If you’re reading this guide, it means you’re about to fulfill a wonderful dream. Island hopping in the remote South Pacific islands is not a trip undertaken by many, but this is all part of the allure. With risk comes reward and in this part of the planet it means encounters with exotic cultures and spending every minute of every day in a state of complete amazement. Mother nature and the islands’ pioneers have created some of the most unique places one can ever visit (at least until tours to Mars begin). If you’re wondering how to island hop in the South Pacific islands – you’ve come to the right place!
In 2015, I left a comfortable job at Google and embarked on a six-month voyage across the South Pacific. I visited 21 islands in 5 countries, coming up just 4,253 km’s short of circling the Earth twice! That was my first prolonged experience with a region where I found my own personal paradise.
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I used this opportunity to write and publish in-depth travel guides for independent travelers so that everyone can have the chance to experience the same magic that took over my life. Since then, I have made three additional trips to the South Pacific, back to my favorite islands in French Polynesia and on two occasions leading group expeditions on a cruise from Tahiti to Easter Island.
This guide is your starting point for planning a trip to the South Pacific. On this website, you’ll also find in depth travel guides to: Vanuatu, Samoa, American Samoa, the Cook Islands, Pitcairn Island, Easter Island, and French Polynesia.
In a nutshell: how to island hop in the South Pacific?
Four rules of thumb:
- Backpacking or island-hopping in the South Pacific islands is totally possible!
- Though the islands are home to some of the best tropical beaches in the world, there’s plenty more to see and do
- No two islands are ever the same
- Traveling to the far reaches of the planet requires careful planning
What’s inside this guide?
This island hopping guide to backpacking in the South Pacific Islands covers the basic things one needs to know before planning a trip to this remote region. Inside, you’ll find links to useful resources to help you get started.
What Do You Want To Know?
- 1 When is the best time to go?
- 2 How much does it cost?
- 3 Which islands to visit?
- 4 Before you go
- 5 What to pack?
- 6 Getting to the islands
- 7 Getting around the islands
- 8 Where to stay
- 9 Understanding the locals
- 10 Planning your day
- 11 Sundays on the islands
- 12 How to save on costs?
- 13 Internet & mobile phones
- 14 Scuba diving & snorkeling
- 15 Hiking in the South Pacific
- 16 What to buy in the South Pacific?
- 17 Essential safety tips!
When is the best time to go?
Weather is the most important factor when planning a trip to the South Pacific islands. The islands experience a dry and a wet season, each having their pros and cons for travelers. I personally started my trip at the end of the dry season in Vanuatu and finished during the heart of the wet season in French Polynesia. Climate change and the occasional El Nino season have made weather more unpredictable in the South Pacific. But to get a sense of what you’re up against, here’s an overview.
Dry season (April – October)
- The weather is great: cyclone season is in the books, rain is less frequent, it’s a lot less humid and most importantly – the jaw-dropping skyline of the high islands are free from cloud cover.
- It’s festival time: from the land diving in Pentecost Island (Vanuatu) to the Polynesian celebration of the Heiva (French Polynesia).
- Humpback whales visit the warm waters of the South Pacific between June-October.
- The southeasterly trade wind is blowing and the pampering breeze keeps the mosquitos at bay.
- Did I already mention the weather is great?
- It’s high season: accommodations and flights are expensive, good deals are hard to come by and advanced bookings are a must.
- Though by no means overcrowded, you will have to share the beaches and hiking trails with others.
- Water temperature is a bit cooler and you might even need something warm for the evenings.
- With the breeze come choppy lagoon waters.
Wet season (November – March)
- It’s low season: everything is cheaper, availability is greater and advanced bookings not always needed.
- Rain + mountains = waterfalls and lots of fruit!
- It doesn’t rain all the time!!! There’s still plenty of sunshine and sometimes even for long stretches.
- You won’t be the only tourist around but the crowds are definitely gone. It shouldn’t be a problem getting lost on almost every island.
- It’s cyclone season and though rare – storms do occasionally make landfall. I happened to visit Tanna Island in Vanuatu a year after it was destroyed by Cyclone Pam and personally experienced in Rarotonga the tail end of a weak cyclone hitting ‘nearby’ Samoa. The storm lasts a few nasty days and there ain’t too many indoor activities on the islands (bring plenty of books, a deck of cards and movies).
- Putting the rare cyclones aside: if your visit is short and mother nature decided to water her plants (and she will) – it can kind of suck! You’ll be checking Windguru all the time.
- Excursions and flights might get canceled or postponed in case of bad weather.
- You’ll be sweating a lot: humidity is high and temperatures around 30 degrees Celsius. Mosquitos love this kind of weather.
- There isn’t much wind during a normal day: moisture in the air rise to form clouds which cover the mountaintops (not optimal for photos). That said, early mornings are usually clear, you will get the occasional super clear day and the low-lying beach areas usually remain cloud-free.
