The South Pacific made simple...
Sandbar schmandbar, where's the bar? Apart from that, another day in paradise. Photo The Brando
There’s nothing quite like a Pacific island for its total daydreamy perfection. The sense of relaxation is beyond compare, as is the quality of the beaches, reefs and surf, and the friendliness of the islanders. And this is not just a courtesy shown to tourists either, but a deeply ingrained way of life that's guaranteed to buoy your spirits.
The Pacific is a gigantic ocean, however, arrived at only after a long and expensive flight — and, beyond the South Seas stereotype, the individual island nations are very different. It's a big investment in time and money to get there, so before you go its vital that you choose the right island for you.
Here is a run through the best of them...
What’s it like? Hawaii’s most famous strip of sand is Waikiki beach, in Honolulu. As a city beach resort, it’s a hoot, with a real holiday vibe, good restaurants and cracking nightlife. The gargantuan surfing waves at North Shore, snorkelling at Hanauma Bay and the evocative Pearl Harbor memorial are all a short drive away (on very good roads).
Honolulu is very American it's true, a world away from the more traditional islands of the Pacific. And it’s a world away from Hawaii’s seven other main islands, too. Leave it and you leave behind three-quarters of the 1.4m population, and are set to stumble on experiences as wonderful as any in the Pacific.
Great for black sand beaches and scrabble, the Waiʻanapanapa State Park on the island of Maui
On the Big Island, you can watch fresh lava fizzing into the sea and visit upland cowboy ranches. On Maui, you can ride across the moonscapes of Haleakala Crater and drive the Hana Highway, over single-lane bridges and around heart-stopping hairpins. On Lanai, a ghostly tanker lies fast on the reef at Shipwreck Beach, and there’s a weird rock-strewn desert called the Garden of the Gods. On Molokai, take a mule ride along a narrow cliff ledge, 1,650ft above the waves, and trek the Halawa Valley for top-flight rainforest birding. And on Kauai, stroll boardwalks above the misty Alakai swamp and lie on Lumahai beach, where Mitzi Gaynor vowed “I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair” in South Pacific.
Sunset at the Mauna Kea volcano on the Big Island. Photo Kurt Johnson
One more thing...the Union Jack is on the flag of Hawaii, reputedly because King Kamehameha flew the Royal Navy’s red ensign from his palace after it was given to him as a present.
A King Kamehameha I statue, with the current Hawaiian state flag behind
Getting there: the main gateway to the Hawaiian Islands is Honolulu International Airport, which handles over 20 million passengers a year. There are flights from 20 mainland US cities, and other regional destinations including Auckland with Air New Zealand, Beijing with Air China, Nagoya, Osaka and Tokyo with Japan Airlines, Seoul with Korean Air and Asiana, Sydney with Qantas , and Vancouver with Air Canada.
If you are planning a round the world trip, or want to take in other Pacific Islands, then there are connections to Apia, Kiritimati and Nadi with Fiji Airways, Pago Pago and Papeete with Hawaiian Airlines, and Chuuk, Guam, Kosrea, Kwajalein, Majuro, and Pohnpei with United Airlines.
More information: see Go Hawaii
What’s it like? Fiji is the South Pacific at its best — with 333 islands and a population nudging a million, there are diversions aplenty. It has fabulous beaches, of course, as well as timeless traditions and decades of experience of welcoming tourists. It’s one of the easiest island groups to get around, too, and every budget, from top-end to backpacker, will find a beach to call home.
If you’re just stopping over, it's best to head for the 20 Mamanuca islands, off the coast from the main airport. Protected by a reef, they can be as beach party or secluded luxury as you like. On a longer trip, explore the main island, Viti Levu. It’s a fabulous four-hour drive along the Coral Coast highway from the airport to Suva, the Fijian capital. Along the way, you’ll find great family-friendly resorts, hiking in the central mountains and the pretty thatched village of Navala.
Pool bar at the Castaway Island resort in the Mamanuca group. Photo Castaway Island
From Suva, you can hop on a ferry to many of the other islands, including Ovalau, home to the ramshackle town of Levuka: a former whaling station, it has a cutesy collection of clapboard colonial buildings. Stay at the faded but fabulous Royal Hotel, one of the oldest in the Pacific.
In this part of the world, kava is a semi-ceremonial drink made from the root of a pepper-related plant. You’ll find it across the Pacific, but Fijians drink lots of it. Slurp down the cloudy liquid, pass the bowl to your right, then feel your lips numb and your outlook mellow. It tastes like dishwater, but it’s rude to refuse.
One more thing...the grass skirt has evolved into the sulu on Fiji, and is worn by men and women. The smarter version is called the sulu va taga (“with pockets”), and is sported by businessmen, the police and ceremonially by the armed forces.
A passing out parade of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces
Getting there: Fiji has two international airports on the main island, of which by far the largest is Nadi Airport over on the west coast. Fiji Airways has flights to Adelaide (starting June 2017), Auckland, Brisbane, Christchurch, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Melbourne, San Francisco, Singapore, Sydney and Wellington.
