South Pacific small ship cruises guide

Scattered like toast crumbs across a breakfast table, the islands of the South Pacific may be tiny specks on the map, but they’re a giant draw for anyone wanting a road-less-travelled escape. Except, roads aren’t part of the deal here. Many islands don’t have any, or cars, or humans… And as for airports – what are they? That’s why boarding a boat is not only the best, but often only, way to explore the South Pacific.
Herman Melville jumped ship here, Captain Cook explored and Gaugin painted – but all you have to do is board a boat and prepare to be amazed.
Forget the floating hotels you see cruising the Med, though; the specialist boats that deliver you to palm-fringed lagoons and wild, Subantarctic islands are small. This helps them access quiet nooks and ensures that their few passengers are welcomed like friends, rather than dreaded like an army of invaders. In fact, meeting the smiling Polynesians and Fijians or the traditional communities of Papua New Guinea is a highlight, perfectly complementing the rare wildlife, unique flora and thrilling isolation of this region. Our small ship cruising in the South Pacific travel guide has all the details.

Is a small ship cruise in the South Pacific right for you?

Go on a small ship cruise in the South Pacific if...

… exploration off the beaten track floats your boat. The word ‘remote’ could have been invented for the islands of the South Pacific. While some, like Fiji, are well developed for tourists, the far-flung islands of the Subantarctic are rarely visited, with numbers tightly controlled, and wild Papua New Guinea’s inaccessibility means it retains a powerful sense of mystery. … you want an active break. These trips aren’t about propping up the bar on a floating hotel. You’ll be busy exploring remote landscapes, spotting wildlife, enjoying welcome ceremonies performed by costumed dancers, kayaking, snorkelling, swimming… You get the idea. … you prefer wildlife prefixed with the word ‘rare’. This unique part of the world is peppered with isolated islands, pristine wilderness and quantities of unusual, can’t-see-them-back-home species. At least 11 percent of the world’s seabird population and more than 40 species breed in the Subantarctic Islands alone. … you’re not afraid of a long-haul flight. Before you can cruise the South Pacific, you’ve got to get there. Check the map. It’s quite a long way away…

Don't  go on a small ship cruise in the South Pacific if...

… you don’t like water. You’ll see a lot of it and get close to it, too. Swimming, diving, snorkelling and kayaking are on the activities menu in most parts. Smaller RIBs transport you from boat to land, too, with a complimentary faceful of spray included in most journeys!
… you want to be alone. Although the islands you’ll visit are remote, sparsely populated or rarely visited, you won’t be traveling alone. Trips to this area are on boats carrying between 50 and 250 passengers (though typically no more than 70).
…you’re on a budget. These trips are the last word in getting off the beaten track, so they’re never cheap, plus you must factor in the cost of flying to your departure port, insurance and supplements for activities such as birding or kayaking.
… you have limited mobility. Most boats don’t have lifts, so you’ll need to be able to tackle ladders. Once on land, hiking through forests or clambering over rocks to spot rare birds or animals is often on the itinerary.

Small ship cruising in the South Pacific

In the South Pacific, ship sizes and styles vary, because trip lengths and conditions vary, too. There are swanky ships with air con, on-deck pools and Wi-Fi plying these waters, but also working vessels that are more practical than premium, though comfortable nonetheless. It makes sense when you look at the distances some boats cover – often spending whole days at sea – and the wild weather that’s potentially waiting for them. You wouldn’t want to take a luxury motor yacht through the Roaring Forties on your way to Macquarie Island, for instance, while an ice-strengthened expedition boat isn’t strictly necessary for puttering around Fiji.
What all these vessels have in common is passenger numbers. They rarely carry more than 70, supported by a crew that’s often from the local islands and also, in the case of Subantarctic Island cruises with a focus on wildlife, experienced guides and naturalists who have devoted a lifetime to field research in the destinations you’re visiting.

It means you’ll get to know fellow passengers and you’re also guaranteed a warm welcome wherever you stop. This is partly because the people of the South Pacific are famously friendly, but also because they can happily handle small groups of visitors. If you’re jumping off at a remote village in Papua New Guinea, local communities will welcome a group of 40 people, but 600 or 3,000? Just not feasible.

In addition, your small ship cruise may actually be integral to the life of the islands it visits. The Marquesas in French Polynesia, for example, are so remote they rely on the freighter-cum-cruise ship that visits, bringing supplies and yes, you too, if you’re lucky. So think of a vacation here as more like hitching a ride on a super comfortable working vessel than cruising about in a luxury liner, with each stop you make contributing way more to island life than just exchanging a few tourist dollars for handicrafts or a hot meal.

Who will be on board with me?

