From New Caledonia to French Polynesia, and the Cook Islands to Samoa, there are more holiday destinations to discover in the south Pacific beyond Aussies' beloved Fiji, writes Craig Tansley.
Blue lagoons, empty white sand beaches, rugged green mountainous interiors - what's not to love about the islands of the south Pacific? There's nowhere on earth as untouched and safe. Few Australians travel beyond Fiji, but New Caledonia and Vanuatu in Melanesia, and the Cook Islands, French Polynesia and Samoa in Polynesia are the ideal south seas getaways. Aside from their comparative affordability during the time of a fluctuating Australian dollar, there's virtually no crime, locals are famously friendly, adore visiting children, and don't tout or bargain on prices. As well, the landscapes are among the most pristine on the planet. So, while there's no reason to forego Fjji, there's a whole lot to love about the islands beyond it.
THE COOK ISLANDS
The Cook Islands are made up of 15 tropical islands spread across an area of ocean the size of Western Europe ... but with barely 15,000 inhabitants. Even on its most populated island, Rarotonga (your arrival point), there are just 10,000 locals. No building is higher than the tallest coconut tree and there's not one traffic light.
Perhaps its greatest asset is that its islands are tiny, meaning visitors can access every part of each island within minutes. There's just one main road on Rarotonga which circumnavigates the island in 25 minutes (most visitors hire scooters to get around).
There are far fewer Australian visitors coming to the Cook Islands than Fiji, with many of these visitors coming to get married.
Meanwhile, just 40 minutes away by plane, Aitutaki has become one of the south Pacific's most fabled honeymoon locations. Home to probably the best lagoon in the Pacific behind Bora Bora, Aitutaki has a handful of high-end resorts. It now attracts the rich and famous, but it's still the same sleepy south-seas hideaway it always was, home to 1400 locals surviving by farming and fishing.
But that's always been the Cook Islands' strength: it takes less than 45 minutes by plane from Rarotonga to discover islands where as few as 40 tourists visit a year. The Cook Islands are a beacon for honeymooners, but they also offer an ideal escape for families.
There's a wide range of good value accommodation (including private houses), dining and entertainment options, and there are activities for all ages. The Cook Islands has some of Polynesia's best surfing, diving and snorkelling, guided hiking tours and self-guided hiking trails, safe lagoons for kayaking and swimming, and bustling craft and food markets held each weekend.
More information cookislands.travel.
Surely it's just a matter of time until Australians en masse discover Samoa; till then, it remains one of the south Pacific's best hidden secrets. There's no safer place in the Pacific for a family holiday than Samoa. The most traditional of all the islands, locals live in traditional villages with extended families, ruled over by chiefs.
There's still a sense of wildness about Samoa that makes it one of the region's best adventure destinations. Samoa offers a wide range of accommodation - from simple huts (fales) on beaches, to five-star romantic options.
There are two main islands. Most visitors stay on Upolu, where most of Samoa's resorts and hotels, and the airport can be found. However, the larger island of Savaii offers families and couples one of the quietest, and quaintest, holiday destinations in the Pacific. There's barely a car on the only road and Savaii's villages are home to more chickens and goats than people.
It's surrounded by a wide, blue lagoon and offers many natural attractions, including the Afu Aau waterfall.
Samoa also offers world-class diving and snorkelling, yacht charters, kayaking, bicycle and 4WD tours, and fishing.
More information samoa.travel.
Getting there Virgin Samoa flies to Apia three times a week, see virginaustralia.com.
You probably think you have to be rich and famous to holiday in French Polynesia: this is where Marlon Brando eloped with his Tahitian co-star while filming Mutiny on the Bounty; and where Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban honeymooned for $20,000 a day. It's also where the over-water bungalow - the epitome of tropical holiday decadence - was invented.
But there's a lot more to French Polynesia than high-priced honeymoons (though there's no more striking location on earth than Bora Bora). Spread out over an area of the Pacific equal in size to Europe, there are about 130 islands making up French Polynesia. Some require a lengthy flight from Tahiti's capital, Papeete (your arrival point), but many are just under the visitor's nose.
Islands such as Tahaa, Raitea and Huahine are less than an hour's flight from Papeete, yet receive only a few thousand visitors a year. Almost all visitors to French Polynesia go straight to Tahiti, Moorea or Bora Bora, although with less than 160,000 visitors a year, nowhere in French Polynesia ever gets crowded.
While French Polynesia deserves its reputation as the world's most romantic - and some say expensive - destination, it's only now beginning to attract a family market.
There's a selection of family accommodation available, with large family villas from $550 a week, while many resorts also offer family suites with kitchens. Even Bora Bora itself offers families separate sections of its five-star resorts designed entirely for teenagers and children (like the Four Seasons Resort's Chill Island).
Because many of French Polynesia's islands were volcanically formed, their mountainous interiors offer challenging hiking options among 1000 metre high-plus peaks and through lava tubes. By the coast, some of the world's best diving and snorkelling is found, and infamous surf breaks lie in wait.
More information tahitinow.com.au.
Getting there Air Tahiti Nui offers three weekly one-stop flights to Tahiti, see airtahitinui.com.au, then onward to Bora Bora and other outer islands with Air Tahiti, see airtahiti.com.
