Best of the Pacific islands: tropical treasures

Craig Tansley tracks down the best of the south Pacific, from whales to beach houses.

The south Pacific is known for its white sandy beaches, where coconut trees grow beside empty blue lagoons and pigs often outnumber people in sleepy villages. Waves dump on fringing coral reefs, offering visitors the excitement of world-class surfing and the safety of lagoons for swimming and snorkelling.

We select some of the best experiences in the south Pacific.

Best beach bungalow

McBirney House, One Foot Island, Aitutaki, Cook Islands

Located more than 10 kilometres from the nearest inhabitant on a tiny island (motu) in the far corner of one of the south Pacific's largest lagoons, McBirney House is the ultimate tropical island retreat. A simple two-storey cabin with basic amenities and a noisy generator (that can be switched off if you prefer candlelight), McBirney House has none of the five-star amenities of the resorts on the nearby island of Aitutaki, one of the region's most-recognised honeymoon destinations. The house is on One Foot Island, so book a transfer across with Bishops Cruises ($38 one-way, see bishopscruises.com). The island is visited by various day cruises but by 3pm it's yours alone. The bungalow is among coconut trees with a deck and views over the lagoon. It costs from $190 a couple, see www.islandhoppervacations.com (select Aitutaki).

Best sundowner bar

New Te Mara Bar, Huahine, French Polynesia

It's the only bar on Huahine - a 35-minute flight north-west of Tahiti - just as well, then, that it's the best spot in the entire south Pacific for that tropical necessity, the sundowner. Located in the sleepy village of Fare, the New Te Mara bar is a ramshackle affair. The staff speak no English but the Hinano beer is icy and the New Te Mara sits two metres from the ripple-free waters of Haamene Bay. As the sun sets into the sea, surfers paddle in from dicing with shallow reef passes, fishermen fillet their day's catch in the nearby harbour and children practise their island dancing in the deserted street outside. Beyond Haamene Bay, Bora Bora can be glimpsed and even closer still are the mountainous islands of Tahaa and Raiatea. The bar's ''happy hour'' lasts until 7pm and it attracts the eclectic mix of expatriates who are living on the island. See www.tahitinow.com.au.

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Best brush with nature

Swimming with humpback whales, Vava'u, Tonga

Each year, humpback whales swim 8000 kilometres from their feeding grounds in the Antarctic to the warm waters of Tonga's Vava'u island group to mate and give birth. Between July and late October, visitors can swim beside the creatures on an eco-friendly whale-watching tour. Fly to Tonga's capital Nuku'alofa, then take a 55-minute domestic flight to the 50-plus pristine islands that make up the Vava'u island chain. Water visibility exceeds 35 metres and most islands are uninhabited. Each day visitors will have a different experience with the whales, seeing mothers and calves from just a few metres away. Whales are seen on 99 per cent of tour days. Nine-day tours cost from $3750, see www.whaleswim.com.

Best snorkelling

Rangiroa, French Polynesia

About 350 kilometres north-east of Tahiti, Rangiroa is a collection of 240 tiny islands - none more than a metre in height - that stretch for 160 kilometres encircling a giant, turquoise-coloured lagoon. From the air, the islands resemble a huge pearl necklace laid out on water. The lagoon is so large the island of Tahiti could fit inside it. Surrounded by two bodies of water - Moana-tea (Peaceful Ocean) and Moana-uri (Wild Ocean) - Rangiroa guests can snorkel everywhere. Guided tours are available through reef passes. See www.tahitinow.com.au.

Best surf

Southern coast, Upolu, Samoa

The new frontier of south Pacific surfing is along the southern coast of the Samoan island of Upolu. It has the reef breaks that have made Tahiti famous but without the crowds and territorial locals. Waves up to three metres high break from May to October, with smaller waves up to 1.5 metres in summer. Surfers have a variety of breaks to ride - there are shallow left- and right-hand breaks and gentler waves for less experienced surfers. You'll also be helping the region recover from a tsunami that hit the region in September last year. Stay in anything from a two-star beach fale to a 4½- star resort. Guides will take you by boat to the break. It costs from $775 for five nights' accommodation with airport transfers, see www.surftravel.com.au.

Best beach

Muri Beach, Rarotonga, Cook Islands

Muri Beach is protected from the open sea on three sides by a barrier reef and three tiny uninhabited motu and backed by the jagged mountains of Rarotonga's rugged interior. Locals thunder by on horseback and expats sail the lagoon in regattas, steering their vessels between huge, colourful coral heads. On the mainland the beach has cafes, bars and restaurants but you can also escape to an empty motu a short swim away. There, you will find long, empty, sandy beaches or thick jungles to walk through to the shore, where huge waves crash onto sharp reef. See www.cookislands.travel.