A 42-day journey through the islands of the South Pacific

By Victor Antola
This article appears on page 30 of the February 2018 issue.

In May 2017, my wife, Iris, and I started a 42-day trip to the South Pacific with an evening Air New Zealand flight from Los Angeles to New Zealand. 

On this island-hopping trip, we took 31 different flights (including short interisland flights), extending from the Tropic of Capricorn, 23.45 degrees south of the equator, to nearly the Tropic of Cancer, 23.45 degrees north of the equator. Our trip, arranged by Hima at Asian Pacific Adventures (Tarzana, CA; 800/825-1680, www.asianpacificadventures.com) was not a low-budget trip. It included visits to Tonga, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Northern Mariana Islands.

A bai, or men’s house, seen on our tour of Palau


After a 3-hour layover in New Zealand, our flight arrived on Tongatapu, the main island of Tonga, where we would stay at Fafá Island Resort, an ecoresort with 13 fales (villas) located on a separate island about a half hour by boat from the main island. (The ferry station is about a half hour from the airport.) 

Our fale was a 5-minute walk from the resort’s public areas and was situated in a private garden with direct access to the beach. The lagoon around the resort is protected, so the coral was good (and growing) and the fish were plentiful. 

The resort also had wonderful dining, beaches, swimming and snorkeling, and after the long flights, it was a great place to relax and get into the South Pacific mood. 

Tonga is a little light on tourist attractions, but the warm people and beautiful sea are the main draws. We were too early in the year for whale-watching, which starts in July. 

On our first afternoon, we relaxed and tried to swim off of this 18-acre island. However, the tide was very low, so it was difficult to get past the coral and into deep water. (Throughout our trip, the tidal differences between low and high tide on the islands we visited were substantial, and the tides had to be carefully watched when selecting an activity.) On later days, we snorkeled in the sea inside the reef and enjoyed viewing the wonderful fish and coral. 

On the second day, we had a private sightseeing tour of Tongatapu. A boat took us to the mainland to meet our tour guide, and we explored the capital, Nuku’alofa, and the main island sights, including the fish and vegetable markets; volcanic rock cliffs, with waves pounding the 50-foot-high south-side cliffs; Captain Cook’s Landing Place (he did not stay because the locals threatened to eat him!); Ha’amonga ’a Maui, a trilithon dating to AD 1200 that some believe was constructed to track the solstices, like Newgrange in Ireland; Mapu’a ’a Vaea, a long stretch of blowholes with fountains of seawater spouting, purportedly, up to 90 feet high (they were quiet when we were there), and the Royal Palace, a modern structure facing the sea. 

We returned to the resort over rough seas and enjoyed a quiet dinner on the verandah. 

We were in Tonga on a Sunday, so we took the boat to the mainland to attend Catholic services at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. This was a large church, and the locals were decked out in their traditional finest. The singing was wonderful, and the 2-hour Mass sped by. 

On to Vanuatu

On this trip we had two one-night layovers (evening arrivals and morning departures) in Nadi, where the airport is located on Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu. We stayed at the Raffles Gateway Hotel, but we did not have time for any meaningful sightseeing in Fiji.

From Nadi, we took a morning Fiji Airways flight to Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, and a brief van tour of the city. Its green hills and deep harbor were impressive. 

We had a fun and tasty lunch ($8-$25 for main dishes) in town at L’Houstalet (Captain Cook Ave.), a well-regarded French restaurant, before our 2:30 flight to Tanna. 

After the short flight, we spent two nights at the White Grass Ocean Resort in an ocean-view bungalow. A 5-minute ride from the airport, the resort had 15 bures overlooking the sapphire-blue sea and situated in sparse tropical gardens. 

There was a coral reef 300 feet from the bures, with easy access from the resort’s long, private jetty, and two “blue holes” for swimming, but the seas were rough when we were on Tanna, so we didn’t swim in the ocean or snorkel. However, we did walk to one of the blue holes, which was a pool in the middle of a large coral reef. 

On the day after our arrival, we drove about an hour into the interior hills of Tanna to the Lowinio Cultural Village, one of the many Tanna villages that have elected to maintain traditional customs and styles and shun Western jobs and most formal education. The lifestyle seemed primitive and restrictive to us. 

