New Britain is stunning. PNG’s largest island, it has a bit of everything you’ve come to this country for – think colonial history, remarkable traditional cultures and pristine wilderness (despite areas where there are logging and mining). The pièce de résistance? Volcanoes. The whole region is a rumbling, billowing string of cones and craters cloaked with virgin tropical rainforest. Some are dormant and harmless while others are scrappy villains that periodically flex their muscles. In September 1994 Mt Tavurvur and Mt Vulcan erupted and destroyed most of Rabaul, one of PNG’s biggest and most alluring cities, in a furious rain of ash and rock.
After exploring the striking landscapes, be sure to don a mask and fins to delve into New Britain’s sensational aquatic environs. To say that Kimbe Bay offers world-class dive sites is an understatement, but snorkellers shouldn't be deterred either – numerous coral fringing reefs with wild drop-offs can be accessed by boat. Rabaul’s harbour and the various bays that carve out the Gazelle Peninsula also host superlative sites, including WWII wrecks and psychedelic coral reefs. There is one proviso, though: don’t expect to find lots of secluded white-sand beaches – not New Britain’s strong point.
New Britain is divided into two provinces; each has its distinctive feel. East New Britain (ENB) Province ends in the Gazelle Peninsula, where there has been lengthy contact with Europeans, education levels are high and the people are among the most economically advantaged in the country. The other end of the island, West New Britain (WNB) Province, is sparsely populated, little developed and did not come into serious contact with Europeans until the 1960s. The migrant workers from the Highlands, the colourful expats, army-like rows of oil palms and the dense bush give WNB a frontier flavour that the colonies might have had mid–last century.
The most easily accessible areas for travellers include the Gazelle Peninsula and Kimbe Bay. If you want to explore the rest of the island, you’ll have to cut a path of your own, which means a lot of gumption, time and money.