"The first experience can never be repeated," wrote Robert Louis Stevenson in "In the South Seas." "The first love, the first sunrise, the first South Sea island, are memories apart and touched a virginity of sense."
Paradise on Earth. The Ultimate Honeymoon Destination. The Most Stunning Sea. The Most Beautiful People on Earth. The superlatives that have built up in our shared consciousness about the South Pacific may seem overblown. The too-perfect-to-be-true turquoise and azure blue waters, majestic tropical scenery, gorgeous white sand beaches, year-round sunshine and the remarkably welcoming people you'll find throughout the South Pacific seem, well, perfect in many respects.
The region that's so captivated our imaginations is comprised of some 7,500 islands, only 500 of which are inhabited. Scattered across a vast expanse of ocean, the island chains are commonly grouped into three major regions:
Melanesia includes the mountainous island nations of the Western Pacific -- New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Fiji.
Polynesia, a triangle of ocean formed by Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand represents an astonishing one-fifth of the earth's surface. Within Polynesia are American Samoa, Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands and French Polynesia. French Polynesia consists of five archipelagos -- the hugely popular Society Islands with Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora and Huahine, as well as Austral, Tuamotu, Gambier and Marquesas islands.
Micronesia, north of the equator, consists of eight nation states including Yap, Chuuk, Palau and the Marshall Islands.
Despite many similarities, these island nations and their roughly six million people are surprisingly varied and diverse, with unique histories, cultures, languages, geology and scenery.
Because of the tranquil waters beyond the reefs, short distances between islands, and generally superior onboard service and cuisine, cruising is an increasingly popular vacation option for visitors to the South Pacific. It's an incredibly relaxing way to island hop, and you will never encounter a crowded port as you do so often in the Caribbean. Many South Pacific cruise travelers take advantage of their jaunt in paradise by extending their trip to stay on land before or after their cruise, a logical way to get the best of both experiences.
Given the high costs of land stays, cruises offer the added benefit of being a "value" choice, as well as a way to see many different islands. For example, the famed over-water bungalows in Bora Bora or Moorea can easily cost $800 per night and up, while costs for good food at the major hotel restaurants make London seem like a bargain (a salad for $30 at lunch, a fish entree for $40 at dinner, high mark-ups on wine, etc.). If you add up hotel, dining and transportation costs, a luxury land-only one-week vacation in a couple of Tahitian or Fijian islands can easily cost twice as much (or more) as a one-week cruise.
One of the most surprising facts for first-time visitors to the South Pacific is that it's not as far as you think -- at least from the West Coast. Less than eight hours nonstop from Los Angeles on the national carrier Air Tahiti Nui (additional options include Air France, Qantas and Air New Zealand), the capital of Papeete and its Faaa International Airport will be your gateway to the islands. Tahiti is in the same time zone as Hawaii, but frequent visitors to the Aloha State will immediately note differences when they land in Tahiti -- more unspoiled terrain, calm and crystal-clear waters, a complete lack of crowds and a cosmopolitan French cultural influence. Both Air Pacific, Qantas and Air New Zealand operate 10.5-hour nonstop flights between Los Angeles and Nadi, the jumping off point for islands further east like Tonga and Samoa. The island nations of Micronesia are reached via Honolulu and Guam on Continental Micronesia Airlines.
Who Goes There?
The South Pacific is still a specialized and unique cruising market, which makes choosing a ship and itinerary quite easy compared to the Caribbean or Europe. As cruise lines move their ships between popular seasonal regions like Alaska, Asia and Australia/New Zealand, the region is increasingly becoming a popular choice for a world cruise segment or repositioning cruise. Lines offering big-ship cruises here include P&O, Princess, Royal Caribbean and Holland America.
The only major cruise line to service the region year-round is Paul Gauguin Cruises with its 332-passenger Paul Gauguin. The ship sails 7- to 14-night cruises to the Society Islands, Tuamotus, Cook Islands, Marquesas and New Zealand.
Princess Cruises' 710-passenger Royal Princess spends the fall and winter in the South Pacific, offering several 10-night cruises roundtrip Papeete, as well as longer itineraries that visit Hawaii and Tahiti.
