The South Pacific: A World Away--and Worth It

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Travel Guide, Winter 1995-1996

The South Pacific: A World Away--and Worth It

So what if you have to endure endless hours in the air and shake out your piggy bank. Nothing this pure comes easy.
By Trish Reynales

The islands of the South Pacific may be mere specks of land in a vast expanse of open sea, but their attendant myths are larger than life--the Saran Wrap-clear lagoons, atolls ringed by teeming reefs, impenetrable jungle edging crescents of white sand. Set apart in their own tropical time warp, these isles are one of those rare cases where the reality actually matches the fantasy: In the Solomons you'll find dive sites so plentiful and so rarely (if ever) explored that no one has bothered to name them; in Palau, the first kayak trips have barely begun along the nation's island-clogged waterways; in Fiji, new sports-oriented resorts cater to divers, sailors, surfers, and assorted utopia-seekers. Pick your dot on the map, then follow our lead to the ultimate in island escapes.

Palau, in Micronesia, claims fame as one of the world's finest dive spots--and as the world's newest nation. The former U.N. Trust Territory just marked its first year of independence. Roughly translated, this means more hotels will be paving Palauan shores and tropical forests in the very near future, so the time to visit is now.

Most people go to Palau to dive their brains out; they don't come away disappointed. The 300-plus-island nation sits 800 miles southwest of Guam and about 700 miles east of the Philippines, at the meeting point of three major ocean currents that nurture a feeding frenzy of marine life. Dive on Palau's extensive barrier reef, and you might see 1,000-pound clams, anemones the size of basketballs, and fish of all kinds, from manta rays and whale sharks to surfboard-size wrasses. The largest island is 153-square-mile Babeldaob, the only place big enough for the international airport's runways. But the minute island-capital of Koror, two miles southwest, supports more than two-thirds of Palau's 15,000 population with its well-planned road system and central location. Koror links up to Babeldaob, Arakabesan, Ngercheu, Malakal, and several other islands via causeways and bridges that have all but replaced interisland commuting on outboards or canoes.

Palau's fabled dive sites, like Blue Corner and the Ngemelis Wall (with visibility up to 150 feet), are at the southern end of the barrier reef, about an hour's boat ride south of Koror. Hefty hawksbills lumber among the sea fans and tree corals of Ngemelis Wall, named "the world's best wall dive" by Jacques Cousteau. The even more popular Blue Corner teems with reef sharks and schooling barracuda. As a new nation, Palau is starting to establish conservation programs for the dive industry, but dive boats still line up to anchor at these sites like planes landing at LAX. Some locals claim that Peliliu's wrecks, about 45 minutes southwest by boat from Koror, are the best dives; others prefer the geologic formations of Siaes Tunnel, Blue Holes, and Chandelier Cave, all within an hour of Koror. You're best off simply asking your divemaster to take you to sites offering optimum conditions and the fewest people.

If you want to learn the names of all the marine life, book your dives and snorkeling trips through Fish 'N Fins (two-tank dives, $85, including lunch; 011-680-488-2637) at Palau Marina Hotel on Koror. Owner Francis Toribiong, the godfather of Palau diving, knows every olaumeyas and kesebekuu (sea anemone and moray eel). Or dive with Dexter Temengil at Palau Diving Center on Koror (two dives, $90; 680-488-2978), who'll also take you to Jellyfish Lake ($25 per person), a short boat-ride away on Eil Malk Island. The marine lake is off-limits to divers (there are noxious bacterial gases at depths below 50 feet), but you'll never get near the stuff snorkeling. Getting there is half the fun: You trek up a rocky cliff, dodging poisonous trees oozing black sap, then slip into ten inches of bug-covered silt and snake your way through a stand of slimy mangrove roots. Somewhere between the mangroves and the lake's opposite shore, you'll encounter the nonstinging Mastigias--first one, then ten, until, by the thousands, they're rubbing up against you like purring kittens.

To log some quality topside time, spend at least an afternoon sea kayaking. The oft-photographed Rock Islands--those little green knobs scattered south of Koror--are minor players in the diving scene, but they're prime waters for paddlers: You skim along beneath limestone ledges while Palauan bush warblers serenade you from the pandanus above, and plate corals and sponges whiz past below. Adventure Kayaking of Palau on Koror (rentals, $30-$50; one-day tours, $65; 680-488-1694) outfits day trips and guide-optional camping excursions geared for snorkeling, caving, birding, hiking, and diving. Hikers and fly-fishers should contact Lazarrenna Yosinao at Palau Island Adventures (day trips, $65; 680-488-1843) for a no-holds-barred trek to Babeldaob's Ngatpang Waterfall, a mix of four-wheel-drive off-roading, jungle hiking, birding, and freshwater minicasting.

