The South Pacific: A World Away–and Worth It
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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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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;
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
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
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,
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,
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)
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
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
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