Picnics with stingrays on Moorea island in French Polynesia, the South Pacific.
Visiting South Pacific islands
The South Pacific is etched into the traveler’s sub-conscious as a series of glorious, sunny, relaxed palm-fringed beaches surrounded by kaleidoscopic fish, soft coral, sensual girls and muscular, tattooed guys.
And it was thus – in Gauguin’s time a hundred years ago, but that perfect combination of Polynesia assets is very difficult to find these days unless you have a big wad and jet into a five star bubble. Even then you’d be missing out on both real local culture and the thrill of discovering your own private little South Sea paradise.
South Pacific’s best scuba diving
Great scuba sights can be found in North Fiji’s Somosomo Strait (speciality is soft coral and best visibility May-October); French Polynesia’s Rangiroa atoll (a huge cluster of tiny islets northeast of Tahiti, hotels available, best December-March for sharks); Tonga’s Ha’apai (terrific caves and canyons) and Vava’u islands (May-October for humpback whales), superb sailing too).
The Cook Islands
One of Rarotonga’s best beaches, and not exactly busy. This is one of the Cook Islands.
Rarotonga is a quiet, better value, English-speaking version of a French Polynesian island, 900 kms west of Tahiti and ringed by a fractured reef.
Some beaches are superb but others are covered with sharp coral rocks and impossible to use comfortably, particularly along the north east shore. Rarotonga has a fine variety of places to stay, but when booking your hotel it would be advisable to ask about the sand quality of nearby beaches.
Aitutaki, accessed by a pricey flight from Rarotonga, is the Bora Bora of the Cook Islands, a gorgeous 5 sq. mls (8 sq. kms) coral atoll necklaced by an azure lagoon and 21 talcum sand islets, 225 kms (140 mls) north of Rarotonga.
The big action on Aitutaki involves either hiking to the top of 124 metre high Mount Maungapu for an overview of the area, snorkelling, fishing or scuba, with lunch served on one of the coconut tree shaded, white sand islands.
The most popular island in Aitutaki is touted as one of the world’s best beaches, One Foot Island aka Tapuaetai, a 20 minute boat ride from the main island.
Although the flight here is pricey (several 50 min flights a day), accommodation is not too bad, ranging from the expensive Aitutaki Lagoon Resort to some reasonable guest houses and backpacker lodges.
Aitutaki, One Foot Island (aka Tapuaetai).
Some of the Cook Island’s outer islands also have flights from Rarotonga so diehard adventure travellers could find places with few or no other visitors and isolated atolls. Accommodation of some sort – even with local people – is always available. These islands are among those that have flights:
Manihiki (north), aka the Island of Pearls, is one of the prettiest of the Cook’s with a 4km wide lagoon – dotted with 40 islets – that provides top snorkelling, swimming and black pearls.
Pukapuka (north) is small, remote and has habits and customs similar to Samoa. Swimming and snorkelling are good.
Mangaia (the most southerly island) offers stunning rock formations and caves, so climbing, caving, interesting drives, biking and horse riding can be added to the usual snorkelling activities.
n. b. Rarotonga and Aitutaki are in the southern island group.
Easter Island is a different Pacific experience entirely, being even more expensive and time consuming to reach but scenically and culturally amazing, a really unique destination. And it has a pleasant beach too, Anakena.