A Journey To Paradise?
Tropical sunshine, temperate climes, palm-fringed beaches, azure seas, bubbling volcanoes, friendly people whose traditions date back centuries – there's a close approximation to paradise for everyone here. More than 7,500 heavenly islands scatter the South Pacific between New Zealand and South America. The region makes an ideal destination, whether you are considering it for a two-week holiday, a stopover en route to or from Australasia, or as part of a round-the-world trip – not least because the Pacific islands are much less commercial and crowded than those of the Caribbean. The ideal months to visit are pretty much exactly the opposite to the islands of the Caribbean: the South Pacific dry season runs from May to October, when humidity is lower and rainfall less frequent.
There is more to these isles than just idyllic shores and secluded beaches. You can snorkel kaleidoscopic reefs, scuba dive with manta rays, kayak through mangrove-flanked lagoons, surf reef-breaks, cycle around glistening bays, hike through verdant valleys or sail the wide-open oceans. And for those more interested in anthropology than adventure, there are the diverse cultures and ancient traditions of the Pacific Islanders and the choral harmonies of a Sunday church service, plus a vast choice of deserted islands where you can escape from it all. The only problems: the sheer distance (and consequent carbon footprint), and which to choose.
I need a beach holiday
Try Fiji, the top choice for its relatively easy access, excellent beaches and diversity – both among its landscape and its people. The main island in the archipelago is Viti Levu, which has the shape of a rugby ball and is the size of Cyprus. The capital, Suva, is at the eastern end, while the international airport at Nadi (pronounced "Nandi") is located to the west.
Most package holidays are based south and east of Nadi. Kuoni (01306 747 001; www.kuoni.co.uk) has 14-night packages from £1,759, including flights on Air New Zealand via Los Angeles, and accommodation at the palm-fringed Naviti Resort, which includes breakfast.
For more South Pacific romance, take a boat from Viti Levu and join the party atmosphere on one of the beautiful Mamanuca islands. Reliably sunny and only a short hop from the mainland, the Mamanuca group comprises some 20 islands basking in a lagoon formed by the Malolo Barrier Reef. South Sea Cruises (00 679 675 0500; www.ssc.com.fj) operates six daily catamaran services from Denarau near Nadi to the islands of Bounty, Treasure, Malolo, Mana and Tokoriki, among others.
To escape the crowds, head for the Yasawa group of volcanic islands, where the scenery is a little more rugged and the beaches emptier. Most people make for the likes of Kuata, Wayasewa, Waya, Naviti, Tavewa and Nacula.
Awesome Adventures (00 679 675 0499; www.awesomefiji.com) has a daily high-speed catamaran from Denarau to the islands, and also offers island-hopping accommodation packages. A five-day trip taking in two islands costs from FJ$330 (£110) per person including most meals, transport and accommodation.
Can I explore on land?
Yes. The FeeJee Bus (00 679 672 5950; www.feejeeexperience.com) runs around the circumference of the island, providing a "hop on-hop off" service, primarily for backpackers and known as the Hula Loop. The King's Road, nicknamed the Banana Highway, is steadily being improved, but a long stretch of it is still a dirt track.It offers a couple of offshore options: if it's wind you're after, hop over to the island of Nananu-i-Ra for some great wind-surfing (or kite-surfing). Tuition, accommodation and boat transfers from Ellington Wharf can be arranged through Safari Lodge (00 679 669 3333; www.safarilodge.com.fj).
Another worthwhile stop is Natovi, from where you can take a short boat ride to Ovalau and visit Fiji's original capital of Levuka. Transfers are operated by Patterson Brothers Shipping (00 679 331 5644) and cost FJ$12 (£4) one-way. On Ovalau, the place to stay is the Royal Hotel (00 679 334 0024; www.royallevuka.com). It looks and feels as though it is at the end of a very long journey. Doubles start at FJ$40 (£13.50), room only.
For a more ambitious journey-within-a-journey, fly to Savusavu, capital of Fiji's second major island, Vanua Levu. Air Fiji (00 679 3313 666; www.airfiji.com.fj) and Sun Air (00 679 6720 888; www.pacificsun.com.fj) have regular inter-island flights. Air Fiji has an air pass, priced at F$517 (£175), which covers four flights and must be purchased outside Fiji. But if you need flexibility, it's not much more expensive to buy tickets in Fiji.
