Image: Hula dancers on Kauai
Classic hula dancers on Kauai, the northernmost of the inhabited islands and hands-down the most spectacular.
updated 5/17/2007 3:05:51 PM ET 2007-05-17T19:05:51

There’s nothing quite like the classic honeymoon in Bora Bora or Maui -- which is why so many couples go there. But what if you could have the beauty and romance of the South Seas without all the other travelers? We found five overlooked and under-crowded destinations across the Pacific that you won’t want to miss.

Cartography aside (Hawaii actually sits north of the equator), the Hawaiian Islands are the postcard South Pacific isles of your dreams -- complete with jungle-draped volcanic crags splashed by champagne-foam waves, black (or white or green) sand beaches, bowed coconut palms and hip-wiggling hula dancers. And it’s just a short five-hour hop from the mainland -- all this without ever cracking your passport.

The Classic: Most couples head straight to Maui, second largest of the islands, where they snorkel the dramatic ruins of the collapsed Molokini Crater, hip-hop the night away at Hapa’s Kihei nightclub, and kick back along the resort zone of Kaanapali. Maui also has more than 80 public beaches along its 120-mile coast, including Fleming Beach, which was deemed the best beach in America for 2006 by Dr. Beach.

The Unexpected: To really get away, fly into Kauai, the northernmost of the inhabited islands and hands-down the most spectacular. (Grab a window seat on the right side for a sneak preview of Kauai’s mist-shrouded Mount Kawaikini.) Locals will tell you the island is the way Hawaii used to be, especially along the brooding northern coast and the 43 sugar-sand beaches unspoiled by high-rise hotel strips.

Outdoor enthusiasts gravitate to the Napali Coast, a rugged 15-mile stretch of fluted sea cliffs where nature still prevails. Hike the first two miles of the 11-mile Kalalau Trail to Hanakapiai Beach, where you’ll find a hidden slice of sand and sea caves. No matter how seemingly inviting, though, do not swim in the ocean here -- the currents can be deadly. Instead, cool off in the crystal-clear mountain stream that tumbles to the beach or lounge in the warm tidal pools.

Slideshow: Polynesian paradise If hiking isn’t your thing, a number of companies run catamaran cruises along the Napali where you can snorkel with sea turtles and photograph acrobatic pods of spinner dolphins. Or don your scuba gear and head out with Blue Dolphin Charters to go down below and mingle with the sea life. My favorite dive site is Vertical Awareness, a plunging sea wall off nearby Niihau. Also called the Forbidden Island, Niihau is open only to native Hawaiians. You may not be allowed to set foot here, but keep an eye on the coastline -- it’s a favorite haunt for endangered monk seals.

Slideshow: Magical Maui But perhaps one of the most exhilarating and romantic ways to see the entire island is on a helicopter tour. Jack Harter Helicopters will take you up in a four-passenger Hughes 500 for 60 or 90 minutes; the doors can open to the wind, making the Jurassic Park peaks and free-fall cascades seem close enough to touch.

Where to stay: Kauai gets the most rain in the state; if you want optimum sun time, book into the activity-filled Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa, located on Poipu Beach, on the sunnier south shore. Doubles from $490.

The top option on the quieter north shore is the palatial Princeville Resort, overlooking the half moon of Hanalei Bay. They’ve got great golf on two courses, easy access to eco action like hiking and zip lining, and a great luau every Monday and Thursday night. Doubles from $500.

The wonderful island continent of Oz offers Americans a fun-house glimpse of themselves. The Outback -- particularly the great Red Centre -- is the American West on steroids, with vast deserts speckled with mining towns and sheep stations so remote farmers fly to the nearest store. The tropical Queensland coast is a dash of Sunbelt Florida with a Neptunian Disney World of colorful sea life.

