Leave the hammock lazing and sunbathing to some other South Pacific visitor. Chances are, you’re here only once, and this part of paradise is packed with unique places to explore. I’ve turned up 10 unexpected South Pacific adventures that put you in mud baths, whitewater rapids, craters, caverns, shark corridors, and more. Read on to discover the fun you never imagined could lie beyond your overwater bungalow.
Harvesting a Black Pearl in Raiatea, French Polynesia
French Polynesia’s largest export, the Tahitian pearl or black pearl is the darling souvenir of local markets and jewelry shops. You can hop a five-minute boat ride off shore from Raiatea to harvest one for yourself at Anapa Pearl Farm. From its center of operations in a thatched-roof overwater bungalow, the farm cultivates and harvests black pearls each year from some 20,000 oysters attached to a series of underwater ropes. Bring your snorkeling gear and you can dive down and choose an oyster. Expert grafters use what look like dental instruments to extract your prize and show you the cultivation process.
If you go: Book in advance. The tiny bungalow has a capacity of less than 20 people, which makes the experience feel exclusive both on the deck and as you’re snorkeling the reef around the bungalow.
Water-Skiing Around a Cruise Ship in Moorea, French Polynesia
Smaller cruise ships sailing Tahiti’s Society Islands, including Windstar’s four-masted sailing yacht, have watersports platforms that open like hatches directly onto the water at the back of the ship. From here, the watersports crew pulls you water-skiing or wakeboarding behind an inflatable Zodiac speedboat. It’s a novel experience to ski around the cruise ship in the shadow of volcanic formations in a turquoise Moorea bay—especially when you’re used to skiing with a lake backdrop at home. Receiving cheers and waves from passengers on the sundeck is the icing on the cake.
If you go: Ask the watersports crew which port on your route usually has the calmest water for skiing. Go in the morning when most passengers are embarking on shore excursions or shopping in port.
Whitewater Rafting on Class II & III Rapids in Viti Levu, Fiji
When you’re ready for a change of Fiji scenery, ditch the beach and head for the jungle. All-day rafting adventures on Fiji’s Upper Navua River take you past dozens of waterfalls and through several miles of deep, narrow river canyon. Some stretches are only 15 feet wide and 130 feet high. It’s not what you picture when you imagine Fiji, but this canyon is precious to islanders who worked to make it an official conservation area. Whitewater rafting trips through the lush rainforest stop for a swim beneath a waterfall and a visit to a local village where you can watch ceremonies, traditional dancing, and arts and crafts demonstrations.
If you go: Ask questions. Local guides are quick to share stories about their culture and day-to-day life at home.
Soaking in a Mud Pool and Hot Springs in Viti Levu, Fiji
There’s nothing fancy or commercialized about the rustic outdoor experience at Sabeto Mud Pool and Hot Springs in Fiji’s lush Sabeto Valley. But it’s a favorite among locals and visitors who claim the benefits of relaxation and softer skin. The three geothermal springs and mud pool are right next to each other and make for an indulgent self-serve spa treatment. You’re given a bucket of mud to generously slather over your skin. Once the caked-on mud dries in the sun, you dunk in the mud pool before a final rinse and soak in the hot spring pools, which range from warm to extremely hot.
If you go: Wear an old swimsuit and bring a change of clothes so you can clean up and take advantage of the on-site massages.
Island Hopping by Kayak in the Yasawa or Kadavu Islands, Fiji
Most visitors to Fiji never venture beyond the main island, Viti Levu, to the country’s other 300 islands. Weeklong kayaking trips in Fiji’s more remote islands are an adventure away from civilization, an escape to a place without shops or banks. On a guided tour you’ll paddle three or four hours a day, stopping to snorkel coral reefs, swim at powdery white sand beaches, or explore limestone caves. With Southern Sea Ventures you’ll camp on uninhabited islands or stay as an exclusive guest in native villages within the Yasawa Island group. If you want to hop between islands with hotels, book a kayaking trip in the Kadavu Islands with Tamarillo Active Travel.
