The South Pacific has become the most popular cruise destination for Australians, for two good reasons. First of all, many of the islands in the South Pacific are right on our doorstep; just a few days at sea from Sydney or Brisbane and you're in a very different and exotic paradise, a world away from home. Secondly, it's a region of unexpected diversity -- a collection of unique, palm-filled, white-sand dots on the map scattered across the world's largest ocean, stretching from the Solomon Islands east of Papua New Guinea to the Tahitian archipelago in the far west.
The islands of the South Pacific are geographically and culturally divided into several regions, including Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia; the latter two island collections are the most frequented by cruise ships. From northwest to southeast, the islands of Melanesia form an arc of sorts, beginning with New Guinea and continuing through the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji and a variety of other smaller islands. Polynesia, on the other hand, comprises a very small amount of land mass spread across a vast expanse of ocean stretching eastward, and includes the islands of Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands, French Polynesia, Hawaii and remote Easter Island.
Thanks to a long and sometimes complex colonial history, the islands of the South Pacific offer quite different arrays of landscapes and cultural experiences for cruise passengers to explore and enjoy. For example, close to home, the islands of Vanuatu and New Caledonia have unmistakable French accents and are blessed with glorious beaches and reefs with WWII shipwrecks for top-class snorkelling and diving.
Meanwhile, Fiji is a diverse archipelago of more than 330 islands, with its own language and unique culture based around village life and tradition. It's also blessed with white-sand beaches, jungle rivers and the endearing "bula" welcome.
Further across the Pacific Ocean, French Polynesia is another stunning archipelago famous for diving, surfing, romance and chic French style, while Hawaii is the USA's fiftieth state with a difference, fusing the past with the future and the "aloha" spirit.
Best Time for South Pacific Cruises
The South Pacific is a tropical climate that offers year-round fun in the sun, making it the ideal destination from Australia; however, there are a few key differences between the seasons.
Summer in Vanuatu is between November and March, and it's the hottest, wettest and most humid time of year, with the average daytime temperature around 28 C. Winter is between April and September, and the temperature drops to around 23 C. The sea temperature varies from 22 C to 28 C, making swimming and water sports such as diving and snorkelling enjoyable year-round. In New Caledonia it's a similar story, with average daily temperatures ranging from between 15 C and 32 C depending on the season; in Fiji, temperatures average between 26 C and 31 C all year.
The warmer months in the South Pacific are part of the tropical cyclone season, with most cyclones occurring between November 1 and April 30. The high summer months of December and January are also a major annual holiday period for families, so expect ships to be busier with a higher number of children on board.
South Pacific Cruise Lines
The South Pacific islands of Vanuatu and New Caledonia in particular have become increasingly popular among local cruise fans, with a year-round season offering Australians in the southern half of the country an escape from the cooler winter months. As a result, all of the local cruise lines, and a number of visiting cruise lines, have these islands on many itineraries.
P&O Cruises is one of the major local lines with three ships based in Australia permanently, and two more transferring in late 2015 from Holland America Line. It caters largely to Australian cruisers, and all three venture to the South Pacific from Sydney and Brisbane on a regular basis. Carnival Cruise Line is another, with two ships based in Australia (one year-round) home porting from Sydney. Other Carnival Corp brands making regular calls to the Pacific Islands during the summer months include Princess and Holland America Line.
Sister cruise lines Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises also offer holidays to the South Pacific each summer, with visiting ships often making calls on their repositioning cruises from other parts of the world. Most cruises depart from Sydney.
Of the visiting ships, cruise lines including Seabourn, Cunard, P&O World Cruises, Crystal, Oceania, Regent and Silversea have ships arriving during the summer for either a short season of cruises, or on grand Pacific voyages or world voyages. A relatively new addition to this lineup is Ponant.
Australians also love small-ship and adventure cruising, with domestic brands including Coral Expeditions, North Star and Captain Cook regularly visiting the Melanesian and Fiji Islands, and Lindblad's National Geographic Orion regularly exploring the South Pacific region generally.
South Pacific Cruise Itineraries
The majority of cruises from Australia to the South Pacific are roundtrips from Sydney and Brisbane, with an increasing number now departing from Melbourne. Traditionally, the well-worn route pioneered by P&O across the Tasman included Fiji, Noumea and Port Vila, but it has been expanded over time to include more of New Caledonia and Vanuatu, and sometimes ports of call in Samoa and Tonga; a growing number of forays to Fiji; and occasionally trips to French Polynesia and Hawaii. Roundtrip itineraries are usually a minimum of seven nights and can be as long as 14.
Cruises From Australia: Roundtrip cruises from Australia commonly include stops at popular ports including Isle of Pines, Champagne Bay, Mystery Island, Noumea, Luganville, Port Vila, Mare, Santo or Wala. Longer cruises can extend to Fiji with ports of call including Port Denarau, Suva and Lautoka.
