Virtuoso Life Magazine, May/Jun 2015

A World Away

Expedition cruising takes a turn for the luxe on a journey through Melanesia.

Virtuoso Life May/June 2015.  Photographs by Luis García.

EARLY ONE MORNING on a Zodiac dispatched by the Silver Discoverer, I began channeling Margaret Mead. It was a little past six, with the sun already warming the Coral Sea’s watery dawn. Although my husband and I weren’t quite awake, we were being initiated in the ways of in-depth exploration cruising by the ship’s expedition leader, Conrad Combrink, his name rivaled in coolness only by his South African accent.

Combrink’s itinerary had been blown apart by 25-knot southerlies in a season known for northerlies, making that day’s planned anchorages unwise. So, as he put it, we were “going into full expedition mode”  just “dropping in” unannounced on a tropical atoll in a very remote part of Papua New Guinea, to see what life there was like. He had no idea how the local tribe might receive us, not to mention our 337-foot ship anchored offshore: There would be no welcome speeches, no sing-sing dance performances, no carved souvenirs set out to buy. But Yanaba Island, on the outer edge of the Papua New Guinean archipelago, looked promising. We’d point ourselves there, even though the only thing we were following was his heart.

After four days in Combrink’s care, no one batted an eye. Our
73 fellow passengers had trekked to this vast stretch of the South Pacific from 16 different countries: flights first to Auckland or Hong Kong, followed by an overnight in Cairns. We had then boarded the Discoverer and nosed into the Coral Sea, crossing the Great Barrier Reef. Nearly 45 hours after pushing off from the harbor in Cairns, we’d made our first shore landing in Papua New Guinea. And now here stood Combrink in his expedition shirt, insisting that, if we went ashore here, we’d find the people of Yanaba Island just as interested in us as we were in them.

Made up of thousands of islands extending from New Guinea to Fiji, Melanesia is the birthplace of cultural anthropology. It’s also “one of the most biologically diverse, interesting, and unexplored parts of the planet!” Combrink said. “Something very few people have been lucky enough to see.”

WE’D LEARNED FROM OUR FLEET of onboard lecturers that Papua New Guinea alone contains more than 600 islands, and among them, its people speak 848 different languages – representing the greatest linguistic diversity in the world. Sandwiched between the equator and Australia, PNG is part of a great arc of mountains stretching from Asia to the South Pacific. In 18 days we’d travel nearly 4,000 nautical miles – skimming ashore in inflatable Zodiacs to visit remote villages and tribes, each with their own customs and cultures, not only in PNG, but also the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and on tiny Norfolk Island – before finally disembarking in Auckland.

Exploring this vast archipelago and its rarely visited anchorages would be almost impossible on your own. But increasingly, a new breed of high-end expedition ship – outfitted with loads of fuel, Zodiacs, and snorkeling equipment; teams of expert birders, marine biologists, historians, and anthropologists; gyms, yoga instructors, gourmet chefs, and high-speed Internet – can be found poking about some of the world’s most far-flung destinations. Made with shallower hulls to ply previously uncharted waters, these new ships are following ancient migration routes in comfort and style.

“We’re meeting more intrepid travelers who have been everywhere and done everything and are looking for what’s left to see on the planet,” says Judy Perl, a New York-based travel agency president. “The North Pole, Northwest Passage, Papua New Guinea … these are the last frontiers. There’s no better way to visit places without infrastructure than aboard a small expedition ship.”

“Expedition cruises appeal to nature lovers and well-educated people, professionals who don’t consider themselves ‘cruisers’ but adventurers and explorers,” adds Kristian Anderson, Silversea’s senior vice president and general manager for the Americas. “For these upscale adventurers, all-inclusive luxury combines extremely well with in-depth exploration cruising.”

SO HERE WE WERE, NOT CRUISERS BUT adventurers, the shimmering-green outline of Yanaba Island in view, zooming across the blue ocean with our backs to the palm-spiked coast. As we drifted
in to shore I heard murmuring, then giggles: About 30 children crouched, waiting. They were tiny. What you might imagine if you were to picture slight, brown, small-boned kids. At first I saw five perched on the cliff, like birds. And then just past a ramshackle dock, five more. And still more. They wore torn shorts and not much else. Some had flowers stuck in their hair. As the Zodiac lurched onto shore, they gaped.

