The 10 best islands in the South Pacific to visit beyond Fiji

I never knew people locked their doors … we didn’t even have a key. I grew up in the South Pacific where crime barely existed. Still today, it’s only ever of the petty variety (terrorism and murder belong in other far-flung places … like Australia). There’s no litter,  either, no plastic ruining beaches like we see through Asia. Cleanliness in the Pacific is next to godliness (and the missionaries made darn sure that mattered) and a scrap of plastic in someone’s yard is enough to incite neighbourhood gossip. There’s no safer, nor cleaner – nor more geographically blessed – region on the planet. While we wish it didn’t take us a day to get to Europe, or North America; we can rejoice that we have the South Pacific islands at our back door.

 While 370,000 of us travel to Fiji every year, few go beyond. There are islands just a few hours away about which we know nothing, such as Samoa, Tonga and Niue. And islands about which we know only the basics, such as the Cook Islands, New Caledonia and French Polynesia. These South Pacific islands, however, have something to suit every kind of traveller – you can stay in a $10,000-a-night private island retreat or at a $20-a-night homestay in a traditional village and anything in between. You can surf, dive, fish, hike, kayak, or snorkel – for these destinations are the best places on Earth to do so. Or perhaps you’d rather do nothing at all.

Below are the best islands of the South Pacific to visit beyond Fiji – not that there’s anything wrong with Fiji and we’ve covered it, too. While there are islands closer to home – such as Norfolk Island and Lord Howe Island – we’ve kept this list to tropical destinations only … let there be coconuts.

COOK ISLANDS

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The nation’s 15 islands are spread across an area of ocean the size of western Europe and populated by just 15,000 people. Even its most popular island, Rarotonga, attracts just 25,000 Australians a year. Its other main drawcard, Aitutaki, is home to one of the Pacific’s most famous lagoons

PROS

The islands are tiny, so it’s easy to get around (Rarotonga takes 35 minutes to circumnavigate). And with arguably the Pacific’s most gregarious locals, the emphasis is always on socialising.

CONS

Most travellers don’t go beyond Rarotonga and because it’s small, its hot-spots can get crowded at school holiday time.

WHAT TO DO & SEE

Like a mini-Tahiti, Rarotonga is surrounded entirely by lagoon and its hinterland is mountainous and uninhabited. Take a cross-island hiking tour through rainforest and between Rarotonga’s highest peaks. Sail, kayak or stand-up-paddleboard on Muri Lagoon – or swim to its four uninhabited motus (islets). Fly to Aitutaki and take a boat tour on its lagoon, stopping on tiny islands to snorkel.

ESSENTIALS

Avoid summer when cyclones can strike and the humidity gets uncomfortable. School holidays get busy so consider autumn or late spring. Jetstar, Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand fly to Rarotonga. Air New Zealand has direct flights from Sydney, which take just 5½ hours. Sleep in a villa metres from the lagoon at Little Polynesian. See littlepolynesian.com  cookislands.travel

SAMOA

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This could be the Pacific’s best-kept secret. Life here remains largely unchanged. Locals live by fa’a Samoa – “the Samoan Way” – in traditional villages with laws governed by paramount chiefs.  Some of the Pacific’s most romantic resorts can also be found here. 

PROS

Samoa is the most authentic of all Pacific societies – just being here gives you the opportunity to observe what life has always been like in Polynesia.

CONS

Don’t expect nightlife – while several resorts have lively restaurants and bars, most of Samoa goes to bed at dark. There are options in the capital, Apia, but it’s not one of the Pacific’s prettiest urban centres.

WHAT TO DO & SEE

While the lagoons of Samoa are its drawcard (its coastline teems with secret horseshoe bays, and there are more than 30 world-class surf breaks), there’s much more to Samoa. Take waterfall tours, visit the To Sua ocean trench (water filters from the sea into an enormous volcanic sinkhole) or drive across its steep volcanic interior.

ESSENTIALS

Summer is Samoa’s wet season. Winter is a great time to visit – temperatures won’t fall below 25 degrees. Samoa is a five-hour flight from east coast Australia and Virgin Australia, Fiji Airways and Air New Zealand fly there. Watch dolphins from your deck at Sea Breeze Resort. See seabreezesamoa.com  samoa.travel

NEW CALEDONIA

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It’s less than three hours away, but most Australians fly right past New Caledona. Sure, it’s pricey, but Noumea has one of the Pacific’s best dining scenes (and its most vibrant nightlife), while archipelagos of islands lie protected inside the world’s second largest reef.

