All the way from Australia east to Easter Island, which lies off the west coast of South America, the Pacific islands possess a mystique like few others in the world. Tahiti, Bora Bora and other Pacific paradises are almost synonymous with “escape.” The painter Paul Gauguin, who spent years in French Polynesia and is buried in the Marquesas islands, certainly thought so, as did the writers Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson, among others.
Australia and New Zealand
Australia, the island continent, and its neighbor, New Zealand, are on a good many bucket lists, and deservedly so.
Australia is amazingly diverse -- from its well-populated east and southeastern coasts, with world-class cities like Sydney and Melbourne beckoning, to its arid outback (which constitutes much of the country), from its northeastern rainforests to its southeastern mountains, from its trendy vineyards to its frontier-style cattle ranches, from its icons (urban and rural) like the Sydney Opera House and Uluru (also known as Ayres Rock), to its often-overlooked far-western and far northern cities like Perth and Darwin.
And of course there is its wildlife -- bounding kangaroos, shy koalas, and the impossible-to-make-up duck-billed platypus, which scientists once thought must be a hoax -- as well as its colorful history as a repository for English criminals, from whom many modern-day Australians are descended. Native aborigines, much in evidence in some parts of the country, add further to the Australians’ reputation as a yet-untamed, fiercely independent people.
Much of New Zealand is flat-out gorgeous,.with tropical beaches in the north and glacier-cut valleys in the south, mountain ranges and rainforest, fjords and caves lit by glow worms. The South and North islands are like two different worlds, and little Stewart Island to the far south adds a third. This is a place for nature lovers, for hikers who want to conquer some of the world’s most famous trekking trails (called “tracks”), and anyone who wants to enjoy the type of dramatic scenery filmed in The Lord of the Rings series.
Micronesia and Melanesia
The stars of Micronesia in the far west Pacific are the islands of Palau and Yap. Palau is known for its Rock Islands, hundreds of little forested islands with beautiful beaches and some of the world’s best diving spots. Little Yap to the north is equally prized for its diving spots among World War II wrecks. Palau is where men from Yap once quarried the stone used in their unique stone money; the more men who died in the treacherous canoe trips back to Yap, the more value the heavy rounded stones became.
Fiji, the centerpiece of Melanesia, is a lush island where beach resorts exist side by side with plenty of opportunities for adventurous hikes, canoe rides, waterfall swims, snorkeling, diving, and small-ship trips to some of the hundreds of out islands. About half the population is East Indian, having come here in the 19th century to work the fields.
Polynesians have populated much of the south and eastern Pacific over the centuries, ofren setting off in rafts and navigating by the stars to discover new islands, ranging from Tahiti to Easter Island and north to Hawaii. French Polynesia is the land of Bali Hai and bungalow resorts built on poles over the warm turquoise waters of Bora Bora and Moorea. Tahiti remains beautiful, if heavily populated in the Papete area.
The best way to explore the islands -- and those of the remote Marquesas, also part of French Polynesia -- is by small ship. Both luxury ships and semi-cargo vessels ply these waters.
Easter Island is the farthest east, and its prime attraction are the moia -- the huge, multi-ton stone statues of ancestors that were somehow transported from the central quarry to outlying areas around the island. Some tours of Chile, to which Easter Island belongs, include a stop here, several hundred miles out into the Pacific. It’s one of the ultimate bucket-list experiences.