“Hello!” we called, eight of us clambering out onto the muddy beach.
More giggles and stares. Then a soft-spoken girl said, “Dim-dims,” using the local pidgin for “white people,” and the beach erupted in peals of laughter. We scrambled up a steep trail into the forest and hiked across the island, followed by a small army of kids. There were no cars, no roads, no billboards, no power lines, no tin roofs – just a leafy path bordered by tall palms and papaya trees leading through still, humid air.

The trail ended on the far side of the island at a white-sand beach opening onto big aqua swells rolling in off the Pacific. Astonishingly, between the crashing waves and us stood a village of about 40 thatched-roof huts built on stilts over the sand. The villagers of Yanaba Island seemed delighted to see us; some spoke English. I met a young man dressed in a T-shirt that read “Maverick.” We hiked the length of the beach, stopping to admire a cool outrigger canoe he’d carved. Then Maverick said he’d like to give me something.

“That’s OK,” I protested. “It’s very nice to meet you.” But he drew from his hut an exquisite ebony-black, hand-carved walking stick. Would I like to have it for 100 kina? I had only 50 kina (about $20). I hesitated; it seemed far too fine a thing for 100 kina. But Maverick took my 50 kina and presented me with the stick, which he’d carved himself, and it seemed rude to refuse it.

“It’s beautiful!” I exclaimed, as everyone followed us back down the beach. I was happy, Maverick was happy, and we snapped a giant group portrait in the sand. It felt, at that moment on the edge of the sea, as though something rare in our globalized world had just happened. I wasn’t entirely sure what it was, so I let my Yanaba walking stick, which felt like a sort of magical totem – with carvings depicting a crocodile, a man, a woman, and a dog – lead me back to the Zodiac. 

MONTHS LATER, my memories of our Melanesian expedition aren’t like my memories of other trips. There are no towns, or stores, or cars; no hotels or restaurants; no packing and unpacking. There is always water, the balmy South Pacific air streaming over it, and bright sun. When I close my eyes there are sing-sing dancers wearing fabulous feathers; brown skin, black skin, plus infinite variations in between; crinkly black hair, fuzzy cinnamon hair, even blonde hair. There is a quiet woman taking my arm and saying, “You will see many small boys carrying big machetes. Don’t be afraid – they are going to work in the yam gardens.” I don’t really remember specific islands, and I can’t say I even remember which people we met where. I only remember being touched by them all: by the woman I saw clinging to a steep hillside singlehandedly planting yams; by so many very small boys, arms draped around one another’s shoulders; by the men with their striking war canoes and ancient dances. I took it all in, sometimes with a lump in my throat.

After our Yanaba Island visit we’d gathered in the ship’s lounge for cocktails and the evening recap. Expedition leader Combrink said, “What did you think of those people? They have a hard life, don’t they? They’re not poor – they just have a different life. They’d run out of fuel, so while you were there we donated some of ours.” (The Discoverer regularly assists these remote villages where it can, donating food, fuel, and water at various stops.) In exchange for our visit, Combrink had cut a deal with the chief: fuel and water for a morning of cultural immersion. It was a two-way street on a one-trail island, and pretty much everyone had come out ahead.

Toasting one another in the Discoverer’s lounge, we felt as though we had each shared in some unspoken quest. My fellow passengers ranged in age from 16 to 88 and were some of the most well-traveled individuals I’ve met, ever. They moved through small villages lightly (if not always boarding Zodiacs gracefully). Nonetheless, some of the older passengers’ enthusiasm stunned me. We had come so far, for so many days, and they were still curious. In a world that can seem homogenous and overcalculated, fearful and intolerant, many of my shipmates possessed that particular brand of openness that comes only with time and travel.

Admittedly, it’s not all that hard to stay curious, returning after each sweaty cultural immersion to such casually elegant onboard surroundings. Of our three weeks at sea, not all days were calm, but most began for me with yoga outdoors on the top deck. I drank in the soft, warm breeze. The delicious sun rising. A dozen of us with feet planted on mats, the ship swaying gently, and even balance-challenged passengers trying the poses anyway. Almost everyone on this expedition was the way you’d want to be when you’re old enough to know better, an explorer at heart. 