PROS

There’s night life aplenty – in a region hardly famous for it  – but every type of traveller is catered for. There are islands where you’ll encounter few if any other travellers and can stay with a local family.

CONS

Like French Polynesia, New Caledonia’s prices are the  highest in the Pacific. Many items are imported from France and taxes for visitors are among the highest on Earth.

WHAT TO DO & SEE

Noumea is the Pacific’s cultural hot-spot – the home of museums, art galleries, colonial-era mansions, theatres and gastronomical restaurants all on a peninsula surrounded by beaches. Go beyond and you’ll discover the world’s longest continuous barrier reef. It creates a 20,000-square-kilometre World Heritage-listed lagoon ideal for sailors, fishermen, divers and snorkellers. It’s also home to islands with secret caves and fresh-water lagoons.

ESSENTIALS

Avoid high season around July and August when hotel rates increase. Shoulder seasons are best – May and June or September/October. Aircalin, Qantas, Air New Zealand and Air Vanuatu fly to Noumea. Sleep in Noumea’s heart at the Chateau Royal resort. See complexechateauroyal.nc  newcaledonia.travel/au

TAHITI

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Perhaps the most romanticised island on the planet, Tahiti lives up to its reputation. Made up of two islands, it’s entirely surrounded by lagoon and the mountains of its wild, green interior are taller than Kosciuszko. There are no direct flights to Tahiti from Australia, fly via Auckland.

PROS

There’s a little bit of Europe here in the middle of the Pacific. Locals carry fresh-baked baguettes on their bikes  and the sport of kings – petanque – is played in backyards by the sea.

CONS

Tahiti is one of the world’s most expensive destinations, with many food items imported from France, and a tourist tax added to almost everything.

WHAT TO DO & SEE

Tahiti offers more than lagoons. Explore its uninhabited valleys and mountains where locals lived before Christianity came calling. There are lava tubes to walk through on the east coast. Tahiti Iti (little Tahiti) is connected by a land-bridge and there you’ll find a wilderness as wild as any on Tahiti’s outer islands. The road stops at Teahupoo – the most feared wave on Earth. Take a boat and go beyond.

ESSENTIALS

May to October is Tahiti’s dry season. July is busiest when Heiva, the annual cultural festival, takes place. Air Tahiti Nui and Air New Zealand fly from Auckland. Look out across Matavai Bay, where Captain Cook moored, from Tahiti Pearl Beach resort. See tahitipearlbeach.pf/en tahititourisme.com.au

FRENCH POLYNESIA (BEYOND TAHITI)

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Tahiti is just the beginning. There are 118 islands in French Polynesia spread across four distinct archipelagos and 4 million square kilometres of ocean. Some islands are easy to reach from Tahiti, others require long journeys in propeller planes.

PROS

French Polynesia is home to the world’s most pristine islands. It’s safe, too; crime is almost non-existent beyond Tahiti, where extended families often live together.

CONS

It’s not cheap to fly to French Polynesia’s islands – beyond the Society Islands (to Tahiti’s immediate west, including Bora Bora and Moorea), air fares can cost thousands of dollars.

WHAT TO DO & SEE

The mind boggles. Stay close to Tahiti and explore the volcanic Society Islands. While Moorea and Bora Bora are well known for their romantic offerings there are islands next door – such asTa’haa and Huahine – that are every bit as picturesque, but with no visitors. Alternatively, discover the world’s best diving sites in the Tuamotus, or ancient ruins in the jungles of the Marquesas, or whales in the Australs.

ESSENTIALS

Locals on islands beyond the Society Islands speak little English. Air Tahiti fly all over the four archipelagos. Sleep in an over-water bungalow in the world’s most famous lagoon at Four Seasons Bora Bora. See fourseasons.com/borabora tahititourisme.com.au

VANUATU

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Go beyond the capital, Port Vila, and you’ll find Vanuatu is as wild as you want it to be. Home to 80-plus islands, the country offers everything from some of the world’s best wreck-diving to its most accessible live volcano and, arguably, its best beach. 

PROS

Vanuatu has the right blend of adventure mixed with luxury. While there are death-defying river rafting trips and volcano tours, there are also resorts set on private beaches where there is nothing to do.

CONS

Vanuatu is one of the Pacific’s poorest nations, so infrastructure isn’t up there with Tahiti or the Cook Islands. Malaria is also present outside the main island, Efate.

WHAT TO DO & SEE

While Efate is where most travellers go, it’s worth flying beyond to Tanna and Espiritu Santos. Less than 50 minutes away, Espiritu Santos is home to Vanuatu’s most luxurious resorts (including private island retreats) but some locals still carry bows and arrows to town. The SS Coolidge – the world’s best wreck dive – sits just off its coast. On Tanna, you can sit on the rim of an active volcano and watch lava shoot into the air.

