I haven’t seen my family in 15 months.
Skype is great, but until personal teleportation is developed, it can only take you so far.
As a solution, Jared and I are going to meet our families in February at the halfway point. Conveniently, ‘halfway’ for Indiana, Australia and Korea happens to be Hawaii.
What’s not paradise is orchestrating a 2-week Hawaiian vacation for 9 people in Oahu and Maui when you are all scattered across three different continents.
That’s not so great. Especially when you’re concurrently planning a 3-week trip to India for January.
After a month of emails, Skype calls, price watching and obsessively trawling through VRBO, the bulk of the planning is over. Flights have been purchased, accommodation has been reserved, and my faint twinges of travel excitement are starting to become full-on seizures of anticipation.
The trip to Hawaii got me thinking about other islands I’ve visited in the past. Although there aren’t many, I’ve put together a list so you can have a virtual island-hopping experience as fall freezes into winter. It was going to be a ‘top 5,’ but I realized I’ve only really been to these 5 islands so it wasn’t exactly accurate. Nevertheless, here it is.
5. Tahiti, French Polynesia
I flew to New Zealand via Tahiti, so I couldn’t pass up the chance to stop and check it out.
The views didn’t disappoint – one of those places you can depend on to be beautiful no matter what. I also loved that it’s a French-speaking island, so I got the chance to practice my abandoned French.
Unfortunately, the island is expensive, especially when compared with other South Pacific destinations like Samoa or the Cook Islands. But I think people come to Tahiti for a taste of luxury, so inflated prices come with the territory.
After much debate, I decided on the island of Huahine. In 2006, it was a small hassle to get there, because inter-island flights could only be booked via phone calls and fax machines. Now, of course, Air Tahiti is all online.
Because I was on a budget, I didn’t do much except laze around in the bungalow (FAIL: can’t remember where I stayed) and go on one dive. The diving wasn’t spectacular, and the leader only managed to attract fish by leaving an underwater bread trail.
Tahiti was a great stopover, but I think it’s best left until you have a little bit more than a backpacker budget to work with.
Tip: If you are on a tight budget, consider the island of Moorea. It’s only a ferry ride away from the capital of Papeete (Pah-pi-et-tay), so you’ll save on flights.
4. Rhodes, Greece
Rhodes is actually closer to Turkey than it is to mainland Greece, so it was influenced by both countries. I wound up in Rhodes for a three-day weekend because EasyJet was running a sale. It was a lucky break, because Rhodes has a lot to offer and isn’t too far from London.
The crumbling Acropolis gives you a taste of ancient Greek life, while the walled Old Town brings history right within your reach. It’s also the site of one of the original 7 wonders, the Colossus of Rhodes. Nothing remains today, but you can still go check out the harbour where it stood.
Tip: Rhodes can be windy. I don’t really know how to combat that, but bring some sunglasses because man does it sting to get sand in your eyes.
3. Fraser Island, Australia
Fraser Island is the world’s largest sand island. It’s an overwhelmingly popular stop on the backpacker route of Australia’s east coast, so there are several tour operators that can help you get there. I used Peterpans and was really happy with them – I got a flexible package deal that combined the Fraser Island trip with a sail around the Whitsunday Islands.
Our Fraser Island tour was a self-drive 4×4 tour for 8 people, operated by Dingo’s Backpackers. I knew four of the people on my tour, and we joined up with another 4 from the hostel on Rainbow Beach. Dingo’s provides you with everything you’ll need, including the vehicle, food, maps, cooking and camping gear. If you want alcohol, you have to buy it separately, but they will arrange that for you before departure.
I never drove the car and we only got bogged in sand once, so the self-drive was pretty successful. There is a lot to see on the island, from the crystal-clear Lake Mackenzie to the disappearing Lake Wabby, which is slowly being engulfed by a giant sand dune. Toilets are all bush, and beware of the giant flies that hover around you at all times – Fraser is the only time I’ve had to do a running pee.
It also has the most spectacular night sky I’ve ever seen in my life. Prepare for goosebumps.
Tip: Keep an eye on your food. I don’t know if a dingo will steal your baby, but it will steal a loaf of bread. I know this from experience.
2. Savai’i, Samoa
Samoa is roughly a four hour flight from New Zealand, and is a viable option for budget travelers. To get to Savai’i, fly into Apia on the island of Upolu, then jump on a crowded local ferry to Salelologa. I stayed at Vacations Beach Fales, and was able to arrange transport with them for the 45-minute drive from the port to Manase Village. It’s a family-run place and accommodation is a thatched hut (fale) on the beach. Meals are included in the room rate (~$90/night) and if you want anything extra from the shop, write it down in an honor-system book and pay on checkout.
A bell summons all guests for meals three times a day, but if you get hungry in between, grab a banana from the bunches hanging near reception. On my second night, there was a special meal and the family members put on a fire dancing show. We all got a good look at the painful tattoos wrapped around the oldest son’s meaty thighs and marveled at his moves.
Admittedly, there wasn’t a lot to do at the resort, but they did offer a tour of the island. One of the sons drove us around, stopping at waterfalls, rope bridges and the Alofago blowholes. He took us through towns that were still suffering as a result of a cyclone two years earlier. Chickens roamed around people’s front yards, surrounded by cows tethered to the ground by fraying rope and naked babies eating handfuls of whatever they could find.
Tip: Bring sunscreen. Sounds redundant, but it is really difficult to find on the island because the locals don’t need it. I met a depressed German couple who were stuck inside for an entire week due to a crippling sunburn.
1. Tavewa, Yasawa Island Group, Fiji
Fiji was another bonus island stopover, this time on an Air Pacific flight to Australia. I was traveling with a roommate from college and we just decided to see what we could find once we arrived in Nadi (Nan-di) that would take us to the Yasawa Islands. When we got off the plane, a woman approached us from a local travel agency, so we just followed her to an office. Luckily, it turned out well, but I know now it could easily have gone the other way.
For ferry transport we used Awesome Adventures Fiji and wound up staying at David’s Place on Tavewa Island. Alexa and I shared a bure (‘boor-ay‘ – another thatched hut) with a mouse and some mosquitoes – the accommodation was basic but fit right in with the overall experience. The people who ran David’s Place were very welcoming. They knocked on our door to invite us for an impromptu volleyball game (and they were really good at volleyball) and gave us our first taste of kava, a mouth-numbing drink that was like liquid orajel.
The beach on the island wasn’t great, but there were daily boat trips out to surrounding islands. We visited neighbouring islands like the one from the movie Blue Lagoon, learned how to chop open a coconut, and saw some enormous turtles in the vibrant blue sea. One of the boat trips went to some nearby caves, where you can swim through underground caverns, climb up rocks and jump into what can only be described as a grotto. There are also several exhausting, yet rewarding hikes if you’re that way inclined.
Tip: Take a couple of boat trips. You get to see slices of island life that you wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to. We once stopped at an isolated slip of an island to deliver loaves of bread to a family with eight tufty-haired, naked children. On the way back, our guide jumped into the water with a spear and brought up dinner. A-mazing.
Looking for inspiration…what are your favorite islands?