The complete guide to the South Pacific
Hula girls, palm trees, white beaches... the Hollywood version. In reality there's much more to the South Pacific than sandy atolls - as you'd expect from an area consisting of 13 nations, 1,200 languages and a thousand ways to spend your time
Saturday 26 August 2000
Define the South Pacific
Define the South Pacific
The vast ocean that seems to cover pretty much the whole of the other side of the globe consists of more than 11 million square miles of water, dotted with islands. By the official definition of the South Pacific Tourism Organisation, the are about six million people, three main ethnic groups - Polynesian, Melanesian and Micronesian - and 13 nations: American Samoa, the Cook Islands, Fiji, French Polynesia (including Tahiti), Kiribati (pronounced Kiribass), New Caledonia, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. Other islands, such as Nauru, Norfolk, Easter, the Pitcairn group and the Galapagos are also in the South Pacific, but are not part of the marketing effort.
Your totally tropical idyll then?
Until recently, talk of the South Pacific tended to conjure up images of smiling hula girls swaying their hips in the sunshine, and barefoot islanders living a carefree lifestyle. The Fifties book Love in the South Seas even claimed that "what attracts visitors to the South Seas is without doubt the report of the natives' free and merry love life".
This image was certainly not helped by the interpretations of Western men such as Cook, La Perouse, Maugham, Stevenson, Michener, Brooke and Gauguin. However, it is one that Pacific Islanders want to repackage. Hula girls may dance in the hotels but they still go to church. More recently, scenes of riots, kidnappings and ethnic tension - along with the revelation that some tiny, otherwise-devout countries make millions selling excess satellite space to phone-sex lines - have made people realise there's more to the South Pacific than palm trees, hips and skirts.
Is there a tourist trail?
Fiji and the Cook Islands have long been popular backpacker stop-overs on the way to or from Australia or New Zealand, but much of the South Pacific is still relatively unexplored by the British. And now the South Pacific is keen to be seen as a destination in its own right.
The picture-perfect beaches still exist, of course. For a fine white sandy beach there's Muri Lagoon in the Cook Islands, Natadola Beach in Fiji, Ile des Pins in New Caledonia and Bora Bora in French Polynesia. If you do just want a sun-and-sand holiday, make sure your chosen beach is suitable for swimming - some have beautiful turquoise water which is only a few inches deep because of raised coral. Then, there are mangroves, cliffs and even pebbly beaches.
However, there's so much more than beaches: the stunning craggy volcanic mountains of French Polynesia and the Cook Islands, snowy peaks in Papua New Guinea, rolling grasslands and magical waterfalls in Fiji, lava fields in Samoa, active volcanoes in Vanuatu and spurting blow-holes in Tonga. Indeed, contrary to what many people imagine, most South Pacific countries are not flat, sandy atolls.
When's the best time to go?
The hot, wet season, when there may be cyclones, runs from November to April, but even during this time you can find wonderful weather, with fantastically lush scenery and not too many tourists. And the warm, silky winds that blow away sand-flies and mosquitoes are common.
Antipodean school holidays and the southern winter (July and August) are usually busy but even in this, the "dry" season, you may get rain. Basically it's all a bit unpredictable so don't go all that way just for the beach.
Is it safe?
The Pacific has proved recently that it does not always live up to its name. Coups and civil strife have brought tourism to a halt in the Solomon Islands and tarnished Fiji.
Nevertheless, the biggest danger is probably a coconut falling on your head. The Foreign Office has now downgraded its travel advisory for Fiji: at the height of recent troubles they were advising against any travel; now they acknowledge that tourist areas - especially in the west of Viti Levu, near Nadi airport - are safe, but there is still occasional trouble in villages. It is highly unlikely tourists would get caught up in this. However, the unrest has led to an increase in petty crime as well. Of course, if you're staying in resorts you will be cocooned in a safe fantasy world. But taxi travel in Fiji can be hairy - especially the road between Nadi and Suva. Don't do it in the dark.
