How to choose a South Pacific island
In the South Pacific, you may think all Islands are the same. What you can’t tell from a map, or even most tourist brochures is that these palm-laden islands are as diverse as the region is vast. While the postcards might look similar, Fiji and Tahiti are not interchangeable or even much alike when it comes to landscapes and culture.
As you move east across the Pacific from the Solomon Islands to Easter Island, the flora and fauna becomes less diverse. Islands to the east like New Caledonia and Fiji have land snakes and fruit bats, French Polynesia and Easter Island don’t. Underwater you’ll find more soft corals in the plankton-rich waters to the west but better visibility in the greater reaches of open water to the east.
South Pacific islands are culturally and geographically divided into Polynesia (from the Greek meaning ‘many islands’) and Melanesia (meaning ‘black islands’). Polynesian islands include Samoa, Tonga, Cook Islands, French Polynesia and Easter Island while Fiji, New Caledonia, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands are Melanesian. The colonial history of the islands has given this region a modern-day patchwork of English- and French-speaking island groups (plus Spanish in the far eastern Easter Island).
Here’s the low-down on the main regions and their highlights:
Tahiti & French Polynesia
Best for: resorts, diving, culture, surfing, hiking
With over 115 islands spanning five archipelagos, French Polynesia has it all from the legendary, luxe Bora Bora and its over-the-water-bungalows to uncountable forgotten islands perfect for Crusoe wannabes looking for a basic beach bungalow. Wherever you go, you’ll be kissed with a touch of French style.
Dive with plentiful reef sharks and manta rays in the Tuamotu Atolls; ogle the world’s fastest hip shaking at a Tahitian dance performance during the July Heiva Festival; hike to waterfalls and mountain ridges on Tahiti, Moorea, the Marquesas Islands and more; or watch professional surfers brave cavernous tubes at Teahupoo, Tahiti.
Best for: culture, diving, families, backpackers, resorts
Fiji receives nearly the same amount of visitors (about 630,000 annually) as the rest of the South Pacific combined but it still feels wild and exotic. Scents of Indian curries waft from city roti shops while in villages Melanesian families invite you in for a bit of ‘grog’ (kava, a slightly narcotic beverage). Underwater you’ll find seascapes of soft corals so dense they look like purple and white forests.
Viti Levu, the Mamanuca and Yasawa Islands have the best beaches and most resorts while it’s easy to get off the beaten path on islands like the lush, dive havens of Taveuni and Vanua Levu or the near-roadless traditional escape of Kadavu.
Raratonga & the Cook Islands
Best for: beaches, resorts, families, food, diving
The Cook Islands mix Polynesian blue water and hospitality with New Zealand (who administer the islands) savoir faire. On the lush, main isle of Raratonga beach bum all day then experience an ‘Island Night’ Polynesian feast (pork cooked in an earthen oven, taro root and more) and a local dance performance.
Hop a plane to Aitutuaki atoll, with its low-lying coral islets curling around one of the world’s most fantastic lagoons. When not diving, snorkelling or swimming in blue water, check out the atoll’s ancient stone temples called marae.
Best for: culture, volcanoes, backpackers, resorts, diving
Language: English & French
If you want rumbling volcanoes, kava bars, shipwrecks to dive on and wild jungles to trek but still want your roads paved and your cheese French, Vanuatu is the place for you.
The main Island of Efate is home to the endearingly dusty capitol of Port Vila but the real action lies on the outer islands. Tanna is dominated by fiery and climbable Mt Yasur. Espiritu Santo has upscale resorts and a tough trek to the massive Millennium Cave filled with waterfalls and bats. Dive and snorkel WWII wrecks to coral gardens.
Samoa & American Samoa
Best for: beaches, culture, surfing, peace & quiet, hiking
The Samoan Islands are divided into two countries – Samoa, which is independent, and American Samoa, which – you guessed it – is an American territory. Both however remain very traditionally Polynesian. Although ‘Upolu in Samoa has a few relatively upscale resorts, all the islands feel untouristy and much other accommodation is in the form of basic open beach huts called fale.
You’ll find some of the South Pacific’s best and most pristine beaches, lots of smiles, flower-filled villages and a pace of life that stands out as slow even in this region. There are few organized excursions but for independent types the opportunity for hiking, cultural connections, surfing and snorkeling are endless.
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