One day you are wading out in the water as tropical fish swim by, the water the palest shade of turquoise leading up to a soft white sand beach with lush palm trees and a small mountain in the background calling you like you’ve somehow become a character in Moana. The beach isn’t crowded and there isn’t a resort in site. There are a few people doing a Kava ceremony. You tried it the last time you were there and while you’re glad you did, you don’t want to try it again. There are no speed boats or jet skis and instead there is one small boat tied up to a palm tree with waves lightly lapping against it. The only thing you could possibly compare it to is a picture on a postcard. It’s nearly too pretty to be something that actually exists. You get out of the water and walk up to your beach towel, sit down with a book and the beer you brought from the ship and nearly have to pinch yourself to know that it’s real.
Another day you see a small city out in front of you, complete with bits of graffiti and disrepair, but also with lively open air markets that sell nearly everything you could think of. You buy a bag of fresh pineapple (“The best pineapple in the world!,” they eagerly exclaim) while you wander around. While there are plenty of people selling goods they aren’t hounding you to get you to buy something. You look at a few pearls with your friend for easily a half an hour and they never pressure you to buy. For the most part the price is the price and so they don’t haggle you. After finishing up at the market you cross the street to go to the nearby fabric store. When you cross the road cars stop for you regardless of if they have a green light or a red light. They wait patiently. There is no honking and road rage seems non-existent. You make your way to a restaurant and wait longer than you’re used to – while they accept tips it isn’t the foundation of their wages. You try speaking a bit of French and they smile at you as you try. You look across at the water and the palm trees while also having good WiFi and think, “this is a pretty great day”.
While researching and reviewing old pictures Stuart and I ended up talking about American Samoa. I looked it up on Google maps to try to trigger my memory. We quickly found the restaurant we ate at (Sadies’ by the Sea) and remembered that a girl we were eating with was in search of zip-ties that day and we went looking for them at a little local store. (What you do as a crew member ashore is sometimes entirely different than if you were a passenger. I very specifically remember one time buying Halloween candy in Barcelona and trying to read ingredient labels in Spanish as one such example…) Somewhere during this conversation about getting lunch and zip-ties it came back to me that the entire island smells a bit like tunafish due to the large Starkist Tuna factory. It’s amazing the memories that come back.
So, to help you dream of days when travel is (mostly) back to normal, when you too can go to places and think of the lovely tunafish smell and to remember that there are still good times to come, I bring you… A Taste of the South Pacific!
There are so many beautiful islands and culture in this region of the world I cannot possibly cover it all within one post. For this post I will be focusing primarily on initial reactions and things I have found interesting and unfortunately will not be able to cover every island in depth. Also, while New Zealand and it’s islands as well as the Hawaiian islands are a part of the Polynesian region I will not be focusing on them in this post.
10. There are a lot of islands, so do your research!
While the islands of the South Pacific, Polynesian, and Oceania region (all slightly differently defined regions in the Pacific/South Pacific Ocean) are all beautiful they are also all incredibly different. Finding the one that you absolutely love can be quite a daunting task: there are over 25,000 islands in this general region. Including the South Pacific, Polynesian, and Oceanic regions these islands are made up from 22 countries or territories: Australia, Chile, Cook Islands, Ecuador, Fiji, French Polynesia, Guam, Indonesia, Kiribati, Mariana Islands, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, New Zealand, Palau, Papua New Guineau, Peru, Philippines, American Samoa, Samoa West, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Vanuatu, and are spread out over approximately 3,291,903 square miles of the Pacific Ocean. Visiting all of them would definitely be quite the challenge – and require quite a few different currencies or an excellent travel credit card.
Tahiti is incredibly famous, but it’s certainly not my favorite. Before you jet off to the other side of the world I would recommend doing a basic Google for the kind of vacation you are looking for. Remember, it’s 20+ hours of travel and likely $1,500-$2,000 in plane tickets to get there. This is not a weekend getaway for the majority of my readers. These islands can offer tremendous history, hiking, snorkeling, scuba diving, beautiful beaches, restaurants, or relaxation. But, not all of them offer all of these things. Not all the islands are cloaked in white sand beaches (looking at you Nuka Hiva, French Polynesia), and not all of the islands are mountainous (looking at you Tongatapu, Kingdom of Tonga). They are all beautiful and all have something to offer, but doing the research to find out which island most matches what you want out of your vacation will be well worth it!
9. Island life is sometimes not cheap…
Think the island life means it will be inexpensive? Think again! While some islands are less expensive than what mainland USA is used to (at least outside of airports and big cities), the big tourist islands of Tahiti and Bora Bora will feature higher than average prices at their restaurants and hotels. Think $20+ for a burger. However, be on the lookout for two for one drink specials or early bird dining specials. For instance, famed Bora Bora restaurant Bloody Mary’s (get a reservation or you will be sitting at the bar!) offers Happy Hour drink specials every day from 5:30-7:00pm. In contrast to the higher prices you might pay at some restaurants, you can also walk down the beach and have locals offer you $1 or $2 beers and sodas, or buy a necklace of black pearls for $15. Go figure.
The Lucky House Bar Restaurant, Pool, & Sports Bar is where Stuart and I ended up at the day we got engaged (we had asked for a restaurant on the water… little did we know while it was on the water it featured no direct water views), has become one of our favorites over the years. It has giant beers and good pizza, is a bit more reasonably priced and is somewhat away from the other tourists being around the bend from Matira Beach. When you take a look at the menu right now 1500 CFP (their currency) is $14.71 USD. Not terrible for a basic margarita pizza. At 3 Brasseurs (a crew favorite) in Pape’ete, Tahiti the prices are similar.
