Discover the best islands and archipelagos in the South Pacific for snorkeling, swimming, exploration, cultural enrichment + so much more.
“We’re going to the South Pacific” is a phrase that’s sure to elicit a sigh of envy when spoken. And for good reason. This dazzling pocket of the planet has inspired the utopian settings featured in some of the greatest films of all time, and allows travelers to feel as though they’ve truly arrived on vacation, quickly settling them into a state of serenity that’s coupled with a lust for the adventure abundant in the area.
So yup, people want to go to the South Pacific. But when you begin looking into where to go in the South Pacific you realize it’s composed of 25,000 islands and you close your internet browser in overwhelm. To help lessen this fabulous burden, we’ve filled this list with ten of the loveliest islands and archipelagos in this enchanting ocean, and pinpointed what makes them deserve a potential spot on your itinerary.
Best for Natural Beauty: Moorea, French Polynesia
Bora Bora's sister island, Moorea seems to have jumped out of the iconic musical South Pacific, especially as it’s said to have inspired the movies' mythical island Bali Hai. With its lagoon of water so clear you feel as though you’re floating on air when you swim through it, expanses of powder-soft sand, and eight emerald peaks cascading into the South Pacific Ocean, the setting is full on fairytale.
Highlights of the island include Opunohu Bay, a lagoon featuring mind=blowing snorkeling, and Belvedere Lookout, the treasure at the end of a moderate hike that mesmerizes with views of the island’s mountainscapes and bays.
For a taste of the local culture, visit Tiki Village where you can enjoy a traditional buffet dinner and performances by local dancers. In addition, explorers can engage in safari and stingray feeding tours, ziplining, and diving off the deck of one of the island’s many over-water villas.
Best for Originality: Fuvahmulah
Those with a passion for one-of-a-kind flora and fauna will appreciate Fuvahmulah, the only one-island atoll in the Maldives, which has a fish and a bird native to the island – the Kattelhi fish, and the Valikukulhu bird that features a distinctive red and yellow beak. In addition, it is one of the only islands in the Maldives that has fresh water lakes.
Adding even more originality to Fuvahmulah is the variety of fruit trees, including mango, guava, pineapple, orange and pomegranate, in addition to sweet potato that grows naturally in the wetlands, and berries and unusual fruits that can be found in the wild. This dynamic tapestry of life makes exploring the island on foot a favorite pastime.
Best for Luxury: Bora Bora
The golden child of the South Pacific (and for good reason), Bora Bora is a wonderland of towering peaks, sand-kissed islets, and an aquamarine lagoon surrounded by a coral reef bustling with life. It’s easy to imagine Moana sailing by on her outrigger canoe.
Beyond the luxury offered at the island’s many resorts (some of which have over-water villas with glass floors!), ample adventure is offered with shark and stingray feedings (and snorkeling for those with the courage for it), hikes on trails that weave up the sides of Mount Otemanu and Mount Pahia, and jet ski excursions around the island.
When appetites are stoked, head to the famous Bloody Mary’s, or nosh on the French-inspired food found at the gourmet eateries at many of the resorts. With all that said, know that the notoriety of the island has made many of the accommodations come with a high price tag. However, there are deals to be found.
Best for Photography: Samoa
Shaped by volcanic explosions, Samoa is a unique and underutilized country composed of ten islands that are home to barbed peaks, carpets of lush jungles, lots of waterfalls and coral reefs encircling these utopias. This natural beauty, coupled with traditional values and customs the loyals so beautifully honor and display, make Samoa a dream for photographers wanting to capture the authentic spirit of the country.
Snorkeling, diving, fishing, and kayaking, are popular aquatic activities here, much like the other islands. Epic surf can also be had, but because of the gnarly combo of bare skin and coral reef, only experienced surfers should brave Samoa’s swells.
On the beaches and within the jungles, travelers can connect with the wild beauty of the islands during rainforest hikes, bike tours, swims in waterfalls and To Sua, a 30-meter-deep crater filled with seawater, and of course, beachside massages.
Another lovely feature of this country is that it offers a range of accommodations, from thatched-roof huts to five-star resorts, making it accessible to all.
Best for Beaches: Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu
The largest island in Vanuatu, Espiritu Santo is famous for its beaches, specially Champagne and Lonnoc Beach. Champagnes Beach is aptly-named, as it seems to fizz at low tide because of gas escaping volcanic rock. Beyond the fizz, soft sand, shockingly clear water and an abundance of foliage surrounding the beach make this an increasingly popular destination for tourists. So if you want to enjoy this haven sans throngs of people, wake up before the sun so you can watch it spread across the water there – it’s worth it. And then there’s Lonnoc Beach: it rivals Champagne Beach in beauty and is slightly less touristy.
Divers will be blissed-out here as they explore world-renowned dive sites like President Coolidge, Million Dollar Point, and numerous other ship and plane wrecks.
When out of the water, adventure-lovers can trek through the jungle to the alien-like Millennium Cave, which features a bat-filled cavern, swimming hole and waterfall, and series of rapids. In addition to the cave, Espiritu Santo is known for its stunning blue holes, composed of clear water that bubbles up from freshwater springs through layers of limestone in blue hues. From beaches to blue holes, this is an island you could easily spend weeks exploring.
Best for Whale Watching: Vava'u Group, Tonga
This group of 61 islands (many of them itty-bitty) is where you go to swim with humpback whales and their calves (and sometimes whale sharks), or spot them from one of the many boats following their spouts between July to October. And because of the 100-foot visibility common in the waters surrounding these islands, it won’t be hard to keep an eye on these gentle giants. That visibility also comes in handy when diving the sea caves and shipwrecks you can explore alongside 100 species of tropical fish, massive clams (so big a little dog could fit inside one), manta rays, sea turtles, and spinner dolphins.