- It’s Christmas time: Pacific Islanders and holiday tourists create a short-lived ‘peak season’. Flights fill up quickly and resort prices skyrocket.
Bottom line: each season has its pros and cons. For backpackers on long journeys in the South Pacific, fear not the wet season but do plan to swiftly move in an eastbound direction and out of the cyclone hot zone by December (New Caledonia to Samoa). For travelers on short holidays, it’s really a hit or miss. I met folks who came a long way for a week of holidays and had 4 days of rain… Here’s a tip: the shoulder seasons (September-October + April-May) are also excellent times to visit.
How much does it cost?
Though paradise does come with a price tag, island-hopping in the South Pacific islands is totally within reach. While the biggest hurdle is the cost of actually getting there, you’ll discover that travel on every budget is possible – especially if you’re a couple. While some islands better cater to budget travelers than others, those annoying ‘bucket-list’ photos of ultra-luxurious resorts aren’t the only game in town. The South Pacific is definitely not just for the rich and famous or for honeymooners.
Now, it is important to set expectations with yourself: this is not Southeast Asia! The remoteness of the islands and other factors greatly add to the usual costs. But if you’ve always dreamed of visiting this magical part of the world – the way you think about this trip will be different.
To make things easier for you, I created a spreadsheet which details how much it costs to island hop in the South Pacific. The data was meticulously gathered during my 6-month backpacking trip. Note that in my case, I made a point of experiencing a wide range of activities and accommodations for the sake of being able to objectively write about them.
In this spreadsheet, you’ll see:
- A breakdown of each cost item in multiple currencies
- Comments and tips so you can estimate costs for your own travel style
- Charts to visualize the time and money invested in each destination
- Detailed cost breakdown for individual countries
Knowledge is power, so use this South Pacific cost breakdown to know what you’re up against!
Which islands to visit?
Let me start off by clearly saying that no two islands are ever the same! The exotic cultures that developed in relative isolation on islands so uniquely sculpted by nature – meaning that every island has its own personality. Think of the Pacific islands as one large family: no two siblings are completely the same. Here’s my personal list of the best South Pacific islands, and though I have met a few travel junkies out on a quest to visit every country on the planet, I wouldn’t recommend trying to squeeze as many stops as possible in one short visit. Here’s what I do recommend:
- Take things slow and avoid simply ticking an island off a checklist. The South Pacific is as close to paradise as it gets, so leave enough time for sightseeing, relaxing and immersing yourself in island life.
- Choose which island to visit based on where you are in the world and how ‘easy’ it is to get there (both in terms of time and money).
- In order to take two steps forward, be prepared to take one step back. What the heck do I mean? Unfortunately, you can’t just fly in one direction and stop whenever you want. Not all countries are connected via direct flights and you will need to connect (usually overnighting) in hubs such as Auckland and Nadi. See “getting to the islands” for more information.
Here are the destinations that do go well together without the need to fly back to New Zealand, though keep in mind – things always change, for better and for worse:
- New Caledonia <> Vanuatu <> Fiji <> Samoa
- Samoa <> Tonga* <> American Samoa <> Hawaii
- Cook Islands <> French Polynesia <> Hawaii or Easter Island
- Fiji <> Tonga
- New Caledonia <> Wallis & Futuna <> French Polynesia <> Hawaii or Easter Island
Here’s an overview of a few popular destinations starting from east to west:
New Caledonia: a very expensive-to-visit French Overseas Territory. Its main island is home to a proper city, excellent water sports and plenty of space for road trips and hikes. A short trip from the main island brings you to Ile de Pins – an absolute beauty. New Caledonia is not the most popular South Pacific destination, mostly frequented by French visitors.
Vanuatu: a charming and diverse destination that’s easily accessed from Australia. Vanuatu is little developed and its people are among the friendliest you’ll ever meet. While getting around the islands is costly, each is a world of its own. Vanuatu is great for families, wreck diving and WWII relics, cultural discovery (the tribes of Tanna or the Land Divers of Pentecost), beaches and active volcanoes. Here are the top 10 things to do in Vanuatu.
Fiji: well geared for tourism, Fiji’s 100+ inhabited islands cater to backpackers, luxury travelers and everything in between. Locals are friendly, prices are reasonable and there’s anything and everything to be found on the islands. Fiji is to the South Pacific what Thailand is for Southeast Asia: with accessibility and variety come the masses. This doesn’t mean you can’t ‘get lost’ in Fiji but it’s not the lucrative badge that it used to be. If you’re backpacking in Australia or New Zealand and seeking a tropical escape – look no further.
