Island overview takes a look at the options for Pacific stopovers, and tries to help you decide which one is right for you

For round the world trips that cover both Australia or New Zealand and the United States, there is often the option of stopping off somewhere in the Pacific. It would be a mistake to think all of the Pacific stopover options are interchangeable, however. The Pacific nations have subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) different characters, and the range of experiences on offer can be very different. So if you’re only planning to stop in one place, it pays to pick wisely.

The Cook Islands

Of all the Pacific options, the Cook Islands is arguably most devoted to tourism. Fiji attracts the mass package tourism from Australia and New Zealand in far higher numbers, but the Cook Islands has a tiny population (around 20,000) so it’s all about proportion. Of all the islands, the Cooks are probably the most laid-back. There seems to be a blissful happiness about the people, and a fairly equal society – you’ll not see any of the poverty that is clearly visible in some of the other Pacific nations. The main island, Rarotonga, is hugely enjoyable whether you’re into hiking, kayaking or lounging by the lagoon. But it’s Aitutaki – which requires a separate flight – that is truly special. The lagoon here is often rated as the most beautiful in the world, and some of the luxury resorts that sit at its edges are magnificent. But there are also cheaper options if the budget doesn’t stretch. If you’re after a place to chill, the Cook Islands is arguably the Pacific’s best bet. If you’re an all action type or want deeper cultural immersion, you might leave a little unsatisfied. Think of the Cooks as happy, smiley and beautiful without too much complexity and you’re about there. On the ground costs tend to be in the mid-range – not nearly as cheap as Fiji or Samoa, but a darned sight cheaper than French Polynesia.

Best RTW? - The Navigator or The World Journey


Fiji is the most common Pacific stopover, and the one that’s usually easiest to work into RTW tickets. It has a population (around the million mark) that is significantly higher than that of its Pacific neighbours. Hence it can feel more like a ‘real’ place than the other island fantasylands, particularly if you break off the normal tourist trail. The main island, Viti Levu, has a lot going on. It has an intriguing mix of cultures via the native Fijians and the huge Indian population descended from indentured sugar workers during the colonial era. It’s also set up pretty well for adventure activities such as hiking and rafting. You can do urban in Suva and Lautoka, but the surprisingly grotty Nadi is the main tourism hub. From here, the cruises and island-hopping ferries head out to the Mamanuca and Yasawa Islands. Depending on which you head to, these are either havens on which to live out your Robinson Crusoe beach lizard fantasies or party resorts. The key thing about this part of Fiji (and the outer islands to the north and east of Viti Levu are arguably more interesting for anyone wanting to explore properly) is that it generally stays relatively dry. So while the rest of the South Pacific is drowning in the rainy season (generally between around November and April), Fiji’s western highlights aren’t nearly as soggy. And that’s handy to know if you’re travelling during that period. One more thing should be factored in when considering Fiji. It’s not an idyllic paradise – it is ruled by a rather unappealing military dictator (research Frank Bainimarama if you want to learn more) and you’re likely to see genuine poverty if you venture out of the cosseted resorts.

Best RTW? - The Globehopper or The Navigator or The Discoverer


It is the largest of the 118 islands and atolls that comprise French Polynesia. Tahiti is in the Society Islands, an archipelago which includes the islands of Bora Bora, Raiatea, Taha'a, Huahine and Moorea. The climate is tropical with the he average ambient temperature is 80°F (27°C) and the waters of the lagoons average 79°F (26°C) in the winter and 84°F (29°C) in the summer. But do not worry, most resorts and hotel rooms are air conditioned or cooled by ceiling fans. Summer is from November through April, with a warmer and more humid climate and winter is from May to October, when the climate is slightly cooler and drier. When you step out of the airplane, you'll immediately notice that the air is warm and humid. It’s probably the most expensive of the Pacific islands, and is very popular with honeymooners, but the lagoons around the islands are justifiably famous and stunning.

