Which are the best cruise ships for exploring the South Pacific Islands?

The islands of the South Pacific make for beautiful travel destinations, and the ability to cruise to them makes it so much easier to see them, or parts of them at least.

Islands like Vanuatu’s Mystery Island and New Caledonia’s Loyalty Islands can be very expensive and difficult to get to via any other mode of travel.

The most popular destinations are Vanuatu and New Caledonia since they are the closest to Australia’s cruise terminals and therefore the most accessible. Fiji and Tonga are also close enough for slightly longer cruises. Some cruise lines also visit the beautiful Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.

So, the question is, what are the best cruise ships for exploring the South Pacific Islands?

Golden Princess docked in Auckland

Well, it depends!

It really depends on what kind of experience you are looking for combined with how many sea days the itinerary gives you.

I’ve been to the South Pacific islands on Radiance of the Seas, Voyager of the Seas, Explorer of the Seas, Dawn Princess (now Pacific Explorer), Golden Princess, and Pacific Explorer. Every one of these ships is a different experience – although there certainly are similarities between the two Voyager-class ships, Voyager and Explorer of the Seas.

Explorer of the Seas anchored in Mare, New Caledonia

Do you have lots of sea days or want lots of shipboard facilities?

If so, a bigger ship might be for you!

If your itinerary has a lot of sea days, you might prefer a larger ship that has more facilities, like Explorer of the Seas, but of course you have the trade-off of more passengers, more people in port, more wait for transfer buses or boats (eg water taxi’s to the city in Port Vila) and so on.

Voyager of the Seas anchored at Mystery Island, Vanuatu

Many of the island ports are tender ports with the exception of the major centres like Suva, Lautoka, Noumea, Port Vila, and now also Luganville (which has only just recently completed a dock capable of handling cruise ships). If you’ve never taken a tender before, what this means is that the ship anchors somewhere off the shore, usually in a protected bay, and you are ferried to shore on small tender boats.

The bigger ships manage tenders very well, but it can still take longer to get ashore from a big ship than a small ship in a tender port. That said, it’s usually not much time. The bigger issue is that more people means some of the smaller ports of call can feel very overrun, particularly Mystery Island and the Sacred Rock snorkelling site on the Isle of Pines.

Of the docked ports, Noumea actually has two cruise dock locations, one is a working port that requires buses to bring passengers into town to the actual cruise terminal, and the other is, of course, the actual cruise terminal.

This is where the other downside of big ships comes into play. Ships even the size of Radiance of the Seas or Golden Princess cannot dock at the cruise terminal in Noumea – they are too big. This means bus transfers from the working port into town. So smaller ships that are able to dock at the actual cruise terminal in Noumea will get you in port for longer and with the ability to easily walk off the ship into town.

Many of the island ports that you can dock at are also working ports and some of them, like Port Vila, require transfers arranged (you can do so there) and will not allow you to simply walk out of the terminal. Again, more people means there can be bigger delays to get you into town.

So, that’s the negatives of a big ship. The positives!

Bigger ships simply have more to do. Explorer of the Seas will give you access to an ice skating rink, the flow rider, more performance spaces, more activities, and typically more dining choices. If you have a lot of days at sea – which you might if you are headed to Fiji or Tonga – then all these extra activities, entertainment and dining options can help to make the sea days more interesting.

Ice Skating show on Explorer of the Seas

A big positive of bigger ships is that they handle rougher seas better, and given the South Pacific Islands are regularly subjected to cyclones during cruise season, this may be an important factor to consider.

Mini Golf on Explorer of the Seas

Travel on a bigger ship and you are less likely to get seasick. Travel on a smaller ship, and you will get rocked around more. Even ships the size of Pacific Explorer can really suffer from relatively small swells in comparison to just a little bit bigger like Radiance of the Seas.

I will say, my experience has been that all the Royal Caribbean ships have handled the seas better than the Princess or P&O ships I’ve been on, but it’s always a trade-off.

Pacific Explorer docked at Circular Quay in Sydney Harbour

Would you prefer to visit more islands in one trip?

If you are looking for an itinerary to visit lots of islands, you will be better served by a ship that sails out of Brisbane rather than Sydney or any other port in Australia. Brisbane is closer to many of the islands meaning you can fit in more ports and see more of these beautiful places.

Most of the cruises that visit the islands of Papua New Guinea only depart from Brisbane as well. What this means is that your choice of ship is also more limited. Until the new terminal in Brisbane is completed, you are limited to the smaller ships that can fit under the Gateway Bridges. At the moment, these are almost exclusively ships operated by P&O Australia.

This, at least for now, brings you back to the trade-off between small and large ships.

So which ships are the best for exploring the South Pacific Islands?

You have to decide which things are the most important to you in order to determine which ships are going to be the best. I would submit though that if truly ‘exploring’ the South Pacific islands is what you want to do, that the P&O fleet of ships will give you the best platform for exploring more islands.

If you are concerned about motion sickness though, then go with a larger ship and sail from Sydney instead. You probably won’t visit as many islands unless you pick a longer itinerary, but the bigger ship will give you more stability and better handle any rough weather you might encounter. Since almost every sailing from Sydney to the South Pacific islands has at least 4 sea days, a bigger ship will also ensure you have more to do while you are at sea.

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