The Classic: The triple-header has always been Sydney, the Great Barrier Reef and the Outback. Sydney is one of the world’s most beloved cities, with attractions like Sydney Harbour and Bondi Beach, where tanned locals gather for drinks on weekends. Cairns (pronounced “Cans”) and nearby Port Douglas are the gateway to the reef -- and where the Aussies head on their holidays to put on their bathers (swimsuits), tip a few stubbies (beers) and fire up the barbie. And “the Alice” -- Alice Springs -- is where you head to see a kangaroo and marvel at the sparse vegetation,  striking rock formations and crimson-hued soil of the great Red Centre.

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The unexpected: It’s still the Great Barrier Reef and the Outback (and you’ll fly through Sydney no matter what), just a little farther … out. The Great Barrier Reef lies a good hour or two offshore from the Queensland Coast, which means day trips take up just that, each way, with a big part of the journey pounding through the choppy Coral Sea. Fortunately, the same coral that makes up the largest reef system in the world has created a series of islands on the outside fringe, many of which have become world-renowned resorts.

Northern islands like Lizard have a dry, Mediterranean feel -- sort of a Crete-meets-Catalina atmosphere -- while those farther south including Dunk and Bedarra are lusher and reminiscent of Hawaii. One of the most exciting ways to experience the reef is by snorkeling or diving at Cod Hole, where grouper the size of VW Beetles beg for food like puppies. For something more romantic, embark on a picnic -- just you two, a hamper stuffed with crab salad and a bottle of Hunter Creek Shiraz, and all afternoon on a private, reserved beach.

Slideshow: Awesome Australia Far from the sparkling sea in the very Red Centre of the island continent, you can make a pilgrimage to another monolithic reef. Uluru (also called Ayers Rock), a 1,100-foot-tall sandstone ridge that rises from the flat desert pans of the Australian Outback south of the Alice, is one of the most mystical natural wonders in the world, as well as a World Heritage site. The traditional owners -- the native Anangu -- frown on tourists climbing the sacred peak, but you can take guided ranger hikes around part of the base (a full loop takes around five hours). Rangers will point out red kangaroo tracks and ancient rock art done in the aboriginal Dreamtime tradition. The nearby Cultural Centre, with the Ininti Store and adjoining Maruku Arts and Crafts Centre, makes a nice souvenir stop.

Where to stay: On the Great Barrier Reef, Voyages Lizard Island is a vogue 40-villa resort with 24 powder-soft-sand beaches. Doubles from $1,137, including meals and activities. Outback living has never been as luxurious as in the elegant tent-roofed suites at Longitude 131°, dramatically situated on the edge of the park. Doubles from $1,422, including meals and activities.

French Polynesia is the embodiment of the exotic South Seas, a constellation of 118 islands collared in translucent lagoons that’s only a seven-hour flight from Los Angeles. It really does have it all, from the steep Society Islands that took center stage in James Michener’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning Tales of the South Pacific to the remote sandy atolls of the Tuamotus, where a narrow stretch of sand is all that separates the lagoon from the deep blue sea.

The Classic: I’ve got two words for you … well, really just one, repeated: Bora Bora. This towering slab of basalt rising above a blue-sky lagoon seems like it was created specifically for honeymooners, with drop-dead views at every turn and a world-class assemblage of luxury resorts. You can dine on fresh mahimahi at longtime hot spot Bloody Mary’s, snorkel with black-tipped sharks inside the lagoon, and indulge in a four-handed couples massage at the sumptuous Bora Bora Nui Resort and Spa.

The Unexpected: Moorea will steal your heart shortly after your international flight touches down on Tahiti -- it’s that mysterious island in the distance with misty, shark-tooth peaks that beckons you from the bustle of Papeete, Tahiti’s capital city. Skip the standard shuttle flights and join the locals on a scenic 25-minute ferry ride across the idyllic Sea of the Moon -- the approach is breathtaking.

Exploring Moorea by rental car is easy; there’s just one 36-mile round-the-island road. The most picturesque point is Belvedere, a lofty overlook with a panoramic view of Opunohu and Cook bays that’s the perfect spot for that “wish you were here” honeymoon shot. The deep fjords cleft by the spire of Rotui were the backdrop for much of the Mel Gibson blockbuster The Bounty. On your way back down, stop off and explore Marae Titiroa. Marae, Polynesian places of worship, are cobblestone platforms where sacrifices (sometimes of other Polynesians) were offered to the gods.

With night life limited on Moorea, visit the Tiki Village Theatre, a Polynesian Colonial Williamsburg complete with a replica village and a talented troupe that performs traditional dances (from sexy hip shaking to fire-eating) four times a week. The schedule varies, so check with your concierge before heading out.

Where To Stay: The most upscale digs are at the InterContinental Resort and Spa, and not only for humans — the resort boasts a state-of-the-art dolphin center and a sea-turtle nursery. Another don’t miss: the fragrant-plumeria hot-tub treatment at the plush Hélène Spa. Doubles from $364.

For a classic overwater bungalow experience, try the newly renovated Sofitel Moorea Beach Resort, where you can swim in the warm lagoon, sunbathe on plush chaise lounges and have a starlit lobster dinner, all without ever opening your front door. Doubles from $439.

The Cook Islands
Visited by the HMS Bounty and Captain Bligh on April 11, 1789, these islands are so stunning that you have to wonder if it wasn’t their sheer beauty -- and not the raven-haired maidens of French Polynesia -- that sparked Christian and company to mutiny two weeks later. Spread over an area larger than Europe, this sprinkling of laid-back islands is where you go to get off the grid. Kick back at cocktail hour with the expat Kiwis (the islands are New Zealand’s closest tropical neighbor), and drink coconut juice cut with Roaring Forties rum while you wait for the green flash of sunset. Leave the jacket and cocktail dress at home -- you won’t need them here.

The Classic: The capital island of Rarotonga, a.k.a. Raro, is the cragged peak of an undersea volcano cloaked in wild, verdant forests. It’s wrapped in a ribbon of bone-white beach, with balmy blue waters that are sheltered by the reef. From late June through early November, the island attracts more than just honeymooners and divers — humpback whales migrate through, easily spotted on whale-watching tours. The best beach is Muri, on the southeast coast, where the offshore combers are broken down to shin-high riffles by the string of motus (uninhabited small islands).

Cook Islands Tourism
A breathtaking aerial view of Aitutaki's electric-blue lagoon.
THE UNEXPECTED: Raro might have the peaks, but Aitutaki, only a 50-minute flight away, has an electric-blue lagoon hemmed by foaming breakers and a tawny line of palm-studded motus stitching the horizon. This is the calendar-cover lagoon, the fantasy of shell-white beaches graced with bowed palms, a horizon broken only by other coconut-tufted sandbars and water so clear that fishing boats seem to float in the air above their shadows.

So what do you do on an atoll? A whole lot of nothing, with as little clothing as possible. Take an early morning bike ride along the crushed-coral roads and watch fishermen cast their filament nets, or wander inside the stone-chilled chambers of the 1828 church. Then do a lagoon tour and enjoy a beach picnic on One Foot Island, one of the prettiest dots in the entire South Pacific. Bring along a pair of fins, a mask and a snorkel so you can slip into a dappled world of giant clams, butterflyfish and coral gardens.

If you can muster up the energy, check in with the Aitutaki Game Fishing Club — there’s fantastic deep-sea fishing for mahimahi and marlin just offshore. Should you crave some atoll-style night life, inquire at the various hotels and resorts — a rolling schedule of the ever-popular “Island Nights” luau-style parties features traditional food and some racy traditional dancing.

Where To Stay: The island’s premier property is Pacific Resort, which offers beachfront suites. Doubles from $530. The Etu Moana Villas overlook the lagoon and offer affordable luxury. There’s no restaurant, but all bures (cottages) have kitchens. Doubles from $270.

Destination Weddings & Honeymoonsis your ultimate resource for planning a destination wedding or honeymoon. Discover amazing places throughout the world to tie the knot as well as the perfect spot for your honeymoon. In every issue, you get coverage of real-life lovebirds and their nuptials, expert advice for planning your big day, and the hottest styles in wedding attire to take you from wedding to honeymoon.


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