Staying there For the widest choice of villas, houses and condos see tahitiinstyle.com.
It's a snorkeller's and diver's mecca, a volcanist's treasure, a foodie's delight, an adventurer's playground ... and it's half an hour closer to Sydney than Fiji. Vanuatu has long attracted cruise ship passengers who stop at its capital, Port Vila, but Vanuatu offers much more - from the world's best wreck diving to its most accessible active volcano.
Vanuatu is as attractive to adventure-seeking couples as it is to families. Its main island, Efate, offers most of Vanuatu's tourist attractions and its widest choice of accommodation (from basic bungalows to five-star over-water bungalows) but it's Vanuatu's outer islands that fly under the radar.
You can fly to Espiritu Santo from Sydney once a week, or there's a 45-minute flight north from Port Vila daily. Santo is Vanuatu's largest island and is one of the south Pacific's most picturesque destinations. It offers everything from rustic lagoon-side homestays to five-star private resort islands. Its attractions include the world's best wreck dive (the SS President Coolidge, which sank during WWII), and world-renowned blue holes (fresh water rises to the surface through layers of limestone and coral to create intense blue crystal springs).
More information vanuatu.travel.
Getting there Air Vanuatu flies daily to Port Vila and beyond to outer islands, see airvanautu.com.
Staying there Stay on your own private island resort in Espiritu Santos, see ratua.com/en.
It's hard to believe New Caledonia is just a 2½ hour flight from Sydney - almost half the distance to Fiji. Yet as you circle above New Caledonia, you'll be treated to the full range of tropical blues below in the world's largest enclosed lagoon. But then you might also be fooled into thinking you've landed somewhere along the French Riveria as you browse the European fashion boutiques of New Caledonia's French-speaking capital, Noumea.
But Noumea is only a small part of what there is to love about New Caledonia. It only takes a short plane flight - or boat journey - to escape to islands completely removed from most tourist itineraries. Here, local Kanak culture and its rituals still rule, and you can snorkel and dive along the world's second-largest barrier reef.
New Caledonia is a world-famous sailing mecca with more than 150 moorings available to yachts and catamarans. Each year it attracts cruising yachts from all over the globe, and visitors can charter their own vessels and sail these calm waters.
New Caledonia is also an important stop on south Pacific cruising schedules. Cruising enthusiasts can access some of New Caledonia's most famed islands, including the Isle of Pines with its famous, deserted white-sand beaches framed by pines; and Mare and Lifou in the Loyalty Islands, which are home to some of the highest-quality reefs in the Pacific, as well as limestone cliffs and caves.
There's a wide range of accommodation for families in Noumea, while accommodation is more basic on islands such as Mare. Regular flights and ferry services depart Noumea for the Loyalty Islands and the Isle of Pines.
More information en.visitnewcaledonia.com.
Getting there Qantas and Air Caledonie fly to Noumea daily from Sydney see qantas.com.au and aircalin.com, then fly to Isle Of Pines, Lifou, Mare and other islands with Air Caledonie, see air-caledonie.nc.
WHY WE'LL ALWAYS LOVE FIJI
While Australia travellers are now discovering the Pacific islands beyond Fiji, they'll never end their love affair with Fiji. That's because there's always a new island to discover in Fiji.
Fiji's not a single destination; there are more than 330 islands that make up the island group - so no matter how many times you visit Fiji, there's always somewhere new to try. With almost 90 per cent of Fiji's population living on its two main islands - Viti Levu and Vanua Levu - there's a lot of Fiji that's sparsely inhabited ... or completely uninhabited.
There are more than 50 world-class resorts and hotels in Fiji offering all the mod-cons any traveller could wish for in the Pacific; but it's also easy to escape the modern world entirely in Fiji. All it takes is a short plane or boat ride to leave everything behind. There are island archipelagoes which receive barely any visitors at all, while others right on Nadi's doorstep, such as the picturesque Yasawa Islands, were closed off entirely to land-based tourism till just 25 years ago and retain their traditional Melanesian culture.
Fiji offers some of the best diving and snorkelling in the Pacific, while surfers flock here each year for some of the best surfing breaks on the planet (Cloudbreak in the Mamanuca Islands is one of the world's top three).
FIVE MUST-DOS IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC
Cruise the Aitutaki lagoon. Fly to Aitutaki for the day from Rarotonga and snorkel in one of the world’s most beautiful lagoons. Includes flights, lagoon cruise, an island tour and barbecue lunch for $429. See aitutakidaytour.com.
Take a 4WD tour through villages to Tanna’s active volcano, Mt Yasur. Watch it erupt as the sun sets and then against the night sky. The tour costs $165. See tanna-adventures.com.
Take a family-friendly kayak tour across Samoa’s pristine lagoons to marine-protected zones and snorkel beside turtles Tours cost $85. Seekayakingsamoa.com.
Charter a yacht and sail across the world’s largest enclosed lagoon. Charters start at about $550 a day, add a skipper for about $290. See noumeayachtcharter.com.
Get the whole family surfing. Famed for its powerful waves, Tahiti also has plenty of gentle, family-friendly surf breaks. Private or group lessons start at $75. See tahitisurf.com.
ABOUT THE WRITER Craig Tansley was born in the Cook Islands. Now based in Australia he spends part of each year visiting the islands of Polynesia and Melanesia.