Papua New Guinea

He considers Papua New Guinea “strictly a niche destination, not a top-end one. It’s one of the great, magical places left in the world.”

In addition to being an inbound tour operator, Trans Niugini Tours operates a series of wilderness lodges, tour minibuses that crisscross Port Moresby, the highlands and Madang. The company also operates The Sepik Spirit, a river cruise boat, plus a handful of small aircraft to link its lodges.

With its limitless and unsullied natural splendors, the magic of this fascinating land is beginning to pull in the crowds. According to Taita Terence, PNG Tourism Promotion Authority marketing officer for North America, approximately 120,000 foreigners visited last year, but only about 8,000 were from the U.S.

However, this figure inevitably will increase because according to Bates, “PNG is very affordable. Cost-wise, coming here is comparable to vacationing in Australia, but less expensive than Indonesia, the two most popular destinations in the region.”

He agrees that visiting Papua New Guinea is undeniably a “self-gratifying luxury that can’t be calculated in material comforts.”

Amenities catering to affluent visitors who come expecting five-star resorts are understandably absent because, after all, this is a relatively new country that was “discovered” by Europeans about 470 years ago; after nearly a century of colonial rule by Imperial Germany and Britain—and later Australia—Papua New Guinea, became a nation only in 1975.

Indeed, the sense of newness underlined by a cultural shock stuns first-time arrivals in Port Moresby, the country’s capital. The bright colors, noises, smells—and a deep imprint of the exotic—overwhelm.

Arriving here from the United States is a long 20-hour journey allayed by the premier conveniences offered by V Australia, a Branson premium economy airline with exceptional service. V Australia offers a daily flight from Los Angeles to Papua New Guinea, connecting with Pacific Blue in Brisbane, Australia.

Most arrivals will pause overnight in Port Moresby before venturing into the wonders that lie beyond the mountains and sea.

A 1-hour flight on Air Niugini—the national airline that’s a vital lifeline for visitors and locals alike and is highly rated for friendly service, efficiency and hospitality—will take visitors to Hoskins, a colorful port in New Britain, the neighboring island recognized as one of the Pacific’s unparalleled diving spots.

From there, it’s a 45-minute van ride to Walindi Plantation Resort on Kimbe Bay, a place that scuba divers, snorkelers, birdwatchers and nature lovers claim is as close to paradise as one can get.

Australians Cecilie Benjamin and her husband Max built the resort 25 years ago. They are diving enthusiasts who recognized that their property was at the center of the Coral Triangle, a celebrated and spectacular marine region stretching north from East Indonesia and the Solomon Islands to the Philippines.

“International marine researchers agree that the greatest marine diversification of coral on earth is here,” says Cecilie. “The Coral Triangle is home to 75 percent of the world’s coral species, yet it’s in an area covered by less than 2 percent of the world’s oceans. Kimbe Bay lies on the Bismarck Sea, almost at the triangle’s center.”

Walindi Resort began as a modest, 2-bungalow diving resort, but has grown into a well-appointed property with 12 beachfront bungalows and four Plantation House rooms. It is a sparkling sprawl with paths unfurling under coconut palms and flowery shrubs where a deep feeling of remoteness is the norm.

“Initially, our visitors were exclusively Australian. Now we have guests from all corners of the world,” Cecilie adds. “The resort started with one diving boat. Today, we have two day boats taking guests daily to outlying reefs and islands.”

Underwater photographers also rate Kimbe as one of the top diving spots in the world. Photos taken there consistently receive top honors at underwater film festivals and have significantly contributed to Papua New Guinea’s reputation as a world-class diving destination.

Birdwatchers also flock to the area around Walindi, home to some of the most unusual avian species on the planet.

“Even if you’re not interested in diving, there’s an incredible range of activities around here,” Cecilie continues. “We arrange visits to nearby villages to experience the native way of life and excursions to swim in hot, volcanic thermal pools known for their therapeutic value. Lately there’s been an increased interest in exploring the area to observe—and be surrounded by—primeval rainforests. World War II aircraft wrecks nearby serve as reminders of the devastating conflict that enveloped these islands from 1942-1945.”