Even the savviest of map buffs can find the South Pacific’s scattering of dozens of countries and thousands of islands confounding. Here, our picks of where to go—as well as places to sleep, eat, and visit—on your next South Seas sojourn.
Artists and poets like Paul Gauguin and Jacques Brel once called French Polynesia home, inspired by the archipelago’s 100-plus volcanic islands uniting pearls, powdery beaches, and opalesque lagoons. It’s easy to see what lured them here. With a warm, laid-back island culture and achingly beautiful scenery, this French overseas collective comprises five archipelagos (including the Society Islands, the most popular of which are highlighted below) and innumerable possibilities for romance and adventure.
The largest of French Polynesia’s islands, turtle-shaped Tahiti is as appealing for its dramatic black stretches of sand as it is for its mountainous interior—a wild realm of mystical valleys, clear streams, and high waterfalls.
For unparalleled opulence, it’s hard to look past all-inclusive The Brando (doubles from US$3,680). This upscale eco-resort on Marlon Brando’s private atoll Tetiaroa—a 20-minute flight from the capital Papeete—comes with its own environmental research station and lavish thatched-roof pool villas. eat Tahiti is not short of upscale restaurants like O Belvédère, a hilltop tree house set in the hills outside Papeete where the sunsets are as memorable as the food. More casual are the food-truck offerings in Papeete’s Vaiete Square—try the raw fish salad and frozen coconut halves.
French Polynesia’s most famous dive site, The Aquarium, lies off Tahiti’s west coast; in addition to three artificial wrecks, expect flamboyant fan corals and hundreds of species of tropical fish. And if you’re visiting the island in July, be sure to take in the Heiva Festival, a month-long celebration of Polynesian culture.
Seventeen kilometers northwest of Tahiti, Moorea’s striking geography is said to have inspired the mythical Bali Hai island from James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific. Eight jungle-clad peaks form a jagged spine across the island, ringed by an impossibly blue lagoon that sweeps into two symmetrical bays on the north shore.
Moorea is the birthplace of the overwater bungalow, so it would be remiss not to stay in one while visiting. Those at the Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa (doubles from US$475) catch both the sunrise and sunset, and there’s direct access into the water from your private patio.
The sleepy town of Haapiti is known for its banging surf breaks—and for Le Mayflower. Steps from the lagoon, the restaurant serves the best seafood on the island: think, shrimp ravioli and wahoo carpaccio.
Make the most of Moorea’s mountainous interior: book a 4WD tour, zipline through the jungle, or lace up your hiking boots and trek through pineapple groves.
An hour’s flight northwest of Papeete, Bora Bora is the stuff that honeymoons are made of—a place where each resort is more extravagant than the next. The fact that these hotels occupy sand-fringed motu (islets) with views of a dormant volcano and turquoise lagoon make them all the more alluring.
Hammocks draped between palms, overwater villas with personal butlers and majestic views of Mount Otemanu, and a restaurant by Jean-Georges Vongerichten—the St. Regis Bora Bora Resort (doubles from US$1,482) is awash in luxe trimmings.
Intimate and exclusive, La Villa Mahana in Povai Bay dishes up classic French fare with a Polynesian twist. Reserve a table in the charming courtyard and order the degustation.
DO Borrow bikes and explore Bora Bora’s main village, Vaitape, and then pedal south to the snow-white sands of Matira Beach for a sunset swim. Also on hand is Coqui Coqui Perfumeria, an outpost of husband-and-wife team Nicolas Malleville and Francesca Bonato’s Yucatán-based fragrance and hotel brand Coqui Coqui; expect a beautiful range of Polynesian-inspired products alongside Malleville’s original range of fragrances.
Scattered across the South Pacific, Fiji’s 333 islands lure you in with their white-sand beaches and palm trees, then persuade you to linger with dramatic volcanic landscapes and warm waters filled with colorful soft corals and boundless marine life. With its distinctly Melanesian flavor and raft of outdoor activities (including abseiling and skydiving), Fiji will appeal to all comers.
Your first point of contact with Fiji will be Viti Levu, where international flights touch down in either Nadi or Suva, the capital. A parade of big-name resorts surrounds the former, extending across a short causeway to Denarau Island, where sari shops and curry houses nod to the archipelago’s sizeable Indian population.
The country’s first mainland resort with overwater bungalows, Fiji Marriott Resort Momi Bay (doubles from US$254) comes with verdant gardens, multiple pools, and villas that pay homage to traditional design. For something more exclusive, there’s the Six Senses Fiji (doubles from US$935) on Malolo Island, a 35-minute speedboat ride from Port Denarau Marina.
Skip the buffet at your resort and take a boat from Port Denarau to nearby Malamala Beach Club, a private island where you can order blackened fish tacos and tuna poke for lunch followed by cocktails and kayaking.
Offshore from Nadi is the surfing mecca of Cloudbreak, a place regularly voted as one of the world’s most challenging waves. Reward your ride with refreshments at nearby Cloud 9, a two-level floating bar anchored above kaleidoscopic Ro Ro Reef.
Vanua Levu may be Fiji’s second-largest island—it’s about the size of Bali—but it is remarkably traveler-free—though this has nothing to do with the quality of its offerings. Mountainous and with swaths of coconut plantations, it has only two small towns—Savusavu (the first Fijian port of call for yachts sailing west from Samoa or Tonga) and Labasa—giving you a good chance to have an entire beach to yourself.
On Savusavu Bay, the all-inclusive, 25-villa Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort (doubles from US$1,062) comes courtesy of one of the planet’s most famous oceanographic explorers. When you’re not in your thatch-roofed Fijian-style bure, spend time with resident marine biologist Johnny Singh, who leads snorkeling excursions, reef walks, and visits to the resort’s giant clam–breeding project.
