Yes, You CAN Afford the South Pacific!
So you thought you had to put those Tahitian dreams on hold? Think again. Luxe locales like Fiji, the Cook Islands—and, yes, even Tahiti!—roll out the red carpet for folks like us. Read on for tips on planning, picking the right island, and getting a good deal!
This may be an awful thing for a travel editor to confess, but the islands of the South Pacific have always seemed a little intimidating to me. Thousands of miles from my home in suburban New York, and perhaps even farther away in terms of lifestyle, ease of transportation, and sheer cost, I have to admit I haven't even given them a spot on my bucket list until recently. But I began to notice that luxe locales like the Cook Islands, Fiji, Tahiti, and sometimes even chi-chi Moorea were turning up in Budget Travel's Real Deals. Hmm. Turns out, if you choose the right destination—an island that enjoys a modest standard of living without catering to the ultra-wealthy—and pick the right resort or book a package deal, some of these warm, alluring destinations can and should be on your travel list.
WHAT IS THE "SOUTH PACIFIC" ANYWAY?
Let's get this out of the way up front: It's impossible to adequately summarize the history, culture, and geographical diversity of the islands that stretch across thousands of miles in the southern hemisphere smack in the middle of the world's largest ocean. From French Polynesia (including Tahiti and Moorea) in the east, across the Cook Islands, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands in the west, what we refer to as the islands of the South Pacific are a rich stew of jungles, coral reefs, beaches, volcanoes, native cultures, and European colonial influences. The good news is, English is spoken just about everywhere, and an affordable—and unforgettable—experience is possible for what we like to call "real people."
WHAT ISLAND IS RIGHT FOR YOU?
To get started, I turned to someone whose great reporting always inspires me, Mark Kahler, who is an expert on frugal traveling for About.com. He notes that package tours can often be a good way to see the South Pacific on a budget. "Packages that include flight plus hotel are the most popular, because those are the two largest expenses you will encounter on a trip to the South Pacific," he says. "Shop in the vacation sections of airline websites that serve this part of the world. Airlines will bundle dates and destinations based on how many seats they need to fill on various flights. They can also negotiate better deals with the resorts at certain times of the year." Kahler suggests, though, that if you research package deals, you need to be careful that a package doesn't confine you to the grounds of one resort—unless that's the kind of isolated experience you are looking for. "Travelers who are willing to look for smaller, locally owned properties might get a better glimpse of the local culture, and it's entirely possible they'll find rates that are as good or better than the package tours." He also notes that, unlike many other parts of the world, where oceanfront property is reserved for high-end rooms, the South Pacific often offers budget accommodations that are right on the beach. "The notion of staying right on the ocean in a bungalow with a thatched roof might seem romantic or luxurious, but many times these places are very basic in terms of amenities. You may not find air conditioning, or designer shampoos and bed sheets, but stylish? Yes!"
WHAT'S YOUR BUDGET?
Emma Woodward, of Goway.com, suggests that you first determine what your budget is, then conduct your research—or work with a travel company—to find the combination of lodging category and island that's right for you. "If you combine two islands, start with a lower room category, then splurge on the second island," Woodward suggests, noting that, as with many destinations, being flexible with your travel dates can help you find deals on flights, and that a package deal will not only save you money on your airfare from the U.S. but also on inter-island airfares
KEEP THE ISLANDS BEAUTIFUL!
The South Pacific islands are lovely—and fragile. Easily damaged coral reefs fringe many islands, and as we've seen in areas such as the Caribbean, tourist dollars can also bring havoc to the environment. Woodward points out that you can visit the South Pacific in a sustainable, environmentally friendly way. "A lot of resorts use ocean water for air conditioning, purify ocean water for drinking, and bottle water in reusable glass containers rather than plastic."
The Cook Islands top the list of affordable South Pacific destinations, with a comfortable but not out-of-reach standard of living, New Zealand-influenced culture, and an inviting array of natural wonders like coral lagoons, caves, and lush forests. The islands themselves are distinct from one another, with opportunities for you to soak up a luxe resort experience, forest hiking, and even some deserted islands. Rarotonga's Muri Lagoon is a must, as is snorkeling on the Aitutuaki atoll. For a taste of the islands' village life, tour the pretty gardens of Ma'uke. And for a literal taste of Polynesian cuisine, enjoy one of the islands' classic pork-based feasts along with a performance of local traditional dance. Feeling more adventurous? Explore the caves of Mangaia, including the burial chamber of the ruler Te Rua Rere. Resorts here are within reach: Palm Grove Resort Rarotonga offers individual bungalows on a five-acre beachfront property that also includes beautiful gardens filled with local flowers; the resort's calm, shallow lagoon is great for beginner and advanced snorkelers (palmgrove.net, from $185). Edgewater Resort & Spa allows you to enjoy beach and garden views, a lagoon, swimming pool, and two restaurants just a short distance from downtown Avarua (edgewater.co.ck, from $189).