If you go: Look for the Yasawa archipelago’s Turtle Island, the film set for the movie The Blue Lagoon (1980) starring Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins.
Shark Diving in a Marine Reserve in Viti Levu, Fiji
One of the world’s renowned shark dives, the Fiji Shark Corridor is a 19-mile stretch along the southern coast of Fiji’s main island. Divers descend and kneel on the ocean floor behind a wall and watch as several species of sharks gather. Grey, blacktip, and whitetip reef sharks visit regularly, as do the tawny nurse, sickle-fin lemon, and the main attraction: the bull shark. Fiji’s shark population was nearing extinction when this Marine Protected Area was established in 2002. Local villagers relinquished fishing rights in exchange for an income source that comes from the divers. Recent data shows healthier fishing yields in the surrounding areas.
If you go: Beqa Adventure Divers, the steward of the marine reserve, hires local divers to lead the tours. They use fish heads to attract the sharks. Dives at this site in the Beqa Passage are limited to two boats daily, five days a week.
4×4 Driving to an Active Volcano Rim in Tanna, Vanuatu
Located between Fiji and Australia, Vanuatu is a nation of some 80 islands including the island of Tanna, home to one of the world’s most accessible active volcanoes. Hire a guide for the 4×4 ride to the top of the fiery volcano. You’ll ascend barren volcanic ash fields reminiscent of a Star Trek scene and ramble over huge black sand dunes created by ash rain. Walking the last 50 yards is a bit of a trek, but the reward is like none other: a view over the edge of the crater rim and into the red glow of bubbling lava. As each sudden eruption happens you can feel the bang shake your body, see the lava flying overhead, and watch as it splatters back inside the cone.
Swimming in a Crater in Upolu, Samoa
Samoa’s iconic swimming hole is also one of Earth’s most unusual. On the south coast of the main island, To Sua Trench is an almost perfectly circular volcanic crater filled with seawater ebbing and flowing with the tide through an underground tunnel to the ocean. Occasionally you’ll see someone leap from the top and plunge the entire 98 feet into the clear, turquoise water below. Most visitors, once they work up the courage, carefully inch their way down a steep, slippery wooden ladder to the swim platform for a dip. The scene is magical. Lush vegetation rims the crater and vines spill over the edges.
If you go: Don’t miss the lush gardens and ocean views at the top. Picnic like a local in the fales (Samoan thatched-roof huts) or explore blowholes and rock pools.
Exploring Bird Caves in Atiu, Cook Islands
With a handful of villages and only 400 residents, Atiu Island in the Cook Islands offers adventurers the opportunity to explore the subterranean world of the South Pacific. Atiu is ringed by a raised coral limestone reef, where several caves along the coastline were once used as burial grounds. A 30-minute trek through the dense tropical jungle leads to Anatakitaki Cave. Inside the cave you’ll likely hear the kopeka bird before you see it flying overhead. This tiny swiftlet, endemic to the island, nests among stalactites and stalagmites, and navigates in the pitch black using sonar with a series of clicking sounds.
If you go: Wear sturdy shoes and hire a guide who will help you navigate over the jungle’s sharp fossil coral to the cave. Tours typically include a candlelit swim in a crystal-clear cavern pool.
Snorkeling with Humpback Whales in Tonga
Each year from July to October, hundreds of humpback whales arrive in the waters of Tonga to mate and give birth to their young before returning to their summer feeding grounds in Antarctica. Several tour operators on the islands of Tongatapu, Vava’u, Ha’apai, and ‘Eua take you to the breeding grounds and provide snorkeling gear for your swim. You’ll get close enough to hear whales singing underwater. Expert guides ensure a safe distance and offer insight on the behaviors you’re witnessing, from a group of males pursuing a female to a mother nursing her calf.
If you go: Book a charter that takes only small groups of six or eight, which are less likely to disturb the whales. Some charters combine swimming with whales and a sunbathing detour to a deserted beach.
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Jamie Moore is a regular contributor to SmarterTravel. Her articles have appeared on USA Today, Yahoo Travel, Huffington Post, and WestJet.