Samoa: beautiful Samoa is authentically Polynesian. In fact, Samoans still adhere to centuries-old social codes known as Fa’a Samoa (the Samoan Way). Together with Fiji (or perhaps even more so), Samoa is the most affordable South Pacific destination – perfect for backpackers though lacking a backpacking scene like in Fiji. Its two islands are connected by a ferry and getting around is easy in traditional buses or hired cars. Samoa is the stereotypical South Pacific destination. On the menu? Tropical beaches, simple villages, waterfalls galore and cultural experiences. Here’s a closer look at the top 10 things to do in Samoa.
American Samoa: challenging to get to and not that frequented by non-American tourists, American Samoa is a very strange blend of US influence with traditional Samoan culture. Thanks to the National Park of American Samoa the territory’s pristine nature can be independently explored on memorable hikes. If you do make it out here, put in a little extra effort and be one of the lucky few to visit Ofu Island – home to one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Here’s a 10-day sample itinerary for American Samoa.
Tonga: the only Pacific island nation never to be colonized, Tonga is not as developed as some of its neighbors (partially because there’s no ex-colonial power to fund it). It’s an off the beaten track destination that’s great for swimming with Humpback whales (June-October), tropical beaches and for getting lost. I had to choose between Tonga and the Cook Islands and chose the latter since it is connected to French Polynesia and I was traveling outside the whale season.
Cook Islands: somewhat independent from New Zealand but somewhat not – visiting ‘the Cooks’ is limited to its more accessible southern group of islands, mainly: Rarotonga, Aitutaki, and Atiu. Rarotonga is a compact island with a wide range of accommodations catering to any budget, hiking, water sports, diving, beaches, markets and Polynesian ‘island night’ show that are not to be missed. Aitutaki is perhaps home to the most beautiful lagoon in the Pacific and where life slowly meanders in first gear. Atiu is slowly developing for tourism, home to a maze of caves and traditional villages. Have a look at the top 10 things to do in the Cook Islands.
French Polynesia: the best of the best without a doubt! By far the most diverse, impressive and easiest destination to get around. Though it is not a budget destination, the islands cater to a whole lot more than just luxury travelers. Its three most visited archipelagos are the Society Islands (great for beaches, lagoons, hikes, snorkeling, island vibe), the Tuamotu Atolls (world class scuba diving) and the Marquesas Islands (a dream destination for nature and history lovers). Have a look at the top 10 islands in French Polynesia and decide for yourself.
Easter Island: famous for the strange Moai statues scattered across this distant island, Easter Island is reached via direct flights from Chile and French Polynesia.
Before you go
Here a few logistics to take care of before getting on the plane:
- Though unlikely, check if the islands require a special visa on websites such as VisaHQ. Run the same check for Australia and New Zealand if you’ll be using their airports to catch connecting flights.
- Book all your international flights and print your tickets. Entry to the islands is contingent upon showing your onward ticket at immigration. It is also highly recommended to print your eventual ticket back home just in case.
- No special vaccinations are needed in the South Pacific but double check with your doctor.
- Ensure your passport and driver’s license are valid for at least 6 months after your arrival date.
What to pack?
After you’ve answered the question of which island to visit, deciding what to pack for an island-hopping trip to the South Pacific becomes the next million-dollar question. Due to weight restrictions on interisland flights, the warm weather and the lack of a pretentious fashion scene – here are 3 rules of thumb when it comes to packing.
- Pack light
- Only pack clothes that dry quickly
- Be prepared for the worst
Pro Tip: if you’re planning to island-hop in a large number of Pacific Island nations (and perhaps coupling this trip with a visit to Australia/NZ or some other region), I highly recommend buying a copy of the newly-published Lonely Planet South Pacific guidebook. Together with the resources found on this website, this will be your best friend while on the ground. If you’re planning to deeply explore specific Pacific Island nations, I recommend purchasing dedicated guidebooks to those countries which you can find in the next paragraph’s link.
Having the right gear for this kind of trip can make or break your experience. Everything I personally packed for my backpacking trip in the South Pacific appears in the X Days In Y Packing List section. Use the filters or browse through the catalogue and click on the item to buy on Amazon – hassle free and at a great price!
Here are a few additions to what you’ll see on that page:
- One set of decent clothes for a night out
- Sports gear + shoes if planning to exercise (jogging is a great way to get to know a new island)
- Quick-drying socks and underwear (that’s right)
- A set of pajamas
- Pills: seasickness, food poisoning, diarrhea, allergy, headache, etc.
- Creams: antifungal, antiseptic (relief from nasty mosquito bites)
- Sunscreen, facial cream, after-sun cream
- Insect repellent > 1 spray bottle for every month of travel
- Gel soap
- A small pack of baby wipes
- Dental floss… no kidding (you’ll be in eating lots of mangoes…)
- Lots of small storage pouches
- $300 emergency cash stashed somewhere
- Print all your flight tickets, and make a copy of your driver’s license and passport
- Dive card + logbook
Batteries & Chargers:
- Spare batteries for the headlamp and 2 rechargeable battery packs for mobile phones / USB devices.