As this area has yet to see an overflow of resorts popping up on its shores, the travel unicorns of deserted beaches and unbleached coral gardens still exist here, allowing travelers to have a full on “unplugging from the modern world” getaway. In addition, this is a prime place for surfers to book a boat excursion to many of the best, mostly-empty waves in the South Pacific. The Tongan winter swell season runs from April to October.
When you’re not exploring the islands’ waters and shores, check out the ‘Ene’io Botanical Garden that features 550 varieties of plants, or Mt. Talau National Park where you can explore trails leading to lookouts, thickets of rainforest filled with endangered tree and plant species, and prehistoric-esque birds and reptiles.
Best for Swimming: Isles of Pines
Named the Isles of Pines by Captain Cook because of its slender pines that stand out against the white shores, this island is one of the most visually compelling in the South Pacific.
The waters are so transparent it’s hard to see where the sand dips beneath the warm waters. However, when you look further out to sea the water takes on a hypnotic blue hue. As the aquatic world surrounding Isle of Pines is so spectacular it’s easy to see why most visitors rarely leave the water, choosing to spend their time exploring the community beneath the surface.
One of the most popular swimming areas is Piscine Naturelle, a natural pool filled with tropical fish, and warm water that makes you want to float on your back for hours. Another must-see is Kanumera Bay where you can partake in some of the best snorkeling on the island at the base of Rocher de Kaa Nuë Méra, a massive rock islet that’s sacred and forbidden to walk on. A boat tour to Upi Bay is also recommended, as it features foliage-covered rock formations rising from the calm sea.
If you can pull yourself out of the water, head to Grotte de la Reine Hortense, a wildlife park filled with jurassic-like tropical gardens and a massive cave/tunnel dripping with stalactites - if dinos were still around, they’d live here.
Best for Culture: Yasawa Islands, Fiji
A long chain of islets dotting the sea north of Viti Levu (Fiji’s main island), the Yasawa Islands are the place to go if you’re hoping to experience authentic Fijian culture – a society of people believed to be the happiest on Earth. As these islands were closed to land-based tourism until somewhat recently, they’ve been largely untouched by modern influences. Because of this, the accommodations on the islands are primarily limited to simple lodgings run by locals, adding to the real McCoy vibes of a vacation here.
Adventure can be had in the limestone caves of Sawa-i-lau, nature-made wonders shining with green and gold-hued walls, and turquoise water ideal for swimming – light filters in from a hole in the rock “roof” allowing the surface of the water to occasionally appear to be covered in diamonds. Legend says a young chief once used the caves as a hiding place for his love, whose family was trying to betroth her to a rival chief. They of course lived happily ever after. Some Fijians also say that the 10-headed God Ulutini rests in the caves.
Beyond exploring the folklore-filled caves, you can snorkel or scuba dive with Bull, Tiger, Tawny Nurse, Lemon and Silver Tip sharks on Kuata Island, or commune with manta rays on Drawaqa Island. Rafting, waterfall hikes, sailing and kayaking can also be enjoyed across these adventure-filled archipelagos.
As food is an integral part of any culture, be sure to put your foodie hat on and sample local dishes inspired by Indian, Southeast Asian and Chinese cuisines, in addition to the local Melanesian influences. And to really see the Fijian spirit in full force, make sure to catch a rugby game.
Best for Scuba Diving: Palau
Referred to as “the underwater Serengeti,” the 200 islands that make up Palau are encircled by a world-famous, massive barrier reef filled with colorful coral, ghostly ship and plane wrecks, and lively communities of marine life, including barracudas, Napoleon wrasses, jacks, schools of grey reef sharks; snails, clams, sea cucumbers, starfish, sea urchins, sea anemones, jellyfish, squid, and feather-duster worms. Phew.
Popular dive sites include Blue Corner, Blue Holes (expect lots of blue), Chandelier Cave, German Channel, and Turtle Wall, among many others. Bring your underwater camera.
And then there’s Jellyfish Lake, a fabulously eerie body of water filled with stingless golden jellyfish. This activity is a must, especially because climate change is slowly killing off the lake’s residents.
Above the surface, this archipelago of limestone and volcanic islands is covered in emerald forests, pockets of freshwater, and WWII relics. The Rock Islands, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are especially stunning with 52 marine lakes, acclaimed birding and unique biodiversity. These islands can be explored via kayaking or hiking tours.
Making Palau all the more appealing is the eco-pledge they require tourists to make upon arrival, which means committing to being stewards of the environment.
Best for Affordability: Cook Islands
Composed of 15 atolls, the Cook Islands offer an unpretentious experience that fosters a connection with nature and people more than luxury amenities. With regulations that include no buildings being higher than the tallest coconut tree, and no branded resorts, these islands are all about a down-to-earth lifestyle. Oh, and there are no stoplights on the roads, which are primarily inhabited by scooters.
While there are numerous hotels on the Cook Islands, one of the most popular and affordable options for accommodations is a vacation home. Airbnb is filled with selections that allow travelers to have a wonderfully remote vacation that lets them live out Swiss Family Robinson fantasies.
In addition to naps on empty, paradisiacal beaches, and swims in waters where the only other living creatures have fins, you can enjoy the islands via scuba diving, snorkeling, SUPing, and sea scooters (they’re a thing!), or through lagoon cruises, hiking and biking. For those that get grumpy in over-crowded tourist traps, or at resorts that are over-charging, this is the place to go.