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Most people dream of taking a once-in-a-lifetime vacation to somewhere far away and exotic. Maybe it's to celebrate a special occasion like a honeymoon or an anniversary or simply to enjoy a much-needed escape from the daily grind. No matter what, your longing doesn't have to live in fantasyland forever. Far-flung places like Tahiti, New Zealand, Bali, and Hawaii are more within reach than you might think.
Whether you've been squirreling away cash for more than a decade or are just starting to consider a trip, here are some exotic South Pacific vacations that are sure to wow. As a bonus, we've compiled some useful tips and money-saving strategies to make these dream trips a reality.
South Island, New Zealand
New Zealand's larger island has less than half of the country's population, so if you want to get away from it all, this is definitely the spot. You'll find wildlife and scenery here that's unlike anything else in the world.
Why Go: Mountains, glaciers, volcanoes, and pristine coastlines make the South Island's landscapes some of the world's most picturesque. Skiing, scuba diving, and hiking await the adventurous, while world-famous vineyards, glamorous boutique hotels, and relaxing spas are in store for those who need some pampering.
Getting There and Finding Deals: Embrace the South Island's outdoorsy focus by renting a campervan to be both your transportation and your lodging. Rates start as low as $28 per day. Or, experience life on a working New Zealand farm, by booking a farmstay (sheep-shearing duty is optional). Arriving from the North Island? The most scenic way to get here is via ferry, which takes around three hours. If you're short on time and money, Jetstar Airways often has airfare deals between the two islands.
Hawaii's majesty would set it apart from all other states, even if the Pacific hadn't already done the job. Stunning landscapes, rich underwater worlds, and a noble history—this is one tropical paradise with serious depth.
Why Go: Vitamin D deficiencies melt away under the Hawaiian sun, all without the hassle of a passport. You won't need to convert currency to take surf lessons, explore active volcanoes, or go whale watching. Really, the only difficulty is choosing which island to visit: Do you prefer the pristine beauty of Kauai, the modern luxury of Oahu, the award-winning beaches of Maui, or the natural wonders of the Big Island? Willing to get farther off the beaten path? Then Molokai or Lanai might be worth a visit.
Getting There and Finding Deals: Hawaii is a daily destination for many U.S. carriers, including Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, United, and US Airways. For January stays, Pleasant Holidays is offering a free Hertz convertible, SUV, Jeep, or minivan rental with five-night vacation packages booked by November 25. Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa is offering five nights' accommodations for the price of three nights on bookings made by November 10 for stays through December 22.
In 2013, Tasmania, Australia's southernmost state, will celebrate its 30th anniversary as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Join the festivities on the wild island, where wombats and wallabies roam free.
Why Go: The island offers an unspoiled Australian adventure like no other. Check out Cradle Mountain National Park's diverse wildlife and catch a peek of the eponymous Tasmanian devil. Or dive the coast's calm waters and explore shipwrecks, exotic aquatic life, and crystal-clear Wineglass Bay.
Getting There and Finding Deals: Take a short flight from Sydney, or hop the auto-friendly Spirit of Tasmania ferry from Melbourne; prices start at $93 per vehicle. (You'll want a car for convenient sightseeing.) Stay in a cabin at Cradle Mountain National Park (and get a free night's stay when you book a horseback-riding tour). Or, jetsetters who prefer a cityscape can explore the lively, artsy capital of Hobart on the cheap; rooms at four-star The Fountainside start at just $118 per night when you purchase a seven-night package.
Five amazing archipelagos, 118 islands, one paradise. Tahiti is less than eight hours from Los Angeles, but it may as well be in an entirely different universe.
Why Go: The South Seas islands promise emerald waters, white-sand beaches, and, oh yeah, overwater bungalows. Embrace leisure with a unique banana-tree-leaf body wrap, culture on a tour of small villages, or adventure on a shark-feeding expedition. Or, simply start out the day in your overwater bungalow with breakfast delivered by canoe.
Getting There and Finding Deals: Air Tahiti Nui offers service from Los Angeles. Tahiti.com is offering a two-island vacation package that includes round-trip airfare, ferry transport between islands, daily breakfast, five nights' accommodations, and transfers from $1,999 per person. For $450 more per person, you can upgrade to an overwater bungalow and have the ultimate Tahiti experience. Find current air-and-hotel vacation packages from a variety of providers on Tahiti-Tourisme.com.
Often considered one of the world's most livable cities, Adelaide celebrates year-round with food and art festivals, as well as major sporting events.
Why Go: As the wine capital of Australia, the city's reds and whites get high praise. Adelaide is also the jumping-off point for Kangaroo Island, which is one of the prime places in Australia to see animals in their natural habitats.
