Few places on Earth can match the incredible diversity of cultures present in Melanesia, with the greatest language density compared to land mass on Earth. This region in the Pacific is made up of four countries – Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, plus New Caledonia and parts of Indonesia. PONANT guests, Annette and John, tell us all about their exciting Melanesia expeditions.
You decided to embark on some voyages through Melanesia with PONANT – what was it that intrigued you about this part of the world and made you want to visit?
Honestly, we had no intention of visiting Melanesia until reading a glossy PONANT brochure. Years ago, we had visited Vanuatu but not ventured to other Melanesian areas. It was a split second decision that we will never regret! Having already journeyed to a few polar areas with PONANT, we knew the style of expedition cruising and loved the concept of the (warmer) island and underwater adventures described. At that stage, the cultural aspect was a secondary factor – needless to say, that changed.
How would you describe the places you visited in Melanesia?
Idyllic islands, isolated villages, happy villagers, diverse cultures, underwater adventures, deserted beaches, unique birdlife, dramatic landscapes and fascinating geology… the list is truly endless.
What interesting cultural encounters did you experience in Melanesia?
At each village we would land by Zodiac® and be guided to the village where we would respectfully wait for the chief’s welcome, watch an exchange of gifts between our captain and the chief, and be entertained by song and dance. Often, there were more aspects to the welcome and no two were ever the same. As fascinated as we were with the local populations, they were also curious about us. The children were intrigued by our pale skin, fair hair and strange photographic equipment dangling around our necks! The sheer joy of sharing photos from the back of our screens was something to remember. Our lifestyle was a stark contrast to their village life – it was a humbling experience. The warmth and enthusiasm of the local people was infectious. Another humbling encounter was again with a large group of children. Staff had taken cold water with ice in a cooler (for guests originally). The ice was a hit! The kids were spellbound as they had never seen ice. I had to give a science lesson to my little local guide, as the concept of something frozen was so foreign. Touching, tasting and watching ice melt was a magical experience to share.
Did you learn anything surprising or unusual from your Expedition Team about Melanesia?
We were very lucky to have travelled with many of the expedition team members on previous voyages, so it was great to see some familiar faces! Each member has at least one specialty to bring to the table. John and I were always early for lectures (with gin & tonic in hand!) knowing that we would come away with many snippets of new knowledge. Our English-speaking team each had their specialties and were able to pass on their encyclopaedic understanding of this area, often unusual and always entertaining. Walks through the forests, villages and beaches were an extension of the lectures and the guides exuded enthusiasm and excitement, tempered only by care and concern for every guest.
What ship did you sail on and how did you find the onboard experience?
We sailed on one of the small EXPLORER ships – Le Lapérouse. We have sailed to many regions on PONANT’s slightly larger Sisterships and found it to be a similar wonderful experience. Le Lapérouse had a very cosy feel but with all the usual luxurious amenities. We felt very much ‘at home’.
What was the most memorable moment of your voyages?
One memorable moment from the six weeks away? That is a tricky question!
We had planned to walk on the volcano on Tanna, but due to torrential rain, the Expedition team were able to arrange an alternative overnight outing. We don’t know how they can plan new excursions with such precision in such a short time! We had the most astonishing experience on Pentecost Island. Only a lucky few are able to see the Vine (or land) diving ritual performed. It is heart stopping!
Without spoiling it for future guests, another memorable excursion was in a dug-out canoe paddling through the fjords to a village. Every canoe was a floral extravaganza! It was a first – the villagers themselves organised every moment of the excursion. Our Expedition team warned us of potential hiccups but it was a string of fun moments – one after another.
Then there was the waterfall flowing out of the forest and into the ocean – not even on a map. It was documented in 1606 and we were possibly the second ship to ever pass by. Similarly, we were probably the second ship (after Captain Cook) to navigate one channel. There are many advantages with travelling on a small expedition ship.
Would you consider Melanesia a ‘must-visit’ destination? If so, why?
Melanesia was an unexpected potpourri of warm welcoming people, interesting and diverse cultures and mind-blowing scenery. We were not sure what to expect but it exceeded all that we had hoped for.
Where are you planning to travel to next?
We have planned to visit the Kimberley as we love that area and hope to see more of our incredible homeland. Later, we are booked for another voyage sailing around the northern region of Papua New Guinea, hoping to swim with whale sharks. When we are able to fly a little further afield, we have Svalbard on our very long wish list!
Photo Credit: © Annette & John Eldershaw