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We exited the Panama Canal on March 10th, 2016 and we arrived in Australia in December of 2017. That’s 21 MONTHS sailing the South Pacific!
Cruising the South Pacific is amazing. When we look at the 24 countries we’ve visited on Starry Horizons, the island nations in the South Pacific clearly dominate our favorites.
We’ve met such a variety of cruisers with such varying time frames for their cruising. Take for example Sandy Cheeks, or anyone participating in the World ARC, who went through the canal and arrived in Australia all in the same year. We’ve had someone say to us “we don’t feel like we’re missing out on anything”. On the flip side of the coin, we’ve met many boats who have based themselves in New Zealand for 10 or more years, and every year they sail up to the islands to spend the season cruising.
How We Sailed the South Pacific
Hyperlinks will direct you to our tagged posts for each location.
From Panama, we sailed to the Galapagos and spent 10 days on Santa Cruz. After a 19-day sail, we arrived in French Polynesia. We spent 90 days in French Polynesia (excluding a 12 day trip to the states from Tahiti). Check out our Top 10 Cruising Experiences in French Polynesia. One month in the Marquesas, two weeks in the Tuamotus, and six weeks in the Societies. From Bora Bora, we sailed to Beveridge Reef and Niue (four and ten days, respectively). From Niue, we sailed to Tonga where we spent a month cruising the Vava’u island group. Next, we sailed to Fiji, and spent 6 weeks sailing around before heading to New Zealand for cyclone season.
Our second year, we sailed from New Zealand to Tonga, where we spent two months, one month in Vava’u and one month in the Ha’apai Group. Next on to Fiji for two and a half months, a month of which was the Lau Group, and then a short stop in Vanuatu and a month in New Caledonia. We finished by sailing to Australia for cyclone season.
So what would we do if we were doing it all over again?
A Three-Year Plan to Cruising the South Pacific
Note: Visa information is based on US citizenship.
Cross the Pacific as early as possible and skip the Galapagos. Yes, controversial, I know, but in the grand scheme of things, we didn’t like the Galapagos nearly as much as we did the islands of French Polynesia The Galapagos is really expensive for cruisers, AND it’s even more expensive if you want to actually cruise. Our Galapagos permit was a one-location permit for something like $1,300, so there was no cruising to be had. At that price, you’re better off flying in to visit and backpacking between the islands.
I would get a one-year visa to French Polynesia. The 90-days we spent was simply not enough, and the islands of the Marquesas and Tuamotus were some of the most stunning places we’ve ever seen. We kind of hustled through to get to Tahiti for the Puddle Jump Rendezvous, which was a mistake. The Societies were great, but we regretted speeding through the rest of French Polynesia, never mind the fact that we didn’t even touch the Gambiers or Austral Islands.
Furthermore, once we decided to spend another year cruising the Pacific, we were in New Zealand and it was too late to get back to French Polynesia. So, once you get to a certain point cruising the South Pacific, it’s a no-u-turn zone. Getting back to French Polynesia would mean either a ride on the lower 40s sailing from New Zealand east or small hops eastbound (against the prevailing winds) to get back east.
Now, spending a year in French Polynesia means that you have to deal with cyclone season. Our insurance tells us we need to be north of 8 degrees South to be safe during cyclone season. French Polynesia is within our cyclone zone – but it’s close. We would probably take the risk and leave our boat in French Polynesia. There are two eastern options – Hiva Oa in the Marquesas and Apataki in the Tuamotus both have boatyards that can haul and store our boat. Cheeky Monkey hauled out in Apataki for their cyclone season.
Year two is for exploring the rest of Polynesia.
We didn’t make it to the Cook Islands or the Samoa Islands, so we can’t really provide any opinions on those island groups. If you spend cyclone season in French Polynesia, you will have a head start to get more islands in on your way west.
Beveridge Reef and Niue are definitely worth a stop. It’s not a cruising place – one mooring field in Niue – but the tiny size of the island and the natural unique beauty of the place makes it a fantastic place to visit. And Beveridge Reef – WOW!
Tonga is a great place to wrap up the season. Peak whale season is August and September, so be sure to arrive before the end of September. We did our Tongan whale swim September 16th, 2016 and it was one of the most amazing experiences we’ve ever had. Neiafu has an amazing cruising and expat community. If you like remote locations, the Ha’apai group is one of the best. Most nationalities receive a 30-day visa, which can be extended up to four months. Your boat automatically gets four months, and while some people have extended, there is some political upheaval in Tonga that is denying many cruisers an extension.
For cyclone season, you have a few choices. Neiafu has a new boatyard where you can haul and store for the season. Neiafu itself is very protected, so some people find moorings to leave their boat.
