Favorite Exotic Cruises: Secret Pacific Islands

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"I have no real idea what to expect," says Justin Friend, the expedition leader for MV Orion, during our shipboard briefing while approaching Utupua. The island is so remote, Justin tells us, that 848 people live in Utupua's seven villages, most without phones or electricity. "We haven't had any communication with this village for more than three months," he says.

It sounds like my kind of place. I even like the way Utupua, perched at the edge of the Solomon Islands, rolls off the tongue: Oo-tuh-poo-uh. I like the fact that I've never heard of this island despite previous journeys to the Solomons. And I like the fact they haven't had a visitor, an outside visitor of any kind, Justin tells us, "for more than three years."

This stop is part of an 18-day cruise to a land of warriors, fire and dance. I’m traveling with 54 islands readers to some of the least touched places between Papua New Guinea and New Zealand, with ringside seats for battle preparations, rarely seen cultures, an exploding volcano and the scene about to unfold off Utupua.

Our ship squeezes through the narrow pass to the lagoon, so beautiful it’s often compared with Bora Bora. But my mind is somewhere else. I imagine old Tarzan movies with savages swinging onto our deck from vines, taking our women hostage. But this welcoming party is not so menacing. Outrigger canoes, rough hewn from tree trunks, push off from Utupua’s shoreline village of Nembao. Some have sails made of blue and black and red tarp. Children have come along too. Dark skinned, some have cotton-candy shocks of hair. The men smile, big bright-red smiles from the betel nut that rules the social scene throughout this part of Melanesia. The island rises up from the jeweled barricade of coral that protects it.

Approaching a village like Nembao makes me feel like a lumbering ogre. I could not imagine a group of people taking a tour into my neighborhood and expecting to be able to peek into my kitchen and backyard barbecue, to wander along the side streets taking photos of my neighbors as they go about daily life. But to the people of Nembao, we’re the novelty, like roving harlequins in our flower shirts, fancy smells and shoes with socks. So the kids do what comes naturally to them. They playfully attack us using wooden swords and sticks, dressed in war paint and little else.

When the kids are not in mock battle, their eyes glitter with delight and cautious interest. The village reaches into the shade of the forest, populated with stilt and ground-level homes, the walls and roofs made of tightly woven palm thatch. The village is excessively tidy. The dirt paths are swept. So are the ground-level homes. There are small gardens, but no visible trash. There is obvious pride in the village.

We’re escorted to a center square and introduced to the chief. “They’ve prepared a series of dances for us,” Justin says. It’s clear they’ve just thrown the performance together, but it doesn’t matter because everyone is laughing. Even if they’re laughing at us, it’s infectious. And then the chief leans in close to Justin. Justin’s eyebrows lift.

"The chief has asked us to share a song from our land with his village," Friend announces. The entire village perks up to listen. As most guests aboard Orion are Australian, we choose "Waltzing Matilda," the de facto national anthem, and raise our voices. At this moment we're no longer on the periphery. The chief beams and says one word we all understand: "Welcome!"

This feels like we're going to war. Here in the shell of a Maori war canoe in New Zealand's Bay of Islands, I wield a paddle and belt out a response to the message coming from the bow. "Rite, ko te rite," chants Chief Hone Mahiki of the Ngapuhi tribe. "Hee!" our crew, a motley group of Orion cruise passengers like me, replies in unison. The chief is adorned in family tattoos. He wears a wide-waisted feather loin cover. In his earlobe is a bone flute. His appearance alone commands respect. So do his actions and his voice. When he pulls his paddle, we do the same. When he chants, we follow, punctuating every "Hee!" with a thump of our hoes, or paddles, on the rail of the canoe. Each stanza sounds like the ancient beat of warriors on the move as we follow New Zealand's Waitangi River toward Haruru Falls.

Hone: Rite, ko te rite! Us: Hee! Thump. Hone: Rite, ko te rite! Us: Hee! Thump.

"When you paddle with gentleness and courage, you paddle like a Maori," Hone says of our timing. We move onward. Rite, ko te rite! Hee! Thump.

There is nothing secretive in our approach. It seems all of Aotearoa, the Maori name for New Zealand, will be warned of our presence long before we make landfall. But when you’re a fierce Maori warrior, stealth mode is not necessary.

I would not have wanted to face the Maori in battle. Not Hone. Not the rhythmic chant. Not even the boat itself. I’d heard of waka war canoes like this one, but hadn’t seen one until earlier at the nearby Waitangi Treaty Grounds. A face on its prow protruded flame red and fierce, like a demon’s. This angry carved visage was the first statement you received when Maori warriors came to shore.

