Don’t Wait to Travel the South Pacific Islands!

Don’t Wait to Travel the South Pacific Islands!

I lived in New Zealand for almost two years but didn’t visit the islands of the South Pacific until my final months, instead electing to fly to Myanmar and Chile during the vacations of my first year. Why did I wait? I suppose for similar reasons never trying to visit the Caribbean from the United States. I thought there won’t be much to do beyond the beach and I could only handle several hours of beach relaxation, especially in places where the sun was so strong. I thought traveling the islands would be expensive and, since they were so remote, lack infrastructure for solo travelers.
What I didn’t realize is the islands of the South Pacific are filled with friendly people, a wide assortment of aquatic and outdoor activities and a fascinating cultural heritage. My advice is don’t wait! If you’re thinking about what island to visit first, I’d recommend:

Fijian warrior welcoming us to the Yasawa Islands, Fiji

Fijian warrior welcoming us to the Yasawa Islands, Fiji

1) Fiji- Paradise for solo travelers
I was a bit hesitant to visit Fiji because I thought it would be too touristy but I also figured it might be the best option for solo travelers like myself. Yes, it’s a bit touristy when you first arrive in Nadi but there’s so many islands that everyone spreads out and you can easily find a tropical piece of paradise that you share with a few dozen others. Furthermore, the infrastructure makes it easy and affordable to get around on your own and there’s many backpackers there who had just finished working holidays in Australia or New Zealand or were on round-the-world trips. Everyone in the boat to my first resort was traveling alone so making friends was easy.
I spent a week in Fiji with a night in a beach backpackers near the airport then took the ferry to the Yasawas Island group. I had done some research and chose to split my time between Barefoot Kuata Resort and Manta Ray Resort, which was recommended by a friend. I was lucky because both of these places turned out to be good choices but I didn’t realize that all the islands offer different activities so I’d recommend thinking about what you want to do then staying at a resort that has it.

Swimming with bull sharks at Barefoot Kuata Resort in Fiji

Swimming with bull sharks at Barefoot Kuata Resort in Fiji

Humpbacks during a heat run in Vava’u, Tonga. Photo by my friend @delacordilleraalmarAt Barefoot Kuata, the main activity was scuba diving with bull sharks. It’s possible for people even without their diving licenses (like me) so each person is paired with an instructor, you swim down about 12 meters and hide behind a coral wall. They feed the sharks, and supposedly the wall of bubbles distracts the sharks from the fact that there are people there but the instructors have metal poles just in case. (Very safe, haha). It was absolutely an incredible experience to be just feet away from bull sharks, reef sharks and other colorful fish with no cages separating you from the mighty fish. The one downside of Barefoot Kuata is its only a couple hours away from the main port so the island gets pretty busy with day trippers but beyond that, it was perfect.
Manta Ray Resort, as the name suggests, is famous for the option to snorkel with manta rays. In the mornings, they have people waiting to see when the mantas swim during the channel, then when they are spotted, people run through the resort shouting “manta ray swim!”, everyone grabs their snorkeling gear and piles into the boat. The actual manta ray swim was a bit disappointing for me just because there were so many tourists, from this resort and others, following these mantas in a herd. However, this resort has an incredible snorkel spot right off its shores so after returning from the official swim, a staff member saw a manta when I was snorkeling, dropped me off near it and I had a private swim with a manta ray. It was a good workout, trying to keep up, and an absolute magical experience. The one “downside” of Manta Ray is it was more of a family resort so if you’d prefer a holiday without kids running around, maybe chose another.

Humpbacks during a heat run in Vava'u, Tonga. Photo by my friend @delacordilleraalmar

Humpbacks during a heat run in Vava’u, Tonga. Photo by my friend @delacordilleraalmar

2) Tonga- Humpback Whale Swims & The Friendliest People
One of the friends I made in Fiji headed to Tonga straight after to fulfill her bucket list dream of swimming with humpback whales. Tonga and the Dominican Republic are supposedly the only two places you can do this, as the whales seek warmer climates for calving season between June and October. She spent a few weeks in Vava’u, one of the main island groups, doing a 10-day whale cruise, followed by several day trips with whale swims. She was surrounded by dozens of whales with their calves and her pictures convinced me to fit in a short trip during a long weekend in October.
Despite it being the end of the whale season, when most had started the long journey to Antarctica, I was able to see a half dozen whales and even swam over a mother humpback and calf. We also visited some incredible isolated islands with almost blindingly white sand.

