Which Pa­cific par­adise is right for you?

These clus­ters of palm tree-fringed is­lands in the mid­dle of the ocean are pure travel fan­tasy, says Chris Lead­beater

The Daily Telegraph - Travel - - FRONT PAGE -

It is a re­gion that is never en­tirely out of focus – even if the mind’s eye seems to view it in a swirl of heat haze, shim­mer­ing far beyond the hori­zon. The South Pa­cific is a des­ti­na­tion which crops up in travel fan­tasies, palm trees whis­per­ing above beaches of a fine pow­der; the sea sigh­ing as a barely plau­si­ble shade of per­fect blue.

But now is a mo­ment when, for all its con­sid­er­able dis­tance from these shores (it is a full 9,563 miles iles by plane from Lon­don to Tahiti) hiti) the South Pa­cific is par­tic­u­larly in focus for would-be Bri­tish vis­i­tors. This sum­mer wit­nessed the 250th an­niver­sary (Aug 26 1768) of the de­par­ture of James Cook’s first “voy­age of dis­cov­ery” – an en­deav­our which brought the South Pa­cific c into Euro­pean con­ver­sa­tion as never be­fore. The mile­stone is be­ing marked in the hal­lowed con­fines of the Royal Academy in Lon­don. Its lat­est ex­hi­bi­tion, Ocea­nia (un­til Dec 10; roy­ala­cademy.org. g. uk; £18), ex­am­ines not just the art and cul­ture of f the is­lands in the world’s largest body of water, but t the strands of trans­porta­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion which have long held them to­gether, in spite of the spa­ces in be­tween.

Such is the size of the re­gion that its ge­og­ra­phy bears a lit­tle ex­pla­na­tion. It is usu­ally split into three dif­fer­ent zones. Me­lane­sia a swells out to the northeast of Aus­tralia, en­com­pass­ing the likes of f

Fiji and Van­u­atu, while Poly­ne­sia, the largest of the trio, spreads its arms all the way from New Zealand in the south-west to Easter Is­land in the east and Hawaii in the north. Mi­crone­sia, haunt­ing the cur­rents east of the Philip­pines, is maybe the least known of the tri­umvi­rate, fram­ing Kiri­bati and the Mar­shall Is­lands.

It re­mains, for Bri­tish trav­ellers, a re­gion that re­quires fore­thought, plan­ning and a rea­son­able out­lay. But if your in­ter­est is piqued and the South Pa­cific has jumped on to your travel to-do list, here are the frag­mented dots on the map you might wish to see...

FRENCH POLY­NE­SIA (POLY­NE­SIA)

So far away, and yet so close. An apt de­scrip­tion of this colos­sal group­ing of is­lands – the heart of Poly­ne­sia – which, although stretched across more than 1,600 square miles of ocean on the o other side of the globe, is tech tech­ni­cally part of France (it has “over­seas coun­try” sta sta­tus, which gives it a re rel­a­tive amount of a au­ton­omy from Paris). Yet if its name makes it sound like one ho­mo­ge­neous en­tity, a s sim­ple glance at the map s should demon­strate that French Poly­ne­sia is any­thing but. It com­prises some 118 isles and atolls, in­clud­ing five dis­tinct ar­chi­pel­a­gos (the So­ci­ety Is­lands, the Mar­que­sas, the Gam­bier Is­lands, the Aus­tral Is­lands, and the Tuamotu Ar­chi­pel­ago) – mak­ing for a col­lec­tion of dis­lo­cated shards that it would take a life­time of trav­els to glimpse in full.

Ini­tially, it is best to head fo for the most fa­mous me mem­ber of the club. Tahiti is the t ob­vi­ous point of arr ar­rival, a swarthy out­crop wh which ac­counts for 69 per cen cent of French Poly­ne­sian pop pop­u­la­tion. The cap­i­tal,

Pap Papeete, rum­bles with a reco recog­nis­able el­e­ment of day­day-to-day com­mo­tion. But bey beyond those busy streets, the black-sand beaches and vol vol­canic con­tours of the So So­ci­ety Is­lands reim­pose the them­selves – a com­bi­na­tion which takes most post­card-per­fect form on the sub­lime “neigh­bour­ing” isle that is Bora Bora.

Fur­ther in­for­ma­tion: tahi­ti­tourisme.com

FIJI (ME­LANE­SIA)

Euro­pean per­cep­tion tends to view Fiji as a sin­gle is­land when, in fact, this Oceanic repub­lic is made up of about 330 specks of land, scat­tered across the vast­ness of the Pa­cific. In­deed, as a mea­sure­ment of that vast­ness, it is worth not­ing that, although pinned to the south-eastern fringes of Me­lane­sia, al­most on the cusp of Poly­ne­sia, the dis­tance from Viti Levu (Fiji’s big­gest is­land) to Tahiti is an as­ton­ish­ing 2,110 miles (roughly the mileage be­tween Lon­don and Turk­ish cap­i­tal Ankara).

For all this, Fiji is – in the rel­a­tive terms of South Pa­cific ge­og­ra­phy – firmly on the beaten track. It is eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble from Aus­tralia and New Zealand – and Suva, the cap­i­tal, on Viti Levu, is a mag­net for cruise ships. But you can slip away from the crowds into the re­sorts which dot the south edge of the main is­land (an area gen­er­ally known as the “Coral Coast”). Vanua Levu, Fiji’s other ma­jor is­land, sits 40 miles to the north-east and of­fers an even denser calm in the fo­liage of Waisali Rain­for­est Re­serve.

Fur­ther in­for­ma­tion: fiji.travel

TONGA (POLY­NE­SIA)

An­other in­di­ca­tion of the Pa­cific’s enor­mity is that Tonga (on the western edge of Poly­ne­sia) and Fiji (Me­lane­sia) are con­sid­ered neigh­bours. They are sep­a­rated by a mere 500 miles of ocean – close enough for cen­turies of friendly re­la­tions, but also for a gar­den-fence dis­pute over the sta­tus of the Min­erva Reefs (which lie be­tween the two na­tions) to have burnt since the start of this decade.

Not that you will find any hints of ac­ri­mony if you make it to Tonga – which, as with Fiji, adds up to more than one is­land. It is home to 169 out­crops, of which Ton­gat­apu (where you find the cap­i­tal Nuku’alofa) is by far the largest. Most vis­i­tors ar­rive here and stay here, although there is much to be said for mak­ing the short south-east­erly cross­ing to ’Eua, which of­fers glo­ri­ous beaches on its west shore and plung­ing cliffs on its east. Cap­tain Cook paused in Tonga on his se­cond “voy­age of dis­cov­ery” (in 1773), which partly ex­plains why it was a Bri­tish pro­tec­torate from 1900 to 1970. Fur­ther in­for­ma­tion: ton­ga­hol­i­day.com

VAN­U­ATU (ME­LANE­SIA)

Firmly part of Me­lane­sia – it lies 1,200 miles north-east of Bris­bane, the Queens­land cap­i­tal, a mere hop and a skip in terms of the South Pa­cific – Van­u­atu is an­other scat­tered

PA­CIFIC PLEA­SURESThe Tuamotu Ar­chi­pel­ago in French Poly­ne­sia, above; Efate Is­land in Van­u­atu, be­low; a wooden figure from Ai­tu­taki in the Cook Is­lands, left

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