Stretching from New Guinea to the Arafura Sea and eastward to Fiji, the archipelagos that make up Melanesia are almost unimaginably idyllic. Traveling to the Melanesian Islands offers an endless supply of clear blue waters and palm-fringed beaches, not to mention a diverse Melanesian culture.
Spread across a vast span of Oceania, Melanesia encompasses island nations including Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and Fiji, along with a few other territories. These islands, which covering a total land area of approximately 385,000 square miles, are home to more than 13 million Melanesian people. They also boast the highest density of languages in the world, as well as diverse wildlife and avian populations.
The term Melanesia, which means “black islands” in Greek, was first used in 1832 by French explorer Jules Dumont d'Urville. The name referred to the linguistic and geographical differences of these islands from neighboring regions such as Polynesia and Micronesia. However, the Melanesian islands are rich with cultural, linguistic, and genetic diversity.
With its rich natural resources, Fiji has become one of the most developed countries in the region. Papua New Guinea, though blessed with natural beauty, has seen little development, with much of its population living in remote mountainous regions and adhering to long-held traditions. The rest of the islanders subsist on agriculture and fishing.
The Melanesian people are widely known for their warm hospitality, welcoming visitors into their communities and sharing their time-honored ceremonies. These often include traditional dances to drums and bamboo pan pipes while wearing elaborate costumes.
Underneath its picturesque waters, Melanesia harbors three-fourths of the world’s coral species, with 3000 species of fish, six species of turtles, spinner dolphins, dugongs, and the endangered humphead wrasse. The region’s remote islands (and their coastal mangrove forests) are home to avian beauties like the Solomon Island sea eagle, Melanesian megapode, vulturine parrot, Blyth’s hornbill, and paradise drongo.
Here’s an extensive guide to the other incredible attractions Zegrahm Expeditions’ South Pacific cruises allow visitors to experience, including immense natural beauty and the widely varied traditions of Melanesian culture.
Located north of Australia, the independent nation of Papua New Guinea (PNG) sits on the eastern half of the second largest island in the world, New Guinea. The majority of Papua New Guinea people live in isolated regions with little or no contact with the outside world, relying primarily on subsistence agriculture.
The country provides plenty of opportunities to discover rugged mountain ranges, go birdwatching in the dense cloud forests, and have personal interactions with people in far-flung communities. Begin your visit in Port Moresby (which is known as Pom City), the capital of PNG and a perfect gateway to the rest of the island nation. Visit the Port Moresby Nature Park, which is located on the outskirts of the city and showcases numerous endemic plant species and an aviary housed in a former WWII storage structure.
Venturing southeast from Port Moresby past the Stanley Owens Range to the sheltered deep water of Milne Bay, you’ll stop by the island of Bonarua. There you can take a stroll through the enchanting village, enjoy weaving demonstrations, and sample delicacies made from locally grown taro, sweet potatoes, and yams. Venture into the thicket to search for birds, or go snorkeling in the warm waters of the Coral Sea and glide past a colorful kaleidoscope of tropical fish.
The people of the Laughlan Islands–low-lying coral islands off Milne Bay–are known for their canoe building skills. You’ll get a glimpse of their hand-crafted canoes in various stages of construction among the village’s palm-thatched houses. Go snorkeling off a sandbar or dive off the outer reef to see sea turtles, wrasses, and maybe even spinner dolphins. Learn about the Kula Ring, a ceremonial exchange involving shell-disc necklaces and shell armbands that helps to forge social connections in the community.
Spread across a narrow strait from the mainland of PNG in the Solomon Sea, the D'Entrecasteaux Islands consist of Goodenough (Nidula), Fergusson (Moratau), and Normanby (Duau). These volcanic islands feature hot springs and bubbling mud pools surrounded by dense vegetation. The islands of Sanaroa and Dobu are two of the more significant (but smaller) islands in the group, with numerous reefs and atolls that are ideal for snorkeling.
