Venture to the South Pacific for some of the most spectacular islands in the world. The clear waters surrounding them come in shades of blue and green you can scarcely imagine. Photograph stunning tropical landscapes—sometimes volcanic and barren, sometimes draped in lush vegetation and endless flowers. The variety of native cultures will simply blow your mind—over 800 languages exist in Papua New Guinea alone! And don’t forget outdoor adventures. This region offers you some of the best diving, snorkeling, kayaking, and hiking in the world.
Experience the allure of Papua New Guinea, geologically part of a great arc of mountains stretching from Asia, through Indonesia and into the South Pacific. This is land of magic and spirits despite the best efforts of colonial missionaries. Encounter the rich traditions of the friendly native islanders, who express their culture in their dress, music, crafts and the flowers they use to adorn themselves. Tribal cultures in the highlands are largely untouched. Choose a local handicraft to take home with you, or simply take photographs of the pristine beaches, active volcanoes, tropical fjords, Sepik River and other breathtaking scenery unique to this remote land just south of the equator.
Palau and Yap, two of the remotest islands in Micronesia, are hailed as the “number one underwater wonder of the world” for marine diversity and beauty. Here you can dive with gentle, giant manta rays, get up close to world-renowned coral reefs, and even explore the wrecks of wartime vessels. On land you can wander through thatched roof villages and view ancient stone currency. The best way to spot the region’s magnificent birdlife is to navigate the inter-island waterways by kayak.
You might feel like you’re stepping into the great unknown in the South Pacific. Many islands—like the deserted D’Entrecasteaux Islands—are mountainous, jungle-covered and completely untouched. Virtually no tourist infrastructure exists, but that’s what makes the South Pacific such a unique destination. South Pacific cruises truly get you away from it all and transport you to a magic, exotic paradise of adventure and discovery.
The 10,000 islands of the South Pacific are usually grouped into three main categories: Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia. Micronesia includes areas like Guam and the Marshall Islands. Melanesia has Fiji and Vanuatu, and Polynesia includes Tahiti and Tonga. The unbelievable range of languages, cultures, and landscapes make this region difficult to generalize.
Papua New Guinea, for example, is like Australia’s biological mirror world, despite their close proximity. Australia is flat and dry, while Papua New Guinea is lush and mountainous. Australian kangaroos bound across the plains, but in Papua New Guinea, they climb in the rainforest canopy. Similarly, even a single small South Pacific island can contain several different tribes, each with their own language, due to geographic barriers.
The earliest people to settle the area were the Papuans. Around 23,000 BC they ventured out into the open seas and arrived in the Solomon Islands of the South Pacific. Shortly after, the Lapita arrived to mingle with the Papuans. It wasn’t until 1500 BC that these people would develop the capabilities to venture off to Fiji, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Tonga and Samoa.
Perhaps the greatest seafarers of their day were the Polynesians, who crossed the open ocean to reach what is today French Polynesia around 200 BC. Navigating by the stars and by wave patterns emanating from islands, they traversed the Pacific at a time when Europeans still stayed close to home.
Ferdinand Magellan likely grazed a few small islands of the South Pacific on his way around the globe. Spanish and Dutch explorers later came in search of natural resources and Terra Australis Incognita, the mythical Great Southern Continent. Captain James Cook was the first European to extensively explore and map the region over the course of three voyages.
Once this territory was mapped, waves of Europeans soon followed. Traders came for natural resources, and missionaries came to convert the islanders. It wasn’t long before the entire South Pacific was colonized by various European powers. With colonization came diseases that would devastate nearly half of the local populations.
The cultures and traditions of the isolated South Pacific islanders are remarkable. Prior to European contact, the islanders had no written language and instead relied on a rich tradition of oral history. Ancestor worship was common throughout the islands. Early Polynesians worshipped over 70 gods, but today they are predominantly Christian. Cannibalism existed up until fairly recent times. Many tribes created artwork for ancestor worship or warfare. The world has the South Pacific to thank for the practice of tattooing, which was introduced to the West by sailors returning from South Pacific voyages.
By World War I, the Pacific was divided between Britain, France and Germany but was not directly involved in the war. World War II, however, brought major battles to the region as the Japanese moved south from Micronesia and defended island after island against U.S. forces before being defeated in 1945. Visitors today can still find wrecks of submerged wartime vessels.
After World War II, many islands gained independence, though France still administers French Polynesia and New Caledonia, and Guam and American Samoa are U.S. territories. Agriculture and fishing sustain many of the local economies. Tourism is also very important. A South Pacific tour offers visitors pristine beaches, colorful local cultures, good fishing and spectacular scenery at a relaxed pace.