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The Pacific, greatest of oceans, has an area exceeding that of all dry land on the planet. Herman Melville called it "the tide-beating heart of earth." Covering almost a third of the planet's surface—as much as the Atlantic, Indian, and Arctic oceans combined—it's the largest geographical feature in the world. Its awesome 155 million square km (up to 16,000 km wide and 11,000 km long) have an average depth of around 4,000 meters. Half the world's liquid water is stored here. You could drop the entire dry landmass of our planet into the Pacific and still have room for another continent the size of Asia. One theory claims the moon may have been flung from the Pacific while the world was still young.

The liquid continent of Oceania is divided between Melanesia, several chains of relatively large, mountainous land masses, and Polynesia, scattered groups of volcanic and coral islands. North of the equator are the coral and volcanic islands of Micronesia. This continent of islands has a character as distinct from the rest of the world as Africa or Europe.

It's believed that, in all, some 30,000 islands dot the Pacific basin—four times more than are found in all other oceans and seas combined. Of the 7,500 islands in the South Pacific, only 500 are inhabited. Something about those islands has always fascinated humans and made them want to learn what's there. Each one is a cosmos with a character of its own. This website is about some of those islands.

Polynesia

The Polynesian triangle between Hawaii, New Zealand, and Easter Island stretches 8,000 km across the central Pacific Ocean—a fifth of the earth's surface. Since the late 18th century, when Captain Cook first revealed Polynesia to European eyes, artists and writers have sung the praises of the graceful peoples of the "many islands." While there's homogeneity in Polynesia, there are also striking contrasts resulting from a history of American, Chilean, French, and New Zealand colonial rule.

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Polynesia consists of boundless ocean and little land. This vast region is divided into two cultural areas, Western Polynesia (Tonga and Samoa) and Eastern Polynesia (Hawaii, Easter Island, French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, and New Zealand). Of the insular Polynesian entities, only French Polynesia and Samoa are larger than 1,000 square km, though both the Cook Islands and French Polynesia control sea areas well above a million square km.

Seasonal differences in airfares should be more influential in deciding when to go. On flights from North America the low season is May to August, the prime time in Fiji. Christmas is busy but in February and March many hotels stand half empty and special discounted rates are on offer. In short, there isn't really any one travel season and every part of the year has its advantages.

Only French Polynesia, Tonga, and Samoa have populations of more than 100,000; American Samoa has nearly 70,000: while the Cook Islands, Easter Island, Niue, Pitcairn, Tokelau, Tuvalu, and Wallis and Futuna all have less than 20,000 inhabitants. The mainly subsistence economies have inspired many Polynesians to emigrate to the Pacific rim: there are now more Samoans in the United States than in American Samoa itself, and more Cook Islanders in New Zealand than in their homeland. Only three Polynesian states are fully independent: Tonga, Samoa, and Tuvalu. All the rest still have legal ties to some outside power.

Melanesia

Named for its "black" inhabitants, Melanesia encompasses the hulking island chains of the Western Pacific from Fiji to New Guinea. A tremendous variety of cultures, peoples, languages, and attractions make up this relatively large region of mountainous islands. Prior to European colonization in the late 19th century, the 900 linguistic groups of Melanesia had little contact with one another, and unlike Polynesia, this was a largely classless society. Today parts of New Caledonia are as cosmopolitan as southern France, but on the outer islands of Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands people cling to their traditional ways. Custom and land ownership are intense issues everywhere.

Compared to Polynesia, the populations and islands of Melanesia are large. Densely populated Fiji is equal in inhabitants to New Caledonia, Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands combined, yet in land area both New Caledonia and Solomon Islands are bigger than Fiji. In Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, Melanesians still comprise the overwhelming majority of the population and few foreigners are seen outside the capitals, but in Fiji and New Caledonia, British and French colonialism introduced new ethnic groups leading to political instability. During WW II northern Melanesia became a pivotal battlefield. Today all of the countries of Melanesia except New Caledonia are independent.

