Alotau is the capital of Milne Bay Province, located on the right tip of Papua New Guinea’s main island, and the main port for the 160 islands that encompass the area. It is also the first stop on most cruise itineraries to Papua New Guinea and the Alotau weather can be hot. As ports go, Alotau Papua New Guinea is very much a working port with hundreds of small ships, boats and canoes making their way to and from the islands for trade and transport.
Alotau and Milne Bay are perhaps best known as being the site for the Battle of Milne Bay where imperial Japanese forces suffered their first loss in WWII at the hands of Australian and American troops stationed there. Unfortunately, little remains by way of relics from that time, largely due to the environment which has grown over much of the battlefields and returned sites back to their natural state. However, all is not lost if you want to learn about this historic event.
Alotau tours are somewhat limited though so you need to do some research before you arrive. Alotau tours focussing on the Battle of Milne Bay are run either via the ship or by independent operators and bring local folk law and war stories together to provide a fascinating insight into Alotau’s unique history. And we’re not just talking about the war. These tours also include information about the local culture and traditions which go back centuries. Alotau offers an excellent introduction to PNG, from the tropical heat to the rich culture and friendliness of the locals. Here are five tips for visiting Alotau on a cruise ship.
Papua New Guinea weather
Be aware of the environmental conditions you will encounter, not only in Alotau, but in Papua New Guinea in general. PNG is located right on the equator so it is always hot and humid, even in winter. Dress in light, comfortable clothing, wear practical shoes or sandals and drink lots of (bottled) water throughout the day. Sunscreen is essential and mosquito repellent is also advisable, especially if you are heading inland on a tour or there has recently been some rain.
Alotau is a friendly place but it doesn’t have much to offer those who opt for a wander around town instead of doing a tour. The township is not particularly picturesque and, apart from markets featuring more than their fair share of ‘Made in China’ goods, there isn’t much to see or do. If you are visiting on a cruise and don’t want to do a whole day tour, the Alotau Cultural Festival put on in conjunction with the cruise ship offers a well-priced introduction to the local culture and traditions. You are welcome to stay as long as you like but a few hours here should do the trick. Keep an eye out for the farewell dance performances on the dock before the ship leaves.
Milne Bay in Alotau
Even if you’re not a history buff, Alotau and Milne Bay offer a fascinating step back in time to a critical juncture in WWII. A tour is essential if you want to gain a deeper understanding of the battle, from the military blunders to the eventual defeat of the Japanese forces. One fascinating and less well known aspect which becomes apparent on tours at Alotau is the effects the battle had on local villagers who were not accustomed to modern warfare and politics.
Be environmentally responsible
Most interaction you will have with locals is at the main market which is a very hot 20-minute walk into town from where the cruise ship docks. Follow the waterline, you can’t miss it. Standard tourist offerings are on display but remember to be mindful of sustainability. While you will probably see beautiful shells and coral for sale, harvesting these items is very damaging to the local reefs. Don’t perpetuate the problem by buying these items. Instead limit your nature inspired purchases to the hand carved wooden items for which the islands are famous. The craftsmanship is stunning and the environment will thank you for it.
Take Kina to PNG
While the locals will accept $AU or $US, changing this back into kina (the local currency) is expensive for them due to the limited exchange facilities available throughout PNG. Pre-purchase kina before you leave home or get some from an ATM in Alotau, they will be very grateful. If locals ask you to exchange some of their Australian dollars back to kina on the island, try to help if you can. It’s not a scam, they’re just seeking currency they can actually use to buy much needed items for their families.
Disclosure: The writer visited Papua New Guinea on a cruise and can’t wait to go back and explore more islands.
If you are cruising in Papua New Guinea, check out our other Papua New Guinea posts with tips for cruising in Papua New Guinea, cruising in Papua New Guinea with kids, and our suggestions for Kitava and Kiriwina.