- A spare phone charger (even a spare USB cable)
Getting to the islands
Challenging, scenic and definitely part of the fun – island-hopping in the South Pacific is an experience you’ll never forget. Here are most of the common ways of getting from one island to another:
By plane: by far the easiest way to island-hop in the South Pacific. It is expensive and often the only (reasonable) option, but you’ll certainly get your money’s worth with priceless aerial views of paradise (grab a window seat!!!). Surprisingly, a lot of islands have a small airstrip – at times with an extension built over the calm lagoon. Many were built during WWII by the US Army and still serve islanders today. If you’re visiting multiple islands in one country, inquire about air passes. For example, in French Polynesia, Air Tahiti offers various air passes that allow you to island-hop at a reasonable cost with only minor restrictions, while in Vanuatu, Air Vanuatu offers an air pass that is not quite cheap but cheaper than buying separate segments.
UPDATE: I have come across an air pass called ‘The South Pacific Discovery Air Pass” which seems like it can get you around some destinations at a low cost. I would take this with a grain of salt and actually call the specific airline to double check that the advertised fares are indeed correct.
Ferry: some neighboring islands are connected by regular and reliable ferry lines that make island-hopping very easy. These include Tahiti and Moorea in French Polynesia and Upolu and Savaii in Samoa. It is often the case that new lines are added over time but it can also work the opposite way. It’s worth inquiring with locals and your hosts.
Cargo ships: if you are flexible with your time, getting a ride on the cargo ships which supply the islands will greatly reduce your island hopping costs. Some routes officially serve local residents, so finding information should not be all that tricky if you speak the local language. Keep in mind that departures may get canceled at the last minute or you may be bumped in favor of taking more cargo. This mode of transport is reserved for the adventure traveler with plenty of time on their hands.
Sailboat: it is possible to crew on sailboats voyaging across the South Pacific. The sailing season is almost exclusively during the ‘dry season’ when the prevailing trade winds blow from east to west and cyclones aren’t a threat. Search online for opportunities on websites such as Workaway or Crew Seekers but keep in mind that unless you’re super experienced – captains will usually want to meet you in person before making a decision.
Cruise ships: there are plenty of those around, surprisingly also during the wet season. I am personally not a huge fan of cruises, especially when it comes to the South Pacific. Passengers will usually disembark in large bulks for a few hours of organized activities on islands. Imagine how painful it is to have to board the ship after just a few hours in paradise?
Getting around the islands
Though the islands usually look like tiny specks of land on a world map, they are in fact quite large. The rare ones, like Maupiti in French Polynesia, can be fully explored on foot. But for the most part – you’ll need to find a way to get around the islands in order to satisfy your (justified) urge to explore. Here are all the options I encountered on my trip:
Car: the most comfortable and recommended way of getting around (if not just for the air conditioning!). Rates fluctuate from the super cheap in Rarotonga to the absurdly expensive in French Polynesia. Traveling solo? Renting a car for one or a few targeted days of exploring can totally make sense – especially when compared with the costs of equivalent organized tours. Traveling as a couple or a small group? Renting a car for longer periods might totally make sense. Here a few things to consider/enquire about: are the roads on the island sealed? are there special rates for rentals of 3 days or more? do you drive manual/automatic? is insurance included in the price (fixing a car in the South Pacific is a costly affair)? always gas up at the first chance you get and finally – avoid driving at night as roads are poorly lit and animals/villagers cross without warning.
Bus: very few islands have proper public transportation in either buses or shared taxis (vans). The most adequate can be found in Rarotonga, Tahiti, Samoa, Port Vila, Pago Pago and parts of Viti Levu in Fiji. In the ‘Samoas’, riding the flamboyant buses with the locals is a memorable experience that should not be missed. Other islands may have some form of public transportation, but it isn’t reliable enough to plan a busy day around.
Scooter: this is the ultimate way of inexpensively getting around. A special license is usually not a prerequisite and in places like the Cook Islands, you can actually get a permit on the spot. A few things to consider and inquire about: does your travel insurance cover scooter-related accidents? are the roads on the island safe for driving? can the scooter handle a driver + passenger on steep inclines? and finally – avoid driving in the dark/rain and always wear a helmet (even if the locals don’t).
Bicycle: cycling is a great and inexpensive way of exploring small sections of an island. The flatter the island and less humid it is – the more it makes sense. Most islands have someone renting bicycles to tourists and in some cases, your accommodation might be able to arrange one. If the island does have a few hills or dirt roads – avoid paying for rusty beach bikes or bicycles without gears.
Taxis: private taxis are extremely expensive on the islands (as opposed to shared taxis which function more like busses). If you must take one: try sharing with other tourists, ask locals how much the fare should be before flagging a taxi and finally – always agree on the price with the driver before closing the door.