My Tongan family with an inpromtu picnic at the "Tongan stonehenge" on the main island of Tongatapu

My Tongan family with an inpromtu picnic at the “Tongan stonehenge” on Tongatapu

While swimming with the whales was amazing, what really blew me away about Tonga was the kindness of the people. The woman on the plane lived in Auckland but was from Tonga so was flying back to spend a couple weeks there as part of an “elder’s reunion weekend”. She gave me all sorts of advice, asked for my phone number and offered to take me around the island. Similarly, I had booked a villa that ended up being double booked so I ended up spending my four days in Tongatapu living with a Tongan family and playing with their new puppies. They were so warm and generous and sharing meals, saving me leftovers from their Sunday feast, prepared in a traditional earthen oven.

Slighty sketchy boat rides in Tonga

Slighty sketchy boat rides in Tonga

Tonga is the last kingdom of the South Pacific and still very Christian and traditional. The whole island shuts down on Sundays and you can’t even book plans or ferries to the other island groups. A couple places offer day trips, by boat, to their resorts so on Sunday, I showed up to the wharf and decided to follow the other tourists to Royal Sunset Resort. While the island itself was beautiful, the trip was a bit hilarious, reflecting the fact that Tonga still isn’t the most developed when it comes to tourism infrastructure. We must have fit about forty people in a boat that would comfortably seat ten, piling people on the roof, on the floor and in the interior. When arriving at the resort, we were handed watered down apple juice as welcome drinks and I laughed as us tourists tried unsuccessfully to sip them, because they seemed to have handed all of us broken straws. Because of this lack of infrastructure and essentially having to hire a private driver to get anywhere (because my attempt to ride a scooter failed miserable), Tonga ended up being one of my most expensive island trips but the warmth of the locals made it really special.

Colorful buses in Samoa

Colorful buses in Samoa

3) Samoa- Accessible, Affordable and Highly Recommended
My trip to Samoa was a unique one since I was able to visit and travel with some Americans who were living there to do research at the Institute of Public Health. One of the first things I ended up doing after landed was joining them for a Crossfit exercise class and visiting the dressmaker for them to get fitted for an upcoming event. Of course, expats on a small island like this all know each other, and my friend constantly bumped into familiar faces in all the expat haunts. This included a Café Milani (where you could get a turmeric latte in the South Pacific- mind blow!) and even an all vegetarian smoothie bar and café called Krush).  At the same time, television programming in Samoa was hilariously ancient.  The weather woman used a meterstick with a pointer finger on the end when she described the moving weather patterns.  When pop songs came on the radio, my friends would yell out things like, “soap!” because the advertisements basically had a photo of the product with a pop song playing in the background.  Such a quirky country!

Beautiful waterfall in Savaii, Samoa

Beautiful waterfall in Savaii, Samoa

After a couple nights in the capital of Apia, I joined her and a couple friends on the ferry to Sa’vaii where we spent a few days resting and relaxing. Sa’vaii is actually one of the largest islands in the area (only dwarfed by some of the Hawaiian islands) so we hit the main attractions (the blowholes, a famous waterfall, a town buried by lava in a 1905 eruption and swam with turtles) but didn’t have enough time to drive around the whole island.

Regina's Beach Fale in Savaii, Samoa

Regina’s Beach Fale open air accomodation in Savaii, Samoa

In general, though, Samoa is the perfect size to allow you to explore the main island and Savaii in a week or two if you rent a car or scooters. Fales (open air elevated structures) offer cheap options for accommodation (and there are some blissful ones right on the beach) and food (fresh seafood) was incredibly affordable. So while it would be hard to explore Samoa properly without your own vehicle, traveling there as a group is a perfect way to explore beautiful islands for a very reasonable price.

4) Other islands- Niue and New Caledonia
I did visit a few other islands while living in New Zealand but I think the above three give the most authentic impression of the South Pacific islands.
I spent four days in Niue with a few friends and the island is so small its known as the “Rock of Polynesia”. We rented bikes and were able to explore almost all the beaches, snorkel spots and caves. We stayed in a hostel owned by Kiwis, and people were nice but so many of the locals had left the island because of lack of opportunities, I didn’t feel the same connection with local people in other countries.
I also visited New Caledonia, where I spent a couple days in the capital of Noumea staying with French friends who lived there and a couple days in the idyllic Isle of Pines. Since New Caledonia is a French colony, you could get really good wine, cheese and baguettes. It had a totally different feel than the other places but still was beautiful and worth visiting.

Overall, the islands in the South Pacific are absolutely worth a trip and there’s plenty to do even for people who can’t spend weeks just relaxing. Because of their isolation, each place has its unique food, music and atmosphere, while there are definitely similarities connecting all of the islands.

Song of the Moment- Isa Lei (Fijian Farewell Song)– The Seekers & Brad Praisley- She’s Everything (Reggae Country remix)… my resort in Fiji had a Shania Twain reggae remix that I probably heard a hundred times on repeat!
Book of the Moment- Headhunters of the Pacific by J. Maarten Troost (funny book about a recovering alcoholic cruising the South Pacific, ends his trip in Samoa)

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