Fijians always greet you with a hearty "Bula." This all-purpose word literally means life. But, the natives were not always so friendly. Just over 100 years ago, they were known to be cannibals. After Missionary Thomas Baker touched the chief's hair, he and seven others became dinner. The tribe even tried to cook and eat his sweaty boots but they were too salty. You can see the boots' remains at the Fiji Museum in Suva.
Customs like firewalking and kava ceremonies remain. Kava, a traditional drink in many South Pacific Islands, numbs your mouth, can give you a buzz and tastes like muddy water. It is fun to participate in a kava ceremony at a native village. Food is steamed under a pile of leaves, and after lunch, everyone dances doing a sort of six-step-that's six small steps forward arm and arm with a villager, and six steps back with repeats. It's great fun.
Like most of the South Pacific, Fiji boasts sapphire waters, and the underwater life is so colorful. www.fiji.travel
New Caledonia, located west of Fiji, was once a French penal colony. How can living on an island with a verdant landscape and white sand beaches surrounded by the world's largest lagoon be punishment? Add to that great diving and snorkeling.
Check out the giant Kanak huts at the culture center - one is almost 92 feet high. The Kanaks, Melanesians who migrated here 34,000 years ago, patterned the interior of these huts after a traditional house. To me, they look like giant sails.
If you are a hiker, trek the grassy trails of La Riviére Bleue Parc on the west side of the island. This lush area exhibits every imaginable shade of green and is home to the crested cagou, one of the world's rarest birds. These flightless creatures amble alongside the road.
Most people had never heard of this friendly, 80-island republic located northwest of Fiji until Tropical Cyclone Pam nearly destroyed it in March, 2015. The former New Hebrides is where James Michener wrote, Tales of the South Pacific and where you will find glowing sunsets and a dazzling night sky with millions of stars.
Port Vila, Efate, the capital, is a chockablock of bars, restaurants, souvenir and duty-free shops but my two favorite island highlights are the onion soup at L'Houstalet and the underwater post office at Hideway Island, a 15-minute bus ride plus a quick boat launch from town. You can see the facility if you wade a bit from shore. You have to be a diver to actually mail something.
I prefer Tanna Island where beautiful wild horses roam its dusty plains. You can stand on the edge of Yusar Volcano's 490-foot deep crater as it spits and sputters sulfur smelling steam puffs. Or, visit the primitive tribe at Lacalanka Village. Tribesman are untouched by the modern world.
French Polynesia (Tahiti)
French Polynesia has been touched by the outside world but only gently. The islands of Tahiti, Bora Bora, Moorea, Raiatea and Huahine are picture postcard perfect. No pollution, no crowds and an average air and water temperature of 79F. Who hasn't dreamt of spending time in this land of swaying palms, soft breezes, mostly cloudless skies, jaw-dropping sunsets, white sand beaches and turquoise waters? The smell of jasmine seems to be everywhere. It doesn't get better than this.
Be forewarned: a visit to this idyllic destination comes with a steep price tag. But it is less expensive to see it by yacht with Windstar Cruises (www.windstarcruises.com). I am happy I did it that way.
From Tahiti, you can travel to Easter Island (aka Rapi Nui). But most make the 2,350-mile jaunt west from Santiago, Chile. Tourists come to see the 887 moais (pronounced moo-whys), huge monoliths fashioned from stone with big eyes, protruding noses and thin lips. They vary in size but average about 14 feet high and weigh approximately 14 tons. Natives believed these statues protected them and the island's many horses from harm.
Most moias, 397 to be exact, are at Ronu Raku quarry. As you follow the winding paths more and more appear. Atop the quarry is a lovely volcanic lake. To see the 15 iconic moias that sit on a platform with their backs to the sea, visit Ahu Tongariki.
Note that though the Moias are amazing, food and lodging are very basic.
Instead of moias, Maoris inhabit Cook Islands - the same Maoris that live in New Zealand. Low-keyed islanders live by the motto, "Island time is whenever. After all, you are on vacation." They are so mellow and their island so beautiful, it seems like they are on holiday, too.
Encircling the main island, Rarotonga, is a pearl necklace-shaped reef. Snorkeling and diving are awesome. And, just feet from shore on the island of Aitutaki, beautiful coral, blue starfish and a host of undersea denizens abound. Survivor Shipwreck was filmed on Aitutaki which is home to 2,000 people and 5,000 chickens.
Another memorable excursion is a walk with the 70-plus-year-old, red-haired, dreadlocked, herbalist Pa Teuruwa. He says if he finds the right plant, he can cure most ailments in 30-60 minutes. Cancer takes a bit longer. Teuruwa must make his calculations on island time.
Oh, and don't miss the culture show at Highland Paradise Culture Centre in Rarotonga with a host who changes his shirt about eight times. And since islanders align themselves to New Zealand, you can enjoy the tasty NZ wines at reasonable prices. www.cookislands.travel
I would visit any of these islands again and again. Just give me some time to pack my suitcase.