Canoes in Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea.

Photo: Simon Foale/Lonely Planet Images

Jo Hegerty joins the far-flung throng that's discovered Papua New Guinea.

PAPUA New Guinea and cruise ships may seem as likely a match as Indiana Jones and lawn bowls, but the pair have been getting very close. New to courting our nearest neighbour is Aurora Expeditions, which means there are five vessels cruising PNG's pristine waters.

Even the venerable QE2 called into New Britain for a bit of a sing-sing. No disrespect to cruise travellers, but let's face it, they're not renowned for their adventurous streak. And surely that's what PNG is all about - adventure, excitement - even danger.

Until recently I was only dimly aware of Papua New Guinea and like many Australians harboured a fairly negative impression of it, imagining a place terrorised by raskols and overrun by expatriates. But if there's one thing travel teaches, it's that expectations rarely align with reality.

It's not just the security issue that prevents us from visiting. Expats aside, Australia has a poor showing compared to the Italian, American and Japanese tourists who enjoy the clean waters and astounding terrain.

Until now, travel between Australia and Papua New Guinea has been dominated by business clients and this has meant little or no competition to the national airline and therefore expensive flights.

Things don't improve a great deal once you're in the country: there are very few roads suitable for travel by donkey, let alone coach tour, so a number of domestic flights are unavoidable. And apart from a few gems for which you pay a premium rate, the accommodation options leave a lot to be desired. Add to this the fact that tourism as an industry is in its infancy in Papua New Guinea, often meaning bad service and an element of unreliability, and you may be left wondering what's the point?

The fact of the matter is that just an hour's flight from Cairns lies a country with the cultural diversity of Africa, more plant and animal life than you could shake Tim Flannery at, reefs, rainforests and a historical bond as important to our national identity as that with Gallipoli.

Papua New Guinea is home to more than 800 tribes, each with its own language, customs and beliefs, and a traveller could spend months encountering these, while discovering everything else the country has to offer.

From the mighty Sepik river, to the surf breaks of Wewak and idyllic beaches at Milne Bay, the landscape of Papua New Guinea is as diverse as its people.

Flying to Tufi, we dropped a couple of nervous-looking trekkers off at Kokoda, landing on what looked like a cricket pitch amid the dense green through which they were to walk for the next seven days.

It was the first time I really understood the concept of wilderness.

The Kokoda Trail may be the biggest drawcard for Australian tourists, but it's just the tip of the canopy compared to what the country has to offer. The walk itself is hot, difficult and through a lonely tunnel of forest. There are other more picturesque treks in places such as the Nebilyer Valley or up to Mount Wilhelm's 4509-metre summit.

One of the greatest things about Papua New Guinea is that its attractions are so abundant. On a trek in the highlands, our guide promised we'd see a bird of paradise and we saw two. PNG Art in Port Moresby is stuffed with superb finds that are often at such bargain prices that it's worth paying the same cost again to have them shipped home. And sunken wrecks from World War II are as accessible as the reefs, maintaining Papua New Guinea's position as one of the world's greatest dive sites.

With all this to consider, it's easy to see why Papua New Guinea is an increasingly popular stop-off for expeditionary vessels. Bypassing the hassles of air travel from one town to the next, the ships can pull in somewhere such as New Britain, where its guests can experience a taste of all that Papua New Guinea has to offer, from traditional fire dances to colonial Queenslanders and belching volcanoes.

For those of us who can't float, however, a trip to this developing nation will probably involve a number of flights, some minor frustrations and a whole lot of sweet potato - there's a reason Papua New Guinea isn't known for its cuisine. Things are improving, though, and Airlines PNG now offers good deals on flights between Brisbane or Cairns and Port Moresby.

National airline Air Niugini has introduced "leisure fares" in an effort to get more people taking domestic flights, as well as the "See PNG" pass, which gets you four internal flights for about $500. Meanwhile, new hotels are popping up, with some of the familiar chains expressing interest.

As for the security issue, it's unlikely you'll come across any trouble, especially outside the larger cities, and hotels and guides always have tourists' wellbeing as their foremost concern. Keeping your eyes open and your guard up in the cities is the key.

Unless you arrive by ship you'll inevitably spend some time in Port Moresby, which, truth be told, is a bit of a dump. Once you've seen the botanical gardens and the war memorial, a stilt village and the parliament building that mimics a traditional spirit house, it's time to discover the real Papua New Guinea.

To get taste of highlands culture, head to Haus Poroman near Mount Hagen. The original roundhouse was once all there was, accommodating backpackers as well as the main lounge. Now, guests sleep in private or shared roundhouses, made with traditional materials, but with en suite bathrooms. Currently it's available only for medium- or long-term stays. For short-term accommodation head to the nearby Hotel Poroman.

One of Papua New Guinea's best kept secrets is Tufi Dive, an elegant colonial-style resort, featuring great service and outstanding food - think fresh local lobster.

The location is spectacular and remote, and divers come here to explore the volcanic fiords and nearby reefs. Don't be put off if you're a not a diver; Tufi is extremely romantic and when the boats are out during the day you have the run of the place.

When travelling in Papua New Guinea it's a good idea not to get too hung up on timetables, as things occasionally go wrong. We were granted our wish and got another day at Tufi when the plane didn't show up to take us back to Port Moresby. Instead, we spent the evening playing games with the local kids on the airstrip next to the resort.

If you do find yourself in Port Moresby for a few days, do yourself a favour and book into Loloata Island Resort, situated on a tiny island in Bootless Bay, a 30-minute drive from the airport. From here, the staff will drop you off at any number of deserted islands for an afternoon of snorkelling and swimming, following a sumptuous buffet lunch.

It's a beautiful oasis unbelievably close to the reality of Port Moresby's poverty and illegal settlements.

The Papua New Guinean Government has recently come to recognise that tourism is the only truly sustainable industry that can keep the country afloat once the gas and minerals have dried up, and it is creaking into action to improve access by building roads and abolishing air travel taxation.

Who knows, in 10 years Port Moresby could become Australia's offshore Gold Coast, or the Trobriand Islands replace Fiji in the popularity stakes. Let's hope not.

My advice? Don't let the floating voyeurs have all the fun; get out there and discover your own slice of Papua New Guinea.

TRIP NOTES

* Getting there: Aurora Expeditions offers two trips - Rabaul to Alotau for 11 days in April, from $4490. The reverse journey is later in the month. Phone 1800 637 688 or see http://www.auroraexpeditions.com.au.

Coral Princess Cruises also offers Rabaul to Alotau. The voyage departs Cairns on October 18, giving passengers two free nights on board the Oceanic Discoverer. Prices start from $7190. Phone 1800 079 545 or see http://www.coralprincess.com.au.

For total luxury starting with a private flight from Cairns, North Star Cruises charts the Alotau to Rabaul route throughout November. Prices start from $11,995 for eight nights. Phone (08) 9192 1829 or see www.northstarcruises.com.au.

* Staying there: A night at Haus Poroman Lodge, Mount Hagan, costs $82 a person in a double roundhouse and includes breakfast, dinner and transfers. Phone: +675 542 2250, see http://www.hausporoman.com.

Stay at Tufi Dive Resort from $145 for a standard air-conditioned room. Price includes all meals. Phone: +675 323 3462, see www.tufidive.com.