We ate some of the local food (cooked banana and manioc) and enjoyed seeing traditional dancing before being enticed into buying a few carved pigs (for a special cultural price of $20 each). All in all, we thought the village was good “theater,” and it provided a hint of the ancient cultural heritage. 

Later in the morning, we drove over rough roads to view Mt. Yasur volcano from a distance.

We ate lunch on a sandy beach near Port Resolution, then drove around the port to a stretch of rocks that had hot water flowing down from Mt. Yasur. (The locals cook food in the hot water.) 

The late afternoon was spent on a Yasur volcano tour, which included a dance performance to obtain permission to visit the volcano followed by driving and, finally, walking to the volcano’s crater. The pyrotechnics were impressive, and the spewing fire and rocks became more impressive the darker it got. 

The next day, Iris and I took a flight back to Port Vila. As was typical during our stay in the South Pacific, we had to be at the airport about two hours before our flight because the flight schedules appeared to be merely suggestions. 

Upon arrival in Port Vila, we went directly to Breakas Beach Resort, a 63-bungalow ecoresort situated on a white-sand beach on Efate Island, 20 minutes from the airport. The day was rainy and dark, so we just relaxed at the resort. Their on-site restaurant was supposed to be wonderful, but we were disappointed. 

With a scheduled 4:30 a.m. wakeup for an early flight the next morning, there was no time to linger at the resort. 

Sights and sea

The Rock Islands Arch in Palau

We flew on to Espiritu Santo, where we spent two nights at Moyyan House by the Sea, located directly on a beach. Our modern room was a perfect couple’s beach house, with a large terrace looking out to the sea. The outstanding resort restaurant made dining easy. We thoroughly enjoyed this resort. 

After our arrival on Espiritu Santo, we had a half-day World War II tour of the island. Santo was home to almost 100,000 Americans during the war, and it was the main rear base for the battles on Guadalcanal, New Guinea and the South Pacific seas. 

We saw the bank from which soldiers were paid; various WWII quonset huts, still used by the locals for storage; airfields; the wharf; the PT boat repair and duty station; the concrete floors of WWII hospitals, and Million Dollar Point, where the Americans disposed of equipment that could not be returned to the States. (The dumped material had been offered to the French colonials who lived on the island, but they declined to pay the small sums being sought for the equipment because they assumed it simply would be left. Bad guess!) 

We ended the day at Nanda Blue Hole, a very blue body of water about 13 meters deep that is fed by a freshwater spring. 

It rained all night, but dinner on the Moyyan’s terrace in the rain was refreshing. Umbrellas kept us dry during our walks to and from our room. 

During our stay, we took a 2-person kayak out for an early-morning spin on the bay followed by a long walk up the beach from the resort. We enjoyed seeing all the fancy houses facing the sea.

Solomon Islands

Leaving Fiji, we flew from Nadi to Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands. We had a brief city tour on the 30-minute ride to our hotel, Heritage Park, which sat on five acres of oceanfront property. Housed in the former British governor’s residence, the hotel was lovely, and the dining room provided good meals. 

We were up at 4 a.m. the next day for a Solomon Airlines flight to Rennell Island, located several hundred miles south of Guadalcanal toward Vanuatu. Our plane was a 16-passenger Twin Otter, and the short, grassy runway made for an exciting landing. 

Following a rugged 3-hour drive by truck from the airport, we arrived at the freshwater Lake Tegano, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From there, we took a boat to our lodge, about an hour away, stopping at various shoreside villages on the way. 

Our full-board accommodations at Motumahi Lodge were situated on an island across from a Seventh Day Adventist village. We had a quick village visit on our arrival, and the locals could not have been more gracious. 

Our separate lodge house, with views of the lake, was about 100 feet from the shared bath facilities, located in a separate building. 

We were up at sunrise the next morning to start our day of lake touring. Church bells from the nearby village made sure that all locals were up and attentive at an early hour. 

We boated to the end of the lake, where the Americans had their Catalina (an amphibious aircraft) headquarters during World War II. Only a dilapidated building remains. 

Back at the lodge, we went snorkeling and explored the wreckage of a Catalina that was largely intact on the floor of the lake. 

On our last night on Rennell, we stayed at a filthy guest house near the airport so that we could catch an early-morning flight back to Guadalcanal. We rejected the first room offered due to fleas; the second room was cleaner, even though it was above a chicken coop and a large lizard hunted on the walls during the night! Roosters and dogs insured that we were up in time for our early-morning flight. 