Getting There and Finding Deals: Adelaide is served by many major airlines, including Delta, Virgin Australia, and Singapore Airlines; prices from the U.S. start at around $1,800 round-trip. Though there isn't much opportunity to save on airfare, there are plenty of affordable accommodations options, especially for the backpacking set. Hostels like the Adelaide Travellers Inn start at $19 per night for multi-person rooms. If sharing facilities is out of the question, check out the centrally located Adabco Boutique Hotel (use code ADABCFreeBfast12 by February 28 for free breakfast).
The Cook Islands
The idyllic Cook Islands have been called "the secret of the Pacific," and the fact that they were formed by volcanic activity only adds to the mystique. Travel to these untouched islands to explore their remarkable topography of overgrown jungles, sunken volcanoes, and limestone caves.
Why Go: Hidden halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii, these 15 islands are scattered over 690,000 square miles of crystal-clear ocean and provide a stunning natural landscape of atolls, lagoons, and coral reefs.
Getting There and Finding Deals: Rarotonga, the largest of the Cooks and home to its international airport, is spiked with craggy mountain pinnacles that gently slope to meet flats planted with coconuts, paw paw, and pineapples. Fly into this capital island on Virgin Australia, Air Tahiti or Air New Zealand, which is now running a discount-airfare deal on flights to Rarotonga for next year. Stay in your own private lagoon-side bungalow for $150 per night, courtesy of Aroko Bungalows, and make sure to take a day trip to Aitutaki, a smaller island that sits atop a giant barrier reef and boasts a world-famous turquoise lagoon. As there is no regularly scheduled ferry service between the two islands, you'll have to hop short commuter flights on Air Rarotonga to get from island to island.
North Island, New Zealand
Around 77 percent of New Zealand's population lives on the North Island, so if you want to mingle with locals, this island is your best bet.
Why Go: The North Island combines urban life (it's home to Auckland and the capital Wellington), history (Maori culture), and natural beauty (geothermal hot spots and breathtaking beaches), all on one very drivable island.
Getting There and Finding Deals: Most international flights arrive in Auckland. Air New Zealand often has great deals from Los Angeles. Book a rental car—essential for getting around the island—from Hertz and you can get one day free. Or, leave the planning (and the driving) up to someone else, with a guided tour. Packages from Qantas Vacations start at $259.
Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
Ubud, Bali's center of culture and arts, offers an idyllic haven for travelers. Make it the central location for a Bali vacation or the final destination in itself.
Why Go: Ubud might be small, but it offers a king-sized array of attractions—not least, Puri Saren Agung, the lavish palace occupied by the last ruler of Ubud and now host to his descendants' spectacular traditional dance performances. Explore the town's majestic rivers, beautiful rice terraces, ancient temples, and bustling arts district.
Getting There and Finding Deals: Fly into Ngurah Rai International Airport on Singapore Airlines, which is now running a 2 Faces of Bali vacation package that includes accommodations beside a Balinese beach and a three-night stay in Ubud, along with a full-day tour of the island's volcanoes. Or, for $55 per night, this stunning private villa, with a two-tiered pool overlooking an endless landscape of lush rice fields, is a steal. Just outside of central Ubud, rest in the Manis House at Bambu Indah for about $100 per night. The eco-friendly compound offers relaxing spa services, personalized yoga sessions, and a natural swimming pool complete with a rope swing. And don't forget to keep 150,000 IDR (about $15) in your pocket for the airport's departure tax on your way out.
Fiji may be a luxury destination, but that doesn't mean it has to cost a small fortune. From capital city Suva's economical eco-friendly properties to five-star private-island resorts, savvy researchers can uncover vacation packages to South Pacific bliss.
Why Go: With more than 300 separate islands to explore—some inhabited, most barren—you will never run out of Fijian discoveries. The Mamanucas, a chain of 20 volcanic islands, has world-class dive sites and miles of coral reef; its backpacker-friendly South Sea Island is worth a checking out. Suva offers modern amenities, a vibrant nightlife, and affordable digs.
Getting There and Finding Deals: A vacation package is your best bet for savings. As of press time, Liberty Travel is offering five-night packages, including airfare from $2659 per person at the InterContinental Fiji Golf & Spa Resort. For the resort-averse, SmarterTravel sister site FlipKey offers affordable cottage rentals from $47 per night.
The third most populous city in Australia, Brisbane is large, diverse, and cosmopolitan. As such, many of its 3 million residents have roots from all over the world, including Europe, India, and Asia.
Why Go: Aside from being a cultural hot spot, Brisbane boasts weekend markets for bargain hunting and a vast park system. Find easy day trips to places like Moreton Bay and its islands; the Gold Coast's surf beaches; and the Pine Rivers, Caboolture, or the Glasshouse Mountains.
Getting There and Finding Deals: Flying from the States to Brisbane can cost about $1,750, but the savings start when you get there. Through Expedia, rooms at the central Mantra on Queen start at $124 (a 48 percent discount) for two or more nights through March 31, 2013. Alternatively, Best Western Astor Metropole Apartments is offering 20 percent discounts on two or more nights.