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.
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."
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!"
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
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).
Find a deal to the Cook Islands: PleasantHolidays.com offers package deals to the Cook Islands, often starting at less than $1,700, including airfare and lodging, from Los Angeles.
Well, the first thing you need to know about Fiji is that it's not just one island, as many travelers assume by its name. This string of islands attracts more than 600,000 visitors each year, making it the most popular South Pacific destination—and that's largely because it combines a reasonable price tag with extreme sights, flavors, and experiences unlike anything you'll find anywhere else. Plant yourself in Nadi and you'll be immersed in a heady city experiences, including Indian cuisine and a bustling street life. Sign on for a jungle cruise and you'll experience an entirely different Fiji, including some of the world's most colorful and entertaining bird-watching. Sonaisali Island Resort is an upscale splurge (sonaisali.com, from $330). Radisson Blu Resort Fiji Denarau Island is an everything-you-could-want property on the beach (radissonblu.com, from $135). Crusoe's Retreat bills itself as "Fiji's best-kept secret" and lives up to its name with affordable beachfront bures (crusoesretreat.com, from $125).
Find a deal to Fiji: Goway.com offers package deals to Fiji, often starting at less than $2,000, including airfare and lodging, from Los Angeles.
Here, you'll find a rarity among French Polynesian destinations. In the company of pricier places, Tahiti offers some stylish steals. Start in Papeete to get a sense of Tahiti's cultural juxtapositions at the Gaugin Museum, which documents the years the French artist spent here capturing local colors and personalities on canvas. Radisson Plaza Resort Tahiti is set along a half-mile of pristine beach and includes an infinity pool and spa (radisson.com, from $242). Taaroa Lodge is a lovely no-frills option that gets you a room with private bath for a steal (taaroalodge.com, from $69).
Find a deal to Tahiti: TravelScene.com offers package deals to Tahiti, often starting at less than $1,800, including airfare and lodging, from Los Angeles.
Are you a budget traveler who relishes something a bit rougher around the edges? You may find that Huahine is the kind of place you'd love to be stranded on. Two islands joined by a bridge, Huahine packs a lot of potential into its 9x8-mile area and is ideal for hitting the waves and backpacking. Hotel Maitai Lapita Village Huahine is a pleasant oasis with garden bungalows (huahine.hotelmaitai.com, from $245).
Find a deal to Huahine: Huahine is sometimes included in tours and cruises to other islands in French Polynesia.