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Papau New Guinea
Credit: Reeve Joliff EYOS

Melanesia: where the wild things are

20 December 2023 • Written by Tristan Rutherford

As part of this year’s Adventure Special, BOAT explores the Pacific region of Melanesia – a little-known tropical paradise that can only be fully appreciated by boat.

If you’re looking for an only-by-yacht escape, Melanesia needs to be at the top of the list. This newly accessible Eden, tucked between Polynesia, Australia and Thailand, is composed of the four sun-drenched nations of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji. Fancy volcanic hikes or Second World War wreck dives? Cetacean spotting or meeting indigenous locals? Bring your own boat.

Many coral reefs in Melanesia are unmissable for divers
Credit: Getty images

Pack a mask and snorkel too. Melanesia’s 2,000 islands, which are scattered like coral idylls across more than 3,000 nautical miles of empty sea, offer the greatest marine biodiversity this side of Raja Ampat. In fact, you’d best pack anything you may need, from shorts to submersibles. Infrastructure is near non-existent on the outer islands and those natural freshwater sinkholes (on Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu) and slide-down waterfalls (on Taveuni, Fiji) are too good to miss.

Children watch the tourists on the Solomon Islands.
Credit: Mike Moore EYOS

Sailing from the west, you will first arrive at Papua New Guinea. The most populated island of the region, with approximately nine million inhabitants scattered over an area the size of Spain, many living in rural isolated communities. A short hop away lies the Solomon Islands, an archipelago of more than 1,000 palm-fringed islands, the majority uninhabited, followed by a smaller cluster called Vanuatu, a seldom-visited region that boasts the world’s biggest shipwreck and the active Mt Yasur volcano. Further on, there’s Fiji, perhaps the most well-known Melanesian nation, with more than 300 colourful islands to explore.

Melanesia was named by 19th-century French navigator and explorer Jules-Sébastien-César Dumont d’Urville, who first divided the Pacific islands and classified the islanders as Melanesian, Micronesian and Polynesian. More than 1,300 languages are spoken in the region – Papua New Guinea alone hosts more than 800, spoken by 5,000 distinct indigenous groups, making it the most culturally diverse nation on Earth.

Credit: Reeve Joliff EYOS

Melanesia also sits within the Coral Triangle, widely considered the planet’s richest area of marine life and a conservation priority for the World Wide Fund for Nature. The archipelago is known for its incredible diving; just off New Britain – between Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands – 50 Japanese ships and planes wrecked during the Second World War have become an aquatic playground for seahorses and harlequin ghost pipefish.

Thanks to brand new marinas and helpful explorer agencies, Melanesia is now on the cruising map. Larger yachts accepting guests during 2023 and 2024 are the 48-metre Hanse Explorer via EYOS, as well as the 87-metre Arctic, sailing yacht Orion, the Sunreef Power cat Kokomo and Driftwood, all via Y.CO. Sounds too much like hard work? Then set course for Njari island in the Solomons, where you could be the only person on the beach.

SS President Coolidge, a luxury liner converted to move troops in the Second World War, is the world’s largest shipwreck.
Credit: Adobe Stock

The misconceptions

“I’d been warned that Papua New Guinea was a lawless country round the edges and positively Stone Age in the interior,” says Jon Holmes. The travel broadcaster sailed up Sepik River, a 110,0000-metre-long crocodile-infested waterway which, shaded by barely penetrable rainforest, snakes into the country’s interior. Yet once inland, says Holmes, Papuans were “welcoming, curious and not at all suspicious of an outsider. They were keen to teach me, even to the point of being invited into prayer huts to see ceremonies.”

Captain Jens Köthen of Hanse Explorer, a regular visitor to the region, agrees. “You have to appreciate and understand the local culture in Melanesia,” he says. Encounters such as witnessing a mask ceremony on the volcanic rim of Witu island off Papua New Guinea are based on respect. “We leave a positive impact so that others can come after and have the same remarkable experience.”