Best RTW? - The Navigator or The Discoverer


Hawaii - almost always called the Big Island to avoid confusion – is the largest of the islands and home to Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa (the largest and one of the most active volcanoes on Earth), Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, coffee and macadamia nut plantations, working ranches, and even green sand beaches. Kailua-Kona is the busiest part of the island on the dry, leeward side, and near the mega-resort Kohala Coast area with nearly zero annual precipitation. The saddle road (quite passable and a must see--despite what rental car companies say) passes between the massive volcanoes and connects Kohala with Hilo, the largest town on the windward side with annual precipitation of more than 300 inches per year. Unlike anywhere else on Earth and definitely worth a look.

Oahu, nicknamed "the Gathering Place," is the most populous and developed island. Its southern shore is home to the city of Honolulu, the state capital and largest city; four out of every five kama'aina (Hawaii residents) call it home. It is the governmental and commercial center of the state, and Waikiki Beach is arguably the best known tourist destination in Hawaii. Outside the city are pineapple fields, and the North Shore of Oahu, which is known each winter as the home of some of the largest waves in the world. The USS Arizona National Memorial at Pearl Harbor is also very popular visitor destination.

Maui is the second largest island in the chain and is home to 10,023 foot (3,055 m) tall volcanic mountain crater of Haleakala. It is nicknamed "the Valley Isle" for the narrow plain between Haleakala and the West Maui mountains. On the west side of the island are the resort areas of Lahaina, Kaanapali and Kapalua, while the south side is home to Kihei, and Wailea. On the east side is the tiny village of Hana, reached by one of the most winding and beautiful roads in the world.

Kauai, the "Garden Isle," is home to several natural wonders, such as the Wailua River, Waimea Canyon, and the Na Pali Coast. Mount Waialeale is known as one of the rainiest spots in the world.

Molokai, the "Friendly Isle," is one of the least developed islands in the chain. It is home to Kalaupapa, the leper colony on Molokai's north shore that was the home of Father Damien.

Lanai was at one time completely owned by Dole Foods and was the largest pineapple plantation in the world; it is now home to several exclusive resorts.

Niihau is a privately owned island with an entirely Native Hawaiian population. Until very recently, the island was off limits to all but family members and invited guests of the owners. Tourism to the island is limited to helicopter, ATV, and hunting excursions originating on Kauai.

Kahoolawe which was once a former U.S. Navy bombing range, remains uninhabited. Efforts are being made to rehabilitate the island, but cleanup efforts continue.

Best RTW? - The Discoverer or The Classic


There’s a strong argument for Samoa being the Pacific’s best all-rounder. It’s bigger than the Cook Islands, but still has that laid-back, friendly Polynesian vibe (Polynesia does feel more welcoming than Melanesia, incidentally). There’s also a good smattering of beaches and lagoons for the sand and snorkel bunnies. Samoa has three trump cards, however. The first is that traditional culture and lifestyle is still very much in evidence. People are part of their village, and most houses are open huts called fales. You can see into them as you walk past, while kids and pigs run rampant on the grounds. The second key attribute is that Samoa is, to all intents and purposes, two main islands. Upolu and Savai’i are only about 90 minutes apart by ferry – and this means that you can see the best of the country without having to splash out for potentially costly extra internal flights. Thirdly, Samoa is a bit of a natural wonderland. There are hundreds of volcanic cones, mountains, rock arches and lava fields to explore, while the combo of powerful coastline and jungle-covered interiors make gives it that touch of wildness that gets outdoor types excited.