Once on Vanua Levu, hire a guide and 4x4 from Active Fiji (00 679 885 3032; www.activefiji.com) and head east from Savusavu to explore the Tunuloa Peninsula for its great birdwatching and hiking. Take a boat to beautiful Taveuni, a haven for nature lovers and divers. Explore Somosomo Strait for the vivid corals and abundance of sea life. Alternatively, fly to the island of Kadavu, for the wide variety of birds. The Astrolabe Reef is also worth a journey, and can be explored with a guide from the Matava Resort (00 679 333 6222; www.matava.com).
Une voyage très chic?
Aim for French Polynesia, the archipelago centred on the island of Tahiti and its capital, Papeete. The overseas territory comprises the main island of Tahiti, the name by which it is better known, and more than 100 islands and atolls scattered across two million square miles of ocean. Pricier and more upmarket than other South Pacific destinations, French Polynesia is a curious mix of chic hotel options overlaid with Polynesian hospitality and dramatic natural formations.
You could base yourself on the main island and make further explorations from there. Audley Travel (01993 838830; www.audleytravel.com) offers tailor-made trips to French Polynesia. A 14-day trip, based at the Sofitel Maeva Beach in Tahiti, the Bora Bora Pearl Beach Hotel and the Pearl Resort in Moorea, costs from £3,500 per person including return Air New Zealand flights from Heathrow. Spend a day in the Tahitian capital of Papeete, sample some fine cuisine and take a tour of the island to explore the cascading waterfalls of the lush interior or the scenic coast. The blissful island of Moorea is only a half-hour ferry ride from central Papeete, an easy day trip.
Further afield, most people visit French Polynesia for the picture-perfect Society Islands that lie just north-east of Tahiti, u o offering a heady blend of glamour and tropical beauty. Tahiti Air has a variety of air pass options covering French Polynesia, which can be bought in-country and work out much cheaper than buying individual tickets (00 689 86 42 42; www.airtahiti.aero). A Bora Bora air pass covering flights to most Society Islands costs 38,000 CFP (£250) in high season.
Can I take a sea voyage?
Yes. From Papeete take a one-week cruise to the more remote Tuamotu and Marquesas islands on the Aranui 3 cargo ship, which has accommodation for up to 200 passengers (00 689 42 36 21; www.aranui.com), and fly back with Air Tahiti. The Tuamotu Islands are a string of 77 atolls sprinkled across a vast area of ocean some 200 miles from Tahiti. En route, scuba enthusiasts should not miss an opportunity to dive the pass through the reef at Fakarava which can be arranged on the cruise. The jagged peaks and dramatic coastlines of the Marquesas Islands have been escape havens for writers, artists and adventurers alike over the years. Visit the grave and museum of the painter Paul Gauguin on Hiva Oa, and the imposing Vaipo Waterfalls on Nuku Hiva – a favourite of the author Robert Louis Stevenson.
The harbours of the South Pacific teem with cruising yachts between May and October; cyclones occur outside these months. The Society Islands and Tuamotus of French Polynesia have long been favourites of the yachting fraternity. Ra'iatea is the region's yachting hub, with a wide variety of charter options from bareboat charters to hire with skipper and cabin charters. UK-based Moorings can arrange charters from their offices in the Britain (08444 636 386; www.moorings.com) or in Raiatea.
Any other French facets?
French-administered New Caledonia is an easy two-hour flight from Fiji, but a very different experience altogether. Here Melanesian traditions blend with French sophistication and the European settlers now outnumber the indigenous Kanaks. The cosmopolitan capital of Noumea appears plucked from France's Mediterranean coast where you can enjoy fine Gallic cuisine and stroll the charming seaside boulevard.
The main island of Grande Terre measures some 250 miles long and 30 miles wide, and beholds a wealth of changing landscapes from rolling plains to towering mountains, cascading waterfalls, tropical jungle and untamed coastlines. For a taste of island life, fly or take a fast ferry over to the Loyalty Islands or Ile des Pins for some of the finest palm-fringed beaches. New Caledonia is surrounded by the world's largest enclosed lagoon containing a feast of underwater treasures.
A Journey To The Centre Of The Earth?
Move onto Vanuatu, home to the happiest people in the world and the planet's most accessible live volcano. Ranked top of the New Economics Foundation's "Happy Planet Index", Vanuatu has a bizarre colonial history of joint French and British administration. This has bequeathed a legacy of fine cuisine and English language. The charming capital, Port Vila, is perhaps the most attractive in the South Pacific and is accessible with airlines such as Air Vanuatu (00 678 23878; www.airvanuatu.com) and Air Pacific (01206 264 283; www.airpacific.com) from Fiji, Australia and New Zealand.