Organized tours: this is an expensive way of exploring but unavoidable on some islands due to the poor infrastructure, like for example on Tanna Island in Vanuatu. On the plus side, tour guides are usually very knowledgeable about their island. I recommend to always inquire: how many people will be on the tour, if the tour includes food/drinks, will there be photo stops and time to wander around, and finally – who is the guide?
Hitchhiking: Pacific Islanders are some of the friendliest folks in the world and in general, you shouldn’t have a problem hitchhiking your way around the islands. As always, be careful who you get in the car with and avoid hitchhiking solo. Also, keep in mind that days are short in the South Pacific and you should leave plenty of time to get back to your accommodation during the daytime.
Where to stay
Let’s put aside the ultra-luxury resorts because we all know they’re there from all those ‘bucket list’ photos. If it’s your dream to stay in an overwater bungalow – go for it! The South Pacific is all about making your tropical dreams come true. But let’s discuss other more down-to-earth options since this is a guide on how to island-hop in the South Pacific.
During my six-month backpacking trip, I stayed in every possible kind of accommodation: from an airport bench to an Airbnb, from a simple beach hut to a luxury overwater bungalow. My personal favorites were always the family-owned small businesses. Often times, you can really strike gold: warm hosts, great views, delicious home-cooked meals, and like-minded travelers. I highly recommend reading my specific island guides, where I always list a wide variety of options.
Here are a few rules of thumb:
- Unless you have a vehicle, I recommend staying within walking/cycling distance of a town or commercial center for the highest degree of independence (not like I did when I first arrived in Tahiti…).
- Sites like booking.com do have a pretty good selection of accommodations in most destinations. An added benefit is that should something happen, you can call them 24/7 and they’ll find you a replacement. This actually saved me in the middle of nowhere in Aitutaki. My strategy was always to pre-book with the option of free cancellation and every once in awhile try and find better deals.
- Some of the more authentic and charming locally-owned accommodations cannot be booked online, just in the old-fashioned way of calling or emailing. You might be asked for a credit card deposit and their cancellation policy is sometimes quite strict. So just inquire ahead and also ask about any surcharge if paying by credit card.
- Want to do some volunteering in the South Pacific in exchange for free accommodations (and sometimes even meals)? Have a look at workaway.info – they always have lots of opportunities.
Here’s what you can expect in some South Pacific destinations, starting with the most inexpensive and working our way up the luxury ladder. I also included a very rough estimate of the starting price for the cheapest option, which should be taken lightly as things can quickly change.
- Vanuatu: village stays, beach huts, motels, resorts > starting at $30/night
- Fiji: backpackers, family pensions, resorts > starting at $50/night
- Samoa: beach huts (fales), bed and breakfasts, lodges, resorts > starting at $30/night
- American Samoa: homestay programs, motels, lodges > starting at $70/night
- Cook Islands: backpackers, Couchsurfing, Airbnb, self-catering villas, motels, resorts > starting at $20/night
- French Polynesia: camping, backpackers, Couchsurfing, Airbnb, holiday homes, family pensions, lodges, resorts > starting at $30/night
Understanding the locals
Despite having a cannibalistic history, the South Pacific islanders are some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. At the beginning of your trip, you’ll feel strange when every passing local greets you with a warm ‘hello’. And when you return back home, you’ll be the weirdo that greets strangers who stare at you as if you just landed from another planet.
Here are a few tips when it comes to dealing with the locals.
- The land is often privately owned by an extended family or village, so if a nice beach or a waterfall happens to be on their property – they’ll charge an entrance fee. Ranging from the small to outrageous – this is perfectly normal and helps the family survive.
- Islanders run on ‘island time’ so never try to rush them or act in a pushy manner. Smiling even when faced with poor service will go a long way.
- Tipping is not customary in the Pacific islands and in some places even frowned upon since locals might feel obliged to pay it back.
- On the same token, bargaining is not customary either. In fact, during your first visit to the market, you’ll notice that each and every banana is clearly marked with a price. On the other hand, feel free to negotiate with tourism providers if booking long stays or renting vehicles for longer than 3 days.
- Pacific Islanders have long withstanding social codes of behavior. They may not make sense to you, but they do to the locals. Vanuatu has Kustom and Samoa lives by Fa’a Samoa. I recommend doing some prior research before visiting, including on the X Days In Y guides for your specific destination. Official tourist brochures will also usually have a special section on the do’s and don’ts.
- Sunday is a time for church and family. More on that in the next section.
Finally – living on remote islands is a fascinating accomplishment. Use this opportunity to strike conversations with your hosts, waiters, housekeepers and that ‘Messiah’ who sells ice-cold coconuts on the side of the road when you’re super thirsty. Talk to them about life on the island, their secret to happiness, the traditional code of behavior and the challenges of living on the island (there are many).
Planning your day
Every day will bring with it beautiful new discoveries, so keep that long snooze for the plane ride home. Here are a few tips to help you structure your day:
- Since you’re close to the equator, the days are quite short. Get an early start when the weather is still pleasant and aim to wrap things up before 6 pm. You’ll notice that islanders start their days early, with kids starting school before 8 am!
