Take some extra money along, for you'll spend it on handicrafts, black pearls, and tropical clothing.
- Black Pearls: Few people will escape French Polynesia or the Cook Islands without buying at least one black pearl. That's because the clear-water lagoons of French Polynesia's Tuamotu archipelago and the Manihiki and Penrhyn atolls in the Cook Islands are the world's largest producers of the beautiful dark orbs, and they're being harvested in Fiji, too.
- Handicrafts: Although many of the items you will see in island souvenir shops are actually made in Asia, locally produced handicrafts are the South Pacific's best buys. The most widespread are hats, mats, and baskets woven of pandanus or other fibers, usually by women who have maintained this ancient art to a high degree. Tonga has the widest selection of woven items, although Samoa and Fiji are making comebacks. The finely woven mats made in Tonga and the Samoas are still highly valued as ceremonial possessions and are seldom for sale to tourists.
Before the coming of European traders and printed cotton, the South Pacific islanders wore garments made from the beaten bark of the paper mulberry tree. The making of this bark cloth, known as tapa, is another preserved art in Tonga, Samoa (where it is called siapo), and Fiji (where it is known as masi). The cloth is painted with dyes made from natural substances, usually in geometric designs that have ancestries dating back thousands of years. Tapa is an excellent souvenir because it can be folded and brought back in a suitcase.
Woodcarvings are also popular. Spears, war clubs, knives made from sharks' teeth, canoe prows, and cannibal forks are some examples. Many carvings, however, tend to be produced for the tourist trade and can lack the imagery of bygone days, and some may be machine-produced. Carved tikis are found in most South Pacific countries, but many of them resemble the figures of the New Zealand Maoris rather than figures indigenous to those countries. The carvings from Fiji and the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia are the best of the lot.
- Tropical Clothing: Colorful hand-screened, -blocked, and -dyed fabrics are popular in the islands for making dresses or the wraparound skirt known as pareu in Tahiti and Rarotonga, lava-lava in the Samoas and Tonga, and sulu in Fiji. Heat-sensitive dyes are hand-applied to gauzelike cotton, which is laid in the sun for several hours. Flowers, leaves, and other designs are placed on the fabric, and as the heat of the sun darkens and sets the dyes, the shadows from these objects leave their images on the finished product.