Papua New Guinea's capital, Port Moresby, has a reputation for violent crime. There are also horror stories of hold-ups on mountain roads and walking tracks in the Highlands. It's best not to travel alone, and seek advice from the High Commission, tour operators and residents. Dangers recede elsewhere in the region, but threats to health include things like getting coral cuts infected or stepping on spiny sea urchins.
What languages will i need?
In the Pacific as a whole, there are about 1,200 different languages spoken and the Melanesian countries of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands have more than 800 alone. In all countries except French Polynesia and New Caledonia, English is either the official language or fairly widely spoken - especially in Fiji.
In French Polynesia, New Caledonia and among some people in Vanuatu, a knowledge of French is useful. In Melanesia, it can sometimes be easy to guess pijin words but it's not always obvious. And when you get there you will realise exactly where the words taboo and tattoo are derived from.
Where should I start?
Wherever you are and whatever you're doing, you'll have the company of welcoming, friendly people (unless, perhaps, you're of Indian origin and in Fiji). Despite recent problems, Fiji is still the South Pacific hub from which to explore as much as your budget and time allows. Some of the more offbeat activities in the region include trekking to inland villages in Fiji, visiting mud-masked, feather-frilled, Coke can-decorated dancers in Papua New Guinea, sailing a double-hulled canoe in Tonga, seeing centuries- old archaeological sites in the rocky deserted valleys of the Marquesas, gawping as the world's inventors of bungee-jumping dive from tall, rickety wooden platforms in Vanuatu, and, if you're so inclined, deer-hunting in New Caledonia.
As a general guide, if your idea of heaven is lazing around sipping cocktails from coconuts then French Polynesia, New Caledonia or the Cook Islands may be your best bet. You will find things pretty polished and beaches so perfect you'll think you're on the set of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.
French Polynesia is fairly chic but beware that places with exotic names - such as Bora Bora and Moorea - can be busy with tourists. Those on a budget will find simpler, smaller and cheaper, accommodation in the Cook Islands. In both countries travel is easy and safe, so it's ideal for families, honeymooners and those who like to be pampered.
Vanuatu and Fiji also have some very exclusive resorts - where Hollywood celebrities and the like hang out at a price of more than £ 700 per day. But both countries, especially Fiji, cater to more diverse markets and are a bit more "rough and ready" than French Polynesia.
It's this slightly "raw at the edges" feel that, before the troubles, made Fiji hard to beat as an adventure destination, especially for the independent traveller. There are many coastal villages within these areas where you can experience real Pacific life. Buy the traditional gift of a bundle of yaqona roots (used to make kava) from a local market and join new-found friends in their village for a few days. If you don't have time to do that, join an organised village stay.
For those that revel in going to remote places, then the flat atolls of Tuvalu and Kiribati are as out of the way and undeveloped as you're going to find in the South Pacific. Tuvalu's international airport code is even, appropriately, FUN.
Are there any cities?
One aspect of the South Pacific that has scant coverage in brochures is city life. As well as quaint colonial buildings such as in Fiji's old capital, Levuka, there are bustling markets piled high with taros and bananas - Nuku'alofa's, in Tonga, takes place on Saturdays and is wonderful. Then there are museums stuffed with pottery and sepia pictures of colonial traders in Victorian garb marrying local women.
In places like Suva, in Fiji, there are even cafes selling cappucinos and internet access. And there are colonial-style hotels, such as Aggie Grey's in Apia, Samoa. In most cities you will feel safe. And although crime exists, violent crime against tourists is very rare.
What should I wear?
Shorts and T-shirts will largely suffice. The weather, even when rainy, is warm and the style is casual. In Melanesia, women should cover their thighs. Everywhere, swimwear should be reserved for the beach.
Church services (an "attraction" in themselves in countries such as Fiji, Tonga and Samoa) and visits to some tourist sites and restaurants may require more formal dress - usually for men this means only a collared shirt, long trousers and "no flip-flops", and, for women, nothing too skimpy.
What's the food like?