Remembrances of war

After our morning return to Honiara, we spent two more nights at Heritage Park. The Honiara area is known for its WWII relics, and we had a private “Western Battlefield Tour” that covered the area that primarily was held by the Japanese during the great Guadalcanal battles. 

Our tour started at a wonderful Allied War Memorial that overlooked the battlefields and Savo Island. Then we went to various battle sites, though there were no remaining relics there. We ended at the Vilu War Museum, 25 kilometers west of Honiara, which housed a good collection of US and Japanese artifacts. 

The next day featured a full-day trip to Savo Island, about 10 miles away across “Ironbottom Sound.” We traveled across the sound from Guadalcanal by banana boat, which gave us a chance to see the narrow waters where some notable naval battles took place in 1942 between the US and Japan. Numerous warships from both countries now litter the depths of Ironbottom Sound. 

On Savo Island, we had a coconut-juice greeting at a resort stop, then continued by boat to a trailhead to start our walk to the island’s volcano. It was rocky and slippery, so we had to stop short of the summit. 

We hiked on to a small village where the boat was waiting. The Sunday Catholic services had just ended there, and some young women in the back of the church were singing. Beautiful! 

After a lunch break at the resort, we started the wet walk through a stream to a waterfall that was hot due to the nearby volcano. The walk led us through a jungle, which was humid and thick, and there were many large spiders and other critters.

A long, hot shower at the hotel was the perfect end to the day.


The next morning we left for Port Moresby, continuing on several hours after our arrival to Rabaul, on the island of New Britain in the Bismarck Archipelago, part of Papua New Guinea. We went directly to our hotel, the Rapopo Plantation Resort, a rambling, oceanfront, family-friendly hotel located 10 minutes from the airport. The sunset on that first night was fabulous, and we enjoyed dinner on the terrace overlooking the sea. 

We spent two full days visiting Rabaul. Old Rabaul, destroyed by a volcanic explosion in 1994, was the main Japanese naval and military base in the South Pacific during WWII. 

We had a full-day tour of Rabaul and Kokopo (the new capital) that included the Volcano Observatory, Japanese World War II sites, the Kokopo War Museum and the Rabaul War Cemetery. 

As part of World War II preparations, the Japanese dug extensive tunnels on Rabaul to protect soldiers and supplies, and we were able to visit some of them. 

The scientists at the Volcano Observatory gave us a good explanation of Rabaul’s volcanic geology. They said that the volcanoes in the area are on a 50-year cycle, so one would not want to be in the area in 2044! 

The views of Rabaul’s harbor from the observatory were outstanding.

In the evening, after dinner and about an hour away from the resort, we witnessed a Baining fire dance, with dancers kicking red-hot coals and wearing large masks. By the end, when the fire had been reduced to hot coals, the dancers and young locals ran through the coals. 

Port Moresby

We returned the next day to Port Moresby for an overnight at the Airways Hotel, overlooking the airport runways. The Airways was a very nice, modern hotel and a pleasant surprise. 

We had arranged a tour of the highlights of Port Moresby, which is spread out and not a walking-friendly city, but the guide failed to appear, so we arranged a taxi tour that included the University of Papua New Guinea, Parliament Haus (an impressive structure) and Port Moresby Nature Park (formerly the National Capital Botanical Gardens). The animals and birds at the park were interesting, and we enjoyed walking around the tropical park grounds, though we felt the orchid display was weak. 

Display at the Kokopo War Museum in Rabaul, Papua New Guinea

In the afternoon the next day, we flew on PNG Air to the Tufi Resort, a full-board resort on the other side of the mainland. The flight showcased glorious coast and fjord views, and our resort room looked out to the sea… over a barbed-wire fence that separated guests from the locals. A sobering dose of PNG reality! 

We took a walk with a guide to a village and a butterfly farm, and the lovely views of the fjords and the sound of hornbills flying over were awesome. 

Our second day in Tufi was far richer than the first. Early in the morning, we took a rough, hour-long boat ride to Cyclone Reef for fabulous snorkeling. 

On our return to the resort, we joined the “McLaren Fjord Tour,” which involved traveling on canoes paddled by young girls through small streams in the mangroves to the area clan’s garden. Some local warriors imposed a test to see if we could pass to the clan property (somehow we passed!), then they took us for worthwhile demonstrations of fire-making, dancing and sago palm harvesting. 

