a ridge towering over a vast and dense tropical lowland rainforest. Visitors arrive—by single-engine airplane from Mt. Hagen, the country’s third largest city—on a dirt landing strip before boarding a canoe upriver to the lodge’s landing spot where 4WD vehicles carry guests up the hill.
Shirley Johnson, Trans Niugini Tours’ sales manager, points out that with these active-focused trips, it’s obvious PNG is “geared to the adventurous traveler of discerning taste,” because the country’s main attractions “are its remoteness and unspoiled state. There are no roads or shops on the Sepik, but the people are very friendly, always ready with a smile or a handshake. At the annual Mt. Hagen or Goroka festivals, for example, there are over 75 ethnic groups, with 20 performers in each group. To witness that many people, all in their traditional gear, singing and dancing, is an unforgettable experience that cannot be described.”
Karawari Lodge comes close to giving visitors the “full experience.” The main house is patterned after a haus tambaran (spirit house), and decorated with masks, mythical sculptures and native artwork. There are 20 bungalows with verandahs and private bathrooms. Rates run from about $599 pp per night dbl and include meals, tours and air transport to/from Mt. Hagen. Here, guests have the chance to visit villages along the river; this is home to the Arambak tribes, people relatively untouched by progress.
In the Western Highlands Province, Rondon Ridge, also by Trans Niugini Tours, is set 7,100 ft. above sea level with views of the Wahgi Valley stretching below. It has 12 rooms with modern bathrooms, and original native art is everywhere. Prices run from about $590 per night pp dbl, including meals and transportation. From here, one can take guided tours to Mindima, an area about 30 miles east of Mt. Hagen. Mindima has three individual villages of PNG’s iconic and legendary Mudmen and Skeleton People.
TOUR OPERATOR INTEL
Ian Swain, president of Swain Destinations, considers Papua New Guinea a fascinating place worthy of a visit for those who want to experience an exotic, undeveloped destination that receives relatively few visitors.
“My wife Linda and I first visited Papua New Guinea in 1996,” he says. “It was very undiscovered [and] such a fascinating place that we started customizing travel experiences to the area. We have sent many adventurous Americans there over the years and are finding increased interest in the country—especially in the past three years.”
How does Swain see future tourism in the country?
“I see the stronger tour operators making a great effort to provide updated accommodations with more modernized amenities, while still maintaining the destination charm,” he continues. “As the areas can be quite remote, many of the properties utilize clean energy practices, which has allowed for unique growth. Tourism is becoming a large conversation in the government of Papua New Guinea, which has opened the doors more than before.
“However, there are very few operators who plan experiences there, and even fewer that actually operate within New Guinea. This makes those who visit the destinations have a truly exceptional experience.”
Swain Destinations offers the singular 13-night New Guinea Odyssey (from $9,315 pp) that sets off from Brisbane, Australia and takes guests to Papua New Guinea’s Mt. Hagen, Karawari, the Sepik River, Southern Highlands and Port Moresby.
Swain says that travel agents should “ensure to use a travel company that knows what they are doing, that knows the people who make it happen in New Guinea. As we said from the beginning in 1996 when we first started arranging these adventures, this is a country where one must ‘Expect the Unexpected.’” (800) 227-9246; swaindestinations.com or agent.swaindestinations.com
Ralph Hammelbacher, Lindblad Expeditions’ v.p. of expedition development, says that the company was one of the first to open Papua New Guinea to visitors and that its predecessor, Lindblad Travel, “was one of the first to take travelers there in the 1970s.”
He adds, “Papua New Guinea holds a great deal of interest for many of our guests. But the remoteness and ‘off-the-beaten-path’ nature also somewhat narrow the market for this remarkable place. We tend to fill the limited amount of places that we offer.”
Most of Lindblad’s adventures take place on board National Geographic’s Orion. In September 2015, the company will offer the Palau to Solomon Islands: Along the Pacific Equator trip, a 19-day excursion (from $17,390 to $35,920 pp) limited to 102 guests that includes a visit to PNG where guests attend a performance of the unique fire dances of the Baining tribe in Rabau.
Hammelbacher adds that when booking the destination, travel agents should “look for adventurous clients who want to explore, who appreciate traditional cultures and who wish to see places that have been relatively little touched by development. It also helps if they [the clients] have a sense of humor, because in Papua New Guinea the unexpected may well happen.”
(800) 397-3348; expeditions.com or agents.expeditions.com/for_travel_agents24.asp