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Cruising the South Pacific

If there is a perfect way to experience some of the most secluded islands of the South Pacific, I may have found it.

On April 19, I was fortunate to board Holland America Line’s handsome Oosterdam in Sydney, Australia, for a 23-day trans-Pacific voyage to Vancouver, British Columbia. In the trade, this is what is termed a repositioning cruise, meaning a longer journey to get the ship from one seasonal destination area to another; in this case, to get the Oosterdam from its winter schedule in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific to its series of weekly summer sailings between Vancouver and Alaska.

I am a big fan of such “one-off” longer cruises, primarily because of the superior value that they offer travelers with the time available, plus the rare opportunity to relax and enjoy the multitude of shipboard activities, enrichment programs and entertainment that are almost always available aboard today’s megaliners. In addition to 14 days at sea, the Oosterdam’s schedule included seven ports of call, including five exotic islands in the South Pacific, plus two in our own 50th state, always a popular vacation destination.

Even if your group doesn’t have time for a transoceanic crossing, the same South Pacific ports that we visited, sometimes in conjunction with an additional or alternate — but similar — port or two, can also be seen on a number of shorter cruises departing from Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane. These are normally no longer than a week or two, and are offered by a number of major lines that cater to the U.S. market, among them Princess, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and, of course, Holland America; luxury lines operating smaller vessels also frequently cruise the area. Needless to say, if your group flies all the way to Australia for such a sailing, you’ll also want to spend at least a few days exploring one or more of the splendid major cities and coastal resort areas of the Land Down Under.

Noumea, New Caledonia

Other than Honolulu, Noumea was the most cosmopolitan of our port calls. In some respects, it can almost be mistaken for a town on the Mediterranean coast of France. I found it amusing to see the locals scurrying home from the downtown area with fresh baguettes in hand, just as if they lived in Paris or Lyon. Once there, I chose to relax on the beach at Ile aux Canards, reached by a zodiacal ride from the port, then explore the city center on foot later in the day. Excursion options, in addition to city tours by sightseeing coach and open-air tram, included an aquarium visit, kayaking on the Dumbea River and an educational program centered on the Kanak Melanesian culture.

A full-day trip that apparently is the most highly rated locally  — it won a 2014 Trip Advisor Traveler’s Choice Award — was called A Day at Amadee Lighthouse. Included was round-trip transportation by high-speed ferry, 45 minutes each way, to a small island paradise; time for swimming and exploring; a glass-bottom-boat reef cruise; native dance show; live music; and a buffet lunch. Verna, a passenger from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, told me it was the highlight of her trip.

Easo, Lifo, New Caledonia

Extremely popular with Oosterdam guests, myself included, was Easo, a lovely, unspoiled New Caledonian island and village with no visible tourism infrastructure whatsoever but loaded with natural beauty, charm, colorful wildflowers and plants, plus a great beach for swimming and sunning.

Although the cruise line didn’t offer any organized excursions, the locals on Easo were most friendly, showing up to greet their visitors with food, music and native hospitality. Doug, from Port Dover, Ontario, commented that “in some ways, it was the nicest of the ports, although the most primitive and least developed. It reminded me of Fanning Island.”

John, from Munich, enjoyed his visit there, since “I met a man with a car who took me on a private excursion.” Melinda and Alan from Sydney found Easo to be “very beautiful, isolated and quaint. We loved having a beer in a local shack.” And Nick, another Sydney resident, commented that “the little Chapelle Notre Dame des Lourdes on the point was very much worth the walk.”

I found the island to be a photographer’s dream, loaded with picturesque sights and strange tropical flora.

Port Vila, Efate, Vanuatu

On March 13, just six weeks before our call, the massive category 5 Cyclone Pam made a direct hit on Vanuatu, leveling houses, uprooting trees and causing widespread devastation. Exploring Port Vila on foot on April 24, I found that although most activities seemed to be returning to normal, there was still much evidence remaining of the storm’s impact: upturned boats in the harbor, piles of fallen trees and broken concrete, and damage to residences.

The Oosterdam brought eight pallets of relief supplies from the Save the Pacific Foundation, monetary donations and goods from guests and crew members, and four additional pallets of food and personal items. But the comments of my fellow guests tell the real story. David of Canberra, Australia, said “I loved Vanuatu, even though they had been hit by a massive storm. I went to the Cultural Center, which was an amazing experience, since the local people still had a positive attitude despite having their homes destroyed.”

Doug from Vancouver commented that “the visit to Vanuatu was very powerful, as there was still evidence of the destruction. I went on an excursion, and everyone was very appreciative that Oosterdam had arrived and contributed to rebuilding the island.”

John, from Melbourne, felt that the “most interesting port was Vanuatu in terms of the people and how they’ve coped with the storm …they obviously are very resilient and family oriented, and have a very good attitude.”