Best RTW? - The Navigator or The Discoverer


Vanuatu is probably the weirdest of the Pacific nations. In the colonial era, it was jointly governed by the French and British, and now the parts where the French and English speakers hang out are fantastically arbitrary. But there’s more to it than that – for a relatively tiny population, Vanuatu has hundreds of native languages, and once you start branching out from the main island of Efate, things start to get very odd indeed. You don’t really go to Vanuatu for the stereotypical images of white sand beaches and overwater bungalows. It’s somewhere you go to meet people who worship possibly mythical American airmen, climb up billowing live volcanoes and watch the chaps who inspired bungy jumping leap from high platforms with only vines tied to their legs. It’s relatively cheap on the ground, but internal flights will rack up costs. The other problem with Vanuatu is that it generally has to be done as a separate side trip from Australia or New Zealand – it doesn’t fit in with the routes for most of the RTW airlines.

Best RTW? - The Navigator or The Discoverer

Easter Island

If you like the whole middle of nowhere thing, then Easter Island should be your dream destination. It’s the most isolated inhabited island in the world, 2,200 miles away from continental South America, and 1,290 miles away from the next spot where people live. And that’s Pitcairn Island, which is hardly a bustling hub. In other words, don’t think about going for a swim to visit the neighbours.

More info here


Micronesia is not the easiest part of the world to visit. With United Airlines currently the only realistic option of getting around the scattered islands of the north Pacific, any itinerary that takes in one or more of the entities that make up Micronesia -Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Palau and the US territory of Guam - will rely as much on airline schedules as personal preferences.

But for those who take the trouble to explore this lesser-travelled route across the Pacific there is so much to experience that their time in Micronesia is likely to provide some of the main highlights of their entire trip.

More info here


Primarily, Palau is a diving destination – some say it’s the best in the world.  A combo of a giant encircling lagoon, numerous shipwrecks and relative lack of pollution makes for extraordinarily high quality SCUBA action. Prescient environmental protection laws and diverse aquatic life help too. Many of the great dive sites are also top class for snorkelers, whilst the hundreds of limestone Rock Islands that the underwater honeypots are found between are a wonder in themselves. I could happily spend days mooching around them in a boat, stopping off at pristine beaches and eating the coconuts, to be honest. On one of said islands, you can try one of the world’s weirdest experiences – swimming through a marine lake filled with millions of stingless jellyfish. Kayaking, cultural tours and four-wheel drive experiences in the jungles of the largest island, Babeldaob, are excellent too. More here

Best RTW? - The Wow Palau

With input from David Whitley, wikitravel and staff

We're often asked what are the best selling deals via the Pacific on the market. Again without giving away too much (we want you to book with us!), here are the via the Pacific top sellers 

Published by Stuart Lodge

Cook Islands

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In the Cook Islands, David Whitley prepares for the burn in the thighs, and takes on Rarotonga’s cross-island trek.


There are few things more humiliating than panting your way up a heart-attack inducing mountain, only to be passed by a bare-footed man in his late sixties. But that’s Pa for you. A local legend on Rarotonga, he has been leading cross-island treks for decades and absolutely nothing seems to faze him. Except, perhaps, the Dutch.



Learning that one of our group has come from the Netherlands, Pa ponders and twirls his ridiculously wild white dreadlocks. “Many times I carry people from Holland,�? he says with a little grin. “You alright with mountains?�?


Pa is endearingly eccentric/ raving mad (depending on quite how you take to his frequent proclamations on the joys of organic food and the perils of just about everything else). If things get too tough, he’ll tell the struggling party to have a mini-sleep on the trail, apparently in all seriousness. He also encourages people to do the half day trek spiritually, not physically, as that’s the way to not get hurt.


Following a traditional Polynesian prayer, we march from the clearing at the foot of the rainforest, and then look up. And up. And up. Make no mistake about it, this may be a relatively short trek, but it’s not a leisurely stroll. The paths are narrow, snake through thick canopies and can be treacherous if there has been recent rain. But the most intimidating thing is the way that you’ll get to what seems like the top of the track, then turn a corner to discover the next one reaches for the sky at an even steeper gradient.