Flights to other Pacific Island nations include Apia, Funafuti (Tuvalu), Honiara (Solomon Islands), Kirimati (aka Christmas Island), Nuku'alofa (Tonga), Port Vila (Vanuatu) and Tarawa (Kiribati) with Fiji Airways. Other island connections include Noumea and Wallis Island with Aircalin, Honiara and Port Moresby with Air Niugini, Port Vila with Air Vanuatu, and Nauru with Nauru Airlines.
On the far east of the main island Nausori International Airport is near to the capital Suva, and has flights with Air Vanuatu to Port Vila, and with Fiji Airways to Apia, Auckland, Funafuti and Nuku'alofa. There are flights to 16 domestic destinations too, with Fiji Airways and Northern Air Northern Air.
More information: see Tourism Fiji
What’s it like? Arriving in Rarotonga is an instant tonic. It’s the main island of the Cooks, home to three-quarters of the archipelago’s 20,000 people, yet the longest hotel transfer is 10 miles. The air is hibiscus-scented and the people are disarmingly friendly: you’ll likely bump into the chap who stamped your passport in a bar later.
Day tripping by boat to reef in the Aitutaki Lagoon. Photo Cook Islands Tourism
Waves crash onto the island’s encircling reefs, protecting azure lagoons, white-sand beaches, palm trees and a thickly forested interior. The tourist industry is well developed, spanning barefoot luxury and barefoot backpacking, and it has good restaurants and raging nightlife. Sights are few, but do catch the Saturday markets, Sunday service in a coral-built church and an “island night” dance show.
If all that sounds too lively, make for Aitutaki, an hour’s flight north. It’s popular for its Bora Bora-style scenery and overwater bungalows.
A local bloke up a tree. Photo Cook Islands Tourism
One more thing...Albert Royle Henry was the Cooks’ first premier, but when it was discovered that he had illegally flown in hundreds of supporters from Auckland on voting day, he was stripped of his knighthood. He remains much loved; his bust, often garlanded, is in a cemetery on Rarotonga. See a piece on the statue, on My Bathroom Wall
Canoe races and regattas take place in many of the Pacific Islands. Photo Cook Islands Tourism
Getting there: Raratonga International Airport has flights Air New Zealand to Auckland, Los Angeles and Sydney, Air Tahiti to Papeete, Jetstar to Auckland, and Virgin Australia to Auckland. Air Raratonga flies domestically to Aitutaki, Aitu, Mangaia, and Mauke.
More information: see the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation
What’s it like? The main attractions here are the beauty of the islands and the unspoilt way of life. You’ll soon unwind to the local rhythm, which in Samoa is very slow indeed. Apia is the capital — home to about 40,000 people, as well as the Palolo Deep Marine Reserve, the Maketi Fou market and the Museum of Samoa. There are some excellent resort hotels around the main island.
A beach on the southeast of the main island. Photo My Bathroom Wall
Take a gentle drive round the island and you’ll pass villages with open-sided thatched fales (houses), women playing a form of cricket and men playing rugby — a religion here, as it is in Fiji and Tonga. Over on wilder Savaii are blowholes, waterfalls, lava fields and forests.
One more thing...Robert Louis Stevenson spent the last four years of his life at Vailima, a couple of miles south of Apia. The grand villa he built is now the fine Robert Louis Stevenson Museum. Climbing up to his tomb on Mount Vaea, behind the house, is sticky as hell, but the inscription and the views are worth it.
The superb Villa Vailima, now the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum. Photo Flickr/Michael Coghlan
More information: samoa.travel
What’s it like? The turquoise lagoon and ragged peaks of Bora Bora are a seductive interplay of land and sea. The water is clear, the sharp-peaked mountains soar 2,000ft above the sea, and there is nothing to do but do nothing. Birthplace of the overwater bungalow, Bora Bora has dozens of super chic hotels fronting astonishingly beautiful beaches. It’s magnificent fly-and-flop territory, but it’s expensive and presents a rather Disneyfied version of the Pacific. If you aren’t rich and famous, or plotting a blowout honeymoon, you are better off on the black-sand beaches of Tahiti island or the white-sand sensations of Moorea, 10 miles to the west.
Bora Bora is overwater villa central. The first was built in 1970, now there are over a dozen. Photo Tourisme Tahiti
To find the pristine beauty of traditional Polynesia, you should venture to less visited parts of the Society Islands, of which Bora Bora, Tahiti and Moorea are all part. Inhabitants of Huahine, Raiatea and Tahaa share their magical islands and enviably uncomplicated lifestyle with just a handful of idyllic retreats.
Bora Bora is 230 kilometres northwest of Tahiti, dominated by the 727 metre high Mount Pahia
One more thing...Marlon Brando fell for a local girl, Tarita Teriipia, while filming Mutiny on the Bounty in 1962. He built his bolt hole 36 miles north of Tahiti, on Tetiaroa, and opened a hotel there in 1973. It has now closed its doors, but a new environmentally friendly 35 villa lodge called, inevitably, The Brando, opened in 2014.
