It is a region which is never entirely out of focus – even if the mind’s eye seems to view it in a swirl of heat haze, shimmering far, far beyond the horizon. The South Pacific is a destination which crops up in travel fantasies – palm trees whispering above beaches of a fine powder; the sea sighing and swaying as a barely plausible shade of perfect blue.
But now – the early stages of the autumn of 2018 – are a moment when, for all its considerable distance from these shores (it is a full 9,563 miles by plane from London to Tahiti) the South Pacific is particularly in focus for would-be British visitors.
This summer witnessed the 250th anniversary (August 26 1768) of the departure of James Cook’s first “Voyage of Discovery” – an endeavour which brought the South Pacific into European conversation as never before. The milestone is being marked in the hallowed confines of the Royal Academy in London. Its latest exhibition, Oceania (until December 10; royalacademy.org.uk; £18), examines not just the art and culture of the islands in the world’s largest body of water, but the strands of transportation and communication which have long held them together, in spite of the spaces in between.
Such is the size of the region that its geography bears a little explanation. It is usually split into three different zones. Melanesia swells out to the north-east of Australia, encompassing the likes of Fiji and Vanuatu – while Polynesia, the largest of the trio, spreads its arms all the way from New Zealand in the south-west to Easter Island in the east and Hawaii in the north. Micronesia, haunting the currents east of the Philippines, is maybe the least known of the triumvirate, framing Kiribati and the Marshall Islands.
It remains, for British travellers, a region that requires forethought, planning and a reasonable outlay. But if your interest is piqued and the South Pacific has jumped onto your travel to-do list, here are the fragmented dots on the map you might wish to see…
French Polynesia (Polynesia)
So far away, and yet so close. An apt description of this colossal grouping of islands – the heart of Polynesia – which, although stretched across more than 1,600 square miles of ocean on the other side of the globe, is technically part of France (it has “overseas country” status, which gives it a relative amount of autonomy from Paris).
Yet if its name makes it sound like one homogeneous entity, a simple glance at the map should demonstrate that French Polynesia is anything but. It comprises some 118 isles and atolls, including five distinct archipelagos (the Society Islands, the Marquesas, the Gambier Islands, the Austral Islands, and the Tuamotu Archipelago) – making for a collection of dislocated shards that it would take a lifetime of travels to glimpse in full.
Initially, it is best to head for the most famous member of the club. Tahiti is the obvious point of arrival, a swarthy outcrop which accounts for 69 per cent of French Polynesian population – the capital Papeete rumbling with a recognisable element of day-to-day commotion. But beyond those busy streets, the black-sand beaches and volcanic contours of the Society Islands reimpose themselves – a combination which takes most postcard-perfect form on the sublime “neighbouring” isle that is Bora Bora.
Further information: tahititourisme.com
European perception tends to view Fiji as a single island – when, in fact, this Oceanic republic is made up of around 330 specks of land, scattered across the vastness of the Pacific. Indeed, as a measurement of that vastness, it is worth noting that, although pinned to the south-eastern fringes of Melanesia, almost on the cusp of Polynesia, the distance from Viti Levu (Fiji’s biggest island) to Tahiti is an astonishing 2110 miles (roughly the same as the mileage between London and the Turkish capital Ankara).
For all this, Fiji is – in the relative terms of South Pacific geography – firmly on the beaten track. It is easily accessible from both Australia and New Zealand – and Suva, the capital, on Viti Levu, is a magnet for cruise ships. But you can slip away from the crowds into the resorts which dot the south edge of the main island (an area generally known as the “Coral Coast”). Vanua Levu, Fiji’s other major island, sits 40 miles to the north-east, and offers an even denser calm in the foliage of Waisali Rainforest Reserve.
Further information: fiji.travel
Another indication of the Pacific’s enormity is that Tonga (on the western edge of Polynesia) and Fiji (which, as stated above, is Melanesian) are considered neighbours. They are separated by a mere 500 miles of ocean – close enough for centuries of friendly relations, but also for a garden-fence dispute over the status of the Minerva Reefs (which lie between the two nations) to have burned since the start of this decade.
Not that you will find any hints of acrimony if you make it to Tonga – which, as with Fiji, adds up to more than one island. In fact, it is home to 169 outcrops – of which Tongatapu (where you find the capital Nukuʻalofa) is by far the largest.