While the rest of us are wheezing and taking frequent breaks to sit on rocks and logs, Pa presses on at a steady pace, seemingly impervious. There’s no-one in the world that knows Rarotonga as well as him, and he attempts to alleviate everyone else’s hard work by telling stories. He tells of people that he’s led up the mountain – including a 93-year-old English woman and Hollywood star Liv Tyler. “She sent me a big photo for the living room, but my wife made me take it down.�?


He also tells stories of the island, many of which should be taken with a pinch of salt. Certain flowers contain certain spirits, trees are over 4,000 years old and seemingly everyone is related to the original islanders that disappeared and found New Zealand. The hard slog is worth it at the top, though. A large (and dangerous to climb) rock called The Needle sticks out, while it’s possible to look out on the whole island. The green-to-yellow-to-blue of the jungle, beaches and ocean is quite remarkable.


The way down is much easier, and it’s possible to take in much more of the scenery without worrying about cardiac arrest. There are phenomenal giant ferns, coconut trees and flowers that can be found hardly anywhere else on earth. Pa, of course, has a story for each of them, and plenty more besides when we all sit down by the stream for lunch.


It’s all gorgeous fresh fruit and intensely juicy tuna sandwiches, and at this point Pa reveals his second career as an alternative medicine practitioner. He claims to have a cure for dengue fever, has invented his own mosquito repellent (organic, naturally) and advises people to avoid eating tomatoes, as they can lead to a build-up of crystals in the body. It’s hard to know what to take seriously, but it’s all tremendously entertaining.


When we finally get down, it’s time for a dip. After all that walking in the heat, the perfect antidote is a kayak, a snorkel and the Muri Lagoon. Enclosed by four little islets, the lagoon is a little spot of South Seas heaven. The kayaks and snorkels can be hired from the shore, and from then on, a perfect afternoon can be had with minimal paddling and the odd face-down float amongst the coral and the sea cucumbers. And it’s certainly easier going than following up a barefooted pensioner up a murderous hill...


Trader Jack's

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David Whitley finds that it’s the rain, not the sun, that sets the slow pace of life in the Cook Islands.

They never tell you about the rain. It’s all about the beaches, the lagoons and the coconut palms. But the rain is the secret part of the package that makes the tropical islands of the South Pacific so green. And it’s not the feeble drizzly rain that we grumble about in Britain. It’s proper rain, the sky’s powerful toilet flush, that comes down in walls and turns streets into streams within seconds.

From under the corrugated iron roof of Trader Jack’s on Avarua’s waterfront, the cacophony sounds like a thousand drum kits being simultaneously thrashed and trashed. To venture outside is to be sucked into the squall. To be out on the water is somewhere on the extreme bravery/ stupidity axis. Bravo, therefore, to the girls we’re watching on the TV screen.

Every November, Trader Jack’s becomes the hub for the Vaka Eiva festival. It’s when outrigger canoe junkies from all over the world get together for a series of races. It’s partly serious, partly piss-up. Once the racing is done, the beer is attacked with a frenzied relish more closely associated with starving bears in a butcher’s shop.

When they get in, the girls will deserve a drink. The downpour has struck just after the start, and they’ve got to battle through the most atrocious conditions to get to the finish line. On the TV screens, we watch the safety boats head out towards the plucky paddlers in case the canoes turn into sinking bathtubs under the deluge.

In a funny way, you properly get to understand island outposts such as Rarotonga when it’s like this. The pace of life is slow – often excruciatingly so – and that’s often attributed to the heat. But it’s not the sweating under the sun’s glare that slows things down. It’s the realisation that a day or two can effectively spent underwater. If it’s tipping down, you’re only going to walk from A to B in the direst emergency. It’s easier just to take shelter and wait. We’re on island time, after all.

Places like Trader Jack’s give an essential insight into island life too. Virtually every small island nation has one – a bar/ restaurant in the capital where far more gets done than in the Parliament building. It’s where you’re equally likely to bump into a taxi driver, tourist or high-ranking government official. Gentlemen’s agreements are made, expats cling to it as a surrogate of the real world. 