We were canoed back to the resort’s boat, which took us to Komoa Beach for a buffet lunch on the sand — pretty much a perfect, though tiring, day. 

Returning to Port Moresby in the early morning, we traveled by car to Varirata National Park. The cool heights and green hills and foliage were pleasant. 

Stopping at the same park we had visited on our first day in Port Moresby, we discovered a fabulous orchid exhibition that had been missed on our first visit. Our tour of the orchid display lasted about an hour, allowing for many photos of the colorful and delicate flowers. 

The Philippines to Palau

From Port Moresby, we took a 6-hour flight the next morning to Manila, Philippines, where we had an 8-hour layover. Manila’s airport has been called the worst in Asia, but it did not seem that bad.

Our guide and driver, who was great, gave us a good overview of Manila during our long layover. We started with a drive through a large new casino area situated on reclaimed land (the Chinese are active there), then walked through Fort Santiago and its museum, which was, in large part, dedicated to Rizal, a Philippine freedom fighter who was executed by the Spanish in the late 1800s. 

The newish Manila Cathedral and the World Heritage Site of San Agustin Church, one of the Baroque Churches of the Philippines, and its museums were also visited. 

After the whirlwind tour, we returned to the airport just in time to catch our United Airlines flight to Palau.

Part of the Caroline Islands, Palau consists of more than 300 islands that go from high mountains to low, coral islands.

We arrived in Palau very early in the morning, landing on the island of Babelthuap. Our hotel, Palau Pacific Resort, located on the adjacent island of Koror, was a 30-minute drive from the airport. An early check-in let us get some rest before an all-day “Big Island Tour.”

Expensive tourist permits were required to see the sights in Palau (and to depart the country). 

Our “Big Island Tour” started at a bai, or men’s house, a wooden structure with an elevated platform and a thatched roof over a long hall. After seeing some of the sights of the main island, we began a hike to Ngardmau Waterfall. The waterfall was impressive, but the hike through the jungle and a stream was humid, steep and buggy. (Most other visitors seemed to have taken the small tourist railway that went to the waterfall, but we couldn’t be bothered with that modern convenience!) 

Upon our return to the Palau Pacific Resort, we found that we had been moved to a spacious suite with a lovely patio on which we later enjoyed cold drinks and the evening sunset. The resort’s fine dining was in open-air and air-conditioned dining rooms, and there were lovely, open grounds and a sandy beach on the far side. 

Over the next two days, we arranged water tours through the resort’s concierge. The first day, we visited the World Heritage Site of the Rock Islands, thousands of limestone and coral rocks pushed out of the sea that have been molded by wind and water into fascinating and unique shapes. Our comfortable boat took us through coral coves, and we marveled at the clear water and fabulous coral. 

We snorkeled at Cemetery Reef, Big Drop Off and German Channel, and the lovely coral, colorful fish and warm water made for some of the best snorkeling we ever have experienced. At our last snorkeling spot, the guide caught five red snappers that became our lunch on a sandy beach. Some of the red snapper was cooked, and the rest was made into sashimi. 

On the next day of water activities, it was raining as we took a speedboat through the Rock Islands to Peleliu, near where the Philippine Sea and the Pacific Ocean meet. After an hour’s boat ride, we pulled up to the ramshackle docking area on Peleliu and huddled out of the rain with locals under the tourist bureau’s roof. 

Our guide, Diane, a Norwegian Palau local, soon arrived and gave us a most interesting and comprehensive tour of the island. We visited the Peleliu War Museum, which had an interesting description of the battles of WWII and local life under the Japanese. The museum displays were a collaborative effort between the Americans and Japanese, though the Japanese descriptions omitted some of the cruelty of the Japanese occupation.

Our guide lived on the south side of the island, where many of the WWII battles occurred, and she said it was lonesome there because many locals avoid the “battle ghosts” that inhabit that side of the island. We don’t know about ghosts, but there was a melancholy feel to Peleliu.


After midnight, we left Palau on a United Airlines flight to Yap, in the Federated States of Micronesia.

We stayed at the Manta Ray Resort in a deluxe ocean-view room with a private plunge pool. The resort had no beach, but the restaurant and bar, located in a 100-year-old schooner moored at the dock, was special. 