And now here we come, trying mostly in vain to put on intimidating faces as the tongues of our paddles dig into the water. Hone explains that, like your own tongue, you never put the paddle’s tongue on the ground. Once you reach land, it becomes a weapon. The tongue in your mouth? Hone sticks his out in a gesture that, were he not on our side, would have sent most of us swimming for safety. This, for Maori warriors, was a way of telling enemies, emphatically, that “your flesh looks tasty to me.” And Hone’s demonstration looks all too genuine.

In stark contrast to these battle-tested and battle-ready people are residents of the New Zealand town of Russell, just across the bay. During my earlier visit there, the town seemed like a tranquil village set amid bucolic hills. While the Maori protect traditions on their side of the water, the folks in Russell have retained their quaint buildings and polite demeanor. Instead of war chants and war paint, there are ice cream and tea shops. It is hard to imagine two places across a bay from each other presenting such polarized experiences.

While battles between the two villages ended long ago, we soon find that Maori traditions (like our waka ride) are very much alive. On the way upriver Hone takes us to his family marae. But we first stop at the entrance while Hone weaves a bond between us and his ancestors with a spiritual call.

“Traditionally, only family members can enter our marae,” says Hone, “so I have just adopted you into my family.”

We enter his … um, our family marae, and the day ends with the hongi greeting. One by one Hone presses his forehead against ours, and we breathe in and out through our noses to share our personal mana, our song with the universe. It's a deeply significant moment shared by Hone. We leave with a bit of Maori flowing through us.

The zoom lens on my camera can’t bring me close enough to the action on the dirt in front of me. So I step closer. The village women on Tanna Island are performing a yam fertility song and dance. I’m clicking pictures. The teenage girls have choreographed their steps and colorful ensembles with those of the older women, some of whom must be grandmothers, though at this moment they are moving as lithely as young gymnasts. I step closer to snap more pictures. I kneel down and take another. At this point the women seem to improvise the words to the song. I stand straight up.

“They are saying,” Justin Friend says, translating the message, “that photographers who take too many photographs of us will get killed.” He laughs. Those of us with cameras take pause. The women aren’t smiling. Apparently, I’m still too close, because a sinewy, swaying dance move causes one of the older women to fall into me. Or maybe she just jumps me. Whatever her intention, I can’t escape her grasp. We roll on the ground a bit. She’s laughing. I’m relieved. Sort of. Justin tells me I’m now married to this woman.

Later that evening I’m struggling to stay seated in the back of a pickup truck. It’s a bumpy ride to the summit of Mount Yasur, a 1,184-foot volcano that has been active for at least 200 years, though some say it’s been closer to 800 years. Getting there from the village is not a department of tourism experience. Most of Tanna’s 200 square miles are covered in thick, impenetrable vegetation, which we duck and dodge as the vehicle bounces over rugged roads that complement the shock absorber-free trucks perfectly. We know immediately when Mount Yasur is near. The trees simply disappear, replaced by red volcanic desertscape. Almost as soon as we’re out of the trees, I can smell sulfur. The oxygen-dense air dries up. The trees and humidity are a memory. Before us is Yasur, and it is puffing.

Now, I don’t know exactly what I’m expecting as I climb toward the top of the volcano. Pictures maybe. But when we reach the apex and look I do know this: Standing at the edge of the caldera, and feeling it explode violently as I gape into its maw, is not what I had in mind. I’m from the United States. We keep people miles from this kind of action. Behind rails, in places that are litigation-proof and handicapped accessible. From where I stand, rocks explode; giant hunks of magma and rock fly hundreds of feet into the air in front of me. The earth moves beneath me with each explosion, causing me to suck in air audibly. Every now and then the thick cloud of sulfur, full of airborne silica, hydrochloric acid and who knows what else, gets pulled over us by the shifting trade winds.

There are certainly various levels of awe, and this level, from the edge of an exploding volcano, looks way down upon the others. The warlike booms continue, one after another, storms of lava lighting up the sky. Each heated piece of rock leaves a trace of light arcing across the dark chasm. Adding to the moment is the sun. It’s setting on the horizon, appearing for all the world to be distant kin to the mountain at my feet. Gradually, as darkness settles, the volcano’s power becomes more humbling than fearsome — much like the dancers earlier in the day, Maori Chief Hone Mahiki, and the children who greeted us on Utupua. No, from the very beginning to this unforgettable moment, I did not know what to expect. And that, it turns out, can be a beautiful thing.