"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." Many travelers dream of cruising the islands of the South Pacific, and this is one of those magical destinations that doesn't disappoint. The turquoise and azure blue waters, majestic tropical scenery, gorgeous white sand beaches and remarkably welcoming people seem, well, perfect in many respects. And, indeed, they truly are.
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, Micronesia and Polynesia. Despite many similarities, these island nations and their roughly 6 million people are surprisingly varied and diverse, with unique histories, cultures, languages, geology and scenery.
Because of tranquil waters beyond the reefs, short distances between islands, onboard service and cuisine that is generally superior to land-based options, cruising is a popular vacation choice for visitors to the South Pacific. It's a 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 overwater 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 markups 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 of the U.S. 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. Fiji Airways, Qantas and Air New Zealand operate 11.5-hour nonstop flights between Los Angeles and Nadi, the jumping-off point for islands further east, like Tonga and Samoa.
The South Pacific is blessed with a year-round tropical climate. The best weather, with little to no rain, occurs during dry season from May to October (although trade winds pick up during these months). During wet season, between November and April, rain, temperatures and humidity increase. North of the equator in Micronesia, the seasons are reversed.
The South Pacific is still a specialized and unique cruising market, which makes choosing a ship and itinerary quite easy compared with 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 cruises here include P&O, Princess, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Crystal, Oceania, Seabourn, Regent Seven Seas and Holland America.
Paul Gauguin Cruises sails the islands year-round with its 332-passenger Paul Gauguin. The ship sails seven- to 14-night cruises to the Society Islands, Tuamotus, Cook Islands, Marquesas Islands and Fiji. Windstar Cruises also sails year-round with three different itineraries.
Three lesser-known but worthwhile cruise choices in Tahiti are Haumana Cruises, with its stylish cruise yacht (11 cabins); Aranui 5, a mixed passenger/cargo vessel that makes regular 14-day trips from Tahiti to the Marquesas Islands; and Dream Yacht Charter, with its fleet of 20 catamarans, which offer three- to 10-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' 70-passenger catamaran, Fiji Princess, explores the Yasawa Islands with three-, four- and seven-night itineraries. Similarly, Captain Cook Cruises' 130-passenger Reef Endeavor 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 Haumana. 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.
Polynesia: A good choice for South Pacific first-timers is French Polynesia because there are a variety of itineraries offered by operators such as Princess Cruises, Windstar and Paul Gauguin Cruises. 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 (filming location for season four of reality TV show "Survivor").
Some Society Islands cruise itineraries also include the Cook Islands. Paul Gauguin occasionally offers itineraries that feature the Cook Islands and Marquesas, while the mixed passenger/cargo vessel Aranui 5 runs to the Marquesas regularly.
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. Itineraries typically include Bora Bora, Moorea, Raiatea and Tahaa. 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.
Melanesia: Melanesia includes the mountainous island nations of the Western Pacific -- New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Fiji. Smaller vessels with a greater focus on soft adventure primarily serve this region of the South Pacific, with a focus on 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 provided the setting for the "Blue Lagoon" films.
Micronesia: Micronesia, north of the equator, consists of four nation states including Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae. This area is also a favorite of smaller expedition ships, although not as popular as Melanesia. Both Wilderness Travel and Zegrahm Expeditions lines sail a handful of Micronesia cruises, departing from Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, via a flight from Cairns, Australia. (Most Micronesia cruises also include stops in Melanesia.) Large ships will generally visit ports in Micronesia as part of a world cruise rather than a South Pacific cruise.
World cruises and repositioning cruises: Several major cruise lines stop in the South Pacific on epic round-the-world journeys that can last from one to nearly four months. World cruise ports of call in the South Pacific include Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora, Marquesas Islands, Rarotonga, Fiji, Yasawa, Tonga and Samoa.
Repositioning cruises, typically two weeks to a monthlong, can be an affordable way to experience the South Pacific. Shorter itineraries run between Australia and Hawaii, while longer routes link Australia with either Los Angeles, New York or Vancouver. Large cruise lines such as Carnival, Princess and Holland America reposition ships in the South Pacific with stops in Tahiti, Moorea, Fiji and occasionally Tonga and Samoa.
If you have 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, you can easily book one of its 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 tourist brochures include the Conrad Bora Bora Nui and the luxurious island outposts of the Le Meridien, Four Seasons, Sofitel and InterContinental chains.
