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Best of the South Pacific: An island for every travel taste

By L.T. Thomas, for CNN
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
When it comes to romantic getaways it's hard to top Bora Bora, the quintessential honeymoon destination. When it comes to romantic getaways it's hard to top Bora Bora, the quintessential honeymoon destination.
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Which South Pacific island is best?
Shark diving in Fiji
Ouvea, New Caledonia
Laucala Island, Fiji
Vava'u Islands, Tonga
Vanuatu's Tanna Island
Solomon Islands
Teahupoo, Tahiti
Pentecost, Vanuatu
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Diversity of South Pacific islands lets travelers experience luxury, adventure, culture and history
  • At Fiji's Shark Reef Marine Park divers swim cage-free with bull and tiger sharks
  • Teahupoo, Tahiti, is one of the world's top surfing destinations
  • Some of World War II's most bitter South Pacific battles took place in the Solomon Islands

(CNN) -- Palm tree-covered sandy atolls glistening green and white like jewels set in the azure seas may be the enduring image of the South Pacific.

But the islands dotted across this region offer a huge array of opportunities, experiences and adventures.

Struggling to decide which piece of paradise to visit?

Here's the inside track on the "best islands" for everyone, from thrill seekers and beach bums to honeymooners and high rollers.

Best Island for luxury: Laucala Island, Fiji

As soon as you step off the private plane that whisks you to Fiji's Laucala Island, one of three small islands off the coast of Taveuni, life gets immeasurably better.

After you've settled into one of 25 palatial residences on this 12-square-kilometer island, the toughest decision you'll make is which of the five world-class restaurants to visit.

The impossibly romantic Seagrass Lounge has million-dollar views -- you'll often have the place to yourself.

Laucala Island\'s human fish tank.
Laucala Island's human fish tank.

The beach bar is more social while the main pool comes with its own human-sized "fish tank."

Laucala keeps it local with its own farm, where much of the food served is reared or grown.

Even the spa treatments are homemade.

For those who can bear to drag themselves away from their private pool, there's an 18-hole golf course, horseback riding, sailing and diving.

But the top diversion has to be the state of the art submarine on which guests sip cocktails while cruising 150 meters below sea level.

Prices start from $4,200 per night plus taxes and include all meals, drinks and some activities.

The cost to rent the entire island starts from $150,000 a night.

Laucala Island, Fiji; +679 888 0077

Best islands for swimming with whales: Vava'u Islands, Tonga

The Kingdom of Tonga is one of few places in the world where people can swim with humpback whales.

The massive creatures make their way up from the waters of Antarctica in June to give birth in the warmer, sheltered waters of the Vava'u island group before returning south in November.

Whale watching is a fledgling industry so it's wise to choose your operator carefully.

The Tonga Whale Watching Operators Association is a good place to start.

Watching a humpback breach is both terrifying and humbling.
Watching a humpback breach is both terrifying and humbling.

Of the many operators, Whale Watch Vava'u is the industry pioneer and takes protection seriously -- both yours and the humpbacks'.

At Eua'iki Island Eco Resort you can watch the whales swim by as you eat breakfast, then jump on a boat for a closer encounter. Prices from $245 a night.

Eua'iki Island Eco Resort, Vava'u, Kingdom of Tonga, South Pacific; +676 751 2935

Best island for tribal culture: Pentecost, Vanuatu

If you've ever fantasized about seeing the wondrous rituals, colors and cultures of indigenous South Pacific tribes, Vanuatu has a lot to offer.

The island of Pentecost is where you'll find the country's famous land divers, whom inspired bungee jump inventor AJ Hackett.

The men of the island spend weeks building special towers.

Then they climb to the top, attach strong and springy vines to their ankles and jump, coming within centimeters of the ground.

Locals believe this terrifying ritual, which takes place from April to June, will bring a successful harvest.

For something less nerve-racking, to the south on the Vanuatu island of Tanna there are many rural tribes, each with their own unique cultural dances.

