9 Most Beautiful Islands in the South Pacific
Eye-popping blue waters, palm trees, powdery beaches, and perfect sunny days probably spring to mind when you dream about the fabled islands of the South Pacific. Some of the most beautiful islands in the world lie in this beguiling region, but each of these tropical beauties offers something different. Polynesian island chains like Samoa, the Cook Islands, and French Polynesia offer luminous aqua lagoons, fish-rich coral reefs, and dazzling beaches with silky-soft sands. Melanesian island chains like Fiji, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia offer a similar brand of natural beauty, but with their own distinct cultures. Palau is a topographic wonderland above and below water, and cultural and archeological attractions are a top draw in destinations like enigmatic Easter Island. From some of the best islands in Fiji to eco-friendly destinations in Australia, the South Pacific offers the perfect paradise to match your tropical fantasies.
1 Bora Bora, French Polynesia
Cloaked in green and encircling an impossibly radiant turquoise lagoon, Bora Bora is the beauty queen of the South Pacific. Glimpsed from afar, the lush peaks of Mount Otemanu and Mount Pahia perk up out of the sea, with arms outstretched as if to welcome you into their seductive embrace. Adventures here cover both land and sea. You can explore the lagoon and its tiny islets or motus on cruises, which often include the opportunity to snorkel with sharks and rays, and you can hike a web of trails up jungly hillsides to survey all the beauty. Top it all off with mouthwatering French-inspired food and romantic resorts, and you have the ultimate honeymoon escape. Both the fancy Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora and the InterContinental Resort & Thalasso Spa offer the island's famous over-the-water bungalows right on the ravishing lagoon.
Bora Bora's sister island, Moorea deserves special mention and also boasts a beautiful lagoon, slices of white-sand beach, and plunging emerald peaks.
2 Editor's Choice Aitutaki, The Cook Islands
Presiding over another of the most beautiful lagoons in the South Pacific, Aitutaki is an underrated jewel. Closely linked to New Zealand, the Cook Islands lie between French Polynesia and Samoa. Aitutaki is the second-most visited island in the chain and lies about a 45-minute flight away from Rarotonga, the most popular island and location of the international airport. At its most northern end, the island of Aitutaki hooks around the lagoon, where uninhabited motus (islets) dot the clear waters within kayak distance from some of the resorts. You can paddle out with a picnic and pretend you're Robinson Crusoe for the day. A string of plush resorts perch along its gleaming shores, including Pacific Resort Aitutaki and Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa, yet the island manages to retain a relaxed and traditional feel, with friendly locals and a snoozy pace of life.
3 The Mamanuca Islands, Fiji
Dazzling beaches, serene blue seas, and plenty of sunshine make the Mamanucas among Fiji's most popular island group. Coral reefs shimmer in the clear waters around these 20 tropical beauties, and the famous Cloud Break, a world-class surf break, lies a short boat ride away. If you loved the scenery on Cast Away and Survivor Fiji, both of which were filmed on islands in this chain, this is your place. Plus you can enjoy the warm hospitality of the locals, for which Fiji is famous. You can take your pick from plenty of resorts here, including luxury options like Likuliku Lagoon Resort and Tokoriki Island Resort. Surfers head to Tavarua Island Resort, and backpackers can bask at the more affordable Beachcomber Island Resort. Most of these islands lie less than an hour away by boat from Denarau Island Marina on the main island of Viti Levu. Just north of the Mamanuca Islands, the less-developed Yasawa Islands come a close second in the beauty stakes.
Samoa is one of the South Pacific's best kept secrets. Unassuming, unsullied, and stunningly beautiful, it lies in the heart of Polynesia, about half way between New Zealand and Hawaii. This topographically beautiful archipelago of ten tropical islands was born in a dramatic volcanic uprising, creating pointed toothy peaks and rugged rock islands. Lush jungles cloak the hillsides, waterfalls tumble down sheer cliffs, and coral reefs rim their shores. Adding to all this natural beauty is the warm hospitality of the locals, who still fiercely cling to their traditional values and customs, called "Fa'a Samoa." Savai'i and Upolu are the two main islands. Most visitors stay on Upolu, where Apia, the capital, is home to the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum. But Savai'i offers its own sleepy South Seas charm.
Top aquatic adventures in Samoa include snorkeling and diving on the fringing coral reefs, game fishing, swimming, and kayaking. Surfing is also fantastic, but is best left for more experienced boardriders due to the treacherous coral reefs. On land, you can bask on Lalomanu Beach, hike the rainforest trails, take a 4WD or bicycle tour, and photograph some of the South Pacific's most beautiful waterfalls. Don't miss taking a dip in the To Sua trench, about a 1.5-hour drive from Apia. Surrounded by beautiful gardens, this 30-meter-deep crater filled with seawater stars on Samoa postcards and tourist brochures. Samoa's accommodations range from rustic huts (fales) on the beach to five-star resorts like Sinalei Reef Resort & Spa.
