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Pacific island escapes of your dreams - Australia and Southern Pacific

The islands of the South Pacific are the epitome of paradise, from blindingly white sands to gin-clear waters and abundant tropical flora and fauna, both above and beneath the waters. Unique cultures and cuisines only add to their bucket-list qualities, so the only dilemma is which one to visit first

Words by Alex Mead

Cook Islands

In many ways, the Cook Islands, roughly halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii, out-Pacifics its ocean neighbours. It may be small – just 240sq km across 15 islands – and home to 18,000 people, but it’s also mighty, spreading itself across an epic 1.9 million sq km of the big, beautiful blue. No building is allowed to be taller than the highest coconut tree; time is a suggestion rather than a specific; and pristine, coconut-palm-fringed beaches surround every island. That these beaches are renowned is saying something, considering what else is on offer in this part of the world. But while development has been kept to the bare minimum, what the islands lack in glitz, they make up for in hospitality and a genuine welcome.

You can make your way around the entire main island of Rarotonga – population 13,000 – in little more than half an hour by car (or by one of the two buses – one going clockwise, the other anti-clockwise), but crossing it means a hike through rainforest and volcanic peaks. If hikes aren’t your thing, and driving feels like cheating, simply circumnavigate the island by kayak instead. Head north to the atoll of Aitutaki, where a lagoon with deserted islets peppering its turquoise waters makes for the kind of Pacific utopia that has to be seen to be believed. Just 1,500 very lucky people reside here, whose heritage is worn on their sandy sleeves with ancient temples dotted around the atoll.

Further north, you reach Atiu, the island of birds – where rare breeds include the kopeka, which navigates via echoes – and home to just 400 people, but with a heritage dating back to the warriors. There are five villages, a handful of cafés and a coffee plantation that produces some of the best arabica around. And, while you can easily escape fellow travellers on the Cook Islands, there are some you may not want to, including the humpback whales that head for these warm waters at this time of year.

In the evenings, a Polynesian feast of pork cooked in an earthen oven is coupled with the storytelling dances and singing of a people whose history can’t be erased – even the Christian missionaries found their songs adapted to the liking of the locals.

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Photo by Ewen Bell

Windward Islands

A cosmopolitan capital that gives a flavour in every sense of French Polynesia, from the international cuisine to the traditions and culture, Tahiti’s Papeete provides the perfect introduction to this small family of islands that are made for a shoes-off, sand-between-the-toes, away-from-it-all Pacific experience.

But first, navigating your way through the maze of names and sub-divisions in the Pacific can be more taxing than the flight times, although it’s worth the effort. First, you have the wider group of 121 French Polynesian islands, stretching over 3,200 miles of the Pacific; zoom in further and there are the 14 of the Society Islands; further still and you find the Windward Islands (confusingly, there’s also a Caribbean variant) – the eastern cluster of Tahiti, Moorea, Mehetia, Tetiaroa and Maiao. These last two are coral atolls – Tetiaroa is on a long-term lease to Marlon Brando’s estate, so you have to stay on the Brando Resort, and Maiao is home to 350 people who put a ban on foreigners after a rogue Englishman set up shop and exploited them in the Thirties. Mehetia is nothing more than an uninhabited stratovolcano; which leaves the island of Tahiti (more confusion: Tahiti is also the name used for French Polynesia in its entirety) and its heart-shaped little sister, Moorea, a 30-minute boat trip west.

Moorea’s 37km of coastline is sprinkled with pastel-coloured houses, world-class diving sites and abundant coral and sealife, but packs just as much within, not least eight mountains – the 1,200m Mount Tohivea towers over all – plus lush valleys, rainforest and a northern coast cut with two almost symmetrical bays. It’s the kind of barefoot island honeymooners long for but rarely find, and there’s accommodation to suit all pockets.

Tahiti, however, is the gateway, and the largest of not only the Windward Islands, but of all French Polynesia’s islands, with more than 190,000 people living on a land dominated by three extinct volcanoes, which have been the inspiration behind endless myth and legend. Papeete is multicultural, and it makes sense to stop awhile and take in the markets and buzzy waterfront food scene. With varied influences, it reflects, naturally, French culture, but also the Asians who’ve made it home.

After that, it’s a case of heading to your own strip of coral reef-fringed, white-sand perfection, where snorkellers and divers alike can get their tropical fish fix. Staying in a thatched, stilted bungalow over the warm Pacific waters isn’t compulsory, but it’s almost par for the course here, as is heading out on an outrigger canoe to get the full, truly authentic French Polynesian experience.