Repositioning Cruises: The islands of the South Pacific also feature on repositioning cruises at the beginning or end of the Australasia cruise season. These itineraries are typically offered by Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Holland America Line, with one of the most popular routes being Honolulu to Sydney (or the reverse), by way of Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia. These tend to be longer itineraries of 18 to 22 days in duration.
South Pacific Cruise Port Highlights
Champagne Bay, Vanuatu. Photographs don't do justice to the unspoiled beauty of Champagne Bay. It's famous for a sweeping curve of pinkish-sand beach overlooking a sparkling lagoon, and boasts the ultimate in relaxed atmospheres. Vanuatu's most famous beach takes its name from a natural phenomenon which occurs at low tide, when the shallow waters appear to fizz like Champagne, caused by gas escaping from volcanic rocks below on the sea floor. Things to do include enjoying the beach and lagoon, mixing with locals from surrounding villages, snorkelling, and playing beach volleyball or beach football. Further afield, you can enjoy a walk through the rainforest, head out onto the water for a spot of fishing, or go diving on the famous ocean-liner wreck, SS President Coolidge.
Luganville, Vanuatu. Luganville is Vanuatu's northern capital, and second largest town. It's located on the southeastern coast of Espiritu Santo, one of the largest islands in the Vanuatu archipelago, and home to pristine white-sand beaches and blue hole caves, as well as top quality dive and snorkel sites. During World War II, Luganville was a key Allied military base; today, it's dominated by a four-lane waterfront main street with interesting views and a colourful history. Attractions include shops and boutiques selling quality local arts and crafts, and eateries serving regional specialities from escargot to mangrove oysters.
Port Vila, Vanuatu. Port Vila, Vanuatu's capital and trading centre, is one of the more popular ports of call in the South Pacific, and for good reason. Besides enjoying the backdrop of a beautiful natural harbour, it's busy but easy-going, great for duty-free shopping, and has a French Quarter with an authentic waterfront market. Other attractions include experiencing the local Ni-Vanuatu culture firsthand at the Ekasup Cultural Village, one of Vanuatu's top tourist attractions. Just outside of Port Vila is the Cascade Waterfall, a 50-metre-high waterfall with natural rock swimming ponds in an exotic, jungle-like rainforest. Other pastimes for cruise passengers include horse riding, lagoon cruising, scenic flights, and snorkelling at Crystal Blue Beach.
Isle of Pines, New Caledonia. The Melanesian locals call it Kuni, and it's hard to deny that the Isle of Pines is one of the most stunning of the islands of New Caledonia. It's dominated by Nga Peak, a natural jewel that soars 262 metres into the sky and is recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The most famous of the island's many pristine beaches and lagoons is Oro Bay. This natural lagoon is marked by winding, tidal channels and is protected from the wind and open ocean by coral cliffs, so it's packed with marine life as a result. For many visitors, it's also the top snorkelling spot on a South Pacific cruise, and offers other activities including hiking, horseback riding, drifting on an outrigger, or enjoying the scenery from a catamaran.
Lifou, New Caledonia. Lifou is the largest of the Loyalty Islands, an ancient atoll with diverse scenery from its central plateau, set among a ring of cliffs, to its deep forests, bays and caves. Passengers can enjoy many activities, including hiking through the forest to hidden waterholes, scuba diving, fishing, visiting a local village to learn more about the island's culture, or touring a vanilla plantation. Take a guided walk while learning the secrets of the Kanak traditions and local culture, or visit Peng Beach, which stretches six kilometres around Santal Bay. There's also the Spanish-style Qanono church, and Jinek Bay, which is a natural aquarium and scuba diving site.
Mare, New Caledonia. Mare is another of the Loyalty Islands -- the second largest and the southernmost in location, famous for a rich history and endless scenery including coral reefs, deeply carved cliffs, dark forests and pristine beaches. Activities for cruise guests include visiting a vanilla plantation, strolling the forest beneath La Asicen Cliffs, and snorkelling over the "drop" from the spectacular Hnale Bay. Mare is also famous for the Padawa Caves, and some undisturbed beaches in the north.
Noumea, New Caledonia. Noumea is often dubbed the "capital of the Pacific," and is essentially a little slice of France on the other side of the world. This port of call enjoys a balmy climate and French Riviera atmosphere. The downtown and adjacent neighbourhoods are easy to explore on foot, and include La Place de Cocotiers, Chinatown, the Latin Quarter, Faubourg Blanchot, and the old districts of Vallee du Tir and Vallee des Colons. Noumea also boasts a string of bays, some of which are popular with kitesurfers and windsurfers. For lovers of culture, there are museums featuring Kanak art and artifacts, which tell the story of the island -- particularly the Musee de la Ville and L'aquarium de Lagons. If your ship stays in port overnight, be sure to get out and enjoy the French-accented nightlife at Noumea's bars, restaurants and pavement cafes.