Never mind the expense of a hotel. When researching where to go this could certainly sway you one way or the other. A quick search shows that in Suva, Fiji the Grand Pacific Hotel (which is gorgeous – although I’ve only eaten at the restaurant) starts at $95 a night while places in Bora Bora can be double (or triple, or more) that. There are some more budget options, but none that would give you the kind of value that the Grand Pacific in Fiji would, but then again, that’s also Fiji and not Bora Bora…
8. If going by cruise ship – be prepared to take a tender, or two, or three
Going to port by tender is a fact of life of the majority of cruises. While there are some itineraries that do not have any tender ports (a few Alaskan and Caribbean itineraries come to mind), cruises to the South Pacific absolutely do. At times it would feel like every other port was a tender port… because it was.
Tendering is when one of the lifeboats that has been specially designed is lowered into the water and then acts as your water taxi to get you from the ship to the shore. This is normally done if the port either doesn’t have a pier or if the ship you are on is either too deep to access the pier or simply too large to utilize it.
Tendering in itself is not so bad and it can bring you into some beautiful places. People with mobility challenges can find tendering frustrating or may opt not to get off the ship altogether. It can also mean that the 8:00am arrival time that you see in the brochure is more like 10:00 or 11:00am depending on how high up you are with the cruise lines loyalty program (this is a thing), what time you want to wake up to get your “tender ticket” for, and what the sea conditions are like that particular day. Note: if you are on a smaller ship – such as Seabourn – you will likely have no wait or only a slight delay for tendering.
7. Public Transport might not be what you’re used to
On a lot of the islands the taxi’s/shuttles are open air either benches or bus style seats. Once you get used to it, it’s quite fun. Just always assume you’ll end up having “beach hair”!
6. The markets are pretty awesome
You can buy everything from lei’s and pearls to souvenirs and underwear to fresh fruit and veggies and pretty much everything in between! Nearly every major port has a market that is absolutely worth going through even if you don’t buy anything.
The majority of places people leave you to shop without bothering you too much. I found in Tonga and in Fiji they were a bit more aggressive to try to get you to buy than in Tahiti for instance.
How many times can you spot Christina???
5. The water is as beautiful as you’ve heard
4. Overwater Bungalows
I have never stayed in one, but if you want an up close and personal view of the beautiful water, an overwater bungalow might be right for you. Google images for Overwater Bungalows in the South Pacific and you will get a plethora of just absolutely gorgeous bungalows on the water. A quick search showed that to stay in one for a night you can expect to shell out $650 or more during low season and nearly twice that during the peak travel season.
Add to the price tag the research that has been coming out about how these bungalows might not be so great for the marine environment and it could make you think twice about booking a room…
3. It’s not all overwater bungalows
My first draft of this post I had used the picture on the left to describe the poverty seen on some of the islands. Many of the homes are built like this, with plywood and roofing as walls or doors, dirt floors, and usually not much in the way of windows. These homes are often fairly close to the water (like gorgeous beautiful water) and sometimes just around the bend from the turn to one of those overwater bungalow resorts.
However, I do not know the people that live in this home. I do not know their story or situation. I do not know if it is a 20 year old just starting out or an elderly lady that wakes up with a smile and a gratefulness for her good health. I don’t know if they suffered through a catastrophic storm and they are happy to have rebuilt to this point. We can all make judgements based on what we see on the outside, but I’m working hard to judge less.
In the past I’ve also made written about the discord between $650-$1200 a night bungalows being down the road from this home, but we easily could make those same comparisons about people sailing on the Grand World Voyage and a lot of the crew members working on them.
So, just know that it’s not all overwater bungalows and people lounging by the beach and that a lot of homes on the various islands look a bit like the one on the left, and a good chunk of the other ones look like the ones on the right.
2. There’s a lot of history
I am not a history buff by any stretch of anyone’s imagination. However, the more I travel the more interested in history I become as I see how the traditions of a place are formed over time and through that places history. This is abundant on the islands of the South Pacific, whether the island you’re visiting be steeped with stories of Captain Cook (Cook Islands), the mutineers on the Bounty (Pitcairn Island), seafarers and ship wrecks, or native islanders, past island royalty, and current royalty as Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and the Kingdom of Tonga are all British Commonwealth nations. The most recent show of this was when Harry and Meghan did a South Pacific tour before they gave up the royal life to move to LA.
1. It’s Pretty Damn Awesome
There are islands in the Caribbean, there are islands in Hawaii, there are islands in the Mediterranean, but they just aren’t quite like the islands of the South Pacific. A lot of them are still touristy, but somehow they aren’t as touristy. The beaches favor lying down to read a book over renting jet ski’s. The pace is a bit slower. You aren’t hounded for souvenirs like you are in the Caribbean or Central America.
When you work on a ship so many places end up starting to blend together. There was a point during a 2 month long South Pacific cruise where the islands started to blend a bit. In the years since though, the second the island comes into view I realized the imprint that each one had left on me.
It’s a long dang flight to get there, but if you can, once it’s both safe to travel and they’ll let people travel to their islands, this region features some absolutely beautiful islands with some absolutely beautiful people.