It’s run by a retired harbourmaster from New Zealand, and has been knocked down by cyclones on four occasions. Hence the current incarnation is made of wood and corrugated iron, and valuables can be taken off-site in a hurry.

Ask why he keeps rebuilding it, and Jack will just say: “Because I’m bloody MAD.” His eyes will bulge, and then he’ll go back to his drink.

He’s in good company too. While a dog splashes in the water by the boat ramp, proving singularly unhelpful to anyone trying to get their canoe out of the water, the crowd is getting louder. One particularly rotund chap makes a pudgily flamboyant entrance, and the cry of “Athlete! Athlete!” goes up.  

We watch the screens as the ladies battle their way home. The local girl is getting the most raucous support, although she’s lagging behind. The rain still pours. It’s just the way it is here. It may downchuck for another day, but life goes on. Just slowly.


Cooks fishing

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David Whitley forgoes the soft option of cruising on Aitutaki’s lagoon, and heads out to the reef for a spot of properly-armed fishing.


Mike takes one look at the afternoon’s current forlorn haul, and turns towards the cabin. “If the fish aren’t going to come to us,” he says with a maniacal grin. “We’re just going to have to go to them.” He emerges with weapons that are far more fearsome-looking than a rod, line and bait. In fact, they look precisely like what Bond villain henchmen would use to chase 007 around with in a lavish underwater sequence.


Mike, a big, burly New Zealander whose entire being screams “ex-military”, throws me a snorkel and masks, and then gives instructions on how to operate the spear gun. “Pull the trigger to fire it, try and keep it away from the reef. Oh yeah, and don’t point it at me.” The reef in question fringes the island of Aitutaki, which is as close to the romantic vision of a Pacific Island paradise as you could ever wish to find. Channel 4’s reality series Shipwrecked was filmed here, and it is absolutely dominated by a giant blue lagoon. It is the sort of place that even the greatest photographer can’t quite do justice, and invites hours and hours of clichés about stunning turquoise waters.


However, while most of Aitutaki’s cruises involve a day on the lagoon, snorkelling around in the shallows and pulling up on tiny islets for lunch, we’re doing Black Pearl Fishing Cruises’ hardcore version. Mike usually takes novices out on the lagoon when they want to play with the spear guns, but I’m being thrown in (quite literally) at the deep end.


After splashing down into the maze of coral, it’s time to go hunting. Mike goes first, in order to demonstrate just how easy it is. He takes a deep breath and then plunges towards the reef. Ominously gliding across a flat section of coral, he identifies his target and follows it for a good thirty seconds with a nerveless hunter’s prowl. And then, WHAM! The spear flies out, smack back into the middle of a big, ugly wrasse.


He surfaces with the flapping sea monster in his hands, carefully shepherding it back to the boat. That’ll be dinner later, but before then, I’ve got to catch something myself. He re-loads the gun and hands it to me. Fighting off haunting visions of manslaughter through sheer ineptitude, I start looking amongst the swirling shoals for a suitable target. There’s one huge difference with spear fishing as opposed to the more conventional method – the bigger fish are easier to get than the little ones, as they represent a bigger target.


With one snapper looking rather tasty, I decide to try and emulate Mike’s approach. About 20 seconds later, it has escaped, and I’m scrambling to the surface to spit the salt water out of the snorkel. It’s hard to hit moving targets when you’re trying not to drown. Try again. Struggling down towards a deep, narrow channel, fish scarper at all angles. But one big boy is just dawdling along, waiting for a spike to be shot through it. Splashing breathlessly above it, I aim, fire and the spear flies like a lightning bolt. Unfortunately it misses the fish by a considerable distance and flies straight into the reef. Oops.