- Try to time your arrival to new islands during the daytime so that you’ll be able to catch a bus from the airport/ferry and avoid paying for taxis.
- Always pack an ‘emergency meal’ when switching accommodations/islands. You never know if there’s a restaurant nearby if the shop is open etc. I always had some peanut butter, crackers, fruit and maybe a cucumber.
- Fancy some snorkeling or hitting the beach? Inquire with the locals about the tides.
- Travel times can take a lot longer than planned: the road might be slow-going and you’ll probably want to stop to take photos every 5 minutes. Always give yourself extra time.
- Sunday on the island: this deserves its own section, so keep reading.
Sundays on the islands
Pacific Islanders are predominantly devout Christians (some islands more than others) so as expected, not much happens on Sundays. Mornings are spent at church, afternoons eating with the extended family and evenings digesting all that food! Stores and restaurants are closed, buses don’t operate and tour providers take the day off (dive centers, organized tours). There are of course exceptions, like for example in proper resorts and popular islands like Bora Bora.
- Avoid any heavy-duty logistics on Sunday (interisland flights, moving around, etc.)
- Stock up on some food if staying in rural areas and in budget accommodations
- Join the locals! Religious or secular, believer or not – attending Sunday church service is a heartwarming experience. I must have gone a dozen times to church and I’m Jewish! Highlights include: the strange village church in Espiritu Santo (Vanuatu), dressing like a real Samoan in Upolu, shaking my body to the Lord in Ofu (American Samoa), finely dressed locals singing in perfect harmony in Rarotonga (Cook Islands) and Tahiti, a church straight out of King’s Landing in the Marquesas, and finally – a church made out of coral in Fakarava (French Polynesia).
How to save on costs?
As mentioned in an earlier section, island-hopping in the South Pacific islands isn’t the cheapest trip (though it is probably the most rewarding), but it’s certainly not reserved just for luxury travelers. If you haven’t already done so, have a look at a detailed cost breakdown of my 6-month backpacking trip to get a feel for what you’re up against.
Here are a few ways to lower your travel costs in the South Pacific:
- ATM fees will be outrageous so withdraw as much as you can in one go and inquire with your bank how much it charges (the local bank will also take its cut). What happens in the background is that your bank uses a base currency for the conversion to your home country’s currency (USD, Euro, etc.) so multiple “steps” or additional conversions need to take place to get from the island nation’s currency to your home country’s – with each step involving a % fee.
- Want to pay with a credit card? Local merchants might add a 3-5% surcharge.
- You know those tourist maps you get everywhere? They actually have very useful coupons in the South Pacific!
Flights & Getting to the Islands:
- Travel during the low season or shoulder seasons, and avoid school holidays when flights tend to fill up quickly. Traveling in the low (rainy) season can unlock huge savings but is more applicable to travelers on an extended journey where three days of rain won’t ruin your experience. The only caveat? The cyclone-prone zone of the mid-South Pacific (Vanuatu to Samoa) which takes place between December to March. The solution? Keep heading east towards French Polynesia which sees far fewer cyclones.
- Inquire about air passes if island hopping within a single destination (for example, in Vanuatu and in French Polynesia).
- Travel on cargo ships if you are flexible with your time. All islands are serviced by these large ships which often have a few spots open for travelers at dirt cheap prices. It’s best to do some research and ask the locals. Travel between Samoa and American Samoa as well as between certain islands in French Polynesia is totally doable by boat.
- Search for couch surfing hosts, stay in dorms, campgrounds or volunteer.
- That’s not your thing? Not a problem! Spend your nights in locally owned and operated lodges. These are anything from beach huts in Samoa (fales) to local pensions in French Polynesia, with both usually including half-board meal plans in the price (I made the calculation and the increased per-night cost is more optimal than having to buy two meals).
- Use buses or shared taxis to get around the island. The best islands for public transportation are Efate (Vanuatu), Espiritu Santo (Vanuatu), Upolu & Savaii (Samoa), Rarotonga (Cook Islands) and Tahiti (French Polynesia).
- Want your own wheels? Scooters are cheap and manual cars more than automatics.
Tours & diving:
- Planning to do more than one tour on the same island? Inquire whether these can be booked through the same operator or via your accommodation for a bulk discount.
- Inquire about dive passes if planning to do multiple dives in the same country. For example, in French Polynesia, you can take advantage of a dive pass that not only lowers the per-dive cost but is also valid in participating dive centers on six islands
- Have your own mask and snorkel (see ‘what to pack’).
Food and water:
- Eat local and whatever is in season.
- Buy fruits and vegetables in local markets and in roadside stalls.
- Markets are usually great spots for home-cooked lunch meals (see ‘staying safe’ for more).
- Does your lodge or pension offer a half-board stay (breakfast + dinner included)? This almost always works out better than eating dinner outside, unless you can cook your own meals.
- Book self-catering accommodations (very popular in the Cook Islands and on some islands in French Polynesia).
- Don’t rush to buy a six-pack of mineral water. Ask your hosts if tap water is suitable for drinking where you’ll be staying. On some islands, it will be.
Alcohol and tobacco:
- Aside from French Polynesia, spirits, and tobacco are quite expensive on the islands. If you smoke or want to have some booze in your room – do some duty-free shopping.
Don’t leave home without proper travel insurance. You never know when you’ll need it. The folks at World Nomads have excellent coverage that fits any travel style.
Internet & mobile phones
Internet, mobile phones, and even mobile data have pretty much made it to all South Pacific islands. While some rely on satellite communications, others are connected to the world via undersea cables. Though the connection might be a bit unreliable and slow, you’ll be amazed at the fact that even in the most remote corners of our planet – you can still get your daily dose of Facebook! Keep in mind that in some destinations such as the Cook Islands and Samoa, the concept of free WiFi does not exist (yet) and you’ll need to connect to paid hotspots.
Here’s what I recommend:
- Buy a local SIM card upon arrival (at the airport or in town).
- Traveling to multiple islands? Check which mobile operator has the best coverage.
- If WiFi is only available via paid hotspots – check which provider has the best coverage before buying credit. Private hotspot networks usually have deals with hotels/resorts but those are probably way too overpriced (because they in fact ‘ride’ on the national provider’s network).
- Top up your Skype/Google Voice accounts before leaving home. You might need to make international calls to your bank (card got blocked), the family, travel agent (booking.com customer support saved me in Aitutaki), etc.
- Restrict mobile data on your smartphone to avoid precious megabytes from being consumed by your meager prepaid data plan.
- Download offline Google Maps in case there’s no reception.
- Like to watch movies/shows? (Legally) download these before leaving home.
Lastly, have I already mentioned you’re traveling to paradise? Use this time for that much needed digital detox, forget about life and concentrate on enjoying every minute of every day!
Scuba diving & snorkeling
If you are impressed by what’s happening above ground, wait until you see what’s going on beneath the waves. Here’s a shocker: the South Pacific islands are home to some of the most impressive marine life in the world, so don’t leave home without a GoPro (see ‘what to pack’).
- The best snorkeling is found on islands protected by reefs. The reefs form lagoons where coral can grow in the shallow waters.
- Snorkeling conditions are optimal between the tides: when the water is not too shallow and when sand isn’t washed up by the incoming tide.
- Always inquire with your hosts the do’s and don’t’s of the island: where it’s safe to snorkel and where it’s not. Be very aware of breaks in the reef where swimming is very dangerous.
- Unless you’re hiking up a mountain, always have your mask and snorkel with you. Sometimes, the best snorkeling is just off the side of the road.
- Fins are not a must but do come in handy (pack them if you have extra room in your luggage).
- In a lot of islands, the best snorkeling spots are in ‘coral gardens’ – sections of the lagoon accessible by boat. Either hire a local with a boat or join a lagoon tour that includes some snorkeling.
- Needless to say: don’t touch or remove any coral
Scuba Diving Tips:
- The atolls of Fakarava and Rangiroa in French Polynesia are the best islands for scuba diving in the South Pacific. I saved most of the diving for my visit to the atolls, where you experience thrilling drift dives into the massive lagoons and encounter: sharks of all kind, dolphins, turtles, and pristine coral.
- Other notable mentions include Espiritu Santo – Vanuatu (wreck dives), Rarotonga – Cook Islands (reef drops), Tonga (diving with whales), Moorea – French Polynesia (sharks) and Maupiti – French Polynesia (manta rays).
- The more you dive, the more you save. Always inquire about discounts for multiple dives or dive passes if visiting multiple islands in the same country.
- PADI and SSI are accepted everywhere, but in French Polynesia – a CMAS certification allows you to take part in more challenging (and rewarding) dives.
- Dive friendly destinations like French Polynesia reward drivers with additional weight at no extra charge on checked luggage. You’ll need to show your diving card and (sometimes) the equipment.
Hiking in the South Pacific
The South Pacific islands are a lot more than just tropical beaches. In Fact, one of the most rewarding ways of exploring an island is by hiking it. Whether it’s through the dense rainforest on the hunt for a hidden waterfall or steeply climbing to an island’s highest peak – don’t forget to pack those hiking shoes! The only problem? The islands’ beautiful nature is often inaccessible, with hiking trails either non-existing, unmarked or overgrown with vegetation. There are a few exceptions and you should always be able to find at least 1-2 hikes which you can safely do on your own.
A few things to consider:
- Always inquire at the local tourist office or with your host about which hikes can be done without the need for a guide.