ESSENTIALS

April to September is most comfortable. Direct flights take four hours. Air Vanuatu, Virgin Australia, Air NZ, Solomon Airlines, AirCalin and Air Niguini fly to Vanuatu. Stay in an isolated sandy bay outside Port Vila at Breakas Beach Resort. See breakas.com vanuatutravel/au

SOLOMON ISLANDS

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Despite being just three hours from Australia’s east coast, the Solomons remain a mystery. The ethnic violence which plagued these islands is now decades-old. It’s safe, but those seeking a little “wildness” on holiday will cherish the opportunities.

PROS

The adventure hearted can live out childhood fantasies on 992 islands spread across 1500 kilometres of the Pacific. Travellers can stay in traditional villages, though luxury resorts are now all across its Western Province.

CONS

 Malaria is present here. It’s worth considering malaria medication and avoiding the wetter months.

WHAT TO DO & SEE

The Solomons are one of the world’s premier diving destinations – home to live-aboard dive vessels and dive resorts (particularly in the Western Province). While the variety of marine species is among the world’s best, its waters are also littered with World War II wrecks. You don’t even have to dive to see them: relics of fierce fighting are everywhere. Its surf breaks also fly under the radar for most travellers.

ESSENTIALS

May to October is driest and coolest. There’s no real high or low season, though surfers should visit between November and April. Solomon Airlines, Virgin Australia, Fiji Airways, Air Niugini and Air Vanuatu fly to Honiara. Stay on your own private island in the Western Province at Sanbis Resort. See sanbisresort.com visitsolomons.com.sb

NIUE

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You heard of it? Niue may be the smallest country in the Pacific – but it’s the world’s largest raised coral atoll and creatures of the deep come closer to shore here than they do anywhere on Earth. 

PROS

Looking for that far-flung South Pacific experience? This is it. There’s little tourism infrastructure and just 1600 locals, so come and fulfil those Robinson Crusoe fantasies.

CONS

There are only two flights a week – and they’re from Auckland. The positive is you know arrival numbers will be limited.

WHAT TO DO & SEE

There is no better place to observe humpback whales so close to shore.  Niue is a raised coral atoll in the middle of the ocean so the water around it is very deep close to land – migrating humpback whales and their calves swim 20 metres from the shore. At night you’ll hear them slap fins against the water. You’re allowed to swim with them here. The deep water makes this a fishing mecca, and the diving and snorkelling are world-class.

ESSENTIALS

Temperatures range between 22-30 degrees year-round, though January to March can be wet. Niue is located halfway between Tonga and the Cook Islands. Air New Zealand flies twice a week from Auckland and the flights take 3½ hours. Watch whales from your outdoor bath at Lau’s Getaway. See lausgetaway.com niueisland.com

TONGA

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This is old Polynesia – everything runs on island time, governed around siestas. There are 176 islands but only 40 are inhabited. The northern islands of the Vava’u​ group are regarded as one of the Pacific’s great sailing destinations.

PROS

Mass tourism has yet to come to Tonga, so you’re experiencing one of the best parts of Polynesia almost entirely for yourself.

CONS

It’s not legal for anyone to be shirtless in public and Sundays are a sacred day when everything shuts down. Tonga is a conservative place run by the Pacific’s only remaining monarchy.

WHAT TO DO & SEE

The 50 or so islands of Tonga’s northern group – Vava’u – are full of uninhabited beaches that are among the Pacific’s finest. Charter a yacht to explore. Whale swimming tours are plentiful and are available throughout Tonga, but are best in Vava’u.

ESSENTIALS

Summer can be wet and cyclones can occur – while May to November never goes below 18 degrees. Tonga is five hours’ flying time from our east coast and Virgin Australia flies direct from Sydney. Stay on your own private island at Fafa Island Resort. See fafaislandresort.com tongaholiday.com

PAPUA NEW GUINEA (PNG)

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Regarded as the world’s last frontier, the reputation of its capital, Port Moresby, has kept most travellers at bay. There are few roads beyond Moresby, just flora and fauna seen nowhere else on Earth.

PROS

One of the last countries travellers can truly get off the beaten track. Getting around requires small plane rides (there are 562 airports) or boat journeys to destinations where few have been before you.

CONS

Most of the dangers of the country are found in its largest urban centres – avoid Port Moresby, Lae and Mount Hagen.