Most visitors arrive here and stay here, although there is much to be said for making the short south-easterly crossing to ‘Eua, which offers glorious beaches on its west shore, and plunging cliffs on its east. Captain Cook paused in Tonga on his second “Voyage of Discovery” (in 1773), which partly explains why it was a British protectorate from 1900 to 1970.
Further information: tongaholiday.com
Firmly part of Melanesia – it lies just 1,200 miles north-east of the Queensland capital Brisbane, a mere hop and a skip in terms of the South Pacific – Vanuatu is another scattered proposition for travellers, its 82 islands laid out in something approximating a Y-shape.
Espiritu Santo, the largest outcrop, at the northern tip of the left-hand arm of the “Y”, has become a respected destination for scuba-diving – home to epic tranches of undisturbed reef. And in Champagne Beach – on the east coast, next to the village of Hog Harbour – it boasts one of the greatest crescents of sand in the whole Pacific, a remarkable curve of powder. Do not assume that Vanuatu is all sunshine and coconuts, however. Mount Tabwemasana, away on the west coast of Espiritu Santo, is another Pacific high-point. Literally – it rises to 6,165 ft (1,879 metres). Although its summit is not impossible to attain, you need a serious level of fitness and a local guide.
Further information: vanuatu.travel
In some senses, Kiribati is one of the biggest states earth. It is made up of 32 atolls, and can claim 310 square miles of solid ground – but the gaps between some of the islands are so huge that the country is dispersed over 1.3 million square miles of ocean. Caroline Island, its easternmost fragment, is almost as close to Quito in Ecuador as Brisbane in Australia. It is perhaps better known as “Millennium Island” – its position in relation to the International Date Line having made it the first sliver of land to witness sunrise in the year 2000 (a phenomenon it obviously repeats on a daily basis).
Clearly, a country so strewn to the winds is difficult to visit conclusively. Indeed, most tourists (and there are few) tend to head for Kiritimati – on the basis that you can reach it by air from bigger destinations (Honolulu and Fiji).
A coral giant (also known as Christmas Island) which accounts for 70 per cent of Kiribati’s landmass, its isolation has often been more of a curse than a blessing – both Britain and the USA conducted nuclear tests here in the middle of the last century. It is also home to a broad array of shipwrecks dating to the Second World War – making diving a popular tourist activity.
Further information: kiribatitourism.gov.ki
Reasonably well known to rugby union fans thanks to the country’s consistent exploits at the oval-ball game (it has competed at every Rugby World Cup since 1991) – and to those who know the furthest corners of the USA (American Samoa is part of the archipelago, but also, crucially, under Uncle Sam’s wing) – Samoa consists of six main islands. Of these, two – Savai’i and Upolu – are the biggest. Upolu has the capital, Apia.
The capital is an engaging place, and can detain the traveller for a couple of days. It certainly held the attention of the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, who spent the last four years of his life on Upolu, and is buried here. His home is now a museum.
It is, though, in its natural beauty that Samoa really appeals. Savai’i, for example, is host to the hiking and bird-watching oasis that is Tafua Peninsula Rainforest Preserve.
Further information: samoa.travel
Soloman Islands (Melanesia)
If any area of the South Pacific can be considered crowded, it is perhaps the patch of ocean in the western fringes of Melanesia, where the Soloman Islands flirt with Papua New Guinea (and therefore with the vast island of New Guinea – which, half under the sovereignty of Indonesia, might well be considered part of Asia as much as Oceania).
The Soloman realm gleams in the water as a collection of over 900 islands – but only six have any real heft. Of these, Guadalcanal is the centre of life, deeply forested, but also site of the national capital Honiara, which adorns its north coast. As with Kiribati, tourist numbers are low, but there are excellent scuba opportunities for those keen to delve down into way-out waters – Tulagi Dive (tulagidive.com) is a key local operator.
Further information: visitsolomons.com.sb
The image of Hawaii is so closely linked to the USA – from the sombre remembrance of Pearl Harbor to Elvis Presley doing his best matinee-idol impression in 1961’s Blue Hawaii – that its status as the northernmost segment of Polynesia is almost overlooked.
Certainly, it has a different atmosphere to some of its Oceanic colleagues – bigger, noisier, far easier to reach. It is loud and lively in Honolulu – which, as both the state capital and the urban jewel of Oahu, is as starred-and-striped as any city in California, Texas or Florida. It also provides as comfortable an array of seafront escape pods as you can find anywhere in America – not least on the north-west coast of Maui, where five-star resorts draw mainland sun-seekers to the beaches of Lahaina and Kaanapali.