Port Denarau, Fiji. Located on Denarau Island on Viti LevuPort Denarau is less than 10 kilometres from Fiji's major town of Nadi, and is one of the country's most popular destinations. Originally developed as a resort hub in the late 1960s, today it is a hive of activity from shopping to dining. It also boasts a new shopping centre packed with boutiques, dining options and spa outlets, all on your ship's doorstep. If you fancy going further afield, head for Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park, which spans over 1,606 acres and is home to wildlife including fruit bats and 22 species of birds. Other options include taking the Coral Coast Railway along the waterfront through cane fields; visiting a traditional Fijian village; or exploring the famous Garden of the Sleeping Giant, founded by the late U.S. actor Raymond Burr.
Suva, Fiji. Fiji's capital since 1882, Suva is an important South Pacific port as well as an attractive harbour city, built on a hilly peninsula on the southeastern coast of Viti Levu. Surrounded by water, with Suva Harbour to the west and Laucala Bay to the east, it's a multicultural hub and home to half the country's urban population, including native Fijians, Indo-Fijians, Chinese, Europeans and people from surrounding South Pacific Islands. (English is the main language.) The city has an interesting landscape including parks and gardens, and a jigsaw of colonial and modern buildings that span shopping malls and a breezy esplanade. Visitors can enjoy some great shopping (from jewellery and electrical gadgets to clothes and handicrafts) along with visiting some interesting museums and eating out. Further afield from Suva, passengers can enjoy activities including village visits, a rainforest walk, a cruise along the Navua River, or relaxing at a local beach resort.
Other Islands. Other ports in New Caledonia and Vanuatu with their own allure and attractions include Lamen Bay on Epi Island, a one-and-a-half kilometre stretch of paradise marked by black volcanic sand to the south which changes to white coral sand at the northern end; the tiny, uninhabited Mystery Island, which is remote and hard to reach except on a cruise; Pentecost Island, which has become famous throughout the world for an annual, age-old land diving festival which takes place between April and June; and Wala, which is scarcely populated and steeped in history, with no electricity, telephones or cars.
Farther afield, ports of call can include Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, famous for its stunning coastline, hiking trails and mountainous landscape; exotic Niuafo'ou, Tonga's most northerly island and one of the most remote in the South Pacific; and Honiara in the Solomon Islands, with a history spanning thousands of years and WWII wrecks great for diving. There's also French Polynesia's Bora Bora and Moorea -- both exotic, tropical paradises ideal for cruising -- and the popular Hawaiian islands of Oahu (home to Honolulu and famous Waikiki Beach), romantic Maui, and the "big" island of Hawaii, where you'll discover the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
- For more on these ports, see our South Pacific port profiles.
South Pacific Cruise Tips
Pack according to the season. Most of the year, lightweight summer casual wear is appropriate for day, with maybe a light jacket or sweater for the evenings -- especially when at sea, travelling between ports of call. During the winter, it can be cooler by day and at night, and during the wet season an umbrella can be useful. Decks can get slippery when wet, so low-heeled or flat shoes are recommended, along with comfortable walking shoes for shore trips. Also, pack plenty of swimsuits to make good use of the ship's pool or the beach and watersports on offer at each destination.
Bring your own equipment. If you're planning to snorkel at most destinations, consider bringing your own equipment, as on most ships and tours require you to rent equipment. You should also consider bringing reef boots and a rash vest to protect your skin from the sun. A waterproof camera can be an asset as the underwater marine life in the South Pacific is quite stunning, even if you are just swimming.
Shop in port. Duty-free shopping aboard most South Pacific cruise ships is excellent, but the best on-land duty-free is found in Port Vila. If you're planning to buy alcohol ashore, first check the rules with your cruise line about bringing it back on board.
Bring sun protection. At any time of year, always carry sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses; the sun is strong, and on some of the quieter island stops there isn't always shade beyond trees. A sarong can also be useful for covering up. If you are prone to seasickness, take medication with you; the South Pacific can be prone to swells, particularly during the cyclone season when there's a higher chance of inclement weather. When going ashore also take bottled water from the ship, as most of the water on the smaller islands in particular isn't potable.
Plan for overnights. If your ship stays overnight in port (commonly Port Vila), make the most of the opportunity to organise different shore excursions on both days, and enjoy an evening ashore in between soaking up the local nightlife.
Prepare for sea days. You're likely to have a number of sea days en-route to the islands and back again from your departure point in Australia, so be prepared. Take a good book and things to keep kids entertained.
Pay in dollars. Local currency can be useful; however, be aware that you cannot exchange the Vanuatu Vatu back again because it has so little value. You can use Australian or American dollars in most ports, and larger cities such as Noumea, Luganville and Port Vila will accept credit cards.