"We're under way again, with all souls back on board," announces Captain Lorenzo Paoletti in his mellifluous, Italian-accented tones as Pacific Aria up-anchors and heads for the next island. In the best maritime tradition he views us not merely as passengers – or worse, customers – but as souls in his keeping, to be conveyed safely onward.
"Onward" in this case is an eight-day cruise from Brisbane to Papua New Guinea's Milne Bay and its eastern outliers, the Trobriand Islands and little-known Conflict Islands. Our days ashore will be bookended by two sea days at either end of the voyage. Keen for a bit of inaction, I plan to do little on the sea days but go with the horizon's flow, snooze, dine well, devour good books, and then repeat cycle. Lazy days at sea? How wrong can a nautical myth be.
Instead, each morning I scan the day's new menu of "must-do" shows, tastings, "seminars", theme parties and lectures. Then, add the gym, pool, sauna, piano bar, climbing wall, cinema and more. Primed for indolence, I'm torn instead by FOMO – fear of missing out.
For starters I try the top deck zip-line. It flings me along, high above the pool for 80 whooping metres. Screamingly good fun, although far too brief. The next adrenaline option is called Walk The Plank where, suitably harnessed, you can live-out those latent Captain Jack Sparrow fantasies by inching forward on a narrow beam that protrudes far above the heaving ocean. Screamingly vertiginous fun, I'm sure, and I keep meaning to try it but somehow never quite do, suggesting that I'm about as chicken as Sparrow.
With marginally more success I manage at times to bypass the considerable temptations of The Pantry and Waterfront restaurants, and make it forward to the gym where the treadmills face the Coral Sea's unblinking, blue horizon. It feels like running to PNG.
In two days of smooth sailing we cover the 770 nautical miles to Alotau at the eastern tip of mainland PNG. On docking, the Aria immediately becomes the largest structure in town and, with 2031 passengers and 600 crew (including 78 chefs), it probably swells Alotau's population by 10 per cent.
Going ashore we head first to a cultural festival that features elaborately garbed dancers and singers from around Milne Bay province. Later I opt for a harbour history cruise to see where, in August 1942, Australian and American infantry inflicted the war's first land defeat on Japanese forces.
Aboard the Aria, I'm much at home in a sunny, portside cabin with double bed, desk, TV, balcony and even a bathtub. Two sharp young attendants, Amir from Goa and Viddy from Java, keep the cabins in our corridor shipshape. Not that, initially, I'm often in mine.
Guest historian Dr Max Quanchi gives lively and well-attended lectures each day on PNG culture and history. Elsewhere, bingo is in session, as well as spa promotions with bizarre names such as non-surgical facelift and champagne Botox party. The Aria, with predominantly Australian passengers, declares that it has something for everyone, with its guests ranging from infants in prams to older souls with walking frames, and every age in between.
Captain Paoletti next drops anchor at Kiriwina, the largest of the Trobriand Islands. We shuttle ashore in the ship's tenders, immediately finding ourselves in the middle of a barefoot supermarket. Hundreds of islanders have laid out for sale their handicrafts, including wooden platters delicately inlaid with mother-of-pearl, elaborate walking staves and carved toy crocodiles and turtles.
There are around 12,000 people on Kiriwina. A good proportion seem to have taken the day off from village work and farming, with a ship's arrival being a vital event for their cash economy. Youngsters and adults decked in headdresses and face-paint, loincloths and skirts are ready to put on exuberant performances on the town oval.
A group of us grab the chance to visit the inland village of Obweria, a typical Trobriands settlement where the tidy wood and thatch homes face a grass common. The villagers turn on a special performance that includes older women doing a quasi-warrior dance and then a mixed group re-enacting a "thief-shaming" ritual. Next come the village belles in a line, swaying demurely and wearing grass skirts, flowers, beads and Christmas tinsel.
