The South Pacific is Australians' favourite cruise destinations, not least because of its welcoming, friendly people. It offers more than just a sand and sun escape, with a wide choice of opportunities that sees visitors indulging in tropical cuisine, learning about local cultures, and getting a dose of adventure. From snorkelling among moon wrasse on Vanuatu's Mystery Island to horse riding beneath coconut plantations, the South Pacific makes for a memorable cruise holiday.
The low cost of visiting the region and its accessibility are two more reasons we love it so much.
In March 2015, South Pacific cruising took an unexpected turn when Cyclone Pam struck Vanuatu, but the ships have since resumed visits to all islands.
Here, we take a look at the region’s most popular ports.
--By Jennifer Ennion, Cruise Critic contributor
Vanuatu's capital, Port Vila, bore the brunt of Cyclone Pam, with the majority of homes and other buildings destroyed. After the cyclone, P&O's Pacific Dawn passengers were the first to go ashore in Vila on 8 April 2015. Although the city's infrastructure is still being repaired, visitors will find plenty to do, including going scuba diving, kayaking and abseiling. One of the most popular activities is strapping into an open-top buggy and exploring Port Vila's outskirts. Expect to drive down back roads, through small villages and across rolling cattle properties. Another favourite excursion is via a dugout canoe to the beautiful Matevulu Blue Hole, where the water is clear and refreshing.
History lovers will relish a stop at Santo, a US military base during World War II and the largest island in Vanuatu. As a key export centre, Santo makes for a busy port and scuba divers should be quick to disembark so they can be whisked to the wreck of the SS President Coolidge, a former luxury ocean liner-turned-troop carrier. Rated as one of the world's best dive sites, largely because of its accessibility, the Coolidge escaped any harm from Cyclone Pam and dive operations are continuing. For non-divers, Santo offers plenty of blue holes and beaches to explore, as well as excursions to traditional villages.
Mystery Island was affected by Cyclone Pam, with the island and jetty badly damaged, but cruise lines are visiting again. Carnival Spirit made the first call back on 13 May 2015. The uninhabited Mystery Island is a favourite port of call for big name cruise ships. Surrounded by a coral shelf, this is where passengers can get their underwater fix, swimming among yellow and black sergeant majors, rainbow parrot fish and neon moon wrasse. If you forget to take a mask and snorkel, you'll be able to hire them near the jetty. Ni-Vanuatu from a neighbouring island travel to Mystery Island on cruise days to sell sarongs, hula skirts and trinkets to tourists. Some also trade in lobsters and offer fishing tours. To get away from the crowds, go for a walk to the ends of this small island.
Once you visit Champagne Bay, you won't want to leave. This picturesque locale is a must-see on the island of Espiritu Santo, mostly due to the cream curve of sand that lines the turquoise bay. It's a favourite for people visiting Vanuatu, and it's not difficult to see why. Just shy of the water's edge, local villagers greet tourists with stalls that sell handcrafts as well as fresh seafood. (If coconut crab is available, make sure you sample some.) If you've had your fill of downtime, sign up to go horseback riding through nearby coconut plantations, game fishing or hiking through jungle.
Isle of Pines
New Caledonia's Isle of Pines is often referred to as the 'Jewel of the Pacific' and there's good reason why. Surrounded by reef and dressed in Wollemi pines, visitors will go snap-happy attempting to capture its beauty. Its main claim to fame is the 'natural aquarium' at Oro Bay, a popular snorkelling destination. However, major cruise lines, including P&O and Royal Caribbean, are no longer offering this spot as a shore excursion. Fortunately, it's not the island's only drawcard, with Brush Island and Turtle Bay also offering great snorkelling and swimming. Many itineraries include boat tours of quiet coves and bays, where you might see the resident loggerhead turtles.
Noumea is a cultural hot spot, where Melanesian, French and American cultures combine to create one of the South Pacific's most interesting ports. Founded by the French in the late 1800s, Noumea also hosted American soldiers during World War II. To learn more about its storied history, visit the Church of La Conception, a popular pilgrimage site for Catholics, before heading to Ouen Toro lookout to learn more about the region’s involvement in the war, and to take in magnificent views of the city. To understand Noumea's Melanesian and Kanak cultural influences, call into the architectural landmark that is Tjibaou Cultural Centre, a short distance from the historic heart of Noumea.
You won't believe your eyes when you arrive at Mare, placed perfectly within a natural lagoon of gin-clear water. It's these natural aquariums that make Mare, and New Caledonia's Loyalty Islands as a whole, a highlight of any South Pacific cruise itinerary. The surrounding reefs are teeming with marine life, including dolphins and dugongs, while on land, limestone cliffs soar high and underground caves beckon. When it comes to shore excursions, it's all about Yejele Beach. At the port of Tadine, grab an unguided bus transfer to the secluded Yejele Beach, about 20 minutes away. Spend the day beachcombing, swimming and snorkelling in the refreshing water.
Another one of New Caledonia's French-speaking gems, Lifou is the largest coral atoll in the Loyalty Islands group. Just a short self-guided walk from the tender wharf, cruise passengers can discover Jinek Bay -- one of the South Pacific's best snorkelling sites. The reef is home to more than 2,000 species of fish and is a protected marine reserve. That means visitor numbers are regulated, so don't forget to purchase a reserve pass, allowing you access. If you've spent too much time in the water already, learn more about one of New Caledonia's biggest exports -- vanilla. Discover how vanilla is grown, harvested and exported at Maison de la Vanille.
Fiji's capital, Suva, is in sharp contrast to the postcard image of the country's famed islands. The port is bustling and surrounded by urban sprawl, but don't let that turn you away. It's in Suva that you'll get a taste of Fiji's colonial past, and its multicultural present, with Muslim mosques mixing with Catholic cathedrals. Travellers are lured there for the city's cultural attractions, such as the Fiji Museum and Suva Municipal Market, which provides great insight into everyday life, with stalls lined with tropical fruit, vegetables, kava and seafood. It’s also worth picking up a few duty-free bargains while you're there.
Surrounded by yachts and five-star resorts, Port Denarau is a flashy introduction to Fiji's main island, Viti Levu. It's there cruise passengers can get their shopping fix, with a handful of stores at the marina, and more souvenir shops along Nadi's Main Street, a short drive away. But you don't need to be a shopaholic to take advantage of this port. As the gateway to Fiji's Mananuca and Yasawa islands, it's the perfect launching point for those keen to go snorkelling, sailing or fishing. You can also spend a relaxing afternoon at therapeutic mud pools or tour the plantations of Sigatoka Valley, known as Fiji's salad bowl.