East of Papua New Guinea lies the nearly 1,000 islands of the Solomon archipelago. These emerald forests of these laid-back, untouched tropical islands offer chances to hike to waterfalls, revisit WWII history, enjoy cultural performances, and snorkel or dive over pristine coral reefs. There are no fancy resorts here, but comfortable guesthouses are scattered across the islands, allowing you to enjoy peace and seclusion under the Solomon sun.
On the north coast of Guadalcanal Island is Honiara, the archipelago’s largest city and capital. Tetepare, which is located in the Western Province of the Solomon Islands, is the largest uninhabited island in the South Pacific and one of its conservation jewels. Cloaked in a lowland rainforest that has thankfully avoided commercial logging, the island offers incredible wilderness walks that reveal some 230 bird species, such as Kolombangara monarchs, Nicobar pigeons, Sanford’s sea-eagles, and crested cuckoo-doves.
Crocodiles, dolphins, and dugongs can often be spotted along the island’s coast, and the sandy beaches provide habitat for endangered leatherback, green, and hawksbill turtles. The island is also home to the world’s largest skink and crab (coconut crab), the endemic Tetepare White-eye, hornbills, and pygmy parrots. The Tetepare Descendants’ Association (TDA), manages and protects the island’s precious natural resources.
Malaita (also known as Mala), an elongated island with a high central spine, lies 30 miles northeast of Guadalcanal. It’s the most populated of the Solomon Islands, with 137,596 people. The music of the Fataleka and Baegu people, which is influenced by the religious beliefs common before Christianity, consists of panpipe ensembles. Panpipes are made of bamboo bound together in a circular cluster, and they come in various sizes ranging up to 3 feet in length. They are played in complex compositions, which are often accompanied by dances depicting locals’ traditional way of life, such as fishing and sailing.
Utupua Island, part of the volcanic Santa Cruz Islands chain, is rarely visited. Doing so allows a rare opportunity to stroll through the shoreline village of Nembao and admire the prolific gardens and outrigger fishing canoes there. Kids, dressed in war paint, will often come out to play mock battles with wooden swords and sticks with visitors, with big, curious smiles on their faces. You can also snorkel or dive along the fringing reef, which abounds with fish, schools of trevally, oriental sweetlips, and docile reef sharks.
Although it is considered part of Melanesia, Tikopia is culturally Polynesian. School children (both boys and girls) wearing tapa cloth sing songs of welcome as young men perform a ceremonial dance. Visitors can purchase carved wooden objects at a small makeshift market set up by local artisans. Houses here are built low to the ground in order to withstand the cyclones that batter the region from November to April. The crater lake at the center of this extinct volcanic island attracts birds such as fairy terns, cardinal honeyeaters, and yellow-bibbed lories.
Located 1,100 miles east of Australia, the scattered collection of 83 islands of Vanuatu are remarkably remote, with deserted beaches and ancient culture. Made famous by the ninth season of the reality show Survivor, the islands extending north-south for 400 miles in a Y shape, and offer world-class diving and snorkeling.
Port Vila, which is situated around Vila Bay and a series of lagoons, is a vibrant town with numerous waterfront resorts and restaurants. It provides a stark contrast to the outer islands, where life is much simpler and nature more pristine. If you visit, take time to visit the National Museum of Vanuatu, a monument to the island’s history that is located right across from the Parliament. It exhibits local artifacts such as tam-tams (slit gongs or slit drums), fishing canoes, shell jewelry, and ceremonial headdresses.
Known as the Black Magic center of Vanuatu, Ambrym Island’s dramatic landscape includes two towering volcanoes, Mt. Benbow and Mt. Marum. Both are associated with the traditional spiritual beliefs of the island. It takes up to six hours to reach the crater of each volcano, through lush rainforest and ash fields.
