By Anna Selby | April 2019 | 6 minute read
The South Pacific’s paradisiacal attributes are tempered by a reputation for remoteness and high costs - but it’s still the quintessential ‘get away from it all destination’.
“Hotels are seeing a 30%-plus increase in room nights from the UK, so we’re benefitting from increased length of stays and UK visitors are venturing further than Rarotonga and experiencing islands such as Aitutaki, star of E4’s ShipWrecked”
IAN GRIFFITHS, COOK ISLANDS
It takes me a while, but half-way through the hymn-singing in this hot and humid church service I realise I’m listening to Walking in a Winter Wonderland - in Samoan! It’s slightly surreal.
Despite the Sunday service experience, Samoa is the most traditionally Polynesian of all of the Pacific island nations I’ve visited. The Fa’a-Samoa (Samoan way of life) refers to how people live their lives in villages that are usually one huge extended family (aiga), each with its own chief (Matai). This doesn’t mean visitors aren’t welcome though – far from it. Many villages rent out a beachside fale so you get to experience being part of a Samoan family.
My four-year-old son decides he has arrived in paradise when we ‘check in’ to our fale in Saleapaga, on the southeast coast of the main island of Upolu. But don’t expect luxury or privacy when you’re staying in a Samoan fale. These wooden huts come without walls, though they do have woven blinds and a thatched roof to protect you from the rain!
There are some advantages to this though – you benefit from natural air-con, (otherwise known as a sea breeze), a digital detox – since there’s not much in the way of wifi – and you certainly get into the rhythm of village life. But even better is the omnipresent sublime surrealism, like rolling out of bed onto powdery white sands and stepping into a turquoise lagoon during the English winter.
Pick an island
Lagoons are quite a feature in this part of the world but the Cooks Islands’ second island, Aitutaki, has arguably the world’s most beautiful and was the location for reality TV show, Shipwrecked.
This may be one of the reasons it’s proving ever-more popular with UK visitors. Hotels on both of the main islands in the Cooks – the other is Rarotonga – have seen an increase of over 30% in room nights and UK visitors are staying longer. The South Pacific region is huge. Indeed, French Polynesia, now marketed as the Islands of Tahiti, covers an area the size of Europe just on its own, with several island groups within it – from the Society Islands, including famous Bora Bora – to the flat atolls of the Tuamotos.
The region is still most popular with French tourists but is a stand-out choice for honeymooners from across Europe.
For Brits, ex-colony Fiji remains one of the most popular choices while Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu are smaller players in tourism, mostly suited to more adventurous travellers and backpackers with more time on their hands. The Cook Islands have links to New Zealand and are an increasingly popular choice for Brits as an add-on to holidays Down Under.
Papua New Guinea is suited to those looking for cultural tours and is a bucket-list destination for its wildlife as well as its fascinating tribal culture.
South seas experiences
Sing lustily: Attending a Cook Islands church service is a must – and not what you’d expect. Go to one of the islands’ many white painted coral churches for the four-part harmony singing, the ladies’ pandanus hats and the big welcome by the locals afterwards (often with a picnic!)
Be a daredevil: Samoa has plenty of nature-based adventures. Try the natural waterslides of Papase’ea Sliding Rocks, the turquoise waterhole/lava tube of the Sua Ocean Trench and – for experienced surfers only – the biggest waves in the region.
An island of your own: On Paul Gauguin cruises you get to spend time either on their beach retreat on the islet of Motu Mahana off the coast of the beautiful island of Taha’a, or in Bora Bora. Either way, you spend the day swimming and snorkelling and enjoying a sumptuous barbecue feast and cocktails from the floating bar.
Dive deeper: The Pacific region has some of the best examples of coral and tropical fish on the planet, as well as an abundance of PADI dive instructors. And if your clients want a truly heart-pumping experience, in Fiji they can go diving with the sharks.
Flights: There’s a new option for getting to Tahiti with United Airlines. The new route flies from Heathrow to Papeete, Tahiti’s capital, with a stopover in San Francisco. You can take the stopover on the way out or the way back.
Fiji Airways is now codesharing with British Airways and has flights between Nadi and Hong Kong, L.A., San Francisco, Signapore and Narita Real Tonga Airlines (realtonga.to) now has a codeshare arrangement with Samoa Airways and a new route between Tongatapu and Apia via Vava’u. There are two flights a week on a 30-seater and it takes just over three hours.
Accommodation: Cook Island Rarotonga’s Moana Sands Lagoon Resort opened in October 2018. It overlooks Muri Beach (arguably the island’s best) and has deluxe studios and a spectacular swimming pool – it’s the newest offering in the Moana Sands Group which already has the MS Beachfront Hotel and Beachfront Villas. The Pullman Nadi Bay Resort and Spa Fiji Hotel is opening this month (April) on the beachfront of Wailoaloa Bay, seven kilometres by car from Nadi International Airport. It will have 236 rooms and suites, four restaurants, three bars, three pools, a day spa and fitness centre.
Outrigger Resorts has a combination package for Outrigger Fiji and Castaway Island. Spend three nights at both and receive F$700 (about £250) in-resort credit. Agents who sign up to the Outrigger Expert Programme earn up to $75 booking bonus for Outrigger Reef and Outrigger Waikiki.
Cruise: Paul Gauguin, the luxury small-ship cruise company headquartered in Tahiti, has launched its 2020 brochure featuring not just the dramatic French Polynesian islands, including its lesser-known Marquesas and Tuamotus island groups, but also Fiji, the Cook Islands, Samoa and Tonga. The cruise line is going even further and offers a 16-night voyage from Fiji to Bali.
Experiences: Blue Lagoon Cruises has bought its own island to create the world’s first whole-island beach club at Malamala in Fiji. Guests can spend a day on the beach before they board their cruise.
Ecotrax is Fiji’s newest adventure, with rail-mounted electric-assisted pushbike carriages – a world first. You cycle (or cheat and use the accelerator) through beautiful bush, rock cuttings, villages and deserted beaches along the Coral Coast. Riders can get off where they want for a swim or a stroll.
Where to book it
Austravel has a 15-day two-centre trip to Sydney and Fiji, including four nights in Sydney, three nights in the Sofitel Fiji Resort, seven nights on Matamanoa Island (B&B), and return flights with Qantas, leads in at £3,459pp.
Paul Gauguin has a seven-night Tahiti and the Society Islands cruise round-trip from Papeete, departing October 26 2019 calls at Huahine, Bora Bora (overnight), Taha’a and Moorea (overnight). Cruise-only prices are from £3,277pp.