The South Pacific islands are one of the most desired and challenging travel destinations. Most people believe they can’t afford to enjoy places like Bora Bora or Fiji, and it’s true… unless you plan smartly.
Picking a destination in the South Pacific
First, let’s take a look at all countries and territories (a total of over 20,000 islands) that compose the three key regions of Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia.
- French Polynesia: turquoise lagoons, lush mountains and waterfalls, shark diving, over-water bungalows, Heiva festival, over 100 islands and atolls, also referred to as Tahiti (though that’s just the main island)
- Cook Islands: beaches, mountain hiking
- Tonga: humpback whales, beaches, blowholes, devote Christian kingdom, the only country that has never been conquered, where the Mutiny of the Bounty occurred
- Samoa: lava flows, jungle ruins, beaches, the country that inspired Robert Stevenson’s Journey to the Center of the Earth
- American Samoa: national park hiking, beaches, US associated state
- Niue: caves, humpback whales, diving, NZ associated state
- Tuvalu: islets and atolls, WWII relics; the country that will disappear if sea levels continues to rise
- Tokelau: atoll, isolation, can be reached only by 24-hr boat
- New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Islands are also officially part of Melanesia, not covered here
- Fiji: reef diving, beaches, cultural ceremonies (e.g. kava), Indian influence and food, over 300 islands, most developed for tourism
- Vanuatu: active volcanoes, wreck diving, culture
- Solomon Islands: wreck diving, WWII relics, jungles
- New Caledonia: reef diving, beaches, French influence and food, most developed economically
- Papua New Guinea: aboriginal culture, reef diving, hiking, WWII relics
- Palau: reef, shark, cave and wreck diving, atolls, islet scenery, jellyfish lake
- Federated States of Micronesia (Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae and Yap): wreck diving, isolation, stone money, US associated state
- Kiribati: beaches, atolls, poverty, isolation, the first country to start the day/year
- Nauru: obesity, phosphate mines, the world’s smallest independent republic
- Marshall Islands: atolls, US military bases
Assuming that you have limited time and money, and given the transportation challenges (more on this below), you’ll want to focus on 2-4 countries at the time, planning about 1 week per country. Personally, I like to maintain a consistent theme in my trips (e.g. I don’t understand when people combine Thailand and Maldives, or Sweden and Russia), thus decided to focus on one of the three regions explained above. Hard choice! Micronesia has the best diving and is the wildest, Melanesia is the most famous and easy to travel, but we ultimately picked Polynesia. It has a ton to offer for first time visitors (relaxing beaches, cool hiking, great diving, mix of culture and touristic development), and we had a group of friends interested in sailing in French Polynesia. In addition to French Polynesia, we picked to visit Tonga and Samoa, which would give us a good overview of Polynesia and allow us to experience more of the local life. As you’ll soon realize, it’s not particularly easy to get around these 3 countries, but there isn’t much you can do about that. To get to remote places, you have to suck it up, otherwise they wouldn’t be remote 😉
Getting around in the South Pacific
Now, the first big issue when organizing a trip in this region of the world is the limited transportation. Most countries have flights and ferries among their islands, but there are only a few international connections. At the top of this post is a map depicting all the key connections in Polynesia and Melanesia… keep in mind that most of the local airlines don’t pop-up on search engines, and that they only have a couple flights per week, and change their schedules rather frequently. So if you’re planning a trip in the South Pacific, the first step is to go through all the airline websites (check out the following list), and map the flights of your interest.
- Air Tahiti Nui: www.airtahitinui.com
- Air Tahiti: www.airtahiti.com
- Air Rarotonga: www.airraro.com
- Fiji Airways: www.fijiairways.com
- Air Calin (New Caledonia): www.aircalin.com
- Real Tonga: realtonga.to
- Polynesian Airlines (Samoa): www.polynesianairlines.com
- Samoa Air: www.samoaair.ws
- Fly Solomons: www.flysolomons.com
- Air Vanuatu: www.airvanuatu.com
- Air New Zealand: www.airnewzealand.com
- Virgin Australia: www.virginaustralia.com
- Air Niugini: www.airniugini.com.pg
- Airlines PNG: www.apng.com
- Our Airlines (Nauru & Kiribati): www.ourairline.com.au
In addition to these flights, there are a few ferries, though they’re slow and not very reliable, only recommended if you’re not on a schedule at all. And then there is an option of sailing your own boat.
Renting a boat to sail in the South Pacific
Sailing is definitely the best way to travel in the South Pacific. Not only you get to enjoy the cruising itself, but also it allows you to get to all the islands, even the most isolated ones, and sleep in amazing locations (like the Bora Bora lagoon) for a fraction of what luxurious resorts would cost. And renting a boat is much cheaper than you’d expect, at about $100 per person per day for a nice boat – think about how much you’re saving in lodging, transportation and tours! The only catch is that some people in your group need to be certified skippers, or you’d have to cover additional cost of hiring a professional. The trip can be done even cheaper (on a per-day basis) if you buy the boat and sail it for several months, say from Mexico to New Zealand, and sell it there. This route is known as the Coconut Milk Run, and it’s a likely future adventure for us. There are only a few companies that own yachts for charter, but they are represented by numerous agents (below is a list of their websites). The prices are very different, so make sure to reach out to as many companies as possible. It is recommended to book a boat about 6 months in advance; you’ll find many more options and have more bargaining power.
We rented through www.tropicalyachts.com, which got the boat from Moorings. The main conditions for us were that we wanted a catamaran (highly recommended, there is much more room and the sailing is less strenuous), and that we wanted to do a one-way rental. Leaving from Tahiti and finishing in Raiatea allows you to cover all the most famous islands (Tahiti, Moorea, Huahine, Tahaa, Bora Bora and Raiatea), without wasting time. But expect to be asked for ~$2,000 one-way fee, and try to negotiate it down a bit.
Planning what to do in Polynesia
There isn’t much information on these countries. The Lonely Planet and other guides are quite basic, and most travelers that venture there do it in an ‘all-inclusive’ type of trip. I found a the following blogs useful:
And these websites give a good idea on diving opportunities:
But apart from the flights and the boat rental, the trip was left to improvisation. Even lodging seemed scarce, so we decided to figure it out once there. In terms of dates, July is the best time for Polynesia (not so much for Melanesia), with nice weather, good sailing conditions, and the added bonus of the well known Heiva festival. All in all, we plan on spending about $5,000-$6,000 on a 3 week trip, including all the flights and some splurging on diving and such. True, it is more than we’d be spending in a 3 month trip in Asia. But for an experience of a lifetime I think it’s a good price. We leave on June 25… the countdown begins!