Spend a few days in delightful Port Vila, take a tour of the main island, Efate, and discover its villages and giant banyan trees. Fly to the island of Tanna, visit the colourful market in Lenakel, snorkel the west coast with 300-feet drop-offs of vibrant corals, take a tour up to the crater of live volcano Mount Yasur and head over to the east of the island for some horse riding around the charms of Port Resolution and Sharks Bay.
Fly north to Espiritu Santo for adventure among the almost impenetrable jungle, extraordinary caves, white-sand deserted beaches and some of the best scuba diving in the world. The sea teems with technicoloured marine life and great relics from the Second World War, including the wreck of the USS President Coolidge. There are several good dive operators here including Aquamarine, which provides both courses for beginners and guided dives for the experienced (00 678 361 96; www.aquamarinesanto.com). After Santo, visit the land-divers of Pentecost making their remarkable bungee-style leaps as gifts to the gods; or witness rain-makers willing the heavens to open at colourful village festivals.
Can I find my own desert island?
Yes, on the Cook Islands, named after the South Pacific's most famous explorer, Captain James Cook. Dine out in the lively cafés and bars of Rarotonga, trek across the island via the Te Rua Manga (Needle) for spectacular views of the coral-fringed coastline before exploring the breathtaking lagoon of Aitutaki.
Take an entertaining tour of the powder-blue lagoon with Teking Tours (00 682 31 582) and you may well find your very own desert island among the numerous stunning motu, or islets, which protect the lagoon from the Pacific rollers. Some of these tiny, palm-fringed coral islands are home to TV reality shows such as Shipwrecked, but are otherwise uninhabited. In the evening, sample Maori hospitality; the Cooks' inhabitants are closely related to New Zealand's indigenous people. A visit to an Island Night at Samade on O'otu beach includes local cuisine, live music and dancing. Nature-lovers and bird watchers should head for 'Atiu to hike the rich forests and explore its impressive limestone caves.
Paths less trodden?
Samoa and Tonga can be easily reached via Fiji and provide a variety of tropical delights away from the crowds where you can experience more traditional Pacific island life. Sample the sugar-white sands on Samoa's 'Upolu Southern beaches and discover the eerie volcanic lava field on Savai'i. Head on to Tonga for some spectacular whale-watching off the island of Vava'u and witness humpbacks breaching the water in courtship.
To escape from it all, travel to the Solomon Islands for dazzling scenery and pristine lagoons, also accessible via Fiji. After sampling the Second World War relics around the dusty capital of Honiara, head for Gizo in the Western Province to dive its war wrecks and surf its superb reef-breaks. For relaxation try Lola island where you can collapse onto white pristine sand with nothing but the gentle sway of palm trees to disturb your peace.
How do I get there?
Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; www.airnewzealand.co.uk) has the most comprehensive service to the South Pacific with daily departures from Heathrow to Los Angeles connecting with flights to Fiji from £890, Tahiti from £904, Rarotonga (Cook Islands) from £874, Tonga from £853 and Samoa from £872. The standard deal is that every South Pacific stopover on a London-Auckland itinerary costs a flat £100, added to fares that are typically £800 return, although a current deal offers three islands stops for an additional £150.
A cheaper option to Fiji may be Korean Air (0800 413 000; www.koreanair.com), which has three flights a week from Heathrow to Fiji via Seoul. To the French islands, Air France has four flights a week to Tahiti via Paris and Los Angeles (0870 142 4343; www.airfrance.co.uk).
Fiji is the main transport hub for the region and from here you can connect with flights to New Caledonia, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, among others.
Where can I find out more?
For more travel information, including details of air passes and tour operators specialising in packages to the South Pacific visit www.pacificislands.com.
Recommended guidebooks for the region include South Pacific & Micronesia (Lonely Planet, 2006) and South Pacific (Moon Handbooks, 2004).
The Local Tipple
Visiting a kava bar is one of the great South Pacific cultural experiences, although in many parts of the region its consumption remains an exclusively male pastime. Kava is the South Pacific brew, a drink created by drying and crushing the roots of the kava plant. It is widely said that you cannot afford to decline an offer of kava for fear of offending your hosts. In practice, the locals are well aware of the sensitivities of tourists. But on your travels around the region you are likely to be offered some. Kava tastes like three-week-old washing-up water, and it numbs your tongue and your lips. The taste is most definitely an acquired one, but the after-effects are quite pleasantly benign.