Two months is barely enough time to scratch the surface of traveling through a huge, spread-out and diverse region that consists of hundreds of inhabited islands, thousands of uninhabited islets and hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean. Transportation is challenging. Some destinations are served by only one or two flights per week and you may have to travel more than 1,000 miles (including overnight stays) to get between islands that are only a couple hundred miles from each other. There’s also the rather mutable concept of “schedules” in places like central New Guinea where no plane took off on time.
As a result, we typically got to only two or three islands in large, multi-island chains, such as French Polynesia and Tonga and had to skip some large chains (like the Cook and the Solomon Islands) altogether. But despite the many gaps in our travels, this was a great introduction to a region to which we, as Douglas MacArthur said about the Philippines (which happened to be the last stop of our journey) “shall return”.
But, while our visits were limited, we cherry-picked our locations—selecting best-of-class destinations for things such as scenery, coral, sealife and hospitality; and for engaging in unique experiences that are available in few, if any other spots in the world. These include snorkeling with humpback whales and jellyfish and visiting and exploring the unique traditional cultures of one of the most remote, least-known countries in the world.
We had a chance to explore some of the incredible diversity of the region:
- From some of the region’s most iconic beach paradises (like Tahiti and Bora Bora) to the ancestral homes of headhunters and cannibals (Papua New Guinea);
- From the wonders of the nature (snorkeling with humpback whales and jellyfish) to the deadly follies of man (historic WW II battle sites including Truk Lagoon and Corregidor Island); and
- From the cultural diversity of an authentic New Guinean “sing sing” to the reproduced “authenticity” of a modern luxury resort.
The trip, in other words, was custom-designed to provide experiences and to yield highlights. While we have in-depth blogs on all of our stops, we wanted to summarize some of the most unique and most memorable of these:
Basking in the Luxury of Bora Bora
It isn’t called the “Pearl of the Pacific” for nothing. The magic begins on the flight to the island: the eerily-shaped, emerald green, volcanic mountains of the main island, to the surreal turquoise of the lagoon and the ring of sand-fringed, coral atolls that encircle them. Then there are the underwater marvels. Not just the beautiful coral and the diversity of the tropical fish, but also the opportunity to snorkel with eight-foot, black- and grey-tipped reef sharks, huge, graceful manta rays, schools of eagle rays and to play with gregarious stingrays. Nor did it hurt that we stayed in a beautiful overwater bungalow and were pampered by Four Seasons’ service.
Snorkeling with Whales in Tonga
Tonga isn’t one of the first places that you think of when thinking of topical paradises. It is tiny, out of the way and difficult to get to. Nor does it have the type of luxury resorts that one normally associates with the South Pacific. It, however, offers something unique: an opportunity to snorkel with humpback whales. True, the day we went, the seas were rough and the whales were scare. But, although we did not get a chance to see a mother and calf as we had hoped, there is still something very special about swimming just above a massive, singing male humpback as he heads to the surface.
Experiencing Papua New Guinea’s Culture
PNG is a country lost in time. Most families continue to subsist on traditional farming and fishing practices. Old habits, meanwhile, die slowly. Wealth, for example, is still computed in pigs, tribal feuds continue to be settled with machetes and suspected witches are routinely murdered. Even practices such as headhunting and cannibalism take time to fall out of favor. (The last confirmed incidents were in 1998 and 2012 respectively). This said, many of its traditions are well worth retaining. Its people, especially those living in small, lowland river villages, are among the friendliest on earth and they continue to practice several hundred year-old traditions. The country, in an effort to retain its diverse cultures and to promote understanding among geographically isolated tribes and clans who still speak more than 800 different languages, stages a few large cultural festivals each year. These “sing-sings” bring tribes from across the country together, attired in traditional outfits, adorned with traditional designs and singing and dancing to traditional rhythms. We attended (in fact, we built our entire trip around) the largest of these sing-sings, the annual Goroka Festival. The celebration draws more than 1,500 singers and dancers from over 70 tribes and clans from around the country. Being among only a few hundred foreign visitors, we had a unique opportunity to sample the country’s vibrant culture and be welcomed by its friendly, gracious people. And this is not to even mention the opportunity to explore villages in different sections of the country and spot beautiful and elusive Birds of Paradise in its verdant forests.
Exploring Palau’s Undersea Wonders
Palau has some the greatest diversity of coral and fish species in the world. They are also among the most colorful. Renowned as one of the world’s premier dive locations, its shallow reefs also offer unparalleled treats for snorkelers. Its island-studded bays, meanwhile, provide a beautiful backdrop for these undersea wonders and the mushroom-shaped islands with their caves and tunnels, make for dramatic kayaking. And then there is probably the greatest treat of all—the opportunity to snorkel among hundreds of jellyfish who, secluded in small saltwater lakes with no predators, have lost their ability to sting,
Chuuk Island’s Truk Lagoon was Japan’s “Pearl Harbor”—a large Japanese naval base that was attacked by American planes. The Lagoon now serves as a graveyard for more than 70 Japanese ships and Zero fighter planes, making it the Wreck Diving Capital of the world. Since we no longer dive, we were unable to visit the largest and most dramatic of these wrecks. Even so, about half a dozen ships and at least one zero are in water that is shallow enough to allow exploration by snorkelers. There are also plenty other undersea sights (lovely coral and fish) and above-ground war remnants (such as Japanese bases, caves and gun emplacements).
Although this Manila Bay island is hardly a tropical paradise, it certainly has a fascinating history and plenty to see. Corregidor, as the primary line of defense for guarding access to the capital of the Philippines, has been a military fortress since Spanish Colonial days of the 16th and 17th centuries. Our visit, however, was to explore a more recent history, the island’s role in World War II. It was the headquarters that MacArthur was forced to abandon and that endured a four-month Japanese siege in 1942 and that was recaptured by the Americans in a surprise 1945 invasion.
So, although two months is nowhere near enough time for even a high-level exploration of the tropical Pacific islands, it is more than enough time to become acquainted with many of its highlights, to compile some great memories and to have a number once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
It was also more than enough time to determine that we must return: certainly to revisit some of our favorite, most memorable places. But also to explore many of the islands and chains that we were unable to visit on this trip.