My fiancé and I have eight or nine days max for our honeymoon. Which destinations would you recommend?
Joe: It depends on what the two of you like to do: bake in the sun or run your own version of The Amazing Race. If a beach and a bungalow are your idea of bliss, then eight or nine days in Tahiti is just about perfect. But don't spend it all in one spot; each of French Polynesia's islands is outrageously beautiful. You could do five nights on a popular island like Moorea or Bora Bora and the remainder on one of the wilder isles like Taha'a or the more remote Tuamotu atolls. A similar plan will work in Fiji, where you can divide your stay among two or three private-island resorts. Choose the Yasawa or Mamanuca island groups for laid-back indulgence, or the northern isle of Vanua Levu for fabulous snorkeling and diving. Nine days don't go very far in larger countries like Australia and New Zealand, unless you limit yourselves to a specific region. Three options: Dive or snorkel the Great Barrier Reef and visit the rain forests of Queensland; experience the very best of urban Australia in Sydney and Melbourne; or explore New Zealand's North Island, with three days in Auckland, three days in the Hawke's Bay wine region, and three days beachcombing the Bay of Islands.
We have two weeks. Is it possible to visit two countries?
Joe: For sure. Four of the South Pacific's airlines—Air New Zealand (800-262-1234; airnewzealand.com), Air Pacific (800-227-4446; airpacific.com), Air Tahiti Nui (877-824-4846; airtahitinui.com) and Qantas (800-227-4500; qantas.com)—make combo honeymoons almost as easy as visiting a single destination. Air New Zealand, via its Los Angeles gateway, offers a half-dozen combinations, such as Tahiti and the Cook Islands, Samoa and Australia, or New Zealand and New Caledonia. Air Tahiti Nui can carry you from New York City or Los Angeles to Papeete (Tahiti's gateway and capital) and then on to either Auckland or Sydney. With Air Pacific, Fiji's national airline, you can combine a visit to Fiji with more exotic spots like Vanuatu or Samoa. If you fly Qantas, you can spend time in either Fiji or New Zealand on your way Down Under.
We hate changing planes. Are there any nonstop flights to the South Pacific from the East Coast?
Jad: Unfortunately, flying to Fiji, New Zealand, and Australia still requires a connection or stopover in Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Honolulu. But with Air Tahiti Nui's new nonstop New York-to-Papeete service, East Coasters can tuck tiares behind their ears just a half-day after clicking their seat belts for take-off. The 12.5-hour flight departs from John F. Kennedy International Airport on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Both the Thursday and Saturday flights continue on to Sydney. Tip: If you can't fly first- or business-class, request a window and an aisle: The 2-4-2 seat configuration on this particular flight means you'll have a private row (emergency exits and bulkheads will give you the most room). On light-load flights, play that honeymoon card with the gate agent and you might wind up with an entire middle row to yourselves.
What type of weather can we expect?
Joe: In both Australia and New Zealand, our summer is their winter. If you're considering honeymooning in southeastern Australia (Sydney, Melbourne, or Tasmania), you may want to think twice about visiting in the cooler, wetter months (June to August) when the nighttime mercury can dip below 50 degrees. On the other hand, austral winter is actually the best season to visit Australia's desert and tropical regions, like Ayers Rock (Uluru), Kakadu, and the Great Barrier Reef. The only part of New Zealand that stays warm year-round is the top tip of the North Island. Something else to throw into the mix: June to August is snow season in both countries, so you might consider a ski honeymoon in a world-class resort like Queenstown (New Zealand) or Thredbo (Australia).
The weather in the rest of the South Pacific? Hey, it's the Tropics! The forecast is pretty much warm and sunny. If you want to split hairs, Tahiti, Fiji, and the other island groups do have seasons: a rainy period from November to April and a dry period from May to October. It's a bit cooler during the rainy season (80s during the day, 70s after dark), with a chance of some afternoon showers.
Tahiti and Fiji seem a bit pricey for our budget. Is there a way to visit either for less than $5,000?
Joe: Several companies offer one-week South Pacific packages for prices that come well under $5,000 for two. These include round-trip airfare from a major U.S. city, interisland transportation, and accommodations at mid-level resorts. At press time, Islands in the Sun (888-828-6877; islandsinthesun.com) offered seven nights in Tahiti for $1,799 per person and six nights in Fiji for $3,875 for two. Pleasant Holidays (800-742-9244; pleasantholidays.com) had several six-night, two-island combos in Tahiti, and a selection of five-to-seven-night stays at various Fijian beach resorts, all for less than $1,800 per person. Another option: the Cook Islands, where Islands in the Sun offered a range of five-night escapes starting at $1,400 per person. Two additional travel companies with South Pacific packages that won't bust your budget: Liberty Travel (800-863-1569; libertytravel.com) and Brendan Worldwide Vacations (800-257/4260; brendanvacations.com).