WHAT TO DO & SEE

Several companies sail the waters off PNG’s east and north coast where there are hundreds of off-shore islands offering access to otherwise isolated communities. Here you’ll find some of the best diving, snorkelling and fishing on Earth. PNG’s main island has pristine mountainous rainforest and live volcanoes. Evidence of World War II fighting can be seen throughout.

ESSENTIALS

May to October offers the least chance of heavy rainfall, reducing the malaria risk. All visitors require a visa that can be obtained on arrival. Virgin Australia, Qantas and Air Niugini fly to Port Moresby from Sydney, Brisbane and Cairns. The flight takes about four hours. Tufi Resort is located in its own pristine bay. See tufidive.com/resort papuanewguinea.travel

FIVE MORE GREAT PACIFIC EXPERIENCES

LAND DIVE IN VANUATU

Fly from Port Vila and watch locals leaping from wooden towers with vines attached to their feet to bless the yam harvest on the island of Pentecost. See airtaxivanuatu.com​

SAIL TO THE MARQUESAS

Take one of the last combined cargo and passenger ships to the most isolated island archipelago on Earth, the Marquesas, 1500 kilometres north-east of Tahiti. See aranui.com.au

KITEBOARD THE COOK ISLANDS

Learn to kiteboard at one of the world’s premier kiteboarding locations, Aitutaki’s 74-square-kilometre lagoon. It’s also a global hot-spot for bone fishermen. See southpacifickiteboarding.com

SURF THE UNKNOWN

Explore the most unchartered waves on Earth on PNG’s only live-aboard surf vessel. You’ll explore the islands off PNG’s remote east coast, with no other surfers to be found within 500 kilometres. See pngsurfaris.com

PAY TRIBUTE TO A PACIFIC LEGEND

Visit Vailima, the homestead and last resting place of the famed 19th-century writer Robert Louis Stevenson. Located just outside Apia (in Samoa), visit the museum, or hike to his grave. See rlsmuseum.org

FIVE MORE GREAT PACIFIC ISLAND STAYS

VANIRA LODGE, TAHITI

Sleep in villas set within two hectares of jungle in the mountains of Tahiti’s little island, Tahiti Iti, with views over Teahupoo, the most dangerous surf break in the world. See vaniralodge.com

RATUA ISLAND RESORT, ESPIRITU SANTOS

Escape to your own 60-hectare private island eco-resort in Vanuatu’s northern islands, complete with an over-water day spa and yacht club. See ratua.com

UEPI ISLAND, SOLOMONS

Stay on your own raised barrier reef island which drops straight down to 2000 metres of water,  offering some of the best diving in the Pacific. See uepi.com

PACIFIC RESORT, AITUTAKI

Watch humpback whales breach from your restaurant table, or from the deck of your beachfront villa at this multi-award-winning luxury resort. See pacificresort.com/aitutaki

COCONUTS BEACH CLUB, SAMOA

Stay in Samoa’s only over-water fales on Upolu’s southern coast, with the country’s liveliest beachside bar beside the best waves in Samoa. See cbcsamoa.com

IF YOU CAN’T RESIST FIJI …

Here are 10 things we love about Fiji

1.
THE PEOPLE

A Gallup survey showed Fijians were the happiest people on Earth in 2018 … expect a lot of smiles.

2. FOOD

Fiji has one of the best cuisines in the Pacific because it blends Indian, south-east Asian and Chinese influences with its Melanesian staples. And how about that seafood?

3. CLIMATE

With temperatures which vary between 26-31 degrees in a typical year, don’t bother packing a jumper.

4.
ADVENTURE

Sure, you could just sunbake; but how about rafting its wild rivers, hiking to waterfalls, sailing between islands or kayaking around entire archipelagos.

5.
PRIVATE ISLAND RESORTS

There are 20 here, some owned by the world’s richest and most famous people. Life doesn’t get sweeter than when you have an island to yourself.

6.
ACCESSIBILITY

Visitors can stay on some of Fiji’s most pristine islands – the Manamucas – by taking a short boat ride from Denarau Island (20 minutes from Nadi Airport).

7.
ISLANDS, ISLANDS & MORE ISLANDS

There are 333.  Some, such as the Yasawa Islands, were closed to land-based tourism until recently. And some don’t see tourists at all.

8.
SURF

Intermediates and experts can ride some of the world’s most iconic waves – or discover waves that have never been ridden.

9.
MEI-MEIS

Fijians love kids, and mei-meis (nannies) are on hand at every resort to take your them off your hands.

10.
RUGBY

It’s a religion here; Fiji has the highest player-to-population ratio of any rugby-playing country. There will be a game to watch by the side of the road somewhere.

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