If you want to get out of the zone, head down to New Zealand. While storing the boat is far more expensive there, it’s a great place for major projects and as cruisers you get many things VAT free automatically. That means not having to request a VAT refund on departure! As we learned, getting parts and work done can be extremely challenging in the islands, and Australia will not refund your VAT if your project is completed more than 60 days before you leave. If you head down to New Zealand from Tonga, stop at Minerva Reef.
The last option is to sail to Savusavu in Fiji and leave your boat there for cyclone season. Boats can be in Fiji for 18 months.
Spend this year cruising the southern Melanesian islands. Start your season in Fiji. With 330 islands, Fiji is one of the most diverse places we’ve been to. We enjoyed remote locations like Kadavu and Vanua Balavu, cultural immersion in Fulaga, and the touristy resort islands of Western Fiji. We automatically received a 4-month visa for our persons.
Vanuatu and New Cal stand between you and Australia. Breaking up the passage by visiting Tanna Island and seeing the volcano is definitely a highlight of the South Pacific….how often can you stand that close to an erupting volcano and live to tell the tale. Cruising up north in Vanuatu means dealing with the trade winds to get back down since Vanuatu runs NW/SE. Our automatic visa was 30 days for Vanuatu. The further north you go in Vanuatu, the more challenging it is to get to New Caledonia which is almost due south. New Caledonia is popular for its French cuisine and provisions, and the remote areas are also stunningly beautiful. As an EU territory, we received 90 days in New Caledonia.
Really Off the Beaten Path
We have some friends who have opted to spend cyclone seasons in the rarely-cruised (and rarely-touristed) areas around the equator, such as the Marshall Islands and the Solomon Islands. Just a small percentage of cruisers take this route, and it has its own challenges.
Favorite Places and Experiences
French Polynesia is, by far, one of our favorite countries we’ve ever been to. The variety of the islands, from the Jurassic-looking Fatu Hiva to the flat sandy atoll of Kauehi, makes it one of our favorite cruising destinations. Check out our blog post on our Top 10 Cruising Experiences in French Polynesia, including swimming with manta rays and hiking waterfalls.
We attended a heiva in Huahine. This dance and cultural competition occurs throughout French Polynesia in July, and the songs and costumes display traditional Polynesian celebrations.
Port Muerelle was our favorite anchorage in Vava’u, with amazingly blue and clear water. Plus, not a building in sight! We loved it so much, we’ve been multiple times.
We swam with humpback whales in Tonga, one of the few places in the world where you can do that. Whales are extremely prolific in Tonga, and I guarantee you will see humpback whales while cruising around. In the Ha’apai group, there are so many whales and so few cruisers.
Vanua Balavu, another remote anchorage, was our favorite in Fiji. The mushroom rock formations make for some stunning scenery. We spent three weeks in Vanua Balavu!
Over the cyclone season, we bought a car in New Zealand and did a 35-day road trip. It’s not really “cruising”, but our favorite things we did were Hobbiton, hiking Mount Doom, the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, and Wellington.
We cruised many remote locations where provisioning was limited or non-existent (Ha’apai, Tuamotus, Tanna, and Laus). Most other places, at the very least you have a fresh produce market which will rock your socks off for fresh fruit and veggies.
Papeete and Noumea are both major hubs in French territories, and most French products are subsidized and widely available. Stock up on your wines and cheeses!
Neaifu is another big cruising hub, but not as westernized as the rest of the South Pacific. It’s much more of an adventure. In the Cruising Vava’u blog post I wrote a lot about provisioning in Neiafu, which was extra challenging because we had bare shelves after leaving the boat in Neiafu for 6 weeks!
Fiji was one of my favorite places to provision, as it has a lot more “American” style products. Large jars of peanut butter? Check! Chicken breasts? Check! New Zealand cheese? Check! I thought Savusavu was the best, simply because there are so many grocery stores and the local market in walking distance, whereas the bigger cities of Suva and Nadi have very big stores, but they are a taxi ride away.
While cruising the South Pacific, we tied up to docks in New Zealand (Opua and Whangarei), Raiatea, and Tahiti (Papeete). We paid for mooring balls in Neiafu and Tahiti. Other than that, it’s all anchorages and the occasional free mooring (woot – New Caledonia). Even when we did pay to be somewhere, it was much cheaper than we saw in the Caribbean or Europe: roughly $30 USD for docking in New Zealand; $7 USD for moorings in Neiafu.
Malaria is a problem in some parts of the South Pacific, although we did not take any of our preventative malaria pills. Vanuatu is a moderate risk level according to the CDC. The more remote you go, the more challenging it is – the Solomon Islands are a high-risk area.