Three lesser-known but worthwhile cruise choices in Tahiti are Bora Bora Cruises, with its two stylish cruise yachts (40 passengers each); the fabled Aranui 3, a mixed passenger/cargo vessel that makes regular 16-day trips from Tahiti to the Marquesas and Tuamotu atolls; and Archipels Cruises, with its fleet of five eight-passenger catamarans, which offer three- to eight-night cruises that provide a true sailing experience.
Small-ship operators Blue Lagoon Cruises and Captain Cook Cruises also offer appealing options. Blue Lagoon Cruises operates a small fleet of ships that explore the Yasawa Islands with three-, four- and seven-night itineraries. In addition, Blue Lagoon's 70-passenger catamaran, Fiji Princess, sails a six-night historical and cultural cruise three times a year, featuring remote islands north of Fiji like Rabi and Kioa. Similarly, Captain Cook Cruises' 120-passenger Reef Escape offers three-, four- and seven-night Yasawa cruises, and a seven-night option to remote northern Fiji. Micronesia, one of the world's premier scuba destinations, is mainly served by diving "liveaboards."
Bear in mind that the smaller the vessel, the greater the possibility of seasickness. Obviously, you'll experience much less on Royal Princess or Paul Gauguin than on the relatively tiny Archipels. Sailing among the tranquil main Society Islands is usually gentle and not rocky, except for long stretches between Papeete and Bora Bora. Sailing far out on the ocean near the Cook Islands, Tuamotus or the Marquesas Islands can be as unpredictable as any other wide-open stretch of sea.
Choosing an Itinerary
A good choice for South Pacific first-timers is French Polynesia because there are a variety of itineraries offered by the big-ship players in the region, such as Princess Cruises and Paul Gauguin Cruises.
Papeete, the capital of Tahiti, is where most French Polynesian cruises begin and end, and the cosmopolitan vibe of the city is complemented by spectacular scenery on every stretch of this large island. Bora Bora's magnificent lagoon is a James Michener-styled South Seas fantasy come to life, with many water sports and outdoor activities. Moorea, an easy ferry ride across from the island of Tahiti, is well known for its towering peaks and scenic bays. The sister islands of Raiatea and Tahaa are sparsely populated, yet hold many attractions beyond the typically stunning land and sea. Raiatea is the second largest Tahitian Island, and the center of the Polynesian religion and culture for hundreds of years, while the gentle scent of vanilla permeates Tahaa, "the Vanilla Island."
Less-traveled French Polynesian islands include Huahine, known for its lush forests and deep lagoon, and Rangiroa, the second largest coral atoll in the world and a premier dive destination. Fans of the reality show "Survivor" are sure to remember the faraway setting for season four, the rugged and dramatic Marquesas Islands, located 930 miles northeast of Tahiti.
Paul Gauguin occasionally offers itineraries that include the Cook Islands and Marquesas, while the mixed passenger/cargo vessel Aranui 3 runs to the Marquesas regularly.
Smaller vessels with a greater focus on soft adventure primarily serve the other regions of the South Pacific, such as Fiji. Nadi, Fiji's tourist hub, is a fascinating cultural and religious mix of Indo-Fijians and indigenous Fijians. It's also the gateway to the Yasawas, a 20-island archipelago famous for its white sand beaches, turquoise water and coral reefs. The Yasawas may look familiar -- the islands provided the setting for the "Blue Lagoon" films.
Orion Expedition Cruises offers a 16-night Melanesia and Solomon Islands Cruise that begins in Auckland and ends in Papua New Guinea, with calls in New Caledonia, Vanuatu and the Solomons.
Micronesia, too, is a favorite of smaller expedition ships. Clipper Odyssey sails a handful of Micronesia cruises, departing from Guam. (Most Micronesia cruises also include stops in Melanesia).
Best Time to Go
The South Pacific is blessed with a year-round tropical climate. The best weather, with little to no rain, occurs during the dry season from May to October (although the trade winds pick up during these months). During the wet season between November and April, rain, temperatures and humidity increase. North of the equator in Micronesia, the seasons are reversed.
Extending Your Cruise Vacation
If you have the time, why not enjoy some extra days in paradise? Three days or more spent in a Polynesian land hotel or resort will give you a chance to delve more deeply into one or two islands' land and water attractions -- like hiking in Moorea, jet skiing around Bora Bora or diving Fiji's Mamanuca islands without the pressure of having to "do it all" during a one-day call. Prices will inevitably be high for extending your vacation (and don't forget to include extra time for air or ferry transports between islands).