Favored divers' digs include the laid-back bungalows at Carp Island Resort on Ngercheu, (doubles, $50-$80; 680-488-2978) and the 50-room Hotel Nikko Palau (doubles, $110-$140; 800-645-5687). On a gentle slope overlooking the Rock Islands next to Adventure Kayaking, it makes for a handy paddlers' retreat. Arakabesan's Sunrise Villa (doubles, $115; 680-488-4590) has 23 spacious rooms with refrigerators and outstanding views of the Rock Islands. Nearby, the full-service Palau Pacific Resort on Koror's only beach (doubles, $195-$240; 800-327-8585) appeals to those who seek five-star frills like Jacuzzis and princely all-you-can-eat buffets.

If you prefer a live-aboard dive boat, there are several. Book the Palau Aggressor II, a 16-passenger catamaran, through Live/Dive Pacific (seven-day package, $1,995; 800-344-5662). The Sun Dancer (one-week package, $1,995- $2,095; call Peter Hughes Diving, 800-932-6237), with eight posh double cabins, cruises the length of Palau's reef. The smaller Ocean Hunter (one-week package, $1,895-$1,995; call See & Sea Travel, 800-348-9778) is a 60-foot yacht with three double cabins.

The Solomon Islands A dive briefing goes something like this: "We know this is a wall. The current will take you to a reef. We're not sure what's there. Have fun!" Whoopie! You drop down into warm blue water with 100-foot visibility, drift along, see a bunch of reef sharks and giant sea fans, whole families of parrotfish, crinoids in every color combo, a hammerhead, a weird ray, and a Spanish dancer. You surface with a fat grin on your face, look around, and then it hits you--except for the divers you're with and a kid paddling by in a dugout canoe, there's nobody around--not another boat for as far as you can see (the dive site doesn't even have a name).

In decades past, only diehard wreck divers made the long haul to the Solomon Islands, 1,300 miles northeast of Australia. Iron Bottom Sound off the main island of Guadalcanal got its name from the sheer numbers of World War II warships, submarines, and fighter planes that haunt its depths. There was no dive operation on Guadalcanal until 1982, no live-aboard until 1988. Even today, sport diving remains in its infancy, despite numerous fringing reefs alive with uncounted coral and fish species (and at least five species of toothy sharks). Of the 922 islands in the archipelago, groups like the Russells and the Floridas opened their reefs to divers only within the past five years, and the vast majority have yet to be explored.

A trip to the Solomons usually begins at Henderson Field Airport in Honiara on Guadalcanal, the most developed and the largest island at 2,965 square miles. Honiara, the nation's capital, is a Quonset-hutted town (populated by about a tenth of the Solomons' 300,000 citizens) surrounded by humid jungle and thatch-roofed villages. While not the most picturesque choice, a stay in Honiara makes good sense if climbing into the cockpit of a sunken B-17 bomber sounds like your idea of fun.

The Kitano Mendana (doubles, $66- $109; 011-677-20071) heads the list of Honiara's hotels, not so much because of its Sheraton-style amenities, but because of its dearth of in-room mosquitoes. You can snorkel on Mendana Reef right in front of the resort (about a 20-minute swim in shallow water), and on-site Island Dive Services (one dive, $35; 677-22103) will take you to wrecks like the B-17 bomber with intact controls and machine guns. Or do the bushwalk-wade-swim to nearby Mataniko, a waterfall next to a stalagmite-filled cave swarming with bats and swallows.

But to really get away, head straight to Uepi, a tiny single-resort island and prime scuba spot off New Georgia in Western Province. Reached from Honiara via a 70-minute flight on Solomon Airlines (round-trip, $78-$98; 677-20031), Uepi Island Resort (doubles, $87-$105, meals included; 011-61-77-75-1323) specializes in diving, boardsailing, and scenic beaches. The bungalow-style hotel overlooks coral-lined Marovo Lagoon, the world's longest at 68 miles. Notable dives include the coral extravaganza at Landoro Gardens (more than 500 species, including gorgonian fans and comb coral) and the drift dive (about $33 per dive) among Maori wrasses at Uepi Point. Canoes are available at the resort for the trip up the Kolo River to several small villages, where you can watch weavers and wood carvers at work.

For birders, there's Rennell Island, 130 miles south of Guadalcanal in Central Province. Its 427 square miles shelter shrikebills, fantails, pygmy ibises, and cormorants that feed on tilapia and giant eels. The birds congregate in Te'Nggano, the largest freshwater lake in the Pacific outside of New Zealand. Now under consideration as a World Heritage nature reserve (as is Marovo Lagoon), the area has no lodging facilities. To camp, you'll need a village chief's permission, best secured by a guide found through the Solomon Islands Tourist Authority on Honiara (677-22442).