Every three years -- the next one is expected to be in 2015 -- Tanna's Nekowiar celebrations light up the island.

It's a three-day festival of music, dancing and eating to mark the arranging of marriages by village elders.

MORE: Braver than bungee: Vanuatu's land-diving daredevils

Best Islands for romance: Bora Bora/Cook Islands

For some, Bora Bora is the quintessential honeymoon destination.

For others it's a tropical theme park.

Regardless, there's no debating its beauty, while the variety of top quality resort accommodations is unrivaled in the South Pacific.

The place is unashamedly geared toward couples but you can dodge the cliches and shape a trip to suit your particular brand of romance.

Visitors can snorkel in the lagoon, sleep in one of the hugely popular over-water villas, down sunset cocktails or kayak to a secluded beach.

The views from Bora Bora's peaks are unforgettable, though hiring a guide is recommended to navigate the jungle paths.

The luxury leader is St. Regis Bora Bora (Motu Ome'e Bp 506, Bora Boral; + 689 60 7888; from $1,370 a night).

The Cook Islands is a less intense -- and less expensive -- alternative, though its reputation as a "destination wedding" hotspot is growing.

The beautiful Aitutaki Escape (Amuri, Aitutaki, Cook Islands; +682 31906; villas from $1,200 a night) is particularly romantic.

MORE: Bye-bye Bora Bora -- 15 other islands in French Polynesia

Best island for diving with sharks: Pacific Harbour, Viti Levu, Fiji

Fiji's Shark Reef Marine Park is one of the few spots in the world where you can dive cage-free alongside two of the so-called "deadly three" man-eating sharks.

Here, divers get a rare chance to see bull and occasionally tiger sharks from just meters away.

The dives are controversial but proponents say the once-dead reef here is slowly being coaxed back to life by this new style of shark feeding.

Gone are the cages and instead the dive outfits have conditioned the sharks to respond to human routines.

Divers make two trips per day to the dedicated area, dubbed "the arena" by locals.

From behind the relative safety of a small coral wall, divers watch as three or four experts feed tuna heads and other fishy scraps to the sea life.

It's carefully orchestrated and tightly controlled but on a good day the water is a kaleidoscope of marine life , with visits from lemon, black tip, white tip and silvertip sharks as well as giant trevally, eagle rays, moray eels and hundreds of smaller tropical fish.

Visit www.aquatrek.com for more info.

Best islands for volcanic activity: Tanna or Ambrym, Vanuatu

Vanuatu\'s Mount Yasur.
Vanuatu's Mount Yasur.

Mount Yasur on Vanuatu's Tanna Island is arguably the most accessible volcano in the world.

A jeep can get you to within 150 meters of the crater rim, though it's possible to take a long walk through the jungle and ash plain first.

It's a short scramble to the edge, where an assault on the senses awaits.

The earth rumbles underfoot, smoke billows into the air, bursts of magma thunder out from inside the crater and then it all subsides into eerie silence.

It's worth spending some time wandering Mount Yasur's vast ash plain -- the lunar landscape is beautiful, forbidding and offers great views (and photo opportunities) of the volcano.

By contrast, Ambrym's twin peaks of Mount Marum and Mount Benbow are only for the strong and the brave.

You need to be fit, have an excellent guide, robust walking shoes and considerable determination to conquer them.

The reward is a chance to see nature at its rawest.

Volcano Island Paradise homestay (Imayo Village, Tanna Island, Vanuatu; +678 771 7460; rooms from $35 a night) is rustic but guests make a difference by contributing to this small community.

Plus the views of Mount Yasur are unrivaled and you can walk to the summit in 90 minutes.

Best island for surfing: Tahiti

Tahiti: No finer place to get barreled.
Tahiti: No finer place to get barreled.

For professional surfers or those who love of watching them in action the tiny village of Teahupoo, Tahiti, is the place to be.

Home of the famed Billabong Pro Surf competition, the waves here can reach 23 feet (seven meters) and the competitors will take your breath away.