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Photo by Grégoire Le Bacon


The spectacle of an active volcano still bubbling out its fiery lava would be enough to get most people through the door at Vanuatu, especially as you can get to within 150m of Mount Yasur’s crater rim. But it’s the cooler climes you find beneath the waves that bring so many to this 83-island chain, which lies east of Australia’s north-east coast and west of Fiji. It has its share of stunning soft coral for snorkellers and scuba divers, but it’s the breadth of dive options that stand out, from the chance to share the waters with gentle dugongs as they graze or meet the local turtles, either underwater or in the sanctuary just off the coast of Efate (Vanuatu’s main island), to the iconic wreck dives.

Ironically for such a naturally beautiful world, on both dry and wet land, it’s the man-made reefs that have really put it on the divers’ map. The 200m SS President Coolidge, a luxury liner sunk by a friendly mine in 1942 while being used as troop ship, offers 50 dive sites from its new home on the sandbank, including the porcelain Lady and the Unicorn statue, and a unique opportunity to dive into the wreck’s swimming pool. There’s also Million Dollar Point, where the Americans dumped tonnes of equipment and vehicles after World War II – tanks, jeeps, guns and assorted military paraphernalia can be seen in waters as shallow as 15m, making it accessible for snorkellers too. Seeing the seabed and its flora and fauna envelop the metal workings of man, sculpting its own thriving reef, is worth every hour spent getting here.

Such has been the spread of Vanuatu’s underwater-paradise fame, it’s even opened the world’s first underwater post office, 3m down, where you can post a waterproof postcard back home. At the capital, Port Vila (on Efate) you’ll run into every adventure going, from ziplining and lagoon kayaking to those of the culinary kind, serving the best of the abundant seafood. And head in any direction to find remote stretches of beach, ancient traditions of the first people and, of course, adventures that take you within sulphur-smelling distance of those lava-spitting mountains.

In addition to the enviable seafood, local cuisine also focuses heavily on root veg, and, perhaps not so surprisingly, bananas and coconut are king here. Produce is good as the land is so fertile, especially where the aforementioned Mount Yasur volcano lies non-dormant on the island of Tanna. Here, a good chunk of the 30,000 population that call Tanna home, opt out of a shoreline existence, choosing instead to live among the mountains and make the most of the rich volcanic soil – and no doubt also taking advantage of the hot springs that range from 25 to 50C.

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Photo by Shutterstock

New Caledonia

This French overseas territory, 16-17,000km from the homeland, and a mere two-and-a-half-hour flight from Sydney, has a split personality. Despite being discovered and named by Captain Cook, it was the French who used New Caledonia as a penal colony in the mid-1800s, and French remains the official language, spoken both in the capital Noumea and elsewhere in the archipelago. In Noumea, yachts moor up from ocean cruises and French business interests thrive, along with a cuisine with a distinctly Gallic flavour. And with good reason, as regular containers of foie gras, cheese and wine – all the essentials – keep the restaurants and bottle shops stocked up. Ask for wine and, despite its proximity to New Zealand and Australia, it’s French all the way. Likewise, the patisseries, chocolatiers and, as a Noumean will tell you, ‘Every house always has a bottle of champagne in the fridge, just in case.’

Stray from the capital, though, and you’ll see another side, where the traditions and ways of the native Kanak people still thrive, including a menu that might include bat bougna – fruitbat cooked in banana leaves in a rich coconut broth, often underground. Challenging for outsiders, but nonetheless delicious.

The main island, Grande Terre, is one of the biggest in the Pacific – yet one of the most sparsely populated in the world, with only around 271,000 people residing in its 18,580sq km – and the diversity of landscapes is internationally recognised. You can travel from the world’s largest lagoon to dense rainforest to thick mangrove swamps and on to large plains, where cattle are herded by French cowboys, and beyond lie mountainous national parks carpeted with a thick verdant rug. Beaches are often deserted, and the waters clean and clear, perfect for seeing what lies beneath either with mask and snorkel or with tanks.

The five regions of New Caledonia have each been given a moniker, from the French Riviera to Cowboy Country and Kanak Spirit, because, perhaps unlike any of the other South Pacific islands, its diversity is immense in every sense.