Travelers visiting the island are welcomed by palm leaf-clad dancers wearing elegantly carved headdresses. The island is known for its tam-tams, which are carved from breadfruit tree trunks and decorated with human visages. Smaller carvings are available for purchase from local carvers.
The locals also share sacred stories along with intricate sand drawings about their ancient traditions and customs. But do be aware that photographs aren’t allowed here without permission. Men often gather at night to drink the potent kava (which is made from the Piper methysticum crop), and communicate with the spirits of their ancestors using “magic stones”.
On Ureparapara, (also known as Parapara), local women welcome visitors with a unique performance of water music– percussive sounds of water being thumped rhythmically. Although this is the third largest island in Vanuatu (after Gaua and Vanua Lava), it has a population of just 437 people, with two languages spoken (Lehalurup and Lehali). The circular island is an ancient strato-volcanic cone, and a guided walk to the top of the caldera presents stunning scenic views.
Fiji is the heart of the South Pacific, with 330 palm-fringed, sun-kissed islands, and some of the happiest people on the planet. It is also home to the Great Sea Reef, the third longest barrier reef in the world.
As the most developed of the Melanesian islands, Fiji has a whole host of all-inclusive resorts, top-notch spas, culinary delights, and plenty of outdoor adventures. The landscape is dotted with elegant bures (Fijian-style bungalows), with glass walls and tent-like roofs peeking out above the canopy.
Fiji’s largest island, Vitu Levu, is home to the capital of Suva and the tourist attraction of Nadi. In Nadi, you can pick up Fijian crafts at the open-air souvenir market, take in the sweet vanilla scent of orchids, and stroll the peaceful lily ponds at the Garden of the Sleeping Giant.
While most Melanesian people are Christian, nearly half the population of Fiji descends from Indians and Bengalis, and therefore practice Hinduism. Admire the elaborately painted Sri Siva Subramaniya Swami Temple, and be sure to visit a local restaurant to taste a fusion of Indo-Fijian spicy dishes.
On Taveuni, Fiji’s third largest island, you’ll find a modern-day garden of eden– a lush jungle with tumbling waterfalls and abundant wildlife. Protected within the Bouma National Heritage Park, the island is rife with rare orchids, tree ferns, and waterfalls (including the 78-foot Tavoro Waterfall, which cascades into an emerald pool).
Visit the island of Monuriki, an outcrop in Fiji's Mamanuca Islands, which was made famous by the award-winning film Cast Away. Tom Hanks may have gone batty marooned on this deserted island, with nobody but a volleyball named Wilson by his side. But rest assured that you will be rewarded with a tropical paradise unlike any other, complete with palm trees, powdery beaches, and clear lagoons. Aside from its Hollywood acclaim, this tiny half-mile-long island (which is surrounded by pristine coral reef) is home to the critically endangered Fiji crested iguana and Hawksbill turtle.
Beqa Island (pronounced Benga), which is located five miles south of Viti Levu, is home to the Sawau tribe. It has no roads or towns, just a few villages scattered around. You’ll be mesmerized by the local art of fire-walking, where brave warriors tread over white-hot stones while shouting, “O-vulo-vulo!” This legendary feat obviously requires strength and discipline, but it is commonly believed that the spirit god blessed the Sawau people with the ability to walk on fire without pain.
Underneath the nearby Beqa Lagoon–a submerged crater of an extinct volcano– the nutrient-rich waters abound with marine life, including hard and soft coral reef fish, sea turtles, and larger pelagic fish.
Zegrahm Expeditions’ cruise to Melanesia, Solomon Islands & Vanuatu departs in September 2020. You can also explore other Zegrahm South Pacific cruise options, which include calls at some of these same ports.
BIO: Lavanya Sunkara is a writer, animal lover, and responsible traveler based in New York City. Her love of nature and adventure has taken her all over the globe. She cherishes sharing her experiences and being a voice for the voiceless. Follow her adventures on her blog, Nature Traveler.