Sand between the toes and cocktails at sunset. Crystal-clear water and friendly faces. The pristine Pacific is the perfect paradise at the moment. Raised in the region, here are some of my favourite places to visit.
Why go there The most common misconception people make about Fiji is that it's one island; it's actually made up of more than 300. Though most Australians won't go beyond the main island, Viti Levu (noted for its stunning coastline and mountainous interior), it's worth heading out further. Some archipelagos are only just offshore; the Mamanucas are a stunning set of 20 islands easily accessible by boat. The Yasawas are a bit further: 20 islands that until 1987 were off limits to tourists. Consider also the Garden Isle, Taveuni, or Fiji's second-largest island, Vanua Levu.
Don't miss Take a boat charter across the Mamanucas to discover where Tom Hanks' 2000 film Cast Away was made; explore traditional villages just inland from Viti Levu's tourist hot spot, the Coral Coast; stay in eco-retreats on Taveuni; surf the great waves breaking over the reefs of the Mamanucas.
What to eat Try pork, chicken, fish, taro and other vegies cooked for hours in an underground oven (lovo) with coals.
What to buy The national dress is a kilt-like sarong, called a sulu. Buy them from villages where they still make them by hand.
Essential phrases Bula (hello), vinaka (thanks), moce (bye).
Snorkelling along Tanna's untouched north coast in Vanuatu. Photo: Vanuatu Tourism
Why go there To explore beyond the capital, Port Vila. There are 83 islands – some of the wildest on Earth, full of live volcanoes, locals speaking 120 languages, beaches without a footprint, and people living in the forests as they have for hundreds of years. Just 45 minutes flying time north of Port Vila, Espiritu Santo is the largest island, the setting for much of James A. Michener's Tales of the South Pacific. Or fly south to Tanna to find Mount Yasur, the world's most accessible live volcano, and world-class diving.
Don't miss Stay in chic waterside accommodation barely 45 minutes from Port Vila at Havannah Harbour, with restaurants and bars close by; stand on the crater of Mount Yasur on Tanna at sunset; dive the world's best wreck dive (SS President Coolidge) on Espiritu Santo; check out Port Vila's lively restaurant and bar scene; go beyond Tanna and Santo to islands few travellers visit.
What to eat Laplap – it consists of yams, bananas and taro mixed with coconut milk.
What to buy Traditional carvings made from bone and volcanic material.
Essential phrases Bislama (pidgin English) is the national language, so it's easy to decipher: halo (hello), gudmoning (good morning).
The Solomons are one of the Pacific's least visited islands. Photo: Supplied
Why go there The Solomons are one of our closest neighbours – you can fly there in less than three hours – yet they're one of the world's least-visited island groups (fewer than 30,000 tourists arrive each year). Think you have to be an intrepid traveller to go there? You don't. Its most popular tourist region, Western Province, is a short flight from the capital, Honiara. Here you'll find tropical eco-resorts, some of the world's best diving, World War II wrecks and some of the Pacific's most under-rated surf breaks. There are about 1000 islands to choose from throughout the Solomons, so let your imagination run wild.
Don't miss Find an uncrowded wave at surf retreats throughout Western Province; from Seghe, access retreats built along one of the world's largest lagoons (Marovo); discover World War II relics in forests, and underwater while diving.
What to eat The national dish is poi – a paste made from taro roots.
What to buy Mother-of-pearl carvings, pandanus bags or jewellery made from shells.
Essential phrases There are many dialects, but pidgin is most common: halo (hello), mi hapi tumas fo mitim iu (happy to meet you).
Family fishing in Cook Islands. Photo: Kirklandphotos
Why go there Where safer to take a holiday than a chain of 15 tiny islands surrounded by ocean the size of western Europe, inhabited by barely 17,500 locals? Rarotonga is the largest island, yet you can drive around it in 35 minutes. Like a miniTahiti, kilometre-high volcanic mountains drop into an encircling lagoon. Fly 30 minutes to Aitutaki, whose lagoon is five times bigger than its land mass and is considered the Pacific's finest. Beyond Aitutaki there are islands where only 300 tourists visit per year. Wherever you go, it's the colourful local characters who'll make the biggest impression.
Don't miss Beachcombing at Rarotonga's main swimming area, Muri Lagoon, where you can swim, kayak or sail to its three tiny islets (motu); take in the vibrant Punanga Nui Saturday markets with dancing in the main town, Avarua; take a cruise across Aitutaki's lagoon; watch a dance show in Rarotonga or Aitutaki (and get pulled onto the stage).
What to eat Ika mata – the national dish of raw fish "cooked" in lime juice and coconut cream.
What to buy A ukulele made from coconut shells.
Essential phrase Kia orana (may you live long).
Futi Rock in Samoa. Photo: Getty Images
Why go there Samoa remains a Pacific secret and is very traditional: locals inhabit villages with extended families, ruled by chiefs, and live according to traditional custom (Fa'a Samoa). But while it's gloriously sleepy (siestas can happen at any hour of the day), there's a selection of resorts along the coastline of its two main islands. Surfers can ride some of the world's least crowded waves; adventurers can hike, dive and sail; and foodies can indulge themselves in a place which cherishes food like no other (the islands shut down for Sunday feasting).
Don't miss The waterfalls, particularly on Upolu island; Lalomanu Beach on Upolu's south-east tip is one of the world's best beaches; Savai'i – Samoa's biggest island – offers everything from diving to mountain hikes; To-Sua Trench is a clear-water pool within a volcanic crater on Upolu's east coast.
What to eat Sunday feasts – meat and vegetables cooked in an underground oven (umu).
What to buy A tapa cloth made from tree bark.
Essential phrases Mālō (hello). And remember lava (enough) – or they'll keep feeding you.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale October 25.