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Highlights of Australia

Diving

The South Pacific offers world-class diving, with an irresistible menu of underwater treasures: luscious reefs festooned with huge sea fans, warm waters teeming with rainbow-coloured species and bizarre critters, eerie drop-offs that tumble into the abyss, and lots of pelagics, including sharks and manta rays – not to mention the thrill of diving uncrowded sites. And as on land, there’s a sense of adventure to spice up the diving. Another clincher is the mind-boggling array of wrecks – of ships, aircraft and even submarines, mainly from WWII.

Whales in Tonga

Tonga is an important breeding ground for humpback whales, which migrate to its warm waters between June and October; it’s one of the few places in the world where you can swim with these magnificent creatures. They can be seen raising their young in the calm reef-protected waters and engaging in elaborate mating rituals. Humpbacks are dubbed ‘singing whales’ because the males sing during courtship routines, and the low notes of their ‘songs’ can carry 100km through the open ocean. There are whale-watch and whale-swim operators in all of Tonga’s island groups.

Festivals of Papua New Guinea

Rio’s Carnaval has nothing on the magnificent pageantry of a Highland festival. Papua New Guinea’s biggest fests, such as the Goroka Show, are pure sensory overload, with massive feather headdresses, rustling grass skirts and evocative face- and body paint adorning enormous numbers of participants – over 100 tribal groups at last count – from all across the Highlands. Singsing groups perform traditional songs and dances in this pride-filled extravaganza. The thrill of coming face to face with such uplifting traditional cultures is indescribable – and well worth planning a trip around.

Great Barrier Reef

UNESCO World Heritage–listed? Check. Oprah Winfrey–endorsed? Check. The Great Barrier Reef is as fragile as it is beautiful. Stretching more than 2000km along the Queensland coastline, it’s a complex ecosystem populated with dazzling coral, languid sea turtles, gliding rays, timid reef sharks and tropical fish of every colour and size. Whether you dive on it, snorkel over it or explore it via scenic flight or glass-bottomed boat, this vivid undersea kingdom and its coral-fringed islands is unforgettable.

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park

No matter how many times you’ve seen it on postcards, nothing prepares you for the burnished grandeur of Uluru as it first appears on the outback horizon. With its remote desert location, deep cultural significance and dazzling natural beauty, Uluru is a pilgrimage well worth the many hundreds of kilometres it takes to get there. But Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park offers much more than the chance to see a big boulder. Along with the equally captivating Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), there are mystical walks, sublime sunsets and ancient desert cultures to encounter.

Vanuatu’s Volcanoes

Staring down into a real-life, lava-spouting volcano is exactly the nerve-wracking experience you might assume it is, and Mt Yasur on Tanna is one of the most accessible in the world. Set yourself up in a simple bungalow or lofty banyan-tree tree house at its base, and sleep as it rumbles and spurts; climb the road in the evening to see the planet’s best natural light show. Earthly delights include blue holes for swimming and snorkelling in and hot springs for bathing.

Cook Islands

Welcome to one of the South Pacific’s most accessible and versatile destinations. Ease into island time with Rarotonga’s laid-back, family friendly combination of spectacular snorkelling and hiking, fun day trips, excellent markets and restaurants, and vibrant island nightlife. Invest in a few days’ discovering the Cooks’ traditional outer islands. See the birdlife and explore the underground cave systems of ‘Atiu, paddle your own kayak to deserted islets around Aitutaki’s lagoon, or go local in a village homestay on remote Ma’uke or Mitiaro.

Franz Josef & Fox Glaciers

The spectacular glaciers of Franz Josef and Fox in New Zealand are remarkable for many reasons, including their rates of accumulation and descent, and their proximity to both the loftiest peaks of the Southern Alps and the Tasman Sea around 10km away. Several short walks meander towards the glaciers’ fractured faces (close enough for you to feel insignificant!), or you can take a hike on the ice with Franz Josef Glacier Guides or Fox Glacier Guiding. The ultimate encounter is on a scenic flight, which often also provides grandstand views of Aoraki/Mt Cook, Westland forest and a seemingly endless ocean.

Maori Culture

New Zealand’s indigenous Maori culture is accessible and engaging: join in a haka (war dance); chow down at a traditional hangi (Maori feast cooked in the ground); carve a pendant from bone or pounamu (jade); learn some Maori language; or check out an authentic cultural performance with song, dance, legends, arts and crafts. Big-city and regional museums around NZ are crammed with Maori artefacts and historical items, but this is also a living culture: vibrant, potent and contemporary.