Hanse Explorer is one of the only expedition superyachts to be based in Melanesia for an entire season and is perfect for exploration, with a state-of-the-art dive centre added in 2022.

Colourful face paint and masks can be seen widely across Melanesia.
Credit: Rob Mccallum EYOS

In the Papuan capital of Port Moresby, where the UK Foreign Office notes that “crime is high”, it’s probably not wise to flaunt a Patek Philippe. However, when Jon Holmes flew into Papua New Guinea’s interior in a light aircraft, he “spent time with indigenous people who still hunt with spears and bows and arrows”. Holmes enjoyed crocodile spotting by night in a dugout canoe. “There was much dancing, ceremonial drums with ghosts in them… and the ritualistic scarring of crocodile markings into skin by the Kaningara people of the Blackwater River”, which takes place in August.

Melanesia’s kastoms, or traditional arts, are mesmerising. Captain Köthen recommends the sacred Baining Fire Dance on New Britain (Papua New Guinea), carried out to celebrate births and the passing of family members as well as to initiate young men into adulthood. “Giant masks almost the size of a person are donned and the dancers dramatically leap over the flames and kick the embers, sending showers of sparks into the night sky.”

Superyacht expedition leader Angela Pennefather was born and raised in Papua New Guinea. She is fluent in the neo-Melanesian languages of Bislama in Vanuatu, pidgin in the Solomon Islands and Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea. Guests in Melanesia “are surprised as there is no middle ground in terms of development”, says Pennefather. “In urban areas you’ll find kids on TikTok yet on small islands there is no development at all.”

Colourful face paint and masks can be seen widely across Melanesia.
Credit: Raul Touzon

The boat

Almost any yacht is suitable for tropical cruising, as long as it packs provisioning space and spares of every sub-£50 part. Data from yachts currently tracking to Melanesia from Polynesia point to a bumper year in 2023 and 2024. The green light flicked in summer 2022, when Vanuatu opened to yachts after a 28-month hiatus and owners started to realise that, if you’re transitioning a yacht to Australasia, you should explore Melanesia. Yachts have also grown. Pennefather is assisting vessels of “70 to 100 metres in place of the 50-metre to 60-metre yachts we welcomed pre-Covid-19”.

Serenity across Melanesia’s 2,000 islands is guaranteed. “I worked with four yachts in the Solomon Islands last month,” continues Pennefather, who is currently assisting a 95-metre visiting three of the four Melanesian nations. “Each could stay three weeks in the same anchorage without seeing another yacht.” She shares a story about a celebrity who recently booked a Melanesia charter. “His team asked for NDAs [non-disclosure agreements], which is fine, but we also told him: ‘Dude, no one will know or care who you are!’”

Hanse Explorer will sail Melanesia from May to September 2024.
Credit: EYOS

Hanse Explorer will explore Melanesia from May through September 2024. “She is tough yet classy and offers extraordinary operational capabilities in remote tropical destinations,” says her captain of 15 years, Jens Köthen.

He will pack two Seabobs specifically for the expedition. In 2022 Hanse Explorer received a new dive centre, “which includes a Nitrox compressor and storage banks to fill our dive bottles” for all guests and two divemasters. “Unlike many yachts, we offer diving directly from the vessel with our partners at EYOS,” says Captain Köthen, “so we are not dependent on shoreside companies or infrastructure.”

An Open Ship philosophy allows her 12 guests in seven cabins to learn about propulsion in the engine room or take a navigation lesson on the bridge.

On deck of the Hanse Explorer.
Credit: Oivind Haug

The equipment

Superyacht expedition guide Angela Pennefather has worked on Hanse Explorer and is a big fan. “She’s a yacht with the capabilities of a little ship”, including a desalination plant and a 8,000-nautical-mile range. “Her two Zodiacs can glide ashore straight into the wildlife,” she adds.

Every good explorer should have a great pair of binoculars. Pennefather prefers Mavens, whose B Series binoculars promise pin-sharp imaging across impossibly wide angles.