How about this Papua New Guinean delicacy; take some bobbly seaweed, find an ants' nest, scoop up a handful of ants and ant larvae, mix together with the seaweed in the palm of your hand and enjoy. No?
Thankfully, most local food is more appetising - sweet potatoes cooked in hot-stone ovens, served with freshly caught fish, local greens baked with nuts and tropical fruits. And, if you have the cash, there are also the luxury resort interpretations of village fare; cold Vichyssoise of taro leaves and fresh coconut milk or grilled mahi-mahi fillets with bell- pepper and olive oil.
What about European connections?
A good place to start is at Robert Louis Stevenson's one-time home, overlooking Apia in Samoa. The 314-acre estate includes his mansion with its ballroom and 72 tons of English furniture (including a piano that has had a glass case built around it to protect it from the humidity) and has now been turned into a museum.
Then there's Gauguin's simple grave in the Marquesas, in far-flung French Polynesia. Wonder at his lifestyle in what was then an even more remote place and then go to see several of his works that are on show at the Musee de Gauguin at Papearii, 50km from Papeete (open 9am-5pm daily).
And, elsewhere in the Pacific, you will pick up the trail of people such as Rupert Brooke, Somerset Maugham and Jack London.
How do I get there?
Perhaps the cheapest way of flying to the South Pacific is with Air France to French Polynesia; through discount agents you can get a fare of around £ 700 return. The airline with the best network is the one I flew with, Air New Zealand (020-8741 2299, www.airnewzealand.com). You fly out from London Heathrow to Los Angeles, where you can plug into a network of flights to destinations including Fiji, the Cook Islands, Tahiti, Samoa or Tonga. Official fares to the region are around £ 850 return. You can pay a lot less by buying a discounted ticket to Australia or New Zealand that allows stopovers in the South Pacific; go to a flight specialist, not direct to the airline. Also consider the British Airways/Qantas/Air Pacific combo, which may be even better value.
And getting around?
The Visit South Pacific Pass from Austravel (020-7734 7755, www.austravel.net), which must be bought before departure, is valid between Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Guam, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Niue, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tahiti, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu and costs from £ 114 per hop.
A good introduction to Polynesia is Air Pacific, Polynesian Airlines and Royal Tongan's "triangle" fare around Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. The US$462 (£ 316) ticket is valid for a year and can be bought once you have arrived.
Most countries are well served by at least one domestic airline. If you enjoy flying in small planes, or seaplanes, this is a great and not too expensive way of getting around but some of the distances covered are vast and therefore expensive.
Inter-island shipping services are usually pretty comprehensive and often subsidised by local governments. This is a fun, cheap option and a good way to meet local people. Trips range from quick jaunts on air-conditioned high speed catamarans to week-long voyages on small wooden ships delivering petrol drums to remote villages.
If you're more into cruising, try the small luxury cruise ship Haumana in French Polynesia (www.goway.com/tahiti/haumana.html); a one-week cruise costs around £ 1,100. Or consider a Blue Lagoon cruise around the Yasawas in Fiji (www.cruisingsouthpacific.com), where a four-day cruise costs from £ 750 for two including meals. A third alternative: exploring the villages of the Sepik river in Papua New Guinea (tel/fax 01372 843 032, www.pngtours.com), where a nine-day tour (three spent on Sepik) costs around £ 1,600, not including international or domestic flights.
What about buses and bikes?
There is some wacky public transport: lorries converted into buses with the addition of a wooden seating area, crammed, canvas-topped jeeps, open- sided Indian buses. It can be a fun, cheap way to travel if you're not in a hurry.
If you're planning on cycling, remember it will be hot and humid. If you're planning on cycling for several days, it's probably easier to buy a cheap mountain bike rather than rent one. They can be picked up for less than £ 50. Just watch out for pot-holes and speedy drivers.