Highlights

Few areas of the world are as rewarding to visit as the South Pacific. Life is relaxed, and the tremendous variety of cultures and choice of things to see and do make this the sort of place you just keep coming back to. When you tire of beachlife you can go to the mountains; city and town visits can alternate with stays in rural areas. There's no overcrowding, and you don't have to hassle with vendors or be constantly on guard against thieves. It's relatively inexpensive, public transportation of all kinds is well developed, and you can easily sidestep the beaten tourist track and go native.

The South Pacific's distance from Europe and North America has saved it from becoming overrun, as Spain and the main Caribbean resorts are overrun. Only tiny New Zealand has the South Pacific in its backyard (Australians are more attracted to Bali and Thailand). Part of the higher amount you'll spend on airfare will come back to you in the form of lower everyday prices. The islanders themselves are the region's greatest attraction: you'll seldom make friends as fast as you do here.

Each Pacific country is unique. Give yourself as much time in the islands as you can, and try to get to at least three different countries to be able to put things in perspective. No matter how hard you travel, you'll always have lots left over to see next time.

Cook Islands

The Cook Islands has easygoing resort life on Rarotonga and Aitutaki, and unspoiled outer-island life everywhere else. Rarotonga resembles Moorea while Aitutaki has a lagoon like Bora Bora's. It's a great place to kick back and enjoy the good food, accommodations, entertainment, sporting activities, and local color at prices well below those of French Polynesia.

Easter Island

The archaeological heart of Polynesia, mysterious Rapa Nui is also a rewarding destination for hikers, surfers, and scuba divers. It's the sort of place you have to visit at least once in your life.

Fiji

Everyone likes Fiji, both for its excellent facilities and the fascinating variety of peoples and cultures. No other South Pacific destination can match the variety of things to see and do or places to go. There's exciting nightlife in the capital, Suva, old colonial towns such as Levuka and Savusavu, lush jungles and reefs on outer islands like Taveuni and Kadavu, and a long string of sunny resorts in the Mamanuca and Yasawa groups off western Viti Levu.

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French Polynesia

Islands like Tahiti, Moorea, Huahine, and Bora Bora possess some of the most stirring scenery in the South Pacific, all of it easily accessible by sea or air. The electrifying Tahitian dancing is only the most visible aspect of a rich culture which combines well with the exquisite taste and style of the French. The world class shopping, restaurants, resorts, beaches, and attractions compensate for the higher cost of living.

New Caledonia

New Caledonia is also a land of stirring contrasts. The capital, Nouméa, could have been lifted out of southern France, but on the east coast of the Grande Terre and on all the outer islands Melanesian culture predominates. The beaches of the Isle of Pines and Loyalty Islands are among the finest in the region.

Samoa

Sultry Samoa is notable for its intact traditional life and vibrant Polynesian culture. Small villages of thatched oval fale ring the two main islands while countless waterfalls drop from the high verdant interiors. The capital, Apia, is a thriving South Seas metropolis with a bustling main market.

Solomon Islands

Solomon Islands is perhaps the South Pacific's biggest surprise: friendly welcoming people, reasonable prices, and lots of things to do. It's a land of adventure seldom visited by foreign tourists. The Western Solomons excels for its scenery, diving, and culture.

Tonga

Each of the three main island groups of Tonga has its own distinct character and Vava'u is an undiscovered pearl of the South Seas. Whalewatching, sailing, kayaking, fishing, scuba diving, and more await you at Vava'u. Tongatapu exhibits the symbols of the last ruling Polynesian dynasty, while Ha'apai is for the beach lover.

Vanuatu

In Vanuatu you alternate between the polished capital and the unspoiled outer islands. Port Vila is the loveliest capital city in the South Pacific. Luganville on Espiritu Santo is a scuba diving destination, while Tanna offers an active volcano and intact traditional culture. This country is a meacute;lange unmatched anywhere in the world.