“Pack a sun hat and a pair of good reef-walking sandals like Teva,” continues Pennefather. “They can get muddy, dry quickly and are good for climbing a volcano.” In Vanuatu, Mt Yasur (on Tanna Island) is an active caldera that rumbles, burps and belches molten lava into the night sky like a fireworks display. One explorer yacht required a new paint job after mooring too close. North of Tanna, the volcanic island of Ambrym put on an incredible show in 2022.

Credit: EYOS

Rob McCallum, co-founder of EYOS Expeditions, says that having a helicopter allows guests to move beyond the coast so “you can drop into villages that otherwise wouldn’t get any visitors at all”. This always creates incredible and authentic experiences (for both parties). The scuba diving and snorkelling is superb in Papua New Guinea, but “if folks want to go the next step, a submersible can descend to 500 metres or more to see things that no one has seen before”. The world’s most biodiverse seas are National Geographic territory.

In Vanuatu, extra equipment can be bought at Yachting World Marina, the country’s principal refuelling and cruising hub. It’s a 10-minute drive from Bauerfield International Airport, from where planes skim above an aquamarine ocean en route to a dozen tiny in-country airstrips as well as the main airports of Australia, Fiji and the Solomon Islands.

The newest marina in Melanesia opened on Nawi Island, Fiji, in May.
Credit: Nawai Island Marketing

In Port Moresby, the principal marina is the Royal Papua Yacht Club. “This year we have had a decent influx of visiting cruising yachts,” claims marina spokesperson Rizwan Khan. “Yachts email our marine office first,” he adds, “then we help them organise visas, immigration and quarantine”, as well as local guides and equipment. Recent visitors included circumnavigating trimaran Use It Again! (ex B&Q, Castorama). She was constructed in 2003 for Dame Ellen MacArthur in Australia, a 400-kilometre sail south-west.

Port Denarau Marina on Fiji.
Credit: Port Denarau Marina

The timing

The newest marina in Melanesia, Nawi Island in Fiji, opened in May 2023. It has 21 superyacht slips up to 85 metres and recently welcomed 39-metre expedition catamaran The Beast. “The marina is expected to be certified to Category 5 cyclone resistance standard,” says spokesperson Sheena Hughes.

The South Pacific Cyclone season buffets Melanesia from December through April. However, the northern Solomons escape most inclement weather, while incoming storms can be tracked far in advance using apps such Windy, which crunch meteorological data from multiple sources. There is never a month where Melanesia cannot be actively enjoyed.

Many yachts visiting Melanesia exit the Panama Canal in February. They make a downwind cruise to Fiji, where this year sailors have witnessed a rise in minke whales and migrating humpbacks. Fiji’s other superyacht-focused marina, Port Denarau, welcomed a number of large vessels this spring.

EYOS has several yachts heading towards Melanesia for the peak spring and summer season. “We have timed our expeditions to take place during the very best time of the year,” says Rob McCallum. Highlights include the local tradition of “land diving” in Vanuatu, where young men tie vines around their ankles like bungee cords, then fling themselves off 30-metre-high towers to ensure a bountiful yam harvest.

A humpback whale and her calf – Melanesia is an ideal place for cetacean spotting.
Credit: Getty images

The wildlife

Sheena Hughes recommends the Namena Marine Reserve, the largest no-take zone in Fiji. Here, 1,000 fish species serve as a seafood buffet for spinner dolphins and sperm whales. Known as the Garden Isle, Fiji’s third-largest island of Taveuni is “a prime destination for exploring Fiji’s natural beauty”, continues Hughes.

Bouma National Heritage Park covers 80 per cent of Taveuni, where around 15,000 islanders reside amid 150 volcanic cones, verdant rainforest and slide-down waterfalls. Eighty avian species, including honeyeaters, red-shining parrots and orange fruit doves, will beguile keen birdwatchers.