TWO WEEKS INTO THE TRIP we'd learned the names of most of our fellow passengers and many of the crew. Barbara and Ian from Bath, England, were dashing and charming; Pearl, also English, was like a character out of a novel, and confided to me the first night that although her husband had died young, he’d left her with the means to travel well – and travel well she did. Reserved Ivan from New Zealand was sailing solo, as his wife was battling illness, and a Turkish woman we all nicknamed “the Queen” chain-smoked and ate all her meals alone. On the first day, we’d met Mads and Emma, who looked like Danish film stars but turned out to be students, and everyone’s favorites, the O’Boyles – avid divers from Texas, who had already spent three weeks aboard the Discoverer when we boarded, and who booked another three before we disembarked.

We bonded over Zodiac rides, snorkeling safaris, and a night trek to the top of a live volcano, and also over meals: You could request a table for two or join a mixed group (many of whom were Silversea regulars) that would turn out to be from three different countries. Dinner might be mixed grill served out-side under strands of café lights that shone like stars against the night sky, or pan-seared foie gras, wild mushroom “cappuccino,” tiger prawns, and chocolate crème brûlée – or anything you wanted, sautéed sea bass, say, and a fresh green salad, followed by a caramel ice cream sundae – served with wines of your choice in the Discoverer’s candlelit dining room.

You could also opt to dine in your cabin – and many people seemed to enjoy this – although my husband and I always chose to eat out. Our cabin was tucked amidships on the lower passenger deck. Its 181 square feet contained a queen bed with crisp white sheets, a small sitting area with a love seat and armchair, a writing desk, a flat-screen TV, an iPod dock, and a marble bath (with walk-in shower) exactly large enough for one person at a time. I worried our cabin might feel confining after three weeks at sea. It never did. My only quibble was that I wished for a larger window (there are different cabin options available, several with private balconies), but this was easily remedied by spending more time on deck.

Or under water. Throughout 18 days in Melanesia, each one gorgeous and stirring, the staggering richness of diversity became almost haunting, like a lurid sunset that could someday fade to gray. At first it appeared in obvious places: quivers of cockatoo and cassowary feathers waving atop dancers’ heads, each village with its own style of headdress; or in the crazy-rich birdlife: orange-fronted fruit doves, sulphur-crested cockatoos, and the wildly plumed birds of paradise. But then we donned masks and snorkels and slipped into the Coral Triangle’s translucent water – the center of the world in terms of marine biodiversity, the Amazon of the sea, with 3,000 species of fish – and drifted over coral gardens packed with layers of life, marveling at animals that looked like plants and plants that looked like animals. Well, we had trouble keeping it together. Coming up after the first of many snorkel outings, my husband, no softie, got emotional. “I haven’t seen a coral reef this alive, ever,” he said, blinking through his mask. “Wow … what a privilege.”

IN A WORLD that worships speed, perhaps one of the greatest luxuries is traveling for any extended length of time. And while a deep dive into the world’s most distant corners takes time, time itself takes on a different quality. Watching the sacred Rom dance on Vanuatu’s Ambrym Island (named “Here grow yams” in the local language by Captain Cook in 1774), I found myself seated in a dirt clearing surrounded by giant banyan trees, a landscape almost unchanged since Cook’s day. Male dancers wearing tail feathers and penis sheaths, or cloaked in massive capes of dried banana leaves, stomped the sand to the rhythmic clack of bamboo instruments. A polyphonic chant progressed ever so slowly, by infinitesimal degrees. The whole thing – the dancers twirling in their sacred costumes, the hypnotic shhh-shhh-shhh of the dried leaves, all of it weaving tribe and culture and time together, while 75 of us from 16 countries watched mesmerized – seemed utterly remarkable. Especially in an age that feels increasingly squeezed by sameness. What a delight to be reminded that different is wondrous. And that diversity, both under water and above it, is one of the best reasons to travel. 

By Kim Brown Seely.  All rights reserved.