Palau is one of the world's top dive destinations, and for good reason. From the air, the 500 plus islands of Palau are a study in topographic beauty, jutting out of the sea like a maze of jungly blobs, but beneath their limpid turquoise waters lies a fish-rich wonderland. The multi-hued hard and soft corals are populated by an astounding diversity of marine life, including turtles, sharks, sea snakes, giant clams, and rays. Palau is also known for its WWII wreck diving and the Ngemelis Wall, or Big Drop-Off, reputedly one of the best wall dives in the world. Though underwater scenery is the star attraction, the islands offer plenty of land adventures. More than three quarters of the land is cloaked in native forest and mangroves, and you can hike to waterfalls and Polynesian stone monuments. Palau's main commercial town, Koror, is also home to a few museums and WWII monuments. One of the top things to do in Palau is take a boat trip to the Rock Islands, where you can snorkel in crystal clear waters, paddle around them in sea kayaks, and bask on their slivers of white-sand beach.
6 Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu
Vanuatu's largest island, Espiritu Santo ("Santo" as it's affectionately called), is one of the prettiest islands in the South Pacific and a top destination for adventurers. Wrecks, reefs, and ravishing beaches are the top attractions here, and jungle-based adventures are also high on the list. Champagne Beach is a must-visit with its powdery sands and crystal-clear waters, and you can snorkel and dive fertile coral reefs as well as famous wrecks like the SS President Coolidge from WW II. Landlubbers will also find plenty of adventures. One of the island's top adventures is a visit to Millennium Cave, which involves a jungle trek, crossing bamboo bridges, descending deep into a cave, and a swim through a pond and a series of jungly rapids. The island is also known for its beautiful blue holes, where crystal-clear water bubbles up from freshwater springs through layers of limestone in brilliant blue hues. You can also horseback ride along empty beaches and scale some of the country's highest peaks in the southwest of the island. The lush countryside inland is dotted with tiny villages that have changed little over the years.
7 Lord Howe Island, Australia
Peaceful and pristine, World Heritage-listed Lord Howe Island limits the number of guests allowed to alight upon its unspoiled shores, and that's just one of its many charms. About 660 kilometers off the north coast of New South Wales in Australia, this ring of soaring sea cliffs and tiny islets was once part of a volcano. Today, almost two thirds of the island is protected, making it a nirvana for nature lovers, who come here to bask on its beautiful white-sand beaches, snorkel, swim, and feed the colorful fish at Ned's Beach, hike in the pandanus- and palm-splotched forests, and tick an astounding diversity of species off their bird lists. On land, one of the most popular things to do is hike up 875-meter Mt. Gower for spectacular views, or scale the slopes to Malabar Hill or Kim's Lookout. In the sea, you can dive and snorkel along Elizabeth Reef, the world's most southerly coral reef, go deep-sea fishing, or sea kayaking. Bicycles are the preferred form of transport here, and the fact that cell phones might not have coverage is seen as a blessing by most who visit. Lord Howe Island is less than two hours by air from Brisbane or Sydney.
8 Isle of Pines, New Caledonia
Captain Cook named this southernmost island in New Caledonia for the slender pines that stand like sentries along its gleaming white shores. Today, it's one of the top tourist destinations in this overseas French territory. Isle of Pines (Île des Pins) is probably best known for its pretty pine-fringed bays with soft white-sand beaches lapped by water in brilliant hues of blue. Adding to this natural beauty, cute rock islets loom offshore, capped with lush foliage. Popular things to do here include swimming, snorkeling, and sunbathing at Kanumera Bay and Kuto Bay, stand up paddleboarding, glass-bottom boat tours, and exploring the island's caves. Not far from Oro Bay is a natural seawater swimming pool, Piscine Naturelle, where you can swim and snorkel with swarms of tropical fish, and Upi Bay is dotted with picturesque mushroom-shaped rock formations.
Isle of Pines lies a 30-minute flight or 2.5-hour boat ride from New Caledonia's distinctly French capital of Noumea. New Caledonia is about a 2.5-hour flight from Sydney.
9 Easter Island (Rapa Nui), Chile
One of the planet's most isolated inhabited islands, Easter Island (Rapa Nui: Polynesian, Isla de Pascua: Spanish) exudes a rugged, mystical beauty. This popular ecotourism destination belongs to Chile, yet it lies more than 3,700 kilometers to the east in the southeastern Pacific Ocean and feels true to its deep Polynesian roots. The island's landscapes consist primarily of the grassy domes of extinct volcanoes rippling against a backdrop of brilliant blue water. Much of the island is protected by the World Heritage-listed Rapa Nui National Park, and this is where many of the archeological and natural attractions lie, including caves; volcanoes, hiking trails; ceremonial sites, and some of the island's 887 moai, its most famous attraction. These massive stone statues, created by the Rapa Nui people from the 10th through the 16th centuries, loom over vibrant landscapes of stark beauty. Biking, hiking, and horseback riding are all popular ways to explore the island. Other things to do include trekking, diving, snorkeling, and surfing the island's powerful swells. If you really need a beach fix, you can bask on Anakena Beach, a pretty bay with a half-moon slice of white-sand and groves of slender coconut palms.