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Photo by Sebastien Lebegue


For those seeking the perfect slice of Pacific paradise, Fiji has long been the go-to, since it offers so much across its 333 assorted islands and islets, from some of the best diving in this part of the ocean to the whitest sands and an interior ripe for exploration, including the 1,300m Mount Tomanivi.

Viti Levu is the biggest of the islands, home to two-thirds of the 900,000 population, and the two cities of Nadi and Suva are the gateways into Fiji. Enter via Suva and it’s a short drive to the Coral Coast; arrive in Nadi – as most do – and you’re 20 minutes by sea from an archipelago of islands such as Mamanuca, or it’s a two-hour trip to the 20-island Yasawas (which those of a certain vintage will appreciate as the location for the 1980 movie Blue Lagoon). Whichever island route you take, it’s hard to go wrong.

The appeal of Fiji comes in its range of activities, from white-water rafting through canyons to hiking through rainforests into the wild, taking on volcanic craters and mountain peaks, or you can just hug the coastline. It’s the latter that first brought the country to the seasoned globetrotter’s attention, with iconic maritime explorer Jacques Cousteau describing it as the ‘soft coral capital of the world’. And, while the reefs and drop-off teem with thousands of species of fish, coral, sponges, molluscs and anemone, you don’t need scuba gear to get transported to the technicolour underwater world as you’ll see plenty from the shore. If you can dive, or want to learn, you might want to venture to the ‘Shark Capital’ of the Pacific, Beqa Lagoon, where daily dives are on offer – it’s been known to see as many as 50 bull sharks in one dive.

Traditions and culture are important on Fiji: this isn’t an island nation that’s lost its way. Religion is strong, drinking kava (a brew made from a local shrub) to relax is part of the everyday and a special status is given to rugby, specifically sevens, which brought the country an Olympic Gold and resulted in a national holiday. You’ll see it played on beaches wherever you go.

On the food front, naturally seafood is to the fore, cured in citrus, barbecued or cooked in an underground oven – lovo – which is also used for chicken and pork at special occasions. But other produce, including fruit and vegetables, is endless, since there’s little that won’t grow. Spice and curries are also key, thanks to the Indo-Fijians that make up some 40 per cent of Fiji, having first arrived in the 1880s from British-ruled India. Diversity is everything here, which is why you can keep coming back yet never fail to be taken aback by what’s on offer.

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Photo by Ewen Bell


The natural world has never really released its grip on Samoa’s dozen islands, even those most ‘densely’ populated, and this is Polynesian islands standards we’re talking. The entire country falls shorts of 200,000, with almost three-quarters living on the island of Upolo, and most of the remainder on the bigger, but more isolated Savai’i.

In the capital, Apia, forested mountains provide a backdrop as the city dips its toes in the warm waters of the Pacific, the greenery trying to smother any sense of modern progression. But colour is everywhere, from the clothing and tropical fish, produce-filled stalls and hand-painted, vintage buses that ferry people from village to village – all personalised with names such as ‘Queen Poto’ and ‘Lady Hulita’. It’s only countered by the more muted colours of browns and purples of the taro, a root veg so popular in Samoa that it’s often cited as the secret behind the immense build of some locals, making them so good at contact sports. Street stalls might include pork dumplings and other Asian snacks brought to the islands by settlers who knew they were on to a good thing.

Robert Louis Stevenson lived and died just outside of Apia, and his colonial-style house still stands as a museum, giving insight into the life he led while penning novels on the island. Inspiration wasn’t in short supply.

In Upolo you’ll find the purest of white sandy beaches, including one, Lalomanu, once included in the top ten in the world by a respected travel guide. Inland, it’s lush rainforest and mountains, giant waterfalls cascading into gorges and spring-fed cave pools for the freshest of dips.

To the north, Savai’i has a smattering of villages, each with a chief and close community – ‘Nobody is ever without work in Samoa,’ you’ll be told, since they’re given fishing or farming work to contribute to the village – and such a vast array of churches that visiting them all, each with its own unique style, is a task for the ages. Its rainforest heart stretches for some 727sq km, with more than 100 volcanic craters, the majority of the country’s native flora and fauna, and natural wonders such as blowholes and geysers, shooting water into the air with such ferocity it should surely be powering the islands. There’s even a lava field dating back to Mount Matavanu’s eruption in the early 1900s, when it buried five villages, with some half-buried churches still to be seen – a reminder of the countless stories Samoa inspires.

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Photo by Angela Dukes

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