By the looks of it, even the bogs at The Brando are sublime. Photo The Brando
Getting there: Fa'aa International Airport is the gateway airport for all of French Polynesia. It's located on the Island of Tahiti. five kilometres from the capital of Papeete. It handles international flights from Auckland with Air New Zealand and Air Tahiti Nui, from Honolulu with Hawaiian Airlines, from Los Angles with Air France and Air Tahiti Nui, from Noumea with Aircalin, from Paris with Air France and Air Tahiti Nui, and from Raratonga with Air Tahiti. And Air Tahiti flies to 25 French Polynesian Islands.
More information: Tahiti Tourisme
What’s it like? Vanuatu is one of the closest island nations to Australia, and gets a fair number of Aussie package holidaymakers, but it’s still friendly and far from overdeveloped, with good hotels and great beaches.
Not of all the Pacific is pricey; Hideaway Island has simple room for about £30 a night. Photo Lisa McKay
It was once shared between the British and French empires, hence the French ambience in the lovely little capital, Port Vila, and the decidedly tasty food. Things get livelier on the outlying islands. Tanna has wild horses, a half-mile coral reef drop-off, hot springs, waterfalls and Mount Yasur, the most accessible active volcano in the world, where you can stand and marvel as the earth trembles and spumes of lava spit skywards. Just off Espiritu Santo island, there’s a pearl of a wreck dive — the luxury liner turned troop ship SS President Coolidge hit a friendly mine in 1942, and now lies with her stern 240ft underwater.
One more thing...the land-diving ritual takes place on Pentecost Island on Saturdays between April and June. Young men jump from rickety towers with vines tied to their feet. It’s bungee jumping without the elastic, helmets or safety equipment — so freakishly scary-looking that it can be tough to watch.
Getting there: Bauerfield International Airport is close to Port Vile, the capital of Vanuatu. It handles flights from Auckland, Brisbane, and Sydney with Air Vanuatu, Brisbane with Virgin Australia. Flights from other Pacific nations include Noumea with Aircalin, Port Moresby with Air Niugini, Honiara with Solomon Airlines, and Nadi and Suva with Fiji Airways. Air Vanuatu flies to 14 of the country's islands.
More information: Visit Vanuatu
What’s it like? The kingdom of Tonga was never colonised by Europeans, something that has kept the island as a crucible of Polynesian tradition. The sleepy capital, Nuku’alofa (“Abode of Love”), is on the main island, Tongatapu. It’s flat and largely cultivated, with watermelons, bananas and more. Sights are in short supply, but for a glimpse of royalty, scrub up and head to the Centenary Chapel for the Sunday service — even if the king isn’t in town, the singing is heart-warming.
Yachts in a lagoon. Photo Tourism Tonga
This is one of the poorest countries in the Pacific. It’s totally unspoilt, but may be too laid-back for some — the extreme torpor could well become frustrating. If, however, you can adjust to the notoriously elastic “Tonga time”, you are in for a treat.
One more thing...Tonga is the only kingdom in the Pacific. Queen Salote attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and thrilled spectators by riding in an open carriage, waving all the way despite the pouring rain. The current king is the 58 year old Tupou VI.
Getting there: Fua'amotu» International Airport is 35 kilometres from the capital of Nuku'alofa. It handles flights from Auckland with Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia, to Nadi and Suva with Fiji Airways, and Sydney with Virgin Australia. Real Tonga flies domestically to 'Eua, Ha'apai and Vava.u.
More information: Tourism Tonga
What’s it like? The Federated States of Micronesia occupy 1m square miles of ocean, yet have a combined land area just greater than the Isle of Man’s — and they sure do reward the effort of a visit.
Swinging hammocks on the island of Chuuk
Chuuk (formerly Truk) has more than 50 shipwrecks in its lagoon, mainly Japanese ships from the second world war, and is a diving nirvana. Yap guards its traditions with gusto: here, dance is central and some men still wear loincloths. Kosrae is a lush island with great diving, and Pohnpei is home to Nan Madol, an extraordinary ruined city made up of 100 islets, in a system of canals dating from the 12th century.
One more thing...Yap is the home of stone coins, known as rai, which look like cast off car wheels from the Flintstones. Up to 12ft across, they can weigh several tons.
Yapese dancers with a stash of cash behind them. Photo Global Environmental Facility
One more thing...
The Guamanian flag is an endearingly homely affair that dates back to 1917. Apparently it was designed by the US base commander's wife, Helen Paul, who made many sketches of Guam, including one showing a single palm tree on a beach at the mouth of the Hagåtña River.
Her sketch was then copied by some students in a home economics class - which sounds about as random as one of my school 'cookery classes', in which I was made to stand in the corner for the entire lesson as punishment for wearing my grubby old woodwork apron.
Anyway, here it is, with the central oval echoing the shape of a local Chamorro slingstone weapon, the passing boat a traditional 'proa' sailing boat, and in the background is a representation of 'Two Lover's Point' where legend has it that two lovers refused to be separated, tied their hair together and jumped of a cliff.
More information: Visit Micronesia