With the thousands of islands in the South Pacific on our doorstep, Australians are spoiled for choice when it comes to choosing a tropical getaway. Our advice? The cultural melting pot of New Caledonia, lounging with the friendly locals of Tonga or the unspoilt landscapes of Samoa should all be on your shortlist for your next break. Here’s what you need to know before you go.
A laidback layering of French, Melanesian and Polynesian influences, New Caledonia is fascinating. Although it’s technically composed of over 140 islands, the majority of New Caledonian industry and residency is concentrated in Grande Terre – the main island – and a sprinkle of smaller islands in its periphery, including the Isle of Pines, Ouvéa, Lifou, Tiga and Maré. This is where you’ll find a spread of luxury seaside hotels, patisseries laden with parfait pastries and markets bursting with freshly harvested tropical fruit. Do a little or a lot: both are gloriously possible in New Caledonia.
The New Caledonian capital of Nouméa rests on the southern tip of Grande Terre, the archipelago’s main island. The country’s varied heritage is wonderfully distilled in Nouméa: dunking a croissant in a café au lait, cooling off under a palm tree at lunchtime or winding through the steel and iroko wood structures that celebrate traditional Kanak houses at the Tjibaou Cultural Centre are activities that can all be squeezed into a single day in the capital.
The average year-round temperature is a delightful 20ºC to 27ºC and the sunshine is just as consistent, with an average of almost 345 sunny days per year. The only unfavourable weather to look out for is cyclone season, which extends from November through to May. There’s also a higher bushfire risk from September to February.
Entering New Caledonia
Australian passport holders don’t need a visa for a holiday to New Caledonia. The only requirement is your passport must be valid for at least 3 months following your return date.
The currency in New Caledonia is the Pacific franc, written as XPF or CFP and referred to as the franc. At the time of writing, one Australian dollar had a value of around 71 francs. ATMs are plentiful around Grande Terre – with some post offices even housing them – but, as with any international travel, alert your bank to your travel plans and be aware of additional charges you may incur for withdrawing money at a foreign ATM.
There’s no real tradition of tipping in New Caledonia but a few extra francs here and there never goes astray.
You’ll find the main international airport on Grande Terre – a 45-minute drive north west from the centre of Nouméa. If you’re spending time in the capital and your hotel offers an airport transfer, take them up on the offer: taxis to and from the airport can be pricey. There’s also the option of a shuttle bus into the city or you could consider hiring a car, which is a godsend for exploring more of Grande Terre.
Break out your rusty, high school French: although there are around 30 dialects spoken across the islands, French is the official language of New Caledonia. As English isn’t widely spoken, it’s worth brushing up on a few key phrases.
Stats reveal that approximate annual visitor numbers to Tonga sits at a diminutive 200, confirming what lucky locals and travellers already know: Tonga is a treasure that’s waiting to be explored. Across the kingdom’s 171 islands, life remains as relaxed as the locals like it: wild pigs roam freely, traffic lights are non-existent (no, truly!) and people are as sunny as the weather. If you’ve ever wanted to experience nature in its untouched glory, Tonga should be on your bucket list.
The kingdom’s main island is Tongatapu where the capital, Nuku’alofa, resides. Here, visitors will find weatherboard Mormon churches, as well as Stonehenge-style formations that are said to date back as far as 1200AD. At the Tonga National Center, visitors can learn more about kava drinking rituals, as well as traditional dance and dress.
There are two main seasons in Tonga: wet and dry. From December to April the humidity is high with temperatures often in the 30s. Cyclone season lands between November and April while the heaviest rainfall occurs in February. From May to November, the kingdom experiences cooler temperatures and decreased rainfall: in June, there’s an average daily temp of around 29°C and a crowd of humpback whales mating offshore.
The currency in Tonga is the pa’anga, written as TOP. Referred to as “dollars” in English by locals, it consists of 100 senitis, or “cents”, as you’ll hear people say. At the time of writing, 1 Tongan Pa’anga was buying 65 cents (AUD). It’s important to note that while there are ATMs in the main towns on the islands of Tongatapu, Vava’u, Ha’apai and ‘Eua, no other islands have ATMs, so stock up on cash where you can.
Your entry into Tonga will likely be Fuaʻamotu International Airport on the island of Tongatapu. It’s about 25 kilometres from the capital, Nuku’alofa and can be easily reached by taxi at a cost of about $30 to $50TOP. Taxis are unmetered in Tonga, so you’ll need to agree on a price before you depart for your destination.
Although the kingdom’s official language is Tongan, English is taught in schools and therefore is widely spoken by locals (though a greeting of “malo e lelei” will always be well received).
The natural beauty of the 10 islands that comprise Samoa is the stuff of dreams. It was here that Treasure Island’s creator, Robert Louis Stevenson, found his version of his imagined tropical utopia: a paradise of lazy palms, pristine shores and jewel-like swimming holes. Both of the main islands, Upolu and Savai’i, shine with hospitable locals, wonderful wildlife and remote, fecund landscapes ripe for exploration, be it by foot, bike or diving. It has rightfully earned its title as the “pearl of the Pacific”.
Apia is the capital and largest city in Samoa. There’s a little taste of the island’s vibrancy in easily accessible pockets across the city: the snorkelling treasure trove of Palolo Deep Marine Reserve is just a five-minute walk from Apia proper and the Samoa Cultural Village is a fabulous introduction to traditional local life. Five kilometres further afield, a visit to Robert Louis Stevenson’s former home reveals not only the history of the Scottish writer’s affiliation with the country, but also a lovely walking track to the top of Mount Vaea.
Gloriously tropical and warm year-round, Samoa’s weather is a sunworshipper’s paradise. Outside of the wet season (November to April), days are generally sunny and warm, with an average ocean temperature a low 20°C. The best times to travel are during the dry season between May and October.
Upon landing in Samoa, Australians will be given an arrival card for completion – this will serve as the application for a 90-day visitor permit.
The currency of Samoa is the tālā, with one tālā equivalent (at the time of writing) to about AUD$0.57. It’s depicted with the $ sign, or occasionally WS$ or WST$. ATMs in Samoa are limited to urban areas, and cash still reigns supreme, so ensure you have enough, especially if you’re planning to travel into more remote areas.
Faleolo Airport is Samoa’s main international airport, located on the island of Upolu. It’s about 50 minutes’ drive from Apia on the north-western side of the island and costs about WST$80 (AUD$45) to reach via taxi – for resorts on the western side, it’s a little closer. There are also shuttle bus services to resorts and tourist centres around the island, as well as cheap public buses that make the journey to the capital for just WST$5 (AUD$2.80).
Even though English is widely spoken in Samoa, don’t miss the opportunity to offer a few words of Samoan when you’re visiting – even a friendly “talofa!” (hello) will delight locals.
SEE ALSO: 5 Amazing Things to Do in Samoa
Image credit: New Caledonia Tourism, Alamy (Nukualofa beach shore), Samoa Tourism Authority