At 7.17pm I received a text from a fifteen-year-old cancer patient (who I regard as…
Australians are spoilt.
We live in one of the safest, diverse and physically spectacular countries in the world. We have rainforests that meet vast oceans lined with white sands, red deserts with a human history spanning thousands of years and wildlife so unique that our animals are iconic the world over. But I don’t need to tell you that. I know it, you know it, we are lucky to the point of obscenity and we all know it.
If that wasn’t enough we happen to sit on the doorstep of paradise, a place where islands dot coral reefs and the sun shines year round. The South Pacific is our playground and according to the Australian Bureau of Statistic in 2016 there were more than 17 million departures from our shores to the nations located within the South Pacific. We clearly have a penchant for islands and being located on the world’s largest island isn’t enough.
The question I get asked most from Canberrans wanting to visit the South Pacific is where they should go and why. It is the right question to start with, one that is personal and unique to each person depending on their wants and needs and one that I think I can help you answer.
Each island varies so greatly in culture, facilities, styles of accommodation and the experience you will have once there that it is worth a look into what you can expect if you decide paradise is calling your name. I have chosen the top three destinations that our travel agency sends Canberrans to and we will take a deep dive on Fiji, Vanuatu and the Cook Islands.
Let’s start with the most popular island amongst Australian travellers.
Fiji is a perennial favourite with the Australian market and with families in particular but what can you expect from Fiji if you choose to holiday there? Well Fiji is all about the resort holiday, your classic flop and drop holiday we would call it. A place where you can unwind within the confines of world class resort, eat good food, get massages and roll in and out of the pool as you please. Nowhere in the South Pacific does the resort holiday as well as Fiji does.
All of the major hotel chains have set up shop in Fiji and are just waiting to service your every need. Around 30 minutes from the airport you will find an enclave called Denarau. Here you will find a Radisson, a Hilton, a Sofitel, a Westin and a Sheraton. These sprawling resorts offer everything the holidaymaker could need, lagoon style pools, multiple bars and restaurants, kids clubs, golf courses, room service, watersports and the list could truly go on forever.
Around the corner from Denarau you will find the Coral Coast. Dotted down this coastline you will find more world class resorts offering all the bells and whistles Intercontinental, Shangri-La, Outrigger… you get the picture.
Suffice to say standards are high and this is what attracted 163 000 Australians in 2016 alone.
What the mainland of Fiji doesn’t do so well is beaches. Whilst they do the job, if getting wet is the main priority they are not the most stunning beaches in the world but hey, this is coming from a Canberran who lives within two hours of the most spectacular beaches so it is an unfair comparison.
If it is beaches you want you should be heading out into the Fijian islands where the resorts are surrounded by white sand, blue waters and that small island vibe. The chain of islands known as the Mamanucas are the most accessible with ferries leaving from the harbour at Denarau all throughout the day. You will find everything from three to five star resorts. If you are after family fun then I would be heading to Plantation Island or if it is couples romance then an overwater bure (bungalow) at Likuliku will be the ticket.
Fiji also has you covered if adventure is your thing. An island hopping trip through the more remote Yasawa islands with Awesome Adventures will have you snorkelling with Manta Rays and kayaking pristine bays.
Located three hours away on a single flight from Sydney and with fares starting from $500 per person return Vanuatu should be the top of your South Pacific hit list. The main island of Efate is certainly where most Australians will stay and the main advantage Efate has over Fiji is that there is a wide range of tours and activities for tourists and it is all very accessible.
A majority of Efate’s resorts are scattered around the lagoon and beach areas on the outskirts of the main town, Port Vila, the tour companies will pick you up at your door and they can take you on endless adventures. Think swimming in waterfalls, jungle segway riding, off road buggy rides, spectacular snorkelling, deep brilliant blue swimming holes, visits to local villages, local food experiences, boat trips to nearby islands, swimming with turtles and diving. It can be the flop and drop holiday if that is what you are after but it is the sort of place that you could be entertained in 24/7 if that is your inclination. The local culture also shines through here and the people are so friendly.
Vanuatu has less than a handful of the large resort style properties that Fiji has, if this is what you are after then have a look at the Holiday Inn or the Warwick Le Lagon here you will find your big pools, kids clubs and kids stay, play and eat free deals but what I think Vanuatu does best is rustic beach bungalows. I recently stayed at Breakas Beach Resort and it is a resort for those who don’t like resorts. Whilst there is still a main bar, pool and restaurant it is couples only, there are no organised resort style games or activities and the accommodation is in bungalows of the local design, thatched roofs, louvered windows with no glass and open air bathrooms all set in the most beautiful tropical gardens. It is this style of unique accommodation that will make you feel like you have been marooned in the tropics and you will never want to leave.
For the more adventurous you can head to more remote islands such as Tanna and walk right up to the rim of a bubbling lava filled volcano or make your way to Espiritu Santo to explore underwater World War II wreckages on a scuba dive trip.
Now I am going to let my bias show here but my personal top spot in the South Pacific is the Cook Islands. Relatively unheard of a few years ago, tourism has recently been bolstered by a direct flight once a week to and from Sydney. The main drawcard for me is the crystal blue waters, the pristine white sand and the laid back, low key nature of the main island of Rarotonga.
Flying into Rarotonga you know you are arriving to somewhere very special. The small island, only 30 kilometers around, is rimmed by a reef which is clearly visible from the air. Outside the reef you have the deep blue ocean and inside, closest to the land is the shimmering, protected blue waters. On land you will see a narrow stretch of beaches, bungalows, small resorts and the two roads that circle the island but the entire interior of the island is craggy peaks covered in dense jungle. It may sound a cliche but you would have to be made of stone for it to not take your breath away.
Once on land you will find that there are no international chain resorts, there are no chain takeaways, no traffic lights and no high rises. Some say it is the Hawaii of fifty years ago. Almost all of the resorts are beachfront and range from bungalows to small resort style properties. If you are travelling with kids I would recommend the Pacific Resort which has self-contained rooms and villas set amongst tropical gardens and a restaurant on Muri beach where you can eat a burger with your toes in the sand.
The Cook Islands excels in couples getaways and there is a wide range of properties that are adults only, take a look at The Little Polynesian, The Crown Beach Resort, and Rumors Luxury Villas. I can also testify from experience that if you want a private beachfront wedding the Cook Islands can provide the wedding of your dreams without the nightmare price tag often associated with destination weddings.
Whilst day tours and activities are not built up to the level of what is on offer in Vanuatu I think the highlight is hiring a little car, you can get a small convertible for $50 a day and you can tootle around the island stopping in at the beach shack style restaurants and snorkelling spots. You can experience the Polynesian culture with a dinner and performance held at a number of the properties on the island and you can even have a Maori Hangi where you dinner is cooked buried beneath the ground. This is the sort of place that will burrow into your soul and in a long cold Canberra winter you will dream of those beaches.