Mike, possibly holding in some severe tutting, dives down to wrench it out. Then, in an act of cruel revenge, he hands it back for reloading. It soon becomes apparent that this is way tougher than using it in the first place. Near superhuman strength is required to pull the spear and firing mechanism back in line – especially when you’re still flailing about in the water.


After the reef gets impaled a couple more times - and an unfortunate wrasse gets ‘winged’ by its bumbling, drowning predator - it’s time to watch the master in action. Floating in the sea, watching the hunt is thoroughly addictive – top drawer snorkelling with added entertainment. And predictably enough, Mike gets a big enough haul in about an hour to feed half the island.


Canoe carvers

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David Whitley meets the men trying to keep an ancient culture alive in the Cook Islands


The country’s main ceremonial building looks rather like a cross between a school assembly hall and a small capacity basketball stadium, but we’re all invited in. A group sits cross-legged on the floor with sashes draped across them, while the rest of us perch on chairs to watch. After the pastor finishes his chanting (and, boy, does he like chanting), the chap on the chair in front gets up. It turns out that he’s the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands.


This is one of the joys of being on Rarotonga – it’s so small. The island has a population of approximately 9,000, it takes less than an hour to drive around and even a national festival has the feel of a tight knit community giving up the time and mucking in. The chaps with the sashes are all wood workers, some experienced pros and some apprentices, just beginning to learn the ropes. They all take a drink of kava from a wooden bowl. Then after the PM’s speech and more chanting from the pastor, Te Mire Tarai Vaka is officially underway.


For those not fully conversant in Cook Islands Maori, this is a festival that is designed to bring back the almost extinct craft of canoe carving on the islands. Over a period of two weeks, on the foreshore of Avarua Harbour, teams from ten of the fifteen islands will create a canoe – or vaka - from a big tree trunk. Each will be made according to the traditional style of the individual island. Sadly, on most of the islands, the traditional methods and designs have died out. The last Manihiki vaka went to a museum in New Zealand in 1906, while Penrhyn hasn’t made one for 150 years. The festival is about reviving them, and the smaller islands are being assisted by master-carvers from Rarotonga that still have the knowledge and techniques.


It’s difficult to overstate the importance the vaka to the Cook Islanders (and, indeed to the rest of Polynesia). It was what got them to the islands in the first place and for a very long time was the only mode of transport between the islands. It is also thought that it was a party from Rarotonga that took off (in their canoes, of course) and found New Zealand. The canoes were also a creative outlet, as Ngametua Papatua explains. Ngametua is a pastor on the Southern island of Mangaia, but learned to carve canoes when he was 20. He’s found himself designated as the island’s master carver.


“We want to keep the culture alive,” he says whilst working on the repe, or tailpiece. “There’s a big difference between the designs for each island. Everything has a different meaning. “People in the old days would see something they liked and carve it – pig’s teeth, shark’s teeth, a taro plant. And this,” he says, referring to the work in progress, “feels unique to Mangaia.” There’s also the difference in usage. Some islands have reefs and surf, some have gentle seas. Some have big natural harbours, others have narrow channels. What works for one could be disastrous in another.


At the harbour, the teams are sweating away in the sun, with the buzz of chainsaws creating an inescapable racket. It could easily be done in workshops, but there is a point to constructing the canoes in public – tourists can view the works in progress, while locals have their attention drawn to the ancient craft. Hopefully some will be inspired to take it up. It’s all being overseen by Mike Tavioni, who is an absolute giant of a man, coated liberally in sweat and sawdust. He’s Rarotonga’s master carver, and realistically the only man who possesses the knowledge to help some of the amateurs from the outer islands through the process.


He’s a little unhappy that some of the participants are more interested in island pride than education, however. “If they keep going at that pace, they’ll be finished two days into a two week festival,” he grunts in the direction of an ever-swelling team of enthusiasts. “It’s not a competition; not a race.”


He’s right. It’s neither. It’s an attempt to keep culture alive.


More photos here