The youths of Obweria hit the field for 30-a-side cricket – with all players on the field at once. Also decked in loincloths, tassels and body paint, they play with a long bat that's more like a war-club than a gentlemanly willow. These Melanesian Bradmans are sluggers, never blockers, going every time for the boundary or bust. A din of whistles, chants and conch horns erupts each time a batsman skies one or gets bowled. Either way, play stops and the teams break into dance. On the sidelines a raucous village audience go off even more.
We reboard our own island, our elegant slice of offshore Oz, complete with its supermarket of beach fashions, duty-free liquor and jewellery, plus a casino where no poker machine goes unloved for too long. There are stage musicals, a busy kids club and a teens' hangout, as well good Asian and Italian restaurants, to fill the time before our next port of call.
The Conflict Islands. Tell someone you're going there and two questions are inevitable. Where the hell are they? And, with a gnarly name like that, how dangerous is it? This mostly uninhabited, 21-island atoll sits in the Solomon Sea 150 kilometres from the eastern tip of mainland PNG. The British ship, HMS Conflict bestowed the misnomer title when it first surveyed the islands in 1880. Despite the tag, the Conflicts Group is billed, not unreasonably, as "Possibly the most peaceful place on Earth."
Several years ago I had tried to land here but the swell and wind were too punchy, and our ship had to sail on. Considering that episode as Paradise Postponed, I'd always hoped to get back. Today we land trouble-free on the main island, Panasesa.
Grass-skirted kids from the neighbouring Engineer Islands dance up a welcome. The tall gentleman I see standing to one side turns out be Ian Gowrie-Smith, 71, the atoll's "owner and custodian". The London-based, Australian businessman bought the freehold islands 15 years ago. He jokes that the island's name, Panasesa, is often "corrected" by his spell-checker to Panacea. Perfectly apt for this place that he calls, "a little oasis in the middle of the ocean."
"Beer o'clock" can fall surprisingly early this close to the equator – we're only 11 degrees south of it – so we head to a bar that Gowrie-Smith has built overlooking a blindingly beautiful shore. A pure white sand-spit arcs out into a turquoise lagoon, forming an image that might have been peeled from a tropical calendar.
"I'm an accidental conservationist," he adds, admitting that he when he bought the islands "sight unseen" he had no idea of the density of marine life that thrives within its 20-kilometre long lagoon. An extraordinary array of marine tropical species – up to one-third of the world's total – is found in the atoll's waters. However, the depredation that Ian first witnessed with shark finning, turtle-killing and trepang gathering, soon turned him strongly towards conservation and to employing locals as protection rangers.
By the time Pacific Aria turns south again, heading for home with all souls safely stowed, I've got the FOMO thing licked. So, I miss a rock band, a massage, promotion, stretch class or party? No conflict. Instead, I revert to type, cruising the burger bar, a gin tasting demo and the latest Jack Reacher tome. Sometimes I just daydream over the stern, where the ship's wake is a track winding back to perhaps the least conflicted place on Earth.
FIVE CRUISE EXPERIENCES
A day trip to Tawali on the eastern tip of mainland PNG sees you snorkelling amid clouds of tropical fish above dramatic coral reef drop-offs.
KULA RING CEREMONY
Milne Bay's island communities exchange elaborate "shell money" tributes in order to establish trust and obligation. A Kula Ring swapping ceremony is re-enacted on Panasesa during ship visits.
BATTLE OF MILNE BAY CRUISE
Near Alotau in 1942 Allied forces inflicted the war's first land defeat on Imperial Japanese troops. A local expert reveals the battle sites and best stories.
The Conflict Islands' turtle hatchery, jointly supported by P&O Cruises, houses large tanks where sea turtle hatchlings (green and hawksbill) are reared. Visitors can sponsor and release them to the sea.
TROBRIAND ISLAND CARVINGS
Intricately handcrafted bowls and carvings, delicately inlaid with mother-of-pearl, are the Trobriands' specialty. Superior pieces are also available on Panasesa Island.
John Borthwick was a guest of P&O Cruises Australia.
The 12-night New Guinea Island Encounter on P&O's Pacific Adventure sails from Sydney August 24, 2020, with fares from $1349 a person in a quad-share cabin. Phone132 494 or see pocruises.com.au