Actually, I'd prefer to join an organised tour
Several UK operators offer South Pacific itineraries, but they are not cheap: Bridge The World (0870 444 7474; www.bridgetheworld.com), for example, organises five-night stays in Samoa for around £ 1,000 per person including flights and accommodation at Aggie Grey's Hotel; Allways Pacific Travel (01494 432 747; www.all-ways.co.uk) has a 19-day "Jewels of the South Pacific" tour taking in Fiji, the Cook Islands, Tahiti and Moorea from £ 1,995 per person including flights, transfers and accommodation; the Destination Group (020-7400 7000) offers 12- night, two-resort stays in Fiji for £ 1,259 including flights. From The Moorings (01227 776 677, e- mail: firstname.lastname@example.org), you can charter a 32-ft yacht, sleeping six, for around £ 1,200 for one week. Flights, crew and your provisions are all extra.
Where can I find out more?
Recommended guide books include Lonely Planet's guides to individual nations - Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Samoa, New Caledonia, plus Diving and Snorkelling in Guam &amp; Yap - but for the best overview there is no substitute for David Stanley's South Pacific Handbook (Moon Publications). For more specific information, contact the South Pacific Tourism Organisation on 020-8876 1938 (www.tcsp.com).
This highland village is roughly an hour's drive - along rough, winding roads - from Lautoka. It once won an ecotourism award for its village- stay accommodation. The lodge soon fell into disrepair, but it has now been refurbished and, if you ask, you may also be able to stay in people's houses - sleeping on comfy pandanus mats on the floor. During the day you can go horse-riding, help till the fields with an ox-drawn plough or hike up Mt Batilamu and spend a night in a hammock in a thatch-roofed "bure".
Abaca (pronounced Ambatha) costs around £ 15 per person, per night, including dinner and breakfast (tel: 00 64 4472 3114, fax: 00 64 4473 0020 or e-mail: TRCNZ@compuserve.com)
Paradise Sunset Bungalows, Vanuatu
On the island of Epi, a 45-minute flight from the capital Port Vila, three small, basic "bungalows" have been built from local materials, and are owned and managed by local people. Hunt, gather and cook local food, weave mats and watch traditional dances. You can even swim with the local "dugong", or sea cow, who has befriended the island community.
Bungalows cost about £ 20 per person, per night, including meals (tel: 00 678 23288, fax: 00 678 26779, or e-mail: email@example.com) Tiki Village, French Polynesia
Tiki Village combines tourism with the relearning of ancient traditions of tattooing, dance, music and carving. Located on the island of Moorea, there are frequent ferry or catamaran services here from Papeete, so it also makes a good day-trip. Over-the-top "Polynesian" marriage ceremonies can also be carried out here; Dustin Hoffman and Micky Rourke have done it and so can you.
Packages from around £ 620 (tel: 00 689 550 250 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)
If you want to experience village life without discomfort then stay at the Royal Sunset Beach in Tonga. This is a resort on a small island, with basic but comfortable lodgings. See a new house being built from recycled plywood advertising hoardings imported from the US. Even go to church if you like - "Sunday best" is a pandanus leaf mat wrapped around the waist.
Prices start at around £ 62 per couple per night, without meals (tel: 00 676 21 254 or e-mail: email@example.com)
Turtle Island, Fiji
Just 14 beautifully built chalets sit on one beach of a fairly large private island. Turtle Island sells itself as the perfect Honeymoon destination and it is ridiculously romantic - horse-rides to champagne sunrise breakfasts, jacuzzis, candle-lit dinners by the end of the jetty. The downside is that a man with a video camera will run after you documenting much of your stay for some souvenir film footage. The edited highlights will be shown at your farewell dinner to the other jolly campers. Prices: if you have to ask... (tel: 00 61 39 6181100, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Kia Ora Sauvage, French Polynesia
Five very comfortable chalets built from local materials on a remote sandy "motu" bordering the vast lagoon of Rangiroa. There's no electricity and no near neighbours. An hour's flight from Papeete - the capital of Tahiti - and then an hour's boat ride from the one settled islet around the lagoon, remote is the word. Relax to the sound of the trade winds in the palm trees or learn to spear fish. Everyone who goes there seems to rave about it. Prices from £ 135 for two people per night, including transfers but not meals. (00 689 960 222)
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