Pacific Island Hopping

July 10, 2016

Island hopping across the 11 small countries in the Pacific.
Explore the Pacific?
Where on earth to start?

For a single spot of sand, surf, snorkeling, you have endless choices.
BUT, if you want to truly "island hop" ― explore more, sample varied cultures, see more than one beach resort ― how best to plan your island hopping?

Across the vast Pacific, small inhabited islands are divided into over two dozen jurisdictions, including
  • 11 sovereign countries, all members of the UN.
    See my map above.
    Each one, I noticed, is linked to the Anglosphere as former protectorate or dependency (three to the US, and eight to the UK, Australia, or New Zealand).
  • Two semi-independent states in "free association" with New Zealand (Cook Islands and Niue).
  • Another 11 territories and dependencies with different degrees of autonomy (three under the US; three under France; two under Chile; and one each under Australia, New Zealand, and the UK).
  • Plus the US state of Hawaii.
I'm excluding the big island countries on the Pacific's perimeter from Japan down to Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and New Zealand.

So many places, so little time (and money). So we might as well focus first on hopping around the independent countries (and raise our country count too if you confess to being a counter).

It wasn't easy to make sense of these specks on the map. Sorting them into Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia is based mostly on ethnicity ― academically useful but worthless to a traveler who does not care about gradients of skin color.

Instead, I sorted countries from a traveler's perspective (not from pigmentation). Results are below.

Small Pacific island nations grouped by travel factors into:
The "Micro Trio," "Secluded Center," and "Big Five"
(These maps are heavily amended from one at freeworldmaps.net)

The Micro Trio

These three countries just north of the equator comprise the Pacific's
easiest route thanks to United's convenient "island hopper" schedule.
East to West: HNL-MAJ-KWA-KSA-PNI-TKK-GUM-YAP.
(Map revised from this site.)
Things to note about the Micro(nesia) Trio:
  • On this linear route, perhaps better to fly east-to-west, starting with small, less developed Marshall Islands and ending in popular Palau.
  • You'll see a variety of Oceania sights and levels of development.
  • As you hop across FSM (Federated States of Micronesia, not to be confused with the broader region of Micronesia), you can pick one or more island stopovers...
    • Kosrae, most pristine and least developed
    • Pohnpei, mysterious Nan Madol ruins
    • Chuuk, dive among 70 sunken Japanese ships
    • Yap, known for manta rays and preserved culture.
  • Along the way, be sure to stop over in Guam, the large, prosperous American territory out in the far western Pacific.
  • The US dollar is the currency in all three countries.
  • This route allows a fairly simple DIY itinerary over a couple of weeks.


The Secluded Center

Moving south we find a more central equatorial trio ― Nauru, Tuvalu, and Kiribati ― that also shares features relevant to travelers. Key things to remember about the Secluded Center:
  • All three are among the least visited countries on earth.
    • Nauru, estimated at about 200 visitors annually; often said to be the world's least visited country
    • Tuvalu, about 1,200 visitors per year
    • Kiribati, about 6,000 per year
  • Getting there can be a challenge. Nauru's visa process is a mystery. Long flights from Fiji operate only once or twice a week. Nauru Airlines offers alternatives but is not listed on Kayak, etc.
  • All three countries have even less tourism infrastructure than in FSM and Marshall Islands. Choices of lodging are few and poor. No credit cards accepted in Tuvalu, cash only. And don't expect cheap, fast internet.
  • Super small: Nauru (pop 10,000) and Tuvalu (pop 11,000) are two of the smallest and least populated countries on earth. Kiribati is larger but still has only 30,000 on its largest island Tarawa.
  • The few visitors I met were either business people, NGO workers, missionaries, or, in three cases, country counters. Didn't see any backpackers or pensioner tours.
  • Certain travelers like me will find the obscurity, oddities, and obstacles to be appealing, even charming. Most apparently do not.
  • Rather than putting all three into the same journey, as I did, you may want to tackle just one of these unusual destinations in combination with island hopping in some more mainstream places like the Big Five below.
  • Nauru may be more of a triumph to visit, but of these three, my favorite was the friendly, easygoing atoll of Funafuti, Tuvalu.
  • Breaking news: Adventures Abroad has introduced a remarkable tour called the "Untouched Pacific" including all three of the Secluded Center plus the two least visited in the Micro Trio. Interesting new option. Undiscovered Destinations also has an impressive new Pacific tour that includes Nauru and Kiribati.

The Big Five

What I'm calling the "Big Five" are the southernmost Pacific nations, besides New Zealand. All are a nonstop flight from the Fiji hub, and share various "big" factors:

  • Each of these Big Five each get more tourists than any of the six other countries except Palau. (Many come from nearby Australia.)
  • The good news is that respectable Fiji Airlines operates daily nonstop flights to Tonga, Samoa, and Vanuatu from its Nadi, Fiji hub. One drawback is that onward flights from the Fiji hub usually entail an overnight stopover. The airline also flies a couple of times a week nonstop to the Solomon Islands. But also investigate Solomon Airlines. (Vanuatu Air is mostly domestic.)
My 2016 flights to the Big Five using the Fiji hub

  • So much to see and do in the Big Five that it is worth carefully researching your personal optimal combination of volcanoes, blowholes, snorkeling, culture, and so forth. 
  • You also have far more and better lodging options here.

Three Summers of Island Hopping

I island hopped the eleven countries this way:

▶ 2014: North of the equator...
Took United's brilliant route and saw the Micro Trio, plus Guam.

▶ 2015: Equatorial...
Explored the three countries tucked away in the Secluded Center.

▶ 2016: South Pacific:
Visited all the Big Five but the easy way on a small-group tour.

By chance googling, I came across a unique island hopping tour from Adventures Abroad that included all the Big Five. Rather than DIY, I signed up and I'm glad I did.

The itinerary managed to cover a lot, mixing a variety of culture, history, nature, and other sightseeing. To run it all smoothly, we had the cleverest, funniest, most indefatigable guide ever (Chris Tripodi) ― and a good group of fellow travelers.

June 2016: Adventures Abroad Pacific Explorer Tour
with Chris and crew, shown here sweating in Palau.