A common way for visitors to extend their time in paradise is to take back-to-back cruises on Paul Gauguin or Windstar. 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 a dozen resorts in the Mamanuca Islands west of Nadi before continuing north to the Yasawas. Blue Lagoon Cruises' quiet homeport, Denarau, is about 20 minutes from Nadi. Passengers can add to their Blue Lagoon itinerary a pre- or post-cruise volunteering program in a remote island village.
You'll find the most incredible water and beautiful island scenery at every island stop 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 and Windstar feature their own water sports marinas, and many of the best activities are free, like kayaking through Cook's Bay and snorkeling off the lines' private islands. 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 coves and lovely hiking spots.
Apia, Samoa: 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.
Bora Bora, French Polynesia: Bora Bora 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 90-minute round-trip 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 diving and the underwater world it can reveal can try the "Aqua Safari" helmet dive that mimics scuba diving -- all without getting your hair wet!
Huahine, French Polynesia: Huahine, a 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 enjoy a four-wheel drive safari through the rugged terrain.
Moorea, French Polynesia: While the WaveRunner expedition around Moorea is also exciting, the best views on the island are from land, where you'll get an up close view of craggy peaks, lush valleys and the full splendor of Cook's and Opunohu bays from the famous Belvedere Point. You'll probably stop at a pearl store to marvel at unique black pearls found only in the Tahitian islands. The "Trails of the Ancients Trek" to visit Belvedere Point and ancient temples, which includes fascinating commentary from a renowned archaeologist, is not to be missed.
Nadi, Fiji: Nadi'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, the Hindu god of war. 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 blossoms with native plants and more than 2,000 varieties of Asian orchids and Cattleya hybrids.
Raiatea, French Polynesia: Raiatea is the second largest Tahitian island, and similar to Moorea, its 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. Pearl farm expeditions (also available on Tahaa) are a special way to explore the elusive pearl oysters in their native environment.
Rarotonga, Cook Islands: Often compared to a smaller Moorea, this lush, mountainous island features good birding and hiking areas in its rugged interior. The southeast side of Rarotonga offers the best beaches and kayaking near Muri Lagoon and the best snorkeling at Titikaveka. For handmade crafts, visit the Punanga Nui Cultural Market near Avatiu Harbor. (Saturday mornings are especially good for experiencing local food and music.)
Tahaa, French Polynesia: The quiet sister island to Raiatea (they share the same lagoon) offers similar enchanting scenes, from paradise-white sand beaches to an ancient volcano and deep valleys redolent with the scent of vanilla. Most Paul Gauguin and Windstar passengers head to the private motu picnic site the day their ship stops in Raiatea/Tahaa. Other shore excursions include a black pearl farm tour, vanilla plantation tour and coral garden drift snorkel.
Tahiti (Papeete), French Polynesia: Take one of the many island tours that trace the beautiful west coast of the main island of Tahiti, 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 ancient temple sites and find deserted beaches and grottos for swimming.
On some Polynesian islands (Viti Levu, Bora Bora, Rarotonga, Papeete), you can get around on your own using taxis or buses. But, others (Huahine and Moorea) have limited public transport, so you might find that you'd be better off with a tour -- either booked through your cruise line or independently. In some places, like Fiji, renting a car is a good way to explore, as long as you realize that main roads will be well maintained but side roads could be gravel or full of potholes. If your ship's daily newsletter says there's limited transportation, believe it.
Though we generally advise packing light, on this trip you'll want to make sure to bring everything you might need. Items travelers tend to forget, like contact lens solution, bug spray, cold medicine and books, are often expensive and hard to come by in port. This isn't Hawaii, where you'll see Walmart glistening on the horizon as your ship pulls into port; even if you do find a store carrying what you need, you'll pay through the nose.
With such humidity in this part of the world, you might not feel like donning tuxedoes or bejeweled dresses paired with pantyhose. Not to worry -- most of the cruise lines refrain from holding formal nights in this region, making lightweight packing a breeze with casual outfits for daytime and evening attire that evokes classic country-club casual style.
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. Also, know that most stores and restaurants throughout the islands are closed Sunday.
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 surely want to go with the ship excursion or at least organize your independent tour in advance (Viti Levu and Moorea are two such islands). Whichever path you choose, it's best to swim and snorkel with a buddy -- currents and tides can change quickly.
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.
If you are heading to Cook Islands' Rarotonga, pack your nausea remedy of choice. The trip involves two sea days -- one to get there and another to get back -- and the water can be choppy.