If you sail aboard Paul Gauguin or Royal Princess, you can easily book one of their pre- or post-cruise extension packages to stay on land in Bora Bora or Moorea (the two most popular islands), as well as every other major Society Island that you may or may not visit on your cruise itinerary, such as Huahine. Some of the legendary hotels whose views and bungalows are always depicted in the tourist brochures include the Bora Bora Lagoon (part of Orient-Express Hotels and Resorts), the Hotel Bora Bora (an Aman property, currently closed for reconstruction) and the luxurious island outposts of the Le Meridien, Sheraton, Sofitel and Inter-Continental chains.
A common way for visitors to extend their time in paradise is to take back-to-back cruises on Paul Gauguin. This also solves the frequent gripe that the seven-day itinerary is just "too short!" Sometimes, back-to-back cruises can be cheaper than the cost of the two sailings put together. Plus, back-to-backers have the chance to enjoy more time onboard and be very selective about which excursions to take (as well as enjoy the cost savings compared to staying in a five-star hotel on land).
In Melanesia, Blue Lagoon Cruises will pick up passengers at about half a dozen resorts in the Mamanuca islands west of Nadi before continuing north to the Yasawas. Blue Lagoon Cruises' quiet homeport, Lautoka, about 30 minutes north of Nadi, is primarily a sugar mill town. And in Micronesia, Guam is a turnaround port and therefore a possibility for a pre- or post-cruise independent stay.
Can't-Miss Shore Excursion
Here's a selection of some of the best shore excursions in the major islands of the South Pacific:
The city's major Hindu place of worship and most recognizable landmark is Sri Siva Subramaniya Swami Temple. Decorated by artists from India, the colorful South Indian Dravidian-style temple features a statue of Lord Murugan, deity of the seasonal rains. For his private garden, actor Raymond Burr (Perry Mason) chose the foothills of the Sabeto or Sleeping Giant Mountain Range some 10 minutes north of the airport. Today, the Garden of the Sleeping Giant has blossomed with native plants and several dozen varieties of Asian orchids and cattleya hybrids.
Not surprisingly, with the most incredible water and beautiful island scenery at every island stop, almost every shore excursion you pick will be a winner in French Polynesia. As in Hawaii, prices for shore excursions are on the high side (simple two-hour snorkel trips begin at $60 per person, two hours of jet skiing around Moorea or Bora Bora -- WaveRunners are used here -- cost around $210 per couple). Paul Gauguin features its own water sports marina, and many of the best activities are free, like kayaking through Cook's Bay and snorkeling off of the line's private island. On the smaller boutique ships like Bora Bora Cruises or the Aranui, the shore excursions are decidedly no-frills, but still wonderful. Or you may choose just to explore one of the islands on your own by renting a car or Jeep to find secluded beaches, small covers and lovely hiking spots.
Rarotonga, Cook Islands
Often compared to a smaller Moorea, this lush, mountainous island features good birding and hiking in its rugged interior. The southeast side of Rarotonga offers the best beaches and kayaking near Muri Lagoon and best snorkeling at Titikaveka. For hand-made crafts, visit the Punanga Nui Cultural Market near Avatiu Harbor. (Friday nights and Saturday mornings are especially good for experiencing local food and music.
Robert Louis Stevenson was so smitten with Samoa that he spent his last years there. His stately house, Vailima, is now a museum. A 45-minute climb leads visitors to the author's tomb, located below the summit of Mount Vaea. Don't miss snorkeling during high tide at the Palolo Deep Marine Reserve, a shallow reef with a blue hole surrounded by walls of coral and amazing marine life.
Take one of the many island tours that pass the beautiful west coast of the main island, following in the footsteps of the celebrated artist Paul Gauguin (or rent a car on your own to experience the same sights). Explore the dramatic cliffs and lush vegetation, tour the Paul Gauguin Museum, see chic residential areas, and find deserted beaches and grottos for swimming.
This legendary island is justly famous for its magnificent lagoon and magical water, so the best way to see it all is by renting a WaveRunner for an exhilarating one-hour circle island tour. The shark and ray feeding excursion (it's totally safe) is world famous and will give you some of the best Kodak moments of your trip. Those who are curious about SCUBA and the underwater world it can reveal can try the "Aqua Safari" helmet dive that mimics SCUBA -- all without getting your hair wet!
