The island nations of the South Pacific are scattered across a vast area, with inter-island air travel expensive and complicated to arrange, making this a perfect destination to explore on a small ship cruise. While some cruise lines only pass through fleetingly, often as part of a round-the-world cruise, there are others that spend the winter here, and others still that are based in the South Pacific year round, giving you plenty of options.
The most common embarkation and debarkation port is Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, which is situated on the island of Tahiti and has good air links to the west coast of the US. Much less common are cruises out of Lautoka in Fiji, while longer itineraries passing through the South Pacific may start or end in Australia, New Zealand or Chile. Most itineraries will feature French Polynesia, sometimes with calls in the Cook Islands, Tonga or Vanuatu. Look out too for transoceanic cruises that call at enigmatic Easter Island, often staying here overnight to give you more time to explore, and more unusual voyages to places like Papua New Guinea, Micronesia and Samoa.
The South Pacific is hot and humid year round, but the best time to visit is generally between April and November when the weather is drier. July and August tend to be the peak tourism months, when Australians and New Zealanders head to the islands to escape the cold weather back home. Even during the rainy season, downpours are generally short-lived, and are interspersed with bright sunshine.
Here is our guide to the best small ship cruise lines visiting the South Pacific:
Windstar's beautiful 148-guest sail-assisted yacht Wind Spirit will cruise in the South Pacific until the end of 2023 before sister ship, 312-guest Star Breeze, takes over, sailing out of Papeete and focusing on the islands of French Polynesia, including Tahiti, Bora Bora and Mo'orea. The style on board is relaxed and unpretentious, perfect for those who prefer a more informal dress code, and there is a watersports platform at the back of the ship.
The lovely 332-guest MS Paul Gauguin is based in the South Pacific year round, with the culture and warmth of the islands reflected on board. Itineraries focus on French Polynesia, including voyages to the more rugged and undeveloped Marquesas islands, as well as occasional forays further afield to the Cook Islands, Tonga, Fiji and Bali. The ship has its own watersports marina, and Paul Gauguin guests enjoy exclusive access to Motu Mahana, a private retreat off the coast of Taha'a.
Silversea's expanding fleet of small ships includes both 'classic' and expedition vessels, and they have some particularly interesting expedition itineraries. The144-guest Silver Explorer will soon leave the fleet, with South Pacific voyages taking place on board expedition ship 254-guest Silver Cloud and 392-guest Silver Shadow. Options include voyages between Papeete and Lautoka that take you off the beaten track in Fiji, Tonga and the tiny island nation of Niue, and transpacific cruises visiting Easter Island, Pitcairn and the Chilean islands of Robinson Crusoe and Alexander Selkirk. On board you can expect Silversea's trademark luxury all-inclusive experience, with butler service included for every suite.
Seabourn are another ultra-luxury, all-inclusive line offering both 'classic' and expedition itineraries in the South Pacific, with a fleet of sleek, contemporary ships and the very highest standards of service and comfort on board. Options include transoceanic cruises combining the South Pacific with the islands of Hawaii, and intrepid voyages on the 264-guest expedition ship Seabourn Venture and new sister ship Seabourn Pursuit visiting destinations including Micronesia, Pitcairn, Tonga and Guam.
Oceania's smaller 684-guest 'R Class' ships are regular visitors to the South Pacific, with a choice between 10-night Papeete round-trips exploring French Polynesia, or longer and more unusual voyages between Papeete and Sydney, Los Angeles or Singapore. These longer voyages tend to offer particularly good value for money, and enable you to visit more unusual destinations like Samoa and Vanuatu. Oceania are highly rated for their food, and offer port-intensive itineraries with lots of time ashore, perfect for those who really want to explore.
Following the huge success of Australia-based company Scenic's stylish 228-guest expedition yacht, Scenic Eclipse, comes sister ship Scenic Eclipse II. Her inaugural season includes an exciting Australia, New Zealand and South Pacific programme with off-the-beaten-track itineraries visiting Easter Island, Pitcairn, New Caledonia, Norfolk Island, Fiji, Tonga and more. The amazing gadgets on board include a helicopter and submarine, and there are ten different dining experiences spread across seven venues.
German cruise line Hapag-Lloyd Cruises have a handful of itineraries exploring some of the less visited corners of the South Pacific, travelling on board the highly regarded 500-guest MS Europa 2, consistently rated the best cruise ship in the world by the Berlitz Guide. Options include itineraries visiting New Caledonia, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and Easter Island, with some voyages also including calls in Australia and New Zealand.