Right now, remote tropical islands look more enticing than ever. Take a tour of these small wonders.
At the heart of a triangle formed by Tonga, Samoa and the Cook Islands, Niue is sunny, smiling, calming and tailor-made for escapists. An uplifted coral atoll rising sharply from the sea, Niue is ringed by a stockade of cliffs riddled with caves and labyrinths.
At Namukulu village, the sea has carved a serpentine maze of blue pools. At Avaiki Cave, the flat limestone shelf that skirts the island is pitted with blue troughs the size of a backyard pool, each one a tropical aquarium squirming with fishy life.
Below the waterline is a wonder world for divers, with average water clarity at around 50 metres. Barely 100 metres from land the sea floor drops sheer away and the humpback whales that winter in these waters display their acrobatic talents. Swimming with dolphins, whales and turtles and diving with hammerhead sharks, eagle rays and sea kraits are among the island's specialties.
Luxury is not part of the picture. With just 7000 visitors a year, there are no super-gloss resorts nor scented spas on Niue, although you'd have to go a long way to beat the tuna and moonfish sashimi at Kaiika, where larger-than-life owner Avi Rubin brings his own brand of pepper and spice to the table.
A tiny slice of France adrift in the Indian Ocean 900 kilometres east of Madagascar, Réunion is a bougainvillea-hung tropical heaven with a French accent – a pretty, palmy, polyglot paradise with shambolic parking and a freeway on which every car violates the speed limit.
Barely 65 kilometres across at its widest, Réunion is a giant hunk of solidified lava left by two volcanoes that bolted into the blue sky from the sea floor 2000 metres below.
Piton des Neiges, the older and taller of the two, tops out at just over 3000 metres, high enough for snow. The beaches are lovely, the sea is languid and warm, and the island's catalogue of pulse-quickening thrills includes diving, paragliding, horse trekking, white-water rafting, canoeing, caving, climbing, scenic helicopter flights and inspiring walks.
Some of those adventures are set against the island's cirques – giant, green-lipped valleys furnished with a luscious carpet of vegetation that creeps up the steepest of their walls, broken only where waterfalls gush from the hillsides like broken fire hydrants, tumbling in 100-metre ribbons.
Marooned in the Pacific a thousand kilometres east of the Philippines, this archipelago of several hundred islands would be swamped if not for its isolation. Launch yourself off just about any one of Palau's beaches and you're in a world of crimson coral fans, platter-shaped emperor angelfish, schools of polished-aluminium trevally, sharks, giant clams, sea turtles, manta rays, sea snakes and dugongs.
Divers' heaven is the Ngemelis Wall, which plummets in a freefall from knee-deep to 300 metres, a vertical display case for sponges and soft corals whose intense colours form the understorey for quivering sea fans and giant black coral trees.
The Rock Islands, 200 limestone knobs crowded into a 32-kilometre stretch of sea, are Palau's crowning glory. This is heaven on earth for sea kayakers, with short crossings between jungly, mushroom-shaped islands, glassy waters and campsites on deserted beaches, most with rustic shelters.
What to read: Reach for Paradise by Andrew Rayner is the delightful account of a sailing odyssey across the Pacific, exploring the history and culture of people on islands so remote you might as well be travelling with Captain Cook.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale July 19.