From the outside, Surf ’n Turf in nearby Savusavu town is not much to look at. But step through its doors and you’ll find yourself on a beautiful deck overlooking the water. The fish and chips here are the best in Fiji.
DO Home to 200-plus species of coral and 2,000 types of fish, Rainbow Reef, off Vanua Levu’s southeast coast, is a paradise for avid divers.
Thrillingly remote and wonderfully friendly, the Cooks are also one of the most forward-thinking archipelagos in the South Pacific, having recently passed laws to create the world’s largest marine conservation area. With fewer crowds than most of its Pacific neighbors, the 15 islands also offer a heady patchwork of hallucinatory white beaches and impossibly clear water.
While its natural assets—not the least of which is a stunning sapphire-blue lagoon—are undeniable, the most populous of the Cook Islands is also stocked with charming whitewashed churches and ancient marae (traditional meeting places).
The lovely Little Polynesian Resort (doubles from US$442) in Titikavaka has just 14 vaulted-ceilinged villas arranged along a stretch of talcum-powder sand. Book a beachfront bungalow for uninterrupted views of the lagoon from your bed.
EAT Set in a grand timber building where tables spill onto a beachside lawn, Tamarind House in Avarua features a made-for-two seafood platter that bulges with flavors of the islands, from ika mata and shrimp-pawpaw salad to fish curry and local oysters.
Storytellers Eco Cycling Tours takes small groups into the craggy, lizard-green heart of Rarotonga to learn about the island’s cultural heritage. Back in Avarua, stop by Bergman & Sons to shop for beautiful black-pearl jewelry.
Time seems to stand still on this sleepy atoll, whose end-of-the-earth remoteness made it the perfect set location for Survivor: Cook Islands in 2006. It’s an ideal playground for snorkeling, kayaking, or just learning to pluck a ukulele.
The 29 plantation-style bungalows at Pacific Resort Aitutaki (doubles from $820) look straight out across a picture-perfect lagoon fringed by motu (islets). Bonus: The resort’s spa uses Te Tika products made from Cook Island botanicals. DO Explore Aitutaki Lagoon on the Vaka Titi-ai-Tonga, a Polynesian-style double-hulled canoe whose six-hour cruises include snorkeling, barbecue lunch, and a spot of beachcombing on a desert isle.
Samoa’s intense natural bounty of luminous seas, absurdly lush jungle, and hidden waterfalls is so pretty you’ll believe it was the reason why postcards were invented. Still, this tiny archipelago remains defiantly humble, a place where Polynesian traditions are strong and mega-resorts are nonexistent.
Samoa’s capital, Apia, sits on Upolu’s north shore, and is a destination in its own right, though many of the island’s attractions are located in the south. These include the O Le Pupu lava fields and To-Sua Ocean Trench, a dramatic 30-meter-deep tidal swimming hole enveloped by basalt cliffs and tangled rain forest.
Connected to the Apia waterfront by a causeway, three-year-old Taumeasina Island Resort (doubles from US$335) features plush suites and villas centered on a three-level swimming pool.
Inspired by regional flavors, chefs at The Whisk in Apia serve up dishes like palusami hash, made using root vegetables baked in a traditional earthen oven. DO Literature buffs will want to visit Villa Vailima, the onetime home of Robert Louis Stevenson. Located on the slopes of Mount Vaea above Apia, this sprawling clapboard mansion is where the Scottish author of Kidnapped and Treasure Island spent the last four and a half years of his life; these days, it’s a museum dedicated to his life and works.
Samoa’s largest island, Savai‘i is a Lost World wonderland of dense jungle, plunging waterfalls, jagged volcanic cones, and lava fields. It’s also home to Polynesia’s most important archaeological site, the Pulemelei Mound, an ancient pyramid of stone whose original purpose—was it a tomb? A temple? A fortress?—still baffles experts.
There are only 11 bungalows and villas at Fagamalo’s Le Lagoto (doubles from US$215), and every one comes with a lagoon view. Borrow paddleboards and explore Savai‘i’s north coast before making the most of complimentary massages.
A succession of lava tubes leading to the ocean, the Alofaaga Blowholes propel huge jets of water 30 meters into the air every time a wave hits the shore. Buy a coconut from the local stall keeper, aim it at one of the holes and watch it shoot, cannonball-like, into the sky.
The only South Pacific nation never to have been colonized, the Kingdom of Tonga’s 170 islands come sans flashy international resorts and big developments, making it ideal for Crusoe wannabes looking for a basic bungalow and idyllic, unpeopled beaches. The main island of Tongatapu is the seat of the monarchy, but most visitors make a beeline north to Vava‘u, a cluster of three dozen or so islands typified by white-sand strands and limestone cliffs covered in thick vegetation. Neiafu, a waterside town on Vava‘u’s main island, serves as the area’s gateway.
With only five spacious fales (Tongan-style bungalows), Reef Resort (doubles from US$440) is about as exclusive as it gets in Vava‘u. The sole resort on Kapa Island, it sits directly opposite the Japanese Coral Gardens, one of Tonga’s top snorkeling spots.
Seafood stars on the menu at Rooster Bistro, a laid-back restaurant-cum-bar on the marina in Neiafu.
DO Tonga is one of the few countries in the world where you can swim with humpback whales in the wild—the cetaceans visit the sheltered bays around Vava‘u to mate and give birth from July to November. Arrange an outing with Dive Vava‘u.
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2019 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“South Specific”).