Ciguatera is also a concern in the South Pacific. It is advised to ask the locals, but when someone says the area doesn’t have ciguatera, is it that the fish don’t have ciguatera, or everyone knows what fish not to eat so no one gets ciguatera? We avoid this problem by generally not eating reef fish such as parrotfish, snapper, grouper, etc. There have been a few cases (at beach bonfires and such) where we have been offered reef fish and we accepted, thankfully with no consequences.
We do catch and eat pelagic fish such as mahi-mahi and tuna. However, we have encountered a few tuna with parasites. You can see the worms in the guts of the fish, and if you watch they move around. Our Cruiser’s Handbook of Fishing recommends freezing the fish for at least a week (in which you then consume dead parasites) or tossing it back. We toss back. Make no mistake though, we DO eat raw, freshly caught fish that appears to be healthy immediately.
Stray dogs were a particular problem in Tonga, and I have heard of some cruisers having difficultly being left alone. If out by yourself, have some dog spray with you.
Tonga, Fiji (the less touristed areas) and Vanuatu are more conservative cultures. Ladies should cover their shoulders and wear a skirt or shorts down to their knees when visiting villages. In Fiji, men often wear sulus to formal occasions, like visiting the chief. I recommend having a few sarongs onboard and plain shirts.
Elsewhere, bikinis and board shorts are common, and almost everywhere, a blind eye is turned to what you wear on your own boat.
In Fiji, you must ask permission to anchor somewhere, with the exception of near resorts or freehold land. In most cases, dress to visit the chief, and bring some kava to him to perform the sevusevu ceremony. Sometimes someone will ask you for donations or money. Be sure the read up on the village you are visiting first so you can know what to expect.
Want to know the ins and outs of getting internet while cruising the South Pacific? Subscribe to our blog, as I’ve got a detailed blog post coming out in a few weeks.
Our Navionics charts were fairly good, with the exception of Beveridge Reef, the Ha’apai group of Tonga, and most of Fiji. We highly recommend using SAS Planet to navigate. Read our blog post on how to use SAS Planet to avoid uncharted reefs.
I didn’t want to fill this post up with photos, although there are so many amazing pictures we’ve taken while cruising the South Pacific. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but not if you want some practical knowledge. If you want to be inspired by our photography, I have organized our Facebook photos into albums by location. Enjoy!
Caution: Some of these links are direct to the download of the file, and are large files, so be warned if you have limited bandwidth.
We joined the Pacific Puddle Jump Rally put on by Latitude 38 magazine. It’s free, so why not? There was a party we attended at Shelter Bay Marina with information sessions and free handouts and guides. There is also a Yahoo group, which is a good discussion of crossing the Pacific and cruising the South Pacific islands. We attended the party in Moorea, which was fun, but affected our cruising schedule too much.
Our hard copy books on the South Pacific were fairly worthless. There’s not enough demand for them to be updated frequently, and there are far too many anchorages to cover in a book. Instead, check out the Soggy Paws Compendiums. These are free PDFs, full of first-hand reports from cruisers complied by Sherry on Soggy Paws. Yours truly has even submitted to the compendiums. However, if you do want hardcopy cruising guides, here’s the two we have: Landfalls of Paradise (15 years old) and South Pacific Anchorages (20 years old)
There are free Yellow Flags Guides to French Polynesia and New Caledonia. There is a free cruising guide to Vanuatu. The Fiji Shores & Marinas Guide is very helpful, as is the website Cruising Fiji, which has waypoints and routes you can download. The Moorings base in Raiatea has charts for Bora Bora and Huahine, as well as a cruising guide. There is a Vava’u Cruising Guide put out by the Moorings, plus the all-important anchorage map (anchorages in Vava’u are commonly referred to by their numbers). There is a guide put together by the local marine service companies in Whangarei New Zealand. There is a Moorings guide to New Zealand. Saving the best for last, the Gateway to the Bay covers New Zealand from the tip down to Whangarei.
I have used an older version of the ICA Tonga Cruising Guide, which is helpful.
If you are going to be spending a lot of time in Vanuatu or New Caledonia, Rocket Guides produces a cruising program for your computer, with satellite imagery, routes, and waypoints. It’s expensive (90 Euros and 125 Euros respectively), but our friends showed us the program and it’s really phenomenal. Rocket Guides for Vanuatu and New Caledonia.
Feel free to shot us a message and ask. I’m happy to help you plan your own South Pacific voyage, and if I don’t know the answer, I bet I know someone who does!
**DISCLAIMER** Clearly, we didn’t see EVERYTHING there is to see. I can only base our recommendations on places we’ve been, so take it with a grain of salt.