For a closer encounter with the Solomons, consider a live-aboard dive boat. Bilikiki Cruises in Honiara operates the only two live-aboards in the Solomons (all-inclusive weekly rates, $1,519-$2,072; 800-663-5363). Both make seven- to 14-day runs to Marovo Lagoon, the Russells, and the Floridas. The 125-foot Spirit of Solomons takes up to 26 divers; the 125-foot Bilikiki, an old ferry turned luxury cruiser, holds up to 20 divers. With advance request, either boat can stow away boardsailing, canoeing, and fishing gear.

In Fiji, choose your island according to your sport, then expect to empty your wallet. The ultimate Fijian idyll won't come cheap, but the good news is that Fijian hotels tend to treat all travelers like royalty, no matter how wild-eyed or grungy.

The 330-island archipelago (population 785,000) lies 1,148 miles north of New Zealand. Of the three largest islands, 4,010-square-mile Viti Levu has the capital of Suva, the Nadi International Airport, and the bulk of the population. Legendary surfing awaits at tiny Tavarua off its western coast, while Vanua Levu (3,000 square miles), Taveuni (166 square miles), and smaller islands in the north have the least-traveled beaches and the best snorkeling and diving.

Of course, the only rationale surfers need to part with a year's savings is a 25-second ride in a 15-foot tube--which is why Tavarua attracts even the most penurious of the breed. Reached from Nadi via a 45-minute drive plus half an hour in an outboard, the 30-acre island sits amid razor-sharp reefs, outside of which loom screaming left breaks accessible only by boat. Tavarua Island Resort (doubles, $135 per person, including lodging, meals, and transportation; 805-686-4551) caters to a maximum of 24 surfers with rustic bures (thatch-roofed huts), communal toilets, a family-style restaurant, and those all-important first-aid stations. Bring booties, boards, and your strongest leash, and prepare to meet a sea snake in its natural habitat. Glassiest conditions occur November to February.

You can also scuba dive off Tavarua, but if diving's your main passion, book yourself into Cousteau Fiji Island Resort (doubles, $275-$375, including breakfast and all activities except diving; 800-268-7832) on Vanua Levu, Jean-Michel and partners' new playground on Savusavu Bay where it meets the Koro Sea. The PADI dive and water-sports operation offers a full-on photo lab, along with crafts from sailboats to kayaks. On occasion, the reefmeister himself leads dives or even rainforest hikes to misting waterfalls.

If the resort's 20 plush bures, each with floor-to-ceiling windows and well-stocked minibars, sound a tad decadent, do it in the name of science: Project Ocean Search, Jean-Michel's biannual resort program on reef ecology, includes lectures, field trips, and underwater shooting with a Nikonos V (next session, October 26-November 9; $5,200, all-inclusive with round-trip airfare from Los Angeles; 805-899-8899).

Divers who want to try their luck at saltwater fly-fishing should check out Matagi Island, a horseshoe-shaped sliver six miles from Taveuni's northeast coast. Its eponymous 240-acre resort (doubles, $160-$240; 800-362-8244) houses guests in ten bures, or in a treehouse 30 feet off the ground. Mornings, two dive boats (two-tank dive, $75 per person) run to coral-covered drop-offs like Purple Wall and Golden Dream. Afternoons, you can fool around with Hobie Cats and sailboards or test the resort's handmade flies on king mackerel and dogtooth tuna.

If you'd rather dive day and night, bunk on the resort's Matagi Princess II, with air-conditioned staterooms and hot showers (seven nights, all-inclusive with round-trip airfare from Los Angeles, $2,577; 800-362-8244). The 12-passenger, 85-foot live-aboard cruises from Matagi to sites in the Somosomo Strait and the Ringgolds brimming with soft corals and tiger cowries.

Sailors can charter a bareboat through The Moorings (50-foot Beneteau, $490-$600 per day; 800-535-7289); a typical ten-day sail from its base on Malololailai Island ten miles west of Nadi includes a stop on Sawa-i-Lau to swim in the caves, a visit with Naviti Island's female chief to trade for shells and carvings made by villagers, and an exploration of the freshwater pools and beachside waterfalls on Waya Island.

Finally, there's the hell-you-only-live-once choice--a sojourn on 800-acre Kaimbu in north Fiji's Lau group, where you can either ensconce yourself in a palace of a bure with 25-foot ceilings and 220-degree views or drop a slightly larger fortune and have the run of the island. Kaimbu Island Resort (all-inclusive doubles, $995 per night; entire island, $2,500; 800-473-0332) takes up to six guests and fronts the proverbial blue lagoon.

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