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
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
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
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
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