Some call it the ultimate paradise, others merely insist it is heaven on earth. It has attracted authors like James A Michener, and artists like Paul Gauguin. It is more prosaically called the South Pacific, but it is a vast cruise region of true scenic beauty and pristine, natural splendours.
The South Seas are typically regionalised to cover the area from Papua New Guinea in the west to the far-flung Marquesas Islands in the east, just across the International Dateline. They include Fiji and Tonga, as well as Bora Bora, American Samoa and French Polynesia.
All in all, it is an area of roughly 10 million square miles, and most of it is ocean. But the islands that are dotted throughout this immensity of blue are genuinely startling pockets of emerald green rimmed by coral reefs that turn the sea the deepest azure.
Most cruises here depart from Australia or New Zealand, while some travel from Hawaii on sectors of round-the-world or trans-Pacific routes, but there are a handful based in places like Fiji and Tahiti in French Polynesia that require less sailing time to visit the islands.
In this South Pacific Cruise Guide, we hope to give answers to some of the more frequently asked questions we receive from our clients who are curious about cruising this enchanting region.
BEST TIME TO VISIT THE SOUTH PACIFIC ON A CRUISE:
The dry season, from May to October, is the ideal time to be sailing here, when temperatures drop (a little) to around 25C from their Austral summer highs in the region of 32-35C, with the possibility of fierce tropical storms, and the humidity that goes with them. The trade winds and fresh see breezes do help to make cruising more enjoyable in the hotter periods, though, while travelling up into the mountains also lowers the temperature to more manageable levels.
July and August are typically the busiest times in holiday terms, as is the Christmas/New Year period, but, with the long flight times from just about everywhere on earth, this is typically not a destination that draws large crowds like the Caribbean. February is often a good time for a good deal.
WHAT TO PACK FOR A SOUTH PACIFIC CRUISE:
It’s going to be hot and, most likely, quite humid for much of the time, so this is not the place for a lot of heavy, formal clothing. Obviously your cruise line will have a general dress code for your time aboard but, when going ashore, dressing in lightweight, cotton outfits, with shorts, skirts or sarongs, is the most sensible plan of sartorial campaign. Having said that, when visiting local villages it is polite for shoulders to be covered and for women to wear longer skirts or a sarong.
Good swimwear is also essential, as well as stout and comfortable walking shoes for shore excursions, which can be over rough terrain at times. Water shoes are highly advisable for snorkelling and beach expeditions. Oh, and don’t forget plenty of high-factor suncream and even sunblock. The tropical sun will burn skin more readily than in, say, the Mediterranean, so SPF30-50 is the way to go here.
PORTS OF CALL IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC – AND WHAT TO DO WHILE YOU’RE THERE:
It would be impossible to detail the myriad small islands that make up the region, so we’ll look at the main ports on the larger islands and the principal attractions.
Papeete on Tahiti is arguably the main port, as it features on most itineraries and both Paul Gauguin Cruises and Windstar Cruises have ships based here all year. This is the most action-packed of the islands, with the main city and a good array of museums, as well as beaches, mountains and rainforests. The offshore waters are rich in black pearls, and a visit to a pearl farm is a staple tour on the island.
From Tahiti, cruises tend to visit neighbouring Moorea, “the magical island” with its iconic, peaked mountains, classic turquoise lagoons and fire dancers at the Tiki Village Cultural Centre, and then the Society Islands of Huahine, Raiatea, Motu Mahaea and stunning Bora Bora, where the beaches are impossibly white and the snorkelling is some of the best in the world.
To the north-east of Tahiti are the Tuamotu Islands, where some cruises feature Rangiroa and Fakarava, with an ecosystem so diverse it has been named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. To the south-west are the Cook Islands, where Rarotonga and Aitutaki boast some of the most eye-catching lagoons as well as outrageous scenic diversity, from deep valleys to soaring mountain peaks. Sail north to the Marquesas and you discover Nuku Hiva, Tahuata and Hiva Oa, a collection of South Seas jewels highlighted by rugged terrain, amazing beaches and a unique cultural heritage.
Fiji is another major cruise destination, from its capital port base at Suva, main island (among 333) of Viti Levu and Lautoka, where the diving and snorkelling are superlative and the plant and animal species are rich, diverse, and endangered. Here you’ll also find the famous traditional Fire-walkers and magnificent Thurston Gardens (in Suva). Samoa and American Samoa are also within reach of Fiji, providing a collective of 14 islands that feature stunning tropical rainforests and renowned marine sanctuaries, as well as notable village life where family and the elders are paramount.
South-east of Fiji is the 170-island collection of Tonga, King of the Tropics, with contrasting ports such as Nuku’alofa, the capital, isolated Niuafo’ou, and the forested ultra-photogenic coral atoll of Vava’u. The crystal-clear waters are the prime attraction here, and it’s possible to swim with whales, as well as snorkel the coral reefs. Tonga’s archaeology – dating back almost 3,000 years – is also utterly unique.
Closer to Australia, the Vanuatu archipelago features famous beaches like Champagne Bay, uninhabited Mystery Island and Luganville (with its time-warp town), while the Solomon Islands are rich in World War II history as well as lush landscapes and amazing beaches at Honiara (the main city) and Gizo. New Caledonia completes the trio of island chains off Australia’s north-east coast, offering expeditions into caves, grottos and reefs from four main ports of call, Isle of Pines, Lifou, with its amazing white-sand beach, Mare (or Nature’s Aquarium) and bustling Noumea.
Finally, Papua New Guinea, by far the largest of the South Seas islands, boasts big cities like Port Moresby and Alotau (with its famous canoe and drum festival each November) and small-scale island destinations such as Kiriwina and Kitava, rich in local culture (especially for handicrafts and shell jewellery) and marine life. The hinterland of the island is dense and wildlife-rich, hence there are a lot of opportunities for nature lovers and bird-watchers here, with excursions typically including mountainous Varirata National Park (from Port Moresby), as well as World War II history and local culture such as Ahioma Cultural Village (from Alotau).
WHICH LINES CRUISE THE SOUTH PACIFIC?
Paul Gaugin Cruises and Windstar both have ships based year-round in Tahiti, but each of Holland America, Princess Cruises, Viking, Azamara, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, Cunard, Oceania Cruises, Crystal Celebrity, Ponant Cruises, Noble Caledonia and Silversea visit periodically in the Austral summer. Specialist, small-ship operators Blue Lagoon Cruises, AdventureSmith and Aranui also have options in Fiji and Tahiti.