When it comes to the individuals on board, there’s a degree of self-selection, as the unusual activities and locations involved in each itinerary mean you can be pretty sure that your fellow passengers are on the same page as you, in terms of passions and pastimes. Obviously, the truly antisocial traveler may suffer a little cabin fever, but most people, once they get to the South Pacific, are just bubbling over about being in this remote and fascinating part of the world – so you’ve already got something to bond over at dinner! Conditions on board might be more cramped than in a floating hotel, but small cruise seafarers know how to respect each other’s space, and it’s easy to escape if you want to, whether taking time out on deck to savour the solace of the sea, or chilling out in your cabin. Solo travelers will be assigned a shared cabin – although supplements are often available to ensure a private room.

What’s the deal with meals?

Expedition boats heading south to the Subantarctic Islands, or from Papua New Guinea to the Solomon Islands, typically provide three meals a day, including a cooked breakfast and a three-course dinner, with tea, coffee and fresh fruit always on offer. Anyone with specific dietary requirements can be catered for, but it’s important to flag this up before the trip, as supplies are limited on board. In French Polynesia and Fiji there’s more chance to fish for the catch of the day. You might even tuck into a meal cooked by local people, in underground ovens or beneath the sand in specially prepared pits, with singing, dancing and storytelling by villagers completing the experience.

Will I get seasick?

The Southern Ocean is one of the roughest in the world, and there is real potential for seasickness, so if you’re traveling to the Subantarctic Islands bring precautions with you. On any given cruise, a small percentage of people typically get sick at the start of the journey as they get their sea legs and then recover for the remainder of the voyage. Different medicines and preventions work differently for people, but remember that it’s always best to act before the voyage starts as prevention is better than the cure. Cruises to the Subantarctic Islands have a medical advisor and small clinic onboard to help in the rare cases of extreme seasickness.

South Pacific cruises that drift between islands with sheltered seas don’t pose such a seasickness threat and due to the prevailing winds, westbound sea journeys tend to be smoother than eastbound.

What is there to do on board?

Some itineraries involve full days at sea, but you’ll have plenty to keep you occupied. You won’t have to scrub the deck or man the rigging, and there won’t be a casino or cabaret show, but most ships have a bar, a lounge or two, a lecture theatre and library. Those that are more yacht-than-not may also feature a fitness room and spa, Wi-Fi when reception allows, and sun decks.
So in between land visits, you can watch a film, attend a talk or browse for books about where you’re headed. The atmosphere is relaxed – no black tie dinners! – and very personal. Local crew may be manning the boat, and expert leaders will be hanging out with you, happy to share their knowledge of the wildlife and geography. Expedition-style cruises tend to use less swanky vessels, but the focus and emphasis of these trips is always about getting you ashore as often as possible for as long as possible, to experience the landscapes and wildlife waiting there.

Can I travel with my children?

Most South Pacific cruises have a minimum age, varying from as young as seven to 12 or older, but some boats run designated family cruises at certain times of the year that welcome children of all ages.

How is this kind of vacation responsible?

The size of the ships, and the ships themselves, is what makes small ship cruising sustainable and responsible. Small group sizes minimise the impact of rocking up at a remote community, while the ships are typically well-maintained to reduce pollution, with waste disposed of responsibly. Unlike huge cruise ships, which disgorge hundreds of visitors to take a few snaps, buy an ice cream and get back on board by 3pm, small ship cruising around the South Pacific is about meeting the people who live here, learning about their customs and exploring markets and waterfront stores. This encourages shopkeepers and local craftspeople to sustain their crafts and traditions, as well as creating revenue in isolated communities. Local staff man some boats, and wildlife and dive guides may well be local too, which supports the knowledge base and economy. It also provides the experts on board with a fantastic opportunity to monitor what is happening in many of the fragile environments visited.

Small ships comply with each destination’s rules and regulations, too – such as the special licenses required for visits to the Subantarctic Islands, and the restricted numbers – which fit perfectly with the ethos of small ships.
Rodney Russ is a biologist and expedition leader, and the founder of our supplier Heritage Expeditions: “As biologists and ornithologists, we are intimately aware of the many issues that confront wildlife and their habitats, the world’s oceans and isolated ethnic groups. We aim to actively contribute to the conservation of the places we visit.”

Our top South Pacific cruising Vacation

New Zealands Subantarctic Islands cruise

New Zealands Subantarctic Islands cruise

Wildlife voyage to the Subantarctic inc Macquarie Island

From US $9250 to US $10725 12 days ex flights
Small group travel:
2023: 25 Nov, 30 Dec
2024: 22 Nov, 18 Dec
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about South Pacific cruising or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Best time to go on a small ship cruise in the South Pacific

The South Pacific winter isn't what you'd call wintery: temperatures in the high 20s, blue skies, bright sun - a wonderful time for a cruise.
The best time to visit the Subantarctic Islands is during the Antipodean summer, Dec-Feb. Temperatures are pleasant, between 6°C -10°C, although the weather can be very changeable. