Conflict Islands palm tree and ship

(10 a.m. AEST) -- Next season P&O Cruises will sail to Papua New Guinea from Sydney for the first time, making this exotic itinerary more convenient for a lot more Australians. Additionally, two of the 10-night New Guinea Island Encounter sailings will depart Brisbane during the school holidays, providing families with another option beyond the South Pacific and Queensland coast.

PNG is a surprise packet of natural beauty and lovely locals, but Conflict Islands is the magnificent magnet. One the most beautiful places in the world, Conflict is right up there with other cruiser favourites such as Bora Bora and Isle of Pines. Since P&O became the first line to offer calls to this privately owned paradise, the port has been improved with a second jetty, a new bar and an expanded food menu. According to owner Ian Gowrie Smith, who joined us onboard Pacific Eden last week, Princess, Cunard and Seabourn are among other cruise lines set to visit in the near future. But for now, P&O has the monopoly on this dazzling destination, so get there before everyone else discovers it!

Conflict Islands Upgraded

Contrary to its name, Conflict is peaceful and pristine, with no residents, no pollution and no litter. A secret hot spot for snorkelling and diving, it has a higher diversity of fish species than the Great Barrier Reef. The white sand and turquoise water are sparkling clean, the activities are fun and the prices are in Australian dollars.

Conflict Islands palm tree and ship

Previously, cruise ship calls were subject to wind and water conditions, but a second pier has been built on the other side of Panasesa Island (the main island where passengers transfer by tender) to virtually guarantee a successful visit. An open-air bar, Due South, has also opened on the island's southern side, offering lots of shaded seating with ocean views.

See-through kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and snorkel gear can be hired, or you can book a P&O excursion with Papua New Guinean guides on an outrigger canoe or glass-bottom boat. Snorkelling is possible off the beach, about 200 metres out, but we took the Reef Adventure, which is simply a five-minute boat ride to a custom-built pontoon equipped with stairs, ladders and storage space.

Other options include a guided walk, a private beach picnic or a visit to the turtle nursery, part of the Conflict Island Conservation Initiative (CICI). We hand-fed baby turtles at the hatchery and set them free in the ocean, which was a wonderful learning experience for kids too. The purpose of the hatchery is to relocate sea turtle eggs from islands with a high level of poaching onto the safety of the main island, which is monitored by a marine biologist and her conservation team. Cruise passengers can also adopt and name a turtle to help raise funds for CIC projects.

There's a feelgood factor to the Conflict Islands. More than 70 locals are employed across whenever a ship visits, and all the fresh produce and souvenirs are bought from neighbouring communities. Chicken and vegetable satay sticks, salads, burgers, hot dogs and pies are sold from a kiosk; however, the ultimate goal is to become self-sufficient and totally vegan, keeping in line with the island’s strong conservation focus.

Conflict Islands palm tree and ship

Snorkelling Tips

Don’t miss the incredible marine life and coral gardens of PNG. At some of the beaches on Kiriwina Island and Conflict Island, the reef was too shallow to safely swim over and the current was a little strong, so do take care – or better still, take a canoe to the drop-off (10 kina, approximately $5, per person). Keep an eye out for turtles, rays and countless colourful fish.

P&O’s snorkel and fin hire costs $39.99 for anyone aged 13 years or older ($29.99 for 12 and under) for the whole cruise. It’s included in some shore excursions; otherwise, request your snorkel gear hire before 10am the day before your first port visit.

Shopping in PNG

Markets can be found near the wharf at every port. The traditional wood carvings are excellent, with prices to match (a good ebony carving can cost hundreds of dollars) but this is appropriate for the high quality of materials and workmanship. Haggle for a better price if it seems too high, but don’t go too low. A discount of 10 to 20 percent is a good result; half-price would be considered rude to the artisan.

Affordable souvenirs include handmade jewellery, ornaments, woven bags, bowls, soaps, lotions, postcards and t-shirts. Prices are higher on the Conflict Islands, which is usually the last stop on the itinerary, so many people are getting rid of leftover kina. Kitava and Kiriwina are the best places to pick up a bargain and chat with the locals.

 Kiriwina PNG canoe

Alotau History

As the capital of Milne Bay Province, Alotau is busier and more developed than the island communities. It also has a crucial role in history as the site of the 1942 Battle of Milne Bay, the first major battle of the war in the Pacific in which Allied troops defeated Japanese land forces. We enjoyed a relaxing cruise on the 80-foot Undersea Explorer with interesting commentary by a war historian, Jeff.

At the Alotau Cultural Festival , you can see traditional singing and dancing, but it’s also worth popping into the café where local musicians perform contemporary songs. Down by the water, go for a canoe ride, paddled by a dozen athletic men -- an activity that seems to be more popular with female cruise passengers! For a non-tour option, walk into town (about 20 minutes from the ship or five minutes by taxi) and do a bar crawl to the Alotau Waterfront Lodge and the International Hotel (with free wi-fi). Both have live music, views, food and cold SP beer ($5).

The Ship

Our cruise was aboard Pacific Eden, which is a lovely smaller size in great condition, so it will be a shame to see it leave the fleet next year. Pacific Eden’s last P&O cruise will be the Southeast Asia Explorer from Adelaide to Singapore, in March 2019, calling at Albany, Busselton, Fremantle, Bali, Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Langkawi and Phuket.

For Papua New Guinea cruises from Brisbane, book the Pacific Aria. A Sydney departure in November 2019 is priced from $1,114 per person quad share; $1,699 per person twin share.

-- By Louise Goldsbury, Managing Editor, Australia