Vanira Lodge (PK 15, 6, +689 40 57 70 18; from $150 a night) in Teahupoo offers a lively and unusual jungle experience.

Surfers will need to rent a car to get to the breaks.

For amateurs, the waves in Papara can offer testing or coasting conditions.

There's a large black sand beach and restaurant to reboot after a wipe out.

For beginners, Papenoo is a good spot, though it can get busy.

Tahiti gets its best waves in the winter -- roughly May to August.

MORE: World's 50 best surf spots

Best island for unspoiled beaches: Ouvea, New Caledonia

From Moorea to Santa Isabel, there's no shortage of beautiful beaches in the South Pacific.

But there's something special about Ouvea -- a 51-mile patch of loveliness -- off the coast of New Caledonia.

Here the sand is cushion soft and brilliant white, and the surrounding lagoon a hypnotic blue.

The setting is particularly sublime at the south end of the island and around the idyllic Pont de Mouli.

Turtles, eagle rays and reef sharks glide through waters so clear that marine life is often visible from the shore.

During the week, it's possible to spend days on the beach without seeing another visitor.

It's worth renting a car or bike to get around the island and explore the seemingly endless little bays.

You can stay in one of the thatched huts at the Moague Tribal Accommodation, right on the soft sands of Ouvea's Mouli beach. Prices start from $55 a night.

MORE: New Caledonia's new marine park: Where biodiversity is off the charts

Best islands for history buffs: Solomon Islands

The Solomon Islands offer a doorway back to some of World War II's bitterest battles.

Remnant's of Japan's occupation and the bloody, fierce fighting that accompanied it can be found everywhere -- the main island of Guadalcanal is where the allies launched their first major offensive in the South Pacific.

Visitors can take a tour of key relics and memorial sites in the capital of Honiara, including Bloody Ridge, Mount Austen, Gifu and Henderson Airfield.

Best islands for hiking: Samoa

The islands of Samoa are carpeted in rainforest and peppered with volcanoes.

Upolu island's landscape is a hiker's dream and will tempt even the indolent to don walking boots.

The trek to Lake Lanotoo is tough but offers rare birdlife and a chance to dive into the crater lake at the end.

A short distance away are the 100-meter-tall Papapapai-Tai Falls.

Elsewhere, hiking in O Le Pupu-Pue National Park will take you from coast to rainforest and up Samoa's highest peak, Mount Fito.

There are also trails to Peapea Cave, an old lava tube and Togitogiga Falls.

The island of Savaii has a lot of good hikes -- the Tafua Rainforest Preserve and Cape Mulinu'u are recommended.

Mount Vaea Scenic Reserve has great trails and once you reach the peak the views over Apia Harbour and out to the South Pacific are stunning.

Treasure Island writer Robert Louis Stevenson, who had a love affair with Samoa, is buried at the summit.

Best island for wreck diving: Espirito Santo, Vanuatu

Vanuatu is littered with world class wreck dives.

The star attraction is the SS President Coolidge, a behemoth but accessible American luxury-liner-turned-military-transport that sits at around 69 feet (21 meters) below the surface, stretching down to 220 feet (67 meters).

Littered with everything from medical supplies to cooking pots, the rooms are just as they were when the ship went down in 1942 after hitting friendly mines.

Nearby is Million Dollar Point where the Americans dumped their leftover artillery at the end of the war.

The expanse of this graveyard of weaponry has to be seen to be believed.

There are other excellent dives nearby -- the MV Henry Benneaud is regarded one of the best night dives in the world while Tutuba Point is an impressive drift dive.

Bokissa Island Eco Resort (+678 30030; from $450 a night) is one of the top accommodation options for divers.

MORE: World's 50 best dive sites

L.T. Thomas is a foreign correspondent, restaurant critic and travel writer based in Hong Kong. She's lived in India, China and Cambodia and has traveled Asia-Pacific and Central and Latin America.

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