While the WaveRunner expedition around Moorea is also exciting, the best views on the island are from the land, where you'll get an up-close view of the craggy peaks, lush valleys and the full splendor of Cook's and Oponohu Bays from the famous Belvedere Point. You'll probably stop at a pearl store to marvel at the unique black pearls found only in the Tahitian islands. The "Trails of the Ancient" trek to visit the Belvedere Point and ancient temples, which includes fascinating commentary from a renowned archeologist, is not to be missed. Encounters with dolphins can be booked, either with a more scientific/conservationist tour, or the more recreational swimming with dolphins at the Dolphin Center.
Similar to Moorea, this island's lush land scenery is more spectacular than the crystalline water itself, so join an excursion that will take you from the main town of Uturoa up to Mount Temahani and finally to the ancient marae (temples) that give this island such an important religious and cultural significance to all Polynesians. The pearl farm expeditions (also available on Tahaa) are special ways to explore the elusive pearl oysters in their native environment.
The quiet sister island to Raiatea (they share the same lagoon) offers similar enchanting scenes from paradise-white sand beaches, and an ancient volcano and deep valleys redolent with the scent of vanilla. Since Paul Gauguin passengers almost all head to the private motu picnic the day the ship stops in Raiatea/Tahaa, the only other shore excursion is the Black Pearl Farm Adventure (also offered on the Raiatea port day).
This more isolated and "savage" island (actually two sister islands linked together) features velvety slopes and lush tropical vegetation. It's also the right spot to venture beyond the reef to try your hand at some deep sea fishing or to enjoy a four-wheel drive safari through the rugged terrain.
Evidence of Guam's strategic value as a U.S. territory is found underwater, in the form of Spanish galleons and wrecks from two world wars. A trip below by submarine offers a glimpse into Guam's history; another popular option ashore is a four-course meal and a show at the Sandcastle, an elegant dinner theater with white marble floors and sweeping arches with spire- and orb-topped columns.
On some Polynesian islands (Viti Levu, Bora Bora, Rarotonga, Papeete) you can get around on your own using taxis or buses. But others (Huahine, Moorea) have limited public transport, so you may find that you'd be better off with a tour -- either booked through your cruise line or independently. Bottom line: Read your ship's daily newsletter; when they say there's limited transportation, they mean it.
Though we generally advise packing light, on this trip you'll want to take a ton (unless you plan to live in swim suits and pareos -- and some folks do!). Also, it's not easy to buy the items travelers tend to "forget," like lens solution, bug spray and books. This isn't Hawaii where you'll see Wal-Mart glistening on the horizon as your ship pulls into port; even if you do find a store carrying what you need, you'll pay out the nose.
Renting a car is a good way to explore Fiji. The main highway, Queens Road, is well maintained with good signage. Side roads are another story. Expect gravel, potholes and grazing horses.
It's best to swim and snorkel with a buddy -- currents and tides can change quickly.
Most stores and restaurants throughout the islands are closed on Sunday.
Local villagers throughout the South Pacific sell their handicrafts, including jewelry, woven baskets and woodcarvings, at outdoor shell markets and flea markets. It's good to be prepared for these souvenir-shopping opportunities with small bills.
In some Polynesian ports it is easy to book water-based activities on your own (in Rarotonga, Raiatea and Bora Bora, for example, local operators line up at the dock or tender pier); in others, you'll want to go with the ship for sure or at least organize your independent tour in advance (Viti Levu and Moorea are two such islands).
Just say "no" to pantyhose. With such humidity, you might not feel like donning your finest fancies. And since most of the cruise lines refrain from holding formal nights in this region, lightweight packing with casual outfits (and country-club casual for some evenings) is a breeze.
Pack a good hat, rash guard or T-shirt for snorkeling -- and water shoes. The highlights of the South Pacific are sunbathing on stunning white sand beaches and snorkeling alongside amazing marine life. It's critical to protect your skin from the strong ultraviolet rays of the equatorial sun. It's also easy to cut your feet on the rocks and coral heading into the water from the beach; don't expect fine Caribbean-style sand.
Get seasick? Pack your remedy of choice if you are heading to the Cook Islands' Rarotonga. The trip involves two sea days -- one to get there and another to get back -- and the water can be choppy.
--by Stan Wu, Cruise Critic contributor, with additional reporting by Melissa Baldwin, Managing Editor. Updated by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor.