South Pacific's top five experiences

MAGIC MOMENT: Tonga is one of the few places in the world where you can swim with humpback whales.
MAGIC MOMENT: Tonga is one of the few places in the world where you can swim with humpback whales.

Remote, beautiful and culturally hospitable, the South Pacific is the place to enjoy the world’s whitest sands between your toes and its clearest waters at your doorstep.

But these oft-dreamed-of islands aren’t just a homogenous spread of palm trees and warm ocean – escape your resort and you’ll find cultures and experiences as rich as coconut cream.

South Pacific’s Top Five Experiences

1. Diverse Paradise
Any of these countries could be that place on a ‘Travel to Paradise’ poster that makes you want to leave your job and live in flip flops forever. But the South Pacific isn’t just a homogenised string of palm trees and blue water. The cultures and landscapes that spread across the Pacific Ocean’s vastness hold an incredible diversity, from rugged atolls to mangrove-encircled high islands and from Euro-chic capitals to traditional tribes in jungles. Each island group is home to its own sort of wonderful.

2. Island Welcomes
A garland of flowers is one of the most simple yet beautiful offerings on the planet and no one gives out more of these than the people of the Pacific. Loudness and brashness are out, subtle hospitality and genuine goodwill are in. If they could give you the moon they would, so please don’t ask for it. There’s a selfless beauty to island welcomes that feels untainted by the modern world. It doesn’t pour out with fanfare but rather comes out slowly and naturally in return for a smile.

3. Whales in Tonga
Tonga is an important breeding ground for humpback whales, which migrate to its warm waters between June and October; it’s one of the few places in the world where you can swim with these magnificent creatures. They can be seen raising their young in the calm reef-protected waters and engaging in elaborate mating rituals. Humpbacks are dubbed ‘singing whales’ because the males sing during courtship routines, and the low notes of their ‘songs’ can carry 100km through the open ocean. There are whale-watch and whale-swim operators in all of Tonga’s island groups.

4. Inland Treks
Most people travel to the South Pacific for the beaches but no one should go this far without heading inland. Imagine arriving to the tip of a knife-edged peak to watch seabirds fly by at eye level, plunging into massive waterfall pools, or finding petroglyphs hidden by hibiscus next to a rushing river. And these are everyday examples. Hiking is a hot and often muddy endeavour and the trails aren’t in the best shape but the payoff is worth every discomfort and there are endless adventures to be had.

5. Easter Island’s Moai
The strikingly enigmatic moai are the most pervasive image of Rapa Nui. Dotted all around the island, these massive carved figures on stone platforms emanate a mystical vibe, like colossal puppets on a super natural stage. It is thought that they represent clan ancestors. The biggest question is, how were these giant statues moved from where they were carved to their platforms? It’s a never-ending debate among specialists. Never mind the answer, they have plenty to set your camera clicking without it.

This is an edited extract from Lonely Planet South Pacific (5th Edition) by Celeste Brash, et al. © Lonely Planet 2012. Published this month, RRP: NZ$59.