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How to explain out-of-the-way Madang? Exotic. Primitive. Culturally rich but economically poor -- grindingly poor. But this impossibly beautiful spot in the South Pacific is earning a reputation, justifiably, as a tourist destination.
Madang Harbor itself is right out of a holiday brochure with its manicured lawns, palm trees and thatched bungalows. In front of one waterfront home sits a helicopter. In cultural contrast, boys in handmade outriggers circle ships as they call on Madang -- just as boys have done here for centuries.
To visit slow-paced Madang is to step back in time. In many ways, this peninsula jutting into the Bismarck Sea has yet to join the 21st century. Perhaps that's not all that surprising given the fact that over 60 percent of Papua New Guineans are unemployed and nearly half are illiterate. Look at a map of PNG, as it's called, and you'll see that roads are a rare thing. In this mountainous, densely forested country, access is typically gained by air or boat. PNG, which shares its island home with Indonesia's West Papua, is famously known as the spot Amelia Earhart took off from in 1937 before her plane's mysterious disappearance.
Today, only 15 percent of PNG's six million residents live in urban areas. Most people live off the land. The country is notorious for its many tribes -- hundreds of them. In the Highlands, PNG's most primitive region, tribesmen still use arrows, bows and spears. It is not far-fetched to say this is still a country barely explored.
Madang, as well, is defined by its tribes: remote mountain communities perched on ridges, river people who live in stilt villages and deep-sea fishermen from the coastal islands. The Madang region is known for its lush yet rugged beauty. There are 38 kinds of Birds of Paradise, for example, along with tropical rainforests, lagoons with a rich underwater life and plummeting waterfalls. If you hear screeching, look up. Fruit bats, or "flying foxes" as they are called, are common inhabitants of the trees, even in town.
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Other South Pacific Cruise Ports:
Bora Bora • Huahine • Madang • Moorea • Nadi • Noumea • Pago Pago • Raiatea • Rangiroa • Rarotonga • Tahiti
The arts and crafts are exotic and inexpensive -- among the most popular are wooden masks and totems, woven serving baskets, clay pots, bone and shell jewelry, traditional penis covers and bilums, the iconic woven string bags carried by men and women.
Editor's note: Few vendors know arithmetic and tend to deal in increments of five.
English is the official language but it's generally only spoken in government and education circles. Remarkably, over 820 distinct languages are spoken in PNG. The most widely spoken in Madang Province is Tok Pisin or Pidgin, which traces its origins to English and some German and Indonesian words. A few examples: one is wan, far is longwe, hospital is haus sik, and mosquito is natnat.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the kina. At the time of this report, the exchange rate is 2.76 kinas to the U.S. dollar (though we recommend you visit www.xe.com for up-to-the-minute exchange rates). However, tour guides and vendors are happy to accept U.S. and Australian currency. Larger operations, like the Madang Resort, accept credit cards. It's a good idea, though, to carry small denominations.
Where You're Docked
Ships dock at a bare-bones pier that has no tourist services.
When a cruise ship arrives, a small village of vendors spontaneously appears just outside the security gate at the pier. It can seem a bit intimidating at first but it's definitely worth a look. Vendors aren't aggressive and are pleased to share the stories behind their handicrafts.
There are a few taxis, and the Madang Resort, which has a popular orchid garden and barramundi pond, routinely offers complimentary shuttle service to the hotel. You can walk the same distance in about 30 minutes but it's recommended that people travel in groups and not alone. There are car rental agencies -- including Avis, Budget and Hertz -- but be warned that the roads are in bad shape. The cruise lines generally suggest that passengers stick with organized shore excursions.
To fully appreciate the lifestyle of many locals, visit Bilbil, a village in a lush rainforest famous for creating the clay pots that once were traded up and down the coast. People live in raised thatched homes made from the sago palm. Many still cook outdoors over fires. Pigs and chickens, both highly valued, have the run of the place -- sadly so do dogs, who tend to be underfed and underappreciated. You'll notice that many of the villagers, including children, have teeth and tongues stained red from chewing betul nut, which has narcotic qualities. During events arranged for tourists, women and men -- including Bilbil's chief -- produce a "singsing," an exhibition of traditional songs and dances. The women, wearing grass skirts made from the highly functional sago palm, also demonstrate how they make their clay pots. There are generally a few wares for sale as well.
The Madang Visitors and Cultural Bureau has a small but informative museum that showcases PNG's rich past with a terrific collection of artifacts: carved canoe paddles, a bamboo fishing net, stone axes, spears, masks, body ornaments, clay pots, drums used to send messages from one village to another, and a tribal leader's chair that once adorned a "spirit house" where young boys were initiated into manhood. There's also an exhibit about the country's existence under German rule, and, more recently, as an Australian protectorate. PNG gained independence from Australia in 1975 and operates today as a constitutional monarchy that's part of Great Britain.
Been There, Done That
Madang Resort, PNG's oldest hotel, exudes a lot of Old World glamour with stunning views of the Dallman Passage and 10 acres of lush, landscaped tropical gardens. The gated resort is often the setting for shore excursions featuring a musical and dancing pageant with dozens of participants in traditional dress. Let's just say it feels a little more like Disneyland than Bilbil.
For a quick snack, there's a town market that sells fruits and vegetables. Madang Resort has a surprisingly limited and uninspiring lunch menu, but if you dine there you do get pool privileges.
Our recommendation is Coasties at the Coastwatchers Hotel, just across the road from a Madang landmark, Coastwatchers Memorial Lighthouse. On Sundays, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., it offers a brunch buffet. Weekdays, local lunch specials include curried lamb, pork in mushroom sauce, salads and steamed rice. The restaurant is also a good spot for dolphin sightings.
Staying in Touch
There is an internet cafe at Madang Resort, which costs one kina per minute.
One of the first things our shipboard "travel concierge" told us was to adjust our expectations because there's a limited infrastructure when it comes to dealing with visitors. Tour buses, for example, are actually large vans that seat about 15 people. They're not air-conditioned and guides can be so-so. Still, with little to do in the town of Madang, a shore excursion is the best way to explore the region. Tours typically include a visit to a coastal village such as Bilbil, the extravaganza at Madang Resort and harbor cruises with snorkeling. If there is one thing pristine about Madang, it is its spectacularly clear waters, which host coral reefs, abundant fish life and World War II wrecks.
For More Information
On the Web: Madang Visitors & Cultural Bureau and Papua New Guinea Tourism Promotion Authority
--by Ellen Uzelac, a travel and finance writer based on Maryland's Eastern Shore
--some photos courtesy of Orion Expedition Cruises