The South Pacific: beyond the waters
The South Pacific islands are renowned for their spectacular coastlines and idyllic beaches. But there's plenty more to be discovered here. Our specialists explore the Cook Islands, French Polynesia and Fiji...
The Cook Islands by Rupert
Virtually every inch of the Cook Islands’ coastline boasts a palm-fringed, white-sand beach surrounded by a protective reef and crystal-clear waters. But thankfully a lack of large-scale development has helped keep the islands desirable to visitors, while also ensuring they remain off the beaten track.
All international flights arrive on Rarotonga (or Raro, as it’s known), the largest of the islands and the most populous by far with over 10,000 inhabitants. The mountainous interior is covered in verdant rainforest and buildings are no higher than a coconut palm. Getting around is easy. There’s only one road, and the very informal ‘hail and ride’ bus service has two options: ‘clockwise’ or ‘anticlockwise’ — there’s not a single traffic light anywhere.
I also hired a scooter for a few days and enjoyed the freedom it gave me to pull up at any beach for a spontaneous snorkel.
Visitors will quickly discover that nothing happens in a rush in the Cooks. But, once I had settled down to ‘island time,’ I was captivated. Young children would give me directions, a chef rustled up a delicious meal on request, a farmer refilled my petrol tank (for free) when I was running on empty — Cook Islanders take kindness to a whole new level.
What to do on Raro
Raro’s Punanga Nui night market is a real highlight of the islands, and it’s here that you can sample the local speciality, ika mata (raw fish salad). For something more strenuous, trek through the rugged interior to reach the Needle, a rock formation that juts out of the rainforest to meet the sky.
Closer to the water, there’s a multitude of activities. On a dive, you may well end up alongside green or even hawksbill turtles. While snorkeling (the best spot is at ‘Fruits of Rarotonga’ on Titikaveka Beach on the south coast) you’ll likely encounter parrotfish, triggerfish and even an octopus or two. Between June and October, you may even see migrating humpback whales from the shoreline as they skirt Raro’s reefs.
Snorkeling on Aitutaki
But no trip to the Cooks would be complete without leaving Raro behind and spending at least three days in Aitutaki. A tiny island that’s almost an atoll, it boasts what is (for me) the most beautiful lagoon in the world. There are shades of blue here that I never knew existed as well as vibrant corals, tropical fish, long sand bars, palm trees and virtually no people.
Time moves even more slowly in Aitutaki, but there’s still plenty to do, with kite surfing and bonefishing being among the very best in the world. I’d also recommend heading into the main village if you’re here on a Sunday morning and listening to the wonderful singing at the Cook Islands’ oldest church.
French Polynesia by Leon
French Polynesia is seen as a classic beach destination, but my recent trip touring the Society Islands and the outlying Marquesas Islands showed me that there was so much more to this region. Plus, travel between its islands is now easy thanks to the half-cargo, half-cruise ship Aranui V.
The Society Islands offer the peace and tranquillity French Polynesia has become so well known for. Think white sand, lagoons and overwater bungalows, all complemented by a backdrop of rugged mountains, thick rainforest and cascading waterfalls.
Aerial View, Fakarava, French Polynesia
Aranui V, Tahiti
After landing in Tahiti, French Polynesia’s capital, I set off for the pier, where I boarded my 14-day expedition cruise to the outlying Marquesas Islands. I was heading off on the Aranui V to some of the most remote islands in the South Pacific. Looking out across the water, I could see the island of Moorea's mountain range piercing the sky.
My journey took me through the turquoise lagoons of the Tuamotu Islands (often called, simply, ‘the Tuamotus’) and onto the Marquesas. My first glimpse of these islands was a wall of dizzyingly vertical cliff faces rising straight up out of the ocean and smothered in vegetation. As we drew closer, the islands looked completely unexplored and devoid of human influence. I thought to myself, 'Is this how those first Western explorers felt when they laid eyes on these islands in 1595?'
Coral reef in French Polynesia
The primary focus of the Aranui V is to carry supplies to the more remote islands of French Polynesia, and it acts as a lifeline to their small populations. Even today, the Marquesas remain relatively untouched by tourism.
Exploring terra firma
We first made land on an island called Nuka Hiva. The dockside was lined with local residents eagerly waiting in anticipation of the ship’s cargo. A group of friends were playing a Tahitian ukulele and singing songs, while others were cooking meat and fish to feed the workers as they started to unload.
The Aranui V cruise principally focuses on the Marquesas, and visits six of these islands in total. Every day, when we made land, we were shown a point of interest on each island, ranging from local restaurants (where we sampled traditional French Polynesian cuisine) to archaeological sites containing the most significant tiki structures outside of Easter Island. The ship then loops back to the Society Islands, and the crystalline waters of Bora Bora.
Over-water bungalows in Bora Bora
Aerial view, Bora Bora
The beaches and idyllic beachfront bungalows of Bora Bora made the wilder, undeveloped coastline of the Marquesas feel like a distant dream. I disembarked the Aranui V here, on the waters of the lagoon surrounding the island, and made my way to my villa, which balanced on stilts above the limpid water.
The sun was reflecting off the cyan lagoon, and in the background, all I could hear was the puttering of a small boat of divers setting off to explore the rich marine life of the outer reefs.
Fiji by Chris
The true appeal of Fiji is its geographical, natural and cultural complexity, — though its history alone is intriguing. The islands have long been fought over by warrior tribes from Melanesia and Tonga. Fiji’s native tribe — the iTaukei — learned to defend their homeland with ritual efficiency and hostility. The islands' splendid isolation was ended by the arrival of Wesleyan Baptist Christianity, which changed the islanders and, over many decades, created a warm, welcoming society.
Today, the islands have evolved from a majority of iTaukei to a diverse mixture of cultures. Even though there are large cultural differences, the new belief system is that, no matter your ethnicity, you are Fijian. This mixture of cultures provides a complex variety of religious beliefs and a history that adds to Fiji's cultural melting pot.
Mamanuca and Yasawa Islands, Fiji
Finding the real Fiji
The moment it really struck me what it means to be a Fijian was during a church service in the Yasawa Islands. The vitality and honesty of the singing reminded me of visits to Welsh chapels as a child with my family.
The only thing which the Fijians are more passionate about than religion is sport — particularly Rugby Union. The sevens format is worshipped: every island has a village team, and posts are built from coconut palms. Children are taught the importance of kicking the oval-shaped ball as soon as they can walk.
The Douglas family have farmed and looked after Matangi Island (a private island and resort that’s part of Fiji’s affectionately nicknamed ‘friendly north’) since the 1860s. Like them, I soon felt as if I had a special relationship with this island.
After a heartfelt song and dance greeting, Matangi revealed its treasures. Rooms are beautifully decorated with traditional Fijian tapa cloth. The dining and entertainment are incredible. And, the reefs are alive with dozens of fish, including butterfly, parrotfish, stingrays, shoals of black squid, and many small reef sharks.
Matangi Private Island Resort, Taveuni
Beachfront bure, Matangi Private Island Resort
Then, in a small village on the island of Qamea, I got a delighted reaction when I told the locals that I come from Rugby and my great grandfather made the original Gilbert balls used in the earliest international games. In this moment I could see the passion — for rugby, for hospitality, for life — was the central pillar to the Fijian culture. The passion shown by the locals reshaped my experience of this beautiful country, from 'just a beach destination' to an unforgettable, culturally diverse country and community.
I look forward to returning to Fiji — not only to experience the hospitality again, but to pay the passion back with a gift of a Gilbert rugby ball for the community.