What are our cruise options?
Jad: If you want casual camaraderie, hop aboard a playfully rowdy three- or four-day Blue Lagoon Cruise (818-424-7550; bluelagooncruises.com), which sails through Fiji's gorgeous Yasawa Islands. Enjoy village visits and beach volleyball (don't challenge the crew—you'll lose), but also intimate hammock time during a day on a private island. The small, sensible ships range from 21 to 36 staterooms. Quarters are a tad tight, but nothing beats happy hour on the top deck. At the opposite extreme is the sinfully luxurious Bora Bora Cruises (800-780-4014; boraboracruises.com), whose sleek twin yachts Tu Moana and Tia Moana run weekly cruises in the calm waters around Tahiti's leeward islands: Bora Bora, Taha'a, Raiatea, and Huahine. The 35 spacious staterooms have picture windows, not portals, and each morning you'll enjoy made-to-order breakfasts instead of continental buffets. Cruise aficionados adore the 320-passenger Paul Gauguin, Radisson Seven Seas' floating Tahitian resort (877-505-5370; rssc.com). All the staterooms have ocean views and half have balconies. You can try thalassotherapy at the Carita spa, sip cognac at La Palette, and play roulette at Le Casino. But do remember to disembark now and then—the islands are pretty spectacular, too. The region's largest ship, the 750-passenger Tahitian Princess (800-PRINCESS; princess.com), goes farther afield with ten-day itineraries to Tahiti's Society Islands and the nearby Cook Islands. For born-in-the-wrong-century couples, the working freighter Aranui 3 (800-972-7268; aranui.com) delivers the adventure of a lifetime: two weeks cruising through the wild Marquesas. Standard cabins are tiny (choose a deluxe cabin or suite for a queen-sized bed) and the food is buffet-style, but you'll be the hit of cocktail parties back home with your lusty tales of the last unspoiled islands in the South Pacific (and maybe a tattoo or two).
Both my fiancé and I are novice-to-intermediate divers and want the best spot for our skills. What can you tell us about diving in Australia, Fiji, and Tahiti?
Jad: You're in for a treat no matter where you go. Visibility can be up to 200 feet and water temperatures are usually in the 80s. Beginners will enjoy Tahiti, particularly Bora Bora, where the sheltered lagoon is perfect for a shallow starter dive and is loaded with fish. Anau, in the heart of the lagoon, is one of only three places where divers regularly see the impressive (and totally harmless) giant manta ray. Fiji, soft-coral capital of the world, is great for both beginners and intermediates. Practically every island resort has its own shallow-dive site just minutes from shore. Farther out, Namena, a small protected islet just an hour from the Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort on Vanua Levu, has incredibly dense sea fans and healthy sponges that sparkle with basslets and brightly hued butterfly fish. Serious intermediate divers will love the GBR—scuba-speak for the Great Barrier Reef, a 1,400-mile series of coral canyons along Australia's Queensland coast. Because the reef isn't close to shore (it can be a two-hour boat ride from some spots), I stay at a reef resort like Lizard Island or Heron Island. Lizard is close to Cod Hole, where a dozen 300-pound potato codfish nuzzle you like puppies hoping for a treat. Keep an ear tuned in the summer off Heron, and you'll hear humpback-whale songs while you dive.
We're total foodies and can't decide between honeymooning in New Zealand and Australia. Which food-and-wine regions are hot right now?
Joe: If you're talking pure, unadulterated epicurean delights, it's hard to beat Sydney, which has some of the best eateries on the planet: Bennelong, inside the Opera House; Aqua, beneath the Harbour Bridge; and Otto's at Woolloomooloo Wharf. And then there's the ethnic-food scene, a smorgasbord of Greek, Italian, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, and Middle Eastern offerings. Those who crave something a bit more rustic should visit Tasmania and South Australia. Tassie has recently earned a well-deserved reputation as a haven for good wine, great cheese, and delectable seafood. The island's 12 mini wine regions produce a wide variety of tipple, including Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay. South Australia has two very distinct, award-winning wine regions: the Yarra Valley near Adelaide and the Barossa Valley in the center of the state. New Zealand is another winning spot on the world culinary map. In fact, the gourmet food-and-wine scene has grown into one of the country's main attractions. The fertile Marlborough region at the very top of the South Island produces what many wine experts consider the world's finest Sauvignon Blanc, and the area's 70 wineries are also turning out some pretty mean Chardonnay and Riesling. The Hawke's Bay wine region, located on the eastern shore of the North Island, provides more of an all-around experience: remarkable food and wine combined with outdoor adventure (bird-watching, trout fishing) and the attractive, appealing Art Deco city of Napier.