On the afternoon of our arrival in Yap, we had a half-day island tour that included a look at the island’s stone money — stone discs up to 13 feet in diameter, each with a hole in the middle — and WWII relics. We saw various airplane wrecks and visited villages that displayed stone money, which is still used for transactions today. The value depends on its color, size and age; pre-1850s, when the money was made in the traditional way, without modern metal tools, is best. The money was lined up near houses and in public areas to denote wealth. 

Onlookers watch a masked performer during a Baining fire dance.

The reef surrounding Yap provides sheltered snorkeling, so we arranged snorkeling trips through the resort for the next two days. On the first day, we snorkeled in the Valley of the Rays, but we didn’t see any, so we moved on to Slow and Easy, where there was great coral and tropical fish. We even saw pipefish, which were long and skinny with seahorse faces. 

On the second day, we returned to the Valley of the Rays and were rewarded with dozens of rays gathered at a “cleaning station.” The water was murky, but we still could clearly see the rays and their giant white mouths. 

We then went around the island to Mi’il Channel, where we didn’t see manta rays but again saw great coral and tropical fish. We also motored outside the reef to see reef sharks, which surfaced as bread was thrown into the water. Getting into the water, ourselves, it was fun viewing the sharks as they swam around the boat before returning to the depths. 

We left Yap on United Airlines at 1:55 a.m. and arrived in Pohnpei, via Guam and Truk, at 1:10 p.m. After the long flights and long layover in Guam (nothing to do at the airport), we took it easy on our first afternoon on Pohnpei.

We stayed in an ocean-view room with a lovely private terrace at the Mangrove Bay Resort, a motel-style complex. The resort didn’t have any dining facilities, but it was an easy and inexpensive taxi ride into Kolonia, the main town of Pohnpei, which offered numerous restaurants, and a nearby bar/sushi restaurant was satisfactory for snacks and cold drinks. 

We spent two full days on rainy, lush Pohnpei. This large volcanic island has rainforests and high mountains and is surrounded by a reef that creates a miles-wide lagoon. The island was rustic, and the locals were friendly.

We arranged our island touring through our resort. The first day, we drove across the island to the ancient stone city of Nan Madol, the seat of the Saudeleur Dynasty until the 1600s. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is referred to as the “Venice of the Pacific” because of its narrow canals. 

Much of the area, which consists of about 100 islands, is overgrown, but several islands and walled compounds can be seen. 

To reach the site, we walked through marshy mangroves and along stone paths and bridges. We were there at low tide; at high tide, the marshy jungle area and much of Nan Madol are covered with seawater. 

On the next day, we snorkeled inside the reef at the Manta Road dive site and saw a large manta ray, reef sharks and several stingrays. However, the snorkeling wasn’t great, and the low tides made it difficult to find the manta rays. 

Northern Mariana Islands

The final leg of our journey took us to the Northern Mariana Islands, which consist of 14 islands, including Saipan and Tinian. The islands are classified as a US commonwealth, and residents are US citizens. 

We arrived in Saipan, via Guam, in the late evening and stayed at the Hyatt Regency, a 20-minute ride away on the arranged hotel van. Although most of the Hyatt’s restaurants were closed when we arrived, the staff kindly kept one open so we could have a late dinner. 

We had a full-day tour of Saipan the next day that included WWII battle sites, like Banaderos Caves, as well as Banzai Cliff and Suicide Cliff, where Japanese civilians jumped to their deaths in 1944 to avoid the “dishonor” of being captured by Allied forces. 

We started our tour at the American Memorial Park, which had a good documentary about World War II and Saipan, then we drove to Mt. Tapochau, the highest point on the island, for a bird’s-eye view of the area. 

Rain began to fall, and it rained for the remainder of the tour. 

Continuing to Tinian the next day — three miles off the coast of Saipan — we rented a car at Avis to tour the island. 

After visiting North Field, from which the atomic bombing raids on Hiroshima and Nagasaki commenced, and the lovely beaches of Unai Dan Kulo and Unai Chulu, we drove south to the archaeological site of the House of Taga, where large stone foundations of traditional houses can be found. 

We were pleased to have spent half a day touring this laid-back island before returning to Saipan for a flight to Guam, where we had a 3:30 a.m. wake-up time to get ready for our long flights back to Los Angeles. 

After crossing the International Date Line on the way home, we arrived in Los Angeles before the time of our departure from Guam!