Thinking about islands in the South Pacific will likely conjure images of turquoise lagoons surrounded by coral reefs, protruding mountains with lush greenery, and immaculate white-sand beaches with palm trees and hammocks. While you're all but guaranteed to find that in any of the nations within this region, there are differences between each that make some better travel spots than others. Read on to see our top picks for where to travel in the South Pacific, but know that you really can't go wrong between these island paradises.
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Popular with well-heeled honeymooners and French families, French Polynesia is a collection of over 100 islands that’s known for its jaw-dropping blue water, waterfall-filled mountains, and coral and sea life. The main island of Tahiti is home to the international airport, museums dedicated to local history and the region’s famed pearls, and a municipal market where fresh fruit, fish, and handmade goods are sold. Arguably the most well-known destination in French Polynesia, Bora Bora is the premier romantic escape, with its turquoise waters, luxury resorts with overwater bungalows, and Mount Otemanu, an ancient volcano that rises nearly 2,400 feet.
Less-developed islands include Huahine and Raiatea, which have just two hotels each, lush greenery, and ample hiking and water-based activities. While snorkeling and diving are popular activities throughout the islands, Rangiroa remains at the top for its abundance and variety of marine life and passes, where advanced divers can ride the currents. Close to Tahiti, the island of Moorea is well-known for giving visitors a high chance of spotting humpback whales. No matter which island you choose, expect breathtaking white- or black-sand beaches, coral reefs, and friendly Polynesian culture. On the downside, most hotels, food, and alcoholic drinks are extremely pricey.
Just a four-hour flight from Sydney, Fiji is an archipelago made up of over 300 islands that draws a mix of families, groups of friends, and couples largely from Australia and New Zealand. Hotels range from budget-friendly backpacker spots to over-the-top luxury resorts, and most are on the islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. Fiji has a lot of the same appeal as French Polynesia, with its rugged terrain, coral reefs, and scenic beaches, but it outshines the latter with the widespread hospitality that begins with a welcome “Bula!” Fijian traditions are more on display here, and visitors are encouraged to participate in local culture, from song-filled church services and nightly kava ceremonies, to taking school supplies to village children.
Near the main airport, Denarau holds many of the international chain hotels and calm waters for water sports, but better beaches can be found in the Mamanuca Islands. Aside from sunbathing on the beach, popular activities throughout the islands include scuba diving, snorkeling among the coral reefs and abundant marine life, kitesurfing, and surfing.
Comprising 15 islands with a total population of roughly 17,500, the self-governing Cook Islands are an associated state of New Zealand. Kiwis can fly from Auckland to the main island of Rarotonga in under four hours. Here, you’ll find a rainforest, volcanic peaks, and sandy beaches lined with palm trees. The Cook Islands are far less-visited than the previously mentioned destinations, making them more attractive to remote-seeking vacationers. Rarotonga houses most of the hotel options, as well as Te Rua Manga (The Needle) mountain hiking trail, peaceful Titikaveka Beach, and Matutu Brewery for tastings. Arts are a large part of the culture, from weaving and wood carving, to contemporary art and tivaevae (quilt-making).
All the expected water-based activities are popular here, as is exploring limestone caves and underground natural pools in the island of Aitutaki, and snorkeling around the idyllic One Foot Island. For a more local experience, head to the 1853-built Cook Islands Christian Church.
Note that male homosexuality is banned in the Cook Islands and punishable by up to seven years in prison.
Samoa consists of two main islands and seven smaller islands, all of which have a laid-back feel and are largely free of chain mega-resorts. A majority of locals live on the island of Upolu, which contains the capital of Apia, the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum — housed in the writer’s former home — the Museum of Samoa, and eateries serving up fresh seafood and Polynesian cuisine. Outdoor activities abound, including swimming in the freshwater Piula Cave Pool and ladder-accessed To Sua Ocean Trench, snorkeling in the Palolo Deep Marine Reserve, and sliding down the natural Papaseea Sliding Rock into cool water.
The larger island of Savai’i is less developed and more peaceful, with most activities centered around exploring waterfalls and blowholes on land, or coral, fish, and other marine life underwater. Pristine beaches throughout the country remain uncrowded, even during peak tourist season, and local culture is evident at every turn.
Fun fact: Lying near the International Date Line, the country used to say that visitors could stand at the westernmost point of Cape Mulinu’u and be in the last place to see the sunset. However, it changed in 2011 to be more in line with Australia, now making it one of the first spots to see the sunrise.
East of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands are a good travel destination for history buffs, as it has many WWII-era sites. It’s also packed with white-sand beaches lined by palm trees, striking turquoise water with coral reefs and sea life, and a landscape with volcanoes and lush forests. During World War II, the islands saw fighting between the U.S. and Japan, and today, visitors can snorkel or scuba dive to multiple shipwrecks, tour the Vilu War Museum, and pay respects at the Guadalcanal Memorial.
The capital of Honiara, located on the island of Guadalcanal, is fairly developed, but the rest of the island is unspoiled, meaning there’s a lot for outdoorsy types to keep busy. A majority of locals are Melanesian and Christian, and culture is on full display at music performances with conch shells and bamboo-made panpipes, as well as at the outdoor central market where vendors sell fresh produce, sarongs, and handmade goods like woven baskets.
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