- When in doubt, always hire a certified guide. Every island has its stories about tourists and even locals who got lost and never made it back (I’m serious).
- If you’re hiking without a guide, pack something colorful that can be cut to small pieces and tied to trees to mark the way back. Let your hosts know where you’re going and when to expect you back.
- Inquire if the hike is circular or if you’ll need a ride back.
- Take at least 2L of water for every 3 hours of hike and some food.
- Wear a hat, long pants in case of overgrown vegetation, put on sunscreen, and wear sandals instead of shoes if rivers must be crossed.
- Bring a change of clothes for after the hike. You’ll be soaked in sweat!
- Plan your hike for the mornings.
Some of the best hikes in the South Pacific Islands:
- Mount Yasur Volcano – Tanna, Vanuatu
- Tumutumu Mountain – Ofu, American Samoa
- Cross Island Walk – Rarotonga, Cook Islands
- Mount Aorai – Tahiti, French Polynesia
- Mount Rotui, Vaiare to Paopao, Pierced Mountain & the Three Coconuts Pass – Moorea, French Polynesia
- Mount Teurafaatiu – Maupiti, French Polynesia
- Temehanai Plateau – Raiatea, French Polynesia
- Vaipo Waterfall & Anaho Bay – Nuku Hiva, French Polynesia
- Hanatekuua Bay Coastal Walk – Hiva Oa, French Polynesia
What to buy in the South Pacific?
Despite the weight restrictions, leave plenty of room in your luggage! The things you can buy on the islands are as exotic as the islands themselves. In those cold winter days when your visit seems like a distant memory – here are a few things that will prove that you indeed made it to paradise:
- Vanuatu: shell necklaces, wood carvings, traditional dresses, Tanna Coffee
- Fiji: wood carvings, tribal masks
- Samoa: exquisite yet inexpensive siapo (tapa cloth), shell necklaces, tattoos, island fashions
- Cook Islands: black pearls, modern island fashions, grass skirts/coconut bras, ukuleles, noni juice, tattoos
- French Polynesia: black pearls, modern island fashions, vanilla, scented soap, monoi, and tamanu oils, jams, liquor, tattoos, wood, stone & bone carving (especially in the Marquesas Islands)
* Everything mentioned above will make it through customs (at least the ones in New Zealand, Australia, and Canada).
Essential safety tips!
Though the South Pacific islands are a VERY safe destination, there are a few things to watch out for. Some dangers are caused by nature and cannot be avoided, while others are totally within your control. Here’s a general list which is not intended to scare you in any way (honestly).
Don’t forget to visit the ‘what to pack’ section for essential safety gear you must take with you:
- Insurance: do not leave home without proper travel insurance! The folks at World Nomads have excellent coverage that fits any travel style.
- Cyclones: can happen between November to April, especially west of French Polynesia.
- Tsunamis: rare but can happen ( the last one was in Samoa in 2009). You’ll notice evacuation signs and might even witness a safety drill.
- Leptospirosis: usually caused by eating food that’s been contaminated by pig or rat urine. Always wash fruits & vegetables – even if you just picked them off the tree.
- Dengue fever & Chikungunya: there are cases reported each year. There’s not much you can do once ill so it’s best to always use mosquito repellent as a preventative measure.
- Dogs: islanders LOVE their wild dogs, and nearly every household seems to have at least one. Be very careful when entering driveways to ask for directions. If you see a pack of dogs coming at you, just walk away quickly and with confidence. Threatening with a rock or a coconut branch can help solve the issue quickly.
- Driving at night: try to avoid this since roads are poorly lit, potholes exist and locals or animals tend to cross without warning.
- Eating out: when in doubt, always choose a place where a refrigerator can clearly be seen.
- Hiking: see the ‘hiking’ section for useful tips
- Emergency: be sure to have enough phone credit and always share your itinerary with your hosts.
- Theft: lock your stuff! (seriously).
- Swimming/snorkeling/kayaking: always inquire about the dangerous spots. These are usually where a break in the reef leads to aggressive currents. I visited Rarotonga a few days after a German kayaking couple didn’t adhere to the warning signs and drowned.
- Coral: if you’re cut by coral, swiftly clean with alcohol and apply an anti-inflammatory cream. Coral infections can be nasty and spread to the bones.
- Stonefish: these well-camouflaged fish can leave a painful mark. Except in absolute sandy beaches, I always entered the water with waterproof sandals.
- Ciguatera: can be caused by eating infected lagoon fish. Always ask the locals if it’s safe to eat a specific fish. Fish found outside the lagoon (tuna, mahi-mahi, etc.) are almost always safe to eat. Drinking water: most islands rely on collected rainwater that isn’t suitable for drinking unless filtered. The rule of thumb, always ask
Are you now ready?
So now you have a pretty good understanding on how to island hop in the South Pacific islands! Lots of information awaits you on X days In Y, and I would love to hear your plans for visit paradise.
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