A Conversation with Guidebook Writer David Stanley

Overwater bungalows at Hotel Bora Bora, French Polynesia

Visual Itineraries had a chance to catch up with David Stanley, who’s written numerous guidebooks on the South Pacific and do a little Q&A from this expert on Polynesia.

VI: What are your top 5 “must see/must do” things in the South Pacific?

  1. Perhaps the greatest wildlife encounter in the South Pacific is to swim with rays and sharks in French Polynesia. Every day hundreds of tourists get into the water with meter-wide rays and cruising blacktip reef sharks at a site called Stingray World off the northwest coast of Moorea. The Manta Ray Ballet in the Bora Bora lagoon is even more of a thrill as mantas up to three meters across glide past the masks of snorkelers. Reef sharks, barracuda, and other large fish are also seen on these excursions yet it’s all quite safe and human-fish conflicts are extremely rare.
  2. The quarry at Rano Raraku on Easter Island which provided stone for the island’s famous moai or “living faces” is easily the region’s most impressive archaeological site. Hundreds of statues in various states of completion can be seen of the slopes of the quarry or along roadways once used to carry them to the coast. Also very impressive is Orongo where a large ceremonial center has been excavated on the rim of Rano Kao volcano. These are only two of the highlights of Easter Island and there are dozens of other memorable sites sprinkled around the island.
  3. There’s no better way to experience traditional Polynesian life than by sleeping in a Samoan fale. Happily, Samoan families operate small fale resorts all around the two main islands, Upolu and Savai’I, and staying in a thatched beach hut in one of these is exciting, educational, and inexpensive – a rare combination.
  4. Fiji has some of the finest island chains in the South Pacific and island hopping from resort to resort by boat is easy to do. Catamarans and cruise ships ply the Mamanuca and Yasawa groups and a Blue Lagoon cruise between perfect white beaches and soaring volcanic peaks is unforgettable. Varied resorts tailored for all budgets are available throughout the Yasawas.
  5. It’s not often you have a chance to stand on the rim of an active volcano but this experience is available at Yasur Volcano on Tanna Island in the Republic of Vanuatu. Occasionally tourists are struck by molten lava shooting forth from the crater but it’s usually safe enough.

VI: Favorite foods in Polynesia?

DS: One of the top treats in French Polynesia is raw fish, called poisson cru in French or ia ota in Tahitian. Small pieces of raw skipjack or yellowfin tuna are marinated with lime and soaked in coconut milk to create a light yet satisfying dish which should not be missed.

Samoa is famous for its palusami which is made by wrapping canned corn beef, onions, young taro leaves, and coconut cream in a breadfruit leaf and baking in an earth. Spinach will never taste as good again after you’ve tried palusami.

VI: Fiji and Tahiti are well-known by travelers, and well-marketed by their tourist bureaus and travel agents. What other South Pacific countries/islands are there that you feel are “hidden gems”?

DS: The main reason Samoa isn’t heavily promoted by the travel industry is because direct flights to Apia are scarce. This works to the advantage of those willing to change planes in Honolulu or Auckland as Samoa is perhaps the most beautiful and unspoiled Pacific country. Samoa’s capital Apia has plenty of hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs to entertain tourists but the country’s real attractions are found in the many small villages all around the two main islands, most of them on spectacular beaches. Samoan culture, including the graceful siva dancing, lives on here.

The true adventurer undeterred by malaria will want to visit the Solomon Islands. The little-traveled Solomons offer good scuba diving, kayaking, surfing, and other sports but the real thrill is to simply get out of the capital Honiara and hike through plantations or along beaches few tourists ever see. Solomon Islands is composed of numerous unspoiled islands just waiting to be discovered. Here the cliché really does match reality.

VI: If you could live on an island in the South Pacific, where would you choose?

DS: No question. I’d choose Fiji without a second thought. The diversity of cultures, cuisines, and peoples mean that one never gets bored in Fiji. There’s plenty to see and do and the facilities are good. The cost of living is also quite manageable for anyone from Europe or North America. As the travel hub of the South Pacific, you can get almost anywhere from Fiji.

VI: The people: how the locals interact with tourists is very different from one area to the next–can you tell us a bit about the differences?

DS: Language is an important consideration when comparing destinations. Few local people in French Polynesia and New Caledonia speak good English whereas almost everyone in the Cook Islands, Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji will speak English almost as well as you. If you’re from an English speaking country, it’s only logical that you’ll feel more at home among people who speak your own language.

Interaction with the locals is also impacted by the number of visitors to the island. In the Cook Islands, the locals on busy Rarotonga may have less time for you than those on remote Mangaia Island which only receives a handful of tourists a year. This is true throughout the South Pacific. If you really want to mix with the locals you’ll need to get off the beaten track.

A less obvious consideration affecting tourist-local relations is land tenure. In Tonga, where all land is owned by the royal family and only loaned to commoners, the locals have less incentive to keep the place clean or to be hospitable to visitors. In contrast, Samoan villagers own the fields, hills, and beaches around their villages and they do their best to keep everything clean and welcoming for guests. This may not be obvious to a tourist staying at a resort but it will be evident to anyone walking through a local village.

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