East New Britain Province
A basic network of coastal roads and two towns make this the most developed province in the New Guinea islands. With the once-beautiful city of Rabaul levelled by the volcanic eruptions of 1994, Kokopo is now the main centre. Between the two, a strip of villages hug the shore of Blanche Bay.
Outside Kavieng, the plunge into a more traditional world is immediate. Though the east coast feels more ‘developed’ than the west, with the Boluminski Hwy running most of its length, it retains its aesthetic appeal, shown in its numerous beaches, limestone pinnacles jutting out of the ocean and lagoons of surpassing beauty.
Kokopo is an opportunistic town. It has literally risen from ashes. Kokopo started to develop just after Rabaul was flattened by the volcanic eruptions of 1994. While you can sense a palpable helplessness in Rabaul, Kokopo feels more optimistic. The town emanates a sense of confidence and pride. But it lacks Rabaul’s mysterious aura.
Being the capital of New Ireland, Kavieng is the only town of any size in the province, but we’re hardly talking Shanghai – the tallest construction is the telecommunication tower, and the busiest shops operate very much on Melanesian time. If you proceed from Kokopo, you’ll find it remarkably quiet, with few cars in the streets.
Walking the forlorn streets of eastern Rabaul is like stepping into an apocalyptic film. On 19 September 1994 Mt Tavurvur, which looms ominously to the southeast, erupted, spewing huge amounts of ash over Rabaul and the Simpson Harbour and Karavia Bay area. It buried much of this once lovely city in a desert-like landscape of black and brown ash.
North Solomons Province
In many ways, the islands that comprise the erstwhile North Solomons Province (Buka, Bougainville and a scattering of smaller atolls) feel different, and the influence of the PNG mainland is a distant memory. Look at a map, and you’ll see why: the islands are closer to the neighbouring Solomon Islands than they are to PNG.
West New Britain Province
If you’re reading this, there’s a great chance that you’re a diver heading to Kimbe Bay. Kimbe Bay has become a byword for underwater action, with an amazing array of marine life and sensational reefs brushing the surface. However, there is life above the water as well, with some spectacular volcanoes brooding in the background and a handful of WWII relics.
An ambitious town, Buka used to be a tiny place but it has boomed in the last 20 years, during the war and afterwards, and now has many new buildings and residents. Although tourist sights are as scarce as hen’s teeth, it’s worth spending a day or two soaking up the atmosphere and chatting with the locals.
The easiest way to visit the sights around Rabaul if you’re pressed for time is to take a day tour. Your hotel in Kokopo or Rabaul can arrange a vehicle and a guide. Activities For the energetic, hiking up the volcanoes can be fun and thrilling, though it’s potentially suicidal to climb Mt Tavurvur.
Manus & Los Negros Islands
Bad luck for Manus Island: it was a hot spot for keen divers for many years – the marine environment is world-class – but the local dive shop closed down in 2007. Since then, the number of visitors has dropped. Expensive air fares don’t help. If you want to have an idea of what you’ve missed out on, log on to www.divepngmanus.com.
Very few travellers make it to remote Manus Province, which consists of Manus itself plus a scattering of tiny islands, and it’s no wonder: New Britain and New Ireland boast more in-your-face attractions. Despite a wonderful marine environment, Manus Province is considered less attractive and the infrastructure is not as diverse as in the neighbouring provinces.
From Kokopo To Rabaul
The coast road to Rabaul goes past Raluana Point, around Karavia Bay before squeezing between Vulcan and the hills, and then around Simpson Harbour to Rabaul. Starting from Kokopo, you’ll first drive past Blue Lagoon Lookout, from where you can enjoy wonderful views of Blanche Bay with Tavurvur volcano as a fantastic backdrop.