Hiking in Papua New Guinea.
Credit: Reeve Joliff EYOS

Angela Pennefather notes the Sepik River in northern Papua New Guinea is also good for birdwatchers. “There are something like 38 of the 43 birds of paradise species,” which perform technicolour mating rituals in the dense jungle. “The Fly River in the south has insane wetlands that are packed with wallabies, wild deer and huge fish.” The world’s second-largest island also hosts tree-climbing kangaroos, bioluminescent mushrooms and (non-lethal) rainbow pythons.

Melanesia’s Coral Triangle promises more diversity than the Great Barrier Reef. Superyacht guests will rank among the first divers in Marovo, the largest saltwater lagoon in the world. According to UNESCO, its sea life and coral species are “comparable only to Raja Ampat in Indonesia”.

Diving anywhere, from Fiji’s Lau Group to Papua New Guinea’s Louisiade Archipelago, is immense. Captain Köthen particularly recommends the wreck of the SS President Coolidge off Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu: “Beached and abandoned after it encountered a mine, this intact 199-metre troop carrier rests in crystal-clear water.” Find triggerfish, lionfish and moray eels guarding 155-metre howitzers, submerged jeeps and a mosaic swimming pool. On the same island sits Million Dollar Point. After the Second World War, the US Army drove unwanted tanks and armoured vehicles into crystalline seas, where they have been colonised by grouper and lionfish.

Clown fish can be seen among the coral.
Credit: Stein Retzlaff EYOS

Provisioning

Melanesia sits in blissful isolation. Outside main towns, fancy essentials such as Nutella and sunblock are utterly unobtainable.However, local fruit, from breadfruit to plantains, are plentiful. The Solomons Island of Ghizo hosts a photogenic open-air vegetable market under banyan trees. Buy jars of wasabi and herbes de Provence, plus a fishing rod for snappers and mahi-mahi. For off-grid locations, some yachts install an extra freezer for fresh goods, which can be used for trash later on.

Expedition yachts are in a different league. Provisioning and bunkering “doesn’t concern me at all”, says Captain Köthen. “We’re so used to provisioning Hanse Explorer in remote regions of the world. For me there is no difference if it’s the high Canadian Arctic, Greenland or Antarctica.” Quality is still high, says the captain. “We stock up with fresh local fish, fruit, vegetables and spices and the chef creates something beautiful.”

A local fisher in Papua New Guinea
Credit: Reeve Joliff EYOS

As Melanesia had no superyacht provisioning system, EYOS worked to create one by nurturing superyacht agency Melanesia Yacht Services. “Superyachts have fairly predictable needs in terms of high-quality foodstuffs,” says Rob McCallum. “They are also complex vessels so there’s always a spare part that needs to make its way to somewhere remote.” Supplies and spares are delivered via a network of grass airstrips, many of them built by the American military during the Second World War. “We can send provisions by short takeoff and landing aircraft like a Twin Otter or Cessna Caravan,” continues McCallum.

If a guest needs to disembark for an urgent board meeting, McCallum takes the opportunity to fly in high-end food. “Sometimes you find yourself on a grass runway in the middle of nowhere handling punnets of strawberries.”

Boats moored along the shoreline in front of Gizo market in the Solomon Islands.
Credit: Alamy Stock

The politics

When dropping anchor near an inhabited island, it’s best to seek out the village headman for permission. Islanders consider the ocean to be their playground, larder and home, so offer a gift of a T-shirt, rice, soap or simply ask what they might require.

Fiji eases VIP immigration with its specific Superyacht Operators arrival process, although all vessels must complete Advance Notice of Arrival forms and upload passport details.

Vanuatu requires similar online declarations via its customs website. In the Solomon Islands, superyachts must declare their crew manifest, free pratique and customs clearance three days before they arrive. An expedition agency such as EYOS can organise all documentation on a client’s behalf. 

Read More/On the waterfront: Seven of the best cities to visit by superyacht

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Belliure   26.2 m •  1986
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