At root, though, it remains a raw, geographical wonder, born of volcanic fury. In some places, this has coalesced into photogenic drama – the sheer cliffs of the Napali Coast, on the west side of Kauai. In others, that genesis still boils and rages – not least in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (nps.gov/havo), on Hawaii (“the Big Island”) itself, where twin krakens Kilauea and Mauna Loa let loose their anger in regular eruptions.
Further information: gohawaii.com
Holidays in the South Pacific
Unless they have an endless allowance of annual leave and an affection for lengthy flights, Oceania is an area which, realistically, British travellers will visit once or twice in their lifetimes – perhaps ticking off two or three countries in one journey. The following breaks do not attempt to cover the whole region (that would be impossible) – but they do provide a bright snapshot of what the other side of the planet has to offer.
The region-wide cruise
The easiest way to see a chunk of the South Pacific in one go is to hop aboard a cruise ship. Celebrity Cruises (0844 493 2043; celebritycruises.co.uk), for example, has a 13-night voyage scheduled to sally forth from Auckland on March 16. This will see Celebrity Solstice work its way north-east to Fiji, Samoa (including American Samoa) and Tonga. Virgin Holidays Cruises (0344 739 2430; virginholidayscruises.co.uk) is offering the trip from £5,029 a head – with return flights from the UK to New Zealand.
The focused cruise
An alternative option to sailing half the Pacific in a fortnight is to pick a particular part of it, and view it in more detail. Aranui (001 800 972 7268; aranui.com) is a specialist in the waters of French Polynesia, and offers regular voyages which scuttle around the Tuamotu Archipelago and the Marquesas Islands (as well as docking at Bora Bora and Tahiti). Steppes Travel (01285 601 759; steppestravel.com) packages these leisurely expeditions with international flights from the UK for a starting price of £4,594 a head.
The sailing escape
You can enjoy an even more lingering waterborne glimpse of the South Pacific if the boat taking you across turquoise shallows is under your own control. Sunsail (0330 332 1201; sunsail.co.uk) offers bareboat yacht charters in the region – with a basic seven nights’ rental costing from £1,750 in Tonga (allowing customers to explore the Vavau island group), and from £2,489 in French Polynesia (where the island of Raiatea is the hub of operations). Neither package includes flights. Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; airnewzealand.co.uk) flies to both destinations (landing at Fa’a’a International Airport on Tahiti in the case of French Polynesia) from the UK, changing in Auckland.
The specialist operator
Few travel companies focus solely on Oceania – which makes Transpacific Holidays (01342 840 555; transpacificholidays.co.uk) a welcome blast of expertise. It covers most of the region – and while its packages mostly deal in fly-and-flop escapism, if you have an urge to see Vanuatu, the Soloman Islands, Kiribati or some of the more tricky-to-reach archipelagos, these are your people. Current offers include a “Fiji 12-Night Island Experience” from £2,809 per person (including flights via South Korea) and a “Samoan 12-Night Delight” which flies to Apia on a similar basis, from £3,569 a head.
The classic tour
Options for a fortnight (realistically, you need at least two weeks, if only to cope with the jet-lag) in Hawaii are bountiful. Trafalgar (0800 533 5619; trafalgar.com) sells a “Hawaii Four Island Adventure” which calls upon Oahu (including Peral Harbor), the Big Island (including Hawaii Volcanoes National Park), Maui and Kauai. This costs from £3,351 in its “first class” incarnation, although this price does not include flights from the UK America As You Like It (020 8742 8299; americaasyoulikeit.com) dispenses a 16-night “Hawaii Island Hopper” which makes leisurely progress through Kauai, Maui and the Big Island from £2,229 per person, including international flights.
Rough and ready
The distances involved alone make it difficult to see the South Pacific on a budget. But if you want to glimpse the region via a slug of backpacker spirit, if not cost, then there is always “Desert Island Survival in French Polynesia” – an intriguing possibility sold by Responsible Travel (01273 823 700; responsibletravel.com) which maroons its participants on a 288-acre uninhabited island and asks them to stay there for 10 days – happily, with expert guides who can teach them how to make a fire, catch fish and extract drinking water from the sea. From US$3,600 (£2,733) a head; flights extra.