The Pacific Ocean, containing some 25,000 islands, is the largest and most expansive ocean in the world. These islands form a splatter of palm-laden pinpricks isolated by the vast ocean that surround them, each of which develop its own history, landscape, wildlife and culture. Though the photographs from them might be similar, one island is not interchangeable with another and will often have a completely different culture and environment which make it hard to nail the best South Pacific Islands.
The best South Pacific Islands
What these islands do have in common is their stunning beauty and isolation, amazing marine ecosystems, white-sand beaches and a rich local heritage. A trip to any will be an experience to treasure for a lifetime. That said, choosing carefully you can ensure you have the island get-away of your dreams.
One of the most popular islands of French Polynesia and famous for its luxurious overwater bungalows, Bora Bora is one of the best islands you can visit in the South Pacific. The island is a cunning seductress luring visitors with volcanic peaks, azure waters and captivating lagoons dosed with just the right amount of decadence. The island James Cook once referred to as the “Pearl of the Pacific” is undoubtedly a paradise that deserves its reputation and is a fitting place to begin this list.
Tahiti is the biggest and most populated island in French Polynesia and has become its cultural and economic heart, but that has done nothing to lessen its island charm or spectacular natural beauty. This area was colonised by the French in the 19th Century and wherever you go you will find a touch of French elegance. Take a hike to waterfalls and mountain ridges or watch some of the fastest hip shaking in the world at a Tahitian dance performance. Whatever your idea of an island holiday is, chances are that Tahiti can satisfy that notion.
Fiji is by far the most popular tourist destination of the South Pacific islands, receiving over 600 000 visitors annually. Palm fronds, white-sand beaches and perfectly clear skies and waters make this place the prototypical island holiday, but there is more to this place than the postcard pictures. A strong Indian community means that curries and roti (bread) have become a popular cuisine while many villages outside the cities retain a distinctly traditional culture. Take a trip to nearby islands Mamanuca or Yasawa for stunning beaches or head to Kadavu or Taveuni to get off the beaten track.
If you’ve had enough of the rat race and are looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, there’s not many places you could go to get further away from it than the Cook Islands. Like something straight out of Castaway, these tiny dots of sand and palm have lied in total isolation for thousands of years, developing a strong Polynesian culture and retaining their spectacular natural scenery. The lush main island of Raratonga is the most popular destination but the Aitutuaki atoll, with its fantastic lagoon and coral islets are definitely not to be missed.
If you are looking for adventure in paradise, look no further than Vanuatu and its extraordinary combination of active volcano, pounding waterfalls and diveable shipwrecks. Sporty types will appreciate the unique abseiling, parasailing and diving opportunities whilst beach bums can enjoy decadence and a cocktail in upmarket resorts. Port Vila is the national capital on the island of Efate but you can’t visit without becoming a nature-child for at least one night and stay on one of the many tiny, uninhabited islands.
In Samoa people have taken the idea of island vibes to heart and its hard not to get infected by the laid-back attitude that provides such a contrast to modern society. When you do find the energy to get out and explore, you’ll find a tropical island paradise with a surprisingly wild and exotic interior. Cascading waterfalls, molten lava flows and jagged sea cliffs are juxtaposed with blue lagoons and bone-white beaches and no matter where you find yourself, the locals never hesitate to give you a helping hand and a Samoan smile.
The French colonial influence that was exerted over the South Pacific islands is most obvious in New Caledonia. Somehow, these islands enclosed by the world’s biggest enclosed lagoon still retain the romance of the French culture. The cosmopolitan capital Noumea is the best place to experience this urban chic, but venture out of the capital and you will be surprised by the wealth of natural beauty and diversity of the natural landscapes. The exquisite lagoon that the islands lie in is home to a great diversity of marine wildlife such as sea snakes, turtles and tropical fish.
The Kingdom of Tonga is situated just east of the International Date Line and as locals say, this is the place where time begins. Time is certainly warped here as carefully preserved traditions take place in a community fascinated by the latest offerings in pop culture and technology. There’s the laid-back resort life for those that want a beach escape but there are also tiny-forested islets with untouched beaches waiting for those with a more adventurous side.
Easter Island (or Rapa Nui in the local language) is an absolutely captivating speck of land home to some of the most enthralling archeological sites in the world, including the iconic moai. These charismatic statues form the enduring image of Rapa Nui and travellers are known to speak of the presence and power of them. Contrary to popular belief that sees the island as a museum, Rapa Nui also offers a number of adventure activities such as horse-riding, scuba diving, surfing and hiking.
One of the most remote and wild places in the South Pacific you can visit are the Solomon Islands lying East of Papua New Guinea. These naturally beautiful islands are blessed with a rich local culture but scarred by their World War II history. Guadalcanal is the capital island known for numerous historical war sites but most head to the New Georgia Islands and Marovo Lagoon for the kayaking, diving and traditional local customs.
Wallis and Futuna
Most would only know the forgotten Wallis and Futuna from playing the alphabet game and its not hard to miss the two tiny specks lying North-East of Fiji. The islands are one of the only colonies in the South Pacific to retain their French status and France has repaid the favour by pouring in development money. Somehow the locals have figured out how to get all the perks of colonialism without losing its traditional culture.
One of Australia’s most popular holiday destinations, the Whitsunday Islands offer some of the finest tropical beaches in the world. An archipelago made up of 74 islands of all different sizes and levels of development, the warm waters and gorgeous white sand attract visitors from all over the world. Whitehaven beach on Whitsunday Island undoubtedly remains one of the best beaches in Australia if not the world but there are countless others to explore. The islands are also the perfect departure point for a trip to the Great Barrier Reef, one of the world’s natural wonders.
Formerly known as the Gilbert Islands, Kiribati’s 33 atolls span a massive 3.5 million square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean. The people here mostly live as they have for centuries, relying on local coconuts, breadfruit and fish as the foundation of their diet and living in traditional thatched huts. The diving here is some of the best in the world but there is little else to do but take bake in the equatorial sun on gorgeous empty beaches.
Tokelau is one of the few islands on this list that remains inaccessible by plane and this alone has resulted in it being one of the least visited in the South Pacific. The indigenous culture has therefore endured to a far greater degree than any other Pacific island and provides a unique look at Polynesian customs. With rising sea levels threatening the existence of the island however, now is probably the best time to visit before the ocean swallows it up.
Approaching Tuvalu by plane might lead to a double take as it rises like an oasis from the desert of blue surrounding it. Formerly known as the Ellice Islands, the raw power of the sun completely shapes the nature of life on this tiny speck of land. Time moves slowly and an escape to the shade is a necessity during the heat of the day. Hang out in a hammock beneath palm trees and enjoy the change of gears as you contemplate life on an island slowly being eaten by the sea.