Which local South Pacific customs should we be sure not to miss?
Jad: Spend time in Fiji and you'll be invited to experience yaqona, an ancient ritual centered around the consumption of kava, a drink made from pounded pepper root diluted with water. Scooped in a coconut shell from a four-legged bowl called a tanoa (a great souvenir), it tastes like dirt but packs a novocaine-like punch. It's legal, pleasant, and nothing will earn you local friends faster than joining in. For a tastier treat, arrange to attend a Tahitian umu (earth oven) picnic. Pork, fish, chicken, breadfruit, and vegetables are all wrapped in green banana leaves and baked in a pit with red-hot stones. The result will melt in your mouth. Another must when in French Polynesia is a traditional dance show, with beautiful young women and muscled young men in grass skirts and feathered headdresses dancing the erotic tamure. The shake in the Cook Islands, especially on the island of Aitutaki, is even more sensual—a drum-thumping celebration of the human body in perfectly choreographed motion. Less amorous, but equally rousing, is a New Zealand Maori haka. This synchronized knee-slapping, foot-stomping, war-crying dance will leave you as breathless as the tattooed warriors performing it. And although Australia lacks the carnal flair of her South Pacific neighbors, she makes up for it with her ancient Aboriginal history—the oldest living culture on the planet. Whether you listen to a didgeridoo (a simple wind instrument carved from the branch of a eucalyptus tree) played during a solo moonrise concert at Uluru or blown in a Sydney craft co-op, there's something primeval in its wavering hum.
Why are there overwater bungalows in Tahiti but not in Fiji?
Joe: In the early 1960s, the folks who created the legendary Hotel Bora Bora did something that everyone thought was totally nuts at the time: They built a traditional Tahitian thatched-roof hut (with luxury amenities) and set it on stilts above the gorgeous Bora Bora lagoon. The concept caught on quickly throughout French Polynesia, and today you can also spend your honeymoon relaxing on the private deck of an overwater bungalow in the Cook Islands (Pearl Resort Aitutaki), New Caledonia (Coral Island), and even Vanuatu (Meridien Port Vila). But true to their heritage, the Fijian (and Samoan) people remain faithful to their own version of the thatched-roof hut: the traditional beachfront bure. These can range from very basic (sand floor, mosquito netting, outdoor shower) to utterly luxe (polished teakwood floors, air-conditioning, marble bath with Jacuzzi). You'll find the most awesomely appointed bures at posh private-island resorts such as Namale, Vatulele, and Turtle Island. Believe me, you won't miss the stilts.
We want someplace where we can truly lose ourselves. What do you suggest?
Jad: Flip to that last, thin chapter in your guidebook (or catch a few Survivor reruns). One of the most remote destinations you can visit comfortably is the Marquesas, a tiny archipelago of volcanic islands northwest of Tahiti. Catch a direct flight from Papeete to the main island of Nuka Hiva, or travel aboard the Aranui 3 passenger freighter (see the cruise question), which calls on all six inhabited Marquesas islands over the course of two weeks. Either way, you're in for a startlingly lush landscape little changed since the days when Herman Melville wrote about dodging cannibals and wooing maidens in his swashbuckling tale Typee. On Fiji, head for the northern island of Vanua Levu and its wild top coast to experience the last true stronghold of Fijian culture. The few tourist resorts up there are exclusive and difficult to reach (it's best to arrive via seaplane), but are most definitely worth the effort.
Joe: I'd recommend even more remote destinations, such as Samoa, New Caledonia, and Vanuatu (another Survivor locale). In all three places, you can lounge the entire time at a luxury beach resort, or you can really push it into high gear and get your adrenaline pumping. In Vanuatu, for example, you can kick back on the white-sand beaches of Port Vila; explore the lava-spewing volcano, wild horses and indigenous tribes of Tanna; and don your wetsuits to experience the excellent wreck-and-reef diving of Espiritu Santo. How many of your friends can say they've ever done that?