Backpacking in the South Pacific
What’s special about backpacking in the South Pacific?
The tropical paradise that is the South Pacific is a tempting place for backpackers and their perceptions about the region include: an unusual destination; warm and friendly people; good backpacker scene; cultural experiences; ease of access from Australasia; and ‘a once in a lifetime opportunity’.
There are also a number of volunteering opportunities in the South Pacific which appeal to backpackers which provides a complete contrast to home life and the opportunity to ‘give something back’, offering an exotic ocean destination with marine, conservation and environmental activities.
However, some of the South Pacific islands are difficult and expensive to reach which deters all but the most persistent (and wealthy) backpackers. Whilst basic accommodation can be found across the region it is most likely that they are used by many tourist types, not just backpackers.
The National Park of American Samoa has a number of hiking trails and good beaches such as Ofu, which are remote and unpopulated and have appeal to more adventurous backpackers looking to get away from it all. However, access is by air and tourist amenities are limited. The country has a good public ‘aiga’ bus transport system and basic accommodation can be found at Ofu.
Although relatively expensive the visit, the Cook Islands does have a thriving backpacker community and a range of facilities to support them. Backpacker accommodation is widely available in Rarotonga and leading providers Rarotonga Backpackers offers a range of activities to guests such as island hopping, visits to local markets and barbeques and curry nights aimed specifically at backpacker guests. In addition, backpackers are able to hire bikes, snorkel gear, spear guns and surfboards.
More adventurous backpackers head to Aitutaki Island where the focus is on beach living and snorkelling in the beautiful lagoon, while on Atiu Island the focus is away from the coast and more on exploring village life, culture and caves.
Fiji is the undisputed leading destination for backpackers in the South Pacific and has been on the backpacker ‘round the world’ trail for many years owing to the availability of accessible and value fares from either Australia or New Zealand. Fiji is also a leading destination for volunteer tourism in the South Pacific and a number of key global operators manage projects in the country in the areas of community development, marine conservation, supporting children, sustainability and construction projects.
Key destinations for backpackers in Fiji starts with the multi-cultural town of Nadi, the main hub for international travellers. It is close to the Coral Coast and the Mamanuca Islands which offer some of the best water sports activities in stunning locations. Other beach-based destinations regularly frequented by backpackers include the less commercialised Yasawa Islands and Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second largest island.
Yasawa Islands are home to around 30 budget beach resorts (or hostels) scattered along the island chain and backpackers can purchase the Yasawa Flyer travel pass for 7, 10, 14 or 21 days which enables them to hop on/hop off a passenger ferry that stops at all the islands. In addition, backpackers can purchase pre-paid accommodation vouchers which gives travellers the flexibility to explore as they choose. Close to Suva is Fiji’s adventure capital, Pacific Harbour in Bequ which has a reputation among adrenaline junkies for a wide range of activities such as shark feeding, surfing and 4×4 tours.
The Lomaiviti Group of islands offers laid-back island life and is at the heart of Fiji’s colonial past. Some islands are more developed than others which provides for a mix of experiences. Kadavu is one of the best places to experience Fijian culture and is home to the famous Great Astrolabe Reef. In the far east, the Lau Group of islands are mostly undeveloped and offer a glimpse of Fiji not often seen, and is a true off the beaten track experience.
In Fiji, a system of Village Stays are operated by local Fijian families who invite tourists into the homes for total immersion into the local culture, or provide accommodation in bures just outside the village environment. Typically a Village Stay includes local style meals which are sometimes served with the family and laid out on the floor.
Huahine is the main backpackers ‘paradise’ in French Polynesia, an area which has few luxurious resorts as yet, and independent travellers can enjoy good surfing, stunning beaches and picturesque lagoons. While generally an expensive place to visit, there are other budget options to be found in French Polynesia including the island of Moorea. The remote island of Maupiti is French Polynesia’s unknown paradise with deserted tropical beaches and very few facilities for visitors.
Backpacking in New Caledonia is limited owing to high prices and most backpackers head to the Loyalty Islands where there are beautiful beaches, cultural experiences and accommodation available in tribal huts. The Isle of Pines also has some budget guesthouses and there are a number of cheap campsites in scenic locations, particularly around the main island of Grande Terre. New Caledonia has a good public transport system and a network of long distance trails offers the backpacker some of the best hiking in the region.
The two main islands of Samoa, Savaii and Upolu offer a laid-back, safe and cheap backpacking experience and it is relatively easy to get around and explore. The beautiful beach at Lalomanu has a lively backpacker atmosphere while the beaches in the south of Upolu are quieter and more relaxed. An inter-island ferry travels between the two islands and Manase Beach in the north of Savaii is the main backpacker destination. Budget accommodation are readily available in beach ‘fales’ – the majority are quite basic with a few poles supporting a wooden base and a coconut roof. Other fales are more tourist orientated and are a better option for meeting other backpackers and provide food or organise activities.
The Solomon Islands are more difficult to get around for the budget traveller, but it is considered to be a good ‘adventure’ destination, in particular for divers and hikers. An inter-island passenger ferry connects the islands which is economical and basic. Solomon Airlines also offers around 600 scheduled flights a month on island hopping routes which link 31 domestic airstrips in the country.
Backpacking in Tonga is largely confined to relaxation and beach. Tongapatu is the main island and there are a number of small, quiet beach lodges. Passenger ferries travel weekly between the islands of Ha’apai and Vava’u, but schedules can be erratic and it is often easier to catch a domestic flight.
Vanuatu is the destination of choice for the more adventurous backpacker, and exploring the islands and experiencing Vanuatu’s culture and natural features are the main interest for backpackers. The island of Tanna in the south is renowned for its village culture and is also home to Mount Yasur, the world’s most accessible active volcano. Espiritu Santo is known for its hiking trails and rainforest and is home to two conservation reserves. A number of specialist tour operators offer day trips to visit waterfalls, caves and inland blowholes.
More commercialised tours offering soft adventure experiences can be found on the main island of Efate Island such as zip lines through rainforest, abseiling waterfalls, 4×4 tours and horse riding.
Other South Pacific Countries
Several countries in the South Pacific region are not typical backpacking destinations and lie far from ‘backpacker trails’ that have developed over the years. Many receive few tourists and as a result there has been limited investment in developing tourist facilities. They are generally difficult, expensive and time-consuming to reach owing to the remote locations, making them impractical choices for the backpacking community. Undoubtedly, the most persistent of backpackers in search of the next ‘untouched’ destination will reach some of these remote shores, but currently there are limited amenities for backpackers to these destinations: