Most of the islands covered in this book are part of the Polynesian Triangle, which stretches across the vast Pacific Ocean from Hawaii to New Zealand to Easter Island. With the exception of Fiji, they are variations on an overall cultural theme. Each has its own identity, yet each is fundamentally Polynesian. Sitting on the border between Polynesia and the Melanesian islands to the west, Fiji has its own culture blending elements from both areas. The Fijians also share their islands with East Indians, who add a starkly contrasting culture to the mix.

Let's take a quick tour to see what each island country or territory contributes to this smorgasbord.

Fiji

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Because its international airport at Nadi is the region's major transportation hub, Fiji is a prime place with which to begin or end a trip to the South Pacific. In fact, more than twice as many people visit Fiji each year as come to any other South Pacific island destination.

This lush country of 300-plus islands has something for everyone -- from lying on some of the region's best beaches to diving on some of the world's most colorful reefs, from cruising to intriguing outer islands to hiking into the mountainous interior.

Although its beaches aren't the best in Fiji, the Nadi area is home to Denarau Island, a tropical resort with an 18-hole golf course, a tennis center, a marina, several large hotels, and a small shopping mall. From Denarau you can cruise out to the Mamanuca and Yasawa islands, all little specks of land that are home to fine beaches, a host of watersports, and a wide range of offshore resorts.

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The Queen's Road goes south from Nadi to the Coral Coast, Fiji's first resort area and still host to several family-oriented resorts, and to Pacific Harbour, site of a cultural center and golf course. Known as the Adventure Capital of Fiji, Pacific Harbour is the departure point for rafting trips on the Navua River and to the island of Beqa (pronounced Beng-ga), whose surrounding lagoon proffers some of its best diving and snorkeling.

The Queen's Road ends in Suva, Fiji's cosmopolitan capital city. Suva gives a glimpse through its rainy climate of the era when Great Britain ruled here. A 10-minute flight from nearby Nausori Airport will whisk you to the island of Ovalau, where the country's first European-style town, Levuka, still looks like it did in the late 1800s, before the government moved the capital to Suva.

Up in Northern Fiji, Savusavu and Taveuni will transport you back in time to the Fiji of colonial coconut plantations. Between them lies the Somosomo Strait, home to the Great White Wall and its Rainbow Reef, as well as other world-class dive sites.

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Fiji has the South Pacific's most fascinating mix of peoples. A bit more than half the population are friendly, easygoing Fijians, most of whom still live in traditional villages surrounded by vegetable gardens. About 38% are industrious -- and sometimes abrasive -- Fiji Indians whose ancestors came from India to work the sugar-cane plantations that make Fiji the most self-sufficient of the South Pacific countries. Although the contrasting cultures have resulted in political unrest and four coups since 1987, it also makes this an interesting place to get into a conversation.

French Polynesia

If there is a "major league" of dramatically beautiful islands, then Tahiti and her French Polynesian sisters dominate it. This is especially true of Moorea and Bora Bora, which provide Hollywood with many of its choice "stock shots" of glorious tropical settings. Moorea's jagged, shark's-teeth ridges serrate the horizon like the back of some primordial dinosaur resting on the sea just 20km (12 miles) west of Tahiti. One of the world's most romantic honeymoon destinations, Bora Bora is famous for its world-class lagoon, out of which rises the main island topped by the dramatic, tombstonelike Mt. Otemanu.

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High and well watered, Tahiti is the largest of the French Polynesian islands and was the first to be discovered by European explorers in the late 18th century. A great majority of the territory's population lives on Tahiti, especially in and around Papeete, the capital. Today this busy little city has so many cars, trucks, and motor scooters that it can take up to 2 hours to commute to work from the outlying regions. Although Papeete has lost much of its old South Seas charm, Tahiti's rural areas still display aspects of traditional Polynesia.

Even more of Old Polynesia exists on the territory's third-most-beautiful island, Huahine, which locals call "wild" because of its undeveloped status. Here you can explore some of the region's most important archaeological sites. The adjacent islands of Raiatea and Tahaa are even more natural. The two islands are enclosed by one large lagoon, making them French Polynesia's prime sailing grounds.

Off to the northeast, the line of atolls known as the Tuamotu Archipelago boasts French Polynesia's top scuba diving destinations. Rangiroa, which encloses the world's second-largest lagoon, is known for its clear waters, which are home to thousands of sharks. Sitting next to Rangiroa, Tikehau is considerably smaller, and its one international-standard resort sits on an islet all to itself. Also much smaller and shallower than the lagoon at Rangiroa, the fish-filled lagoon at Manihi makes it the world's largest producer of black pearls. Farther afield, Fakarava possesses the world's third-largest lagoon, most of it a marine preserve.

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Even farther afield are the beautiful Marquesas Islands, made famous by TV's Survivor series.

Thanks to tons of francs poured in by the French government, the territory is the most developed, and has the highest standard of living, of any South Pacific island country. The flip side of that is that everyone pays high prices for almost everything, residents and visitors alike. Indeed, French Polynesia is the most expensive South Pacific destination. As one resident of these gorgeous islands says, "Here, you must pay for the view."

The Cook Islands

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Only 800km (497 miles) west of Tahiti (virtually next door in this part of the world), the tiny Cook Islands have much in common with French Polynesia, both in physical beauty and people.

Barely 32km (20 miles) around, Rarotonga is a miniature Tahiti in terms of its mountains, beaches, and reefs -- but in terms of development, it's like Tahiti was some 50 years ago. Unlike Papeete, however, the capital of the Cook Islands, Avarua, remains a quiet little backwater, a picturesque village without a stoplight. Yet no other South Pacific destination has as many hotels, restaurants, daytime activities, and nightclubs packed into so small a space as does Rarotonga.

Among the outer islands, Aitutaki bears the same relationship to Rarotonga as Bora Bora does to Tahiti. A small central island sits at the apex of a shallow but spectacular aquamarine lagoon fringed by some of the region's whitest, talcumlike sand beaches. Long a backwater, Aitutaki is now a thriving destination. It's worth at least a day trip to Aitutaki just to take a lagoon excursion out to the little islands fringing the reef.

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The Cook Islanders share with the Tahitians a fun-loving lifestyle, many old Polynesian legends and gods, and about 60% of their native language. The Cooks were governed by New Zealand from 1901 until 1965 and still are associated with New Zealand. Consequently, most Cook Islanders speak English fluently, which makes it easy for English-speaking travelers to take advantage of the South Pacific's most informative cultural tours and exhibits. They also pay less for almost everything and use the New Zealand dollar as their local currency, which means the Cooks are more affordable than French Polynesia.

Samoa

Once known as Western Samoa, the independent nation of Samoa is like a cultural museum, especially when compared with its much smaller cousin, American Samoa. The peoples of both are related by family and tradition, if not by politics. Samoan culture still exists in the American islands, and it is preserved to a remarkable degree in Samoa, relatively unchanged by modern materialism. Traditional Samoan villages, with their turtle-shaped houses, rest peacefully along the coasts of the two main western Samoan islands, Upolu and Savai'i. Although Samoa has been experiencing a good economy, time seems to have forgotten some of the weather-beaten, clapboard buildings that distinguish Apia, the country's picturesque capital. Although tourism is not a major industry, the country has three luxury beach resorts from which you can fan out and meet the friendly Samoans. Experiencing their culture and visiting their truly remarkable and undeveloped beaches (one of which was the setting for the Gary Cooper movie Return to Paradise) are highlights of any visit. You can even sleep right on the sands in one of the country's numerous beach fales (small, open-air huts).

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American Samoa

Tutuila, the main island in American Samoa, rivals the dramatic beauty of Moorea and Bora Bora in French Polynesia. The mountains drop straight down into fabled Pago Pago, the finest harbor in the South Pacific and the main reason that the United States has had a presence there since 1890. This American influence has resulted in a blend of cultures: the Samoan emphasis on extended families and communal ownership of property, especially land, and the Western desire for business and progress. The result of the latter is that Pago Pago harbor is dominated -- and polluted -- by two large tuna canneries, and large stacks of shipping containers often block the splendid views. The road around the harbor is often clogged with vehicles as American Samoans rush past their traditional villages on their way to American-style shopping centers.

Tonga

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From his Victorian palace in Nuku'alofa, King George V of Tonga rules over a nobility that carries European titles but is in reality a pure Polynesian system of high chiefs. Despite grumbling among his subjects in recent years (some of them rioted in 2006, burning much of the capital), the king, his family, and the nobles control the government and all the land, of which they are obligated to provide 3.4 hectares (8 1/2 acres) to every Tongan adult male.

While the relatively flat main island of Tongatapu offers little in the way of dramatic beauty, the adjacent lagoon provides excellent boating, snorkeling, fishing, and diving. By contrast, hilly Vava'u presents long and narrow fjords and a plethora of deserted islands; these features make it one of the South Pacific's leading yachting and whale-watching centers. Neiafu, the only town on Vava'u, is a reminder of the old days of traders and beach bums.

Indeed, Tonga is the heart of the South Pacific "Bible Belt." Things are slow on Sunday in most island countries, but they stop almost completely in Tonga -- except for church, picnics at the beautiful beaches, and escapes to resorts on tiny islets offshore.

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Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.