Off-the-Path South Pacific: Rabaul, Papua New Guinea

by  Elissa Garay | Apr 16, 2013
Rabaul, Papua New Guinea
Rabaul, Papua New Guinea / Mickrick/iStock

A fascinating, stuck-in-time string of South Pacific isles, the nation of Papua New Guinea (colloquially known as PNG) is an anthropological never-never land, where a linguistically rich population, representing more than 800 languages and dialects, maintains a culture and traditions that seem altogether from another time and place (ahem, cannibals and headhunters figured prominently in the not-so-distant past!). Brimming with lush coconut palm-speckled coastlines and astoundingly rich reef systems – the diving and snorkeling counts amongst the world’s best – I recently touched down for an exotic taste of the tropics at Rabaul, aka the "Pompeii of the Pacific."

Set in the shadows of an imposing series of still-gurgling volcanoes (a twin volcanic eruption back in 1994 pretty much destroyed the old town center), Rabaul was once reputed for its loveliness, but is now buried in volcanic ash. Though the area’s many attractions still remain, the largely abandoned township has since been relocated to the neighboring settlement of Kokopo, set along the edge of Blanche Bay.

Visitors willing to brave a destination where tourism is still very much in its infancy, will be rewarded with up-close encounters with grumbling volcanoes, historical World War II sites, elaborate cultural performances, and magnificent marine life.

Where to Sleep:
Accommodations in the Rabaul area are pricey. Your best bet on reasonable digs is the 38-room Kokopo Village Resort, set right on the Kokopo waterfront overlooking the Duke of York Islands. Rooms are fairly no-frills, but do come with cable TV and ceiling fans; an on-site bar and restaurant doles out westernized dishes alongside ocean views; and staff proved efficient and friendly. Rates from $109/night for a double room.

Or, upgrade to the Kokopo Beach Bungalow Resort, set along the coastline with beachfront access, and a lagoon-style swimming pool. The 39 spacious rooms, in private or shared bungalows, come equipped with AC and private balconies. Spilling out onto a scenic treetop deck, the bar and restaurant dishes out Melanesian, Asian, and Western cuisine; pop into the gift shop for a good selection of local arts and crafts. Special two-night weekend packages for two bundle in airport transfers and cooked breakfasts for $180/night.

What to See and Do:
The sulfur-spewing volcanoes are the uncontested stars here – in fact, the entirety of Rabaul’s town and harbor is actually set atop a vast volcanic caldera, with smaller mounts serving as sub-vents for the underwater behemoth.

Despite the extra expense, the limited infrastructure here lends well to hitting up Rabaul on an organized tour. Try Kokopo Tours’ half-day volcano boat cruise and hiking outing (from $109/person), which will get you up-close and personal to Mt. Tavurvur and Mt. Vulcan (the two culprits in the ’94 eruptions) and offer insight into the town’s volcanic devastation and reconstruction. Learn more with a visit to the Rabaul Volcano Observatory, touting a great vantage point over the town and volcanoes.

History buffs can tack on a customizable half-day tour (from $109/person) to a selection of WWII-themed stops, including the Japanese barge tunnels at Karavia, a testament to Japanese engineering ingenuity; the East New Britain Historical and Cultural Center, showcasing Japanese and America war relics; Admiral Yamamoto's bunker; and the wreck of an old Japanese bomber.

No visit to Rabaul would be complete without sneaking a peek underwater, with warm, translucent tropical seas teeming with colorful corals and exotic fish, plus World War II relics. Snorkel off the beaches by your resort, or if you’re a diver, hook up with an outfit like Kabaira Dive, based out of the Rapopo Plantation Resort.

Also be sure to put your finger on the pulse of daily village life, by perusing the colorful town market, set along Kokopo’s main strip, and brimming with produce, betel nut, and crafts.

Try to time your Rabaul visit to coincide with the Baining’s tribe fire dance, which combines elaborate masks, bonfires, and drum beats for an unforgettable nighttime cultural encounter ($109/person).

Incurable travel addict, longtime travel scribe, and mindful money-saver Elissa Richard is currently indulging her insatiable wanderlust on an epic 14-month journey around the globe – intent on making it every step of the way without busting her modest budget. Follow her along the way as she reports back with budget-savvy travel tips from the mountains of Transylvania to the wilds of Tasmania, and from the little-trodden temples of Burma to the bustling bars and clubs of Buenos Aires. A vagabond in search of value, just for ShermansTravel!

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