When you think of the South Pacific images of coconut bras, idyllic palm-fringed shores and 1949 musicals spring to mind. While there's no-one stopping you from strapping on the aforementioned outergarment and idly strumming a ukulele as the waves gently lap at your feet except, of course, your own dignity it's amazing how much more variety the region has to offer.
Spending time on the islands of New Caledonia and Vanuatu, you soon learn that while the area ticks all the boxes when it comes to cultural clichés there are just enough surprises to keep even the most world-weary traveller on their toes.
And while flying directly to the region can be a great way to see the larger cities, one of the best ways to soak up all the area has to offer is by boat. This allows you access to the smaller ports that are all but impossible to get to independently, not to mention especially handy for those who want to make the most of their limited time off work or have a gaggle of un-medicated children to entertain.
Window-shop 'til you drop
The best thing about the South West Pacific for keen shoppers is that you can roam the streets all day and walk away with little more than your duty-free Grey Goose. Why? Because other than the cheesiest tourist crap this side of Darling Harbour and an Hermès store in downtown Noumea identical to every other one in the world, there isn't that much to buy.
That's not to say you can't spend the better part of a day window-shopping in any given city. Between strolling through Port Vila's pleasantly frantic fruit and vegetable market to the adorable kiddly-winks in Wala who offer flowers to put in your hair or the chance to play with their pet pig (not to mention pet rooster, kitten, dog, turtle, starfish the place is practically biblical) for small change, you'll find there's a whole new world of consumerism out there. And one that's a little lighter on the ol' purse strings.
Eat, drink and be merry
The best part of a holiday abroad is the chance it affords to feast on the local food and sample the regional brew. It'd be rude not to!
If you don't like fresh tropical fruits pick directly from the tree growing 10m from your plate, then you're SOL (and not our kinda traveller). The bountiful selection found in the region and as easily available as oxygen puts even the ritziest Chrissie fruit platter to shame.
For those of you looking to throw away your carb-free ideals in the name of holiday, look no further than Noumea. With corner stores and street vendors selling baguettes the size of fence posts, you can indulge all of your quaint French fantasies as you stroll along the rue.
If you're lucky enough to stumble across it, wash down your breaded goods with a beer at the withered old Cuban-style men's pub with no signage off Place des Cocotiers. They've even got a floorshow; if you consider watching old rummies get into drunken arguments as entertainment.
Sign of the times
While we're on the topic of Noumea, there is one odd little trend that you won't find written up in any guidebook on the city the bizarre signage! From a tapas bar that has the likeness of a gored bull happily sharing a drink with its captor to not-so-thinly veiled racist imagery advertising laundrettes, it's something to behold. The best way to check them out, along with the cityscape and surrounding areas, is to hire a bike. But be careful on the roads; while no-one is going out of their way to mow you down they're not exactly going to curtsy at you if you get in the way.
Okay, there may be plenty of other things to keep you occupied, but it's the freakin' South Pacific and we all want to get more than our little toes wet. Each and every island is painfully picturesque, but there are definite hot spots to check out.
Though everyone goes nuts over the waters off Wala, it can get a little crowded when the ships sail in. Combined with a bustling coral reef, when you're not paddling your way through tourist soup you're trying to avoid grazing yourself on coral formations the resulting infection being as desirable as a puss-filled punch in the face.
The best place to let down your hair and ruin your perm is Vila. Though it's surprising that the slippery cut-rock steps don't claim 50 percent of visitors, the Cascade Waterfalls are befitting of a shampoo commercial and are well worth checking out. If it's snorkelling you're after, the Dream Cove Sail and Snorkel is where it's at.
Taken by yacht to a secluded beach about 20 minutes from the heart of Vila, you're free to kayak, read a book on the beach, snorkel near the shore or, best of all, feed the fish. Having been hand-fed in the same 5m by 5m spot for over 10 years, there is nothing quite like being underwater and having hundreds of them swarm around you. And, once the initial panic attack has subsided you realise, dear reader, that in that single moment you're having what is known as the quintessential South Pacific experience.
Luke Malone travelled to the South Pacific on P&O's Pacific Jewel. You can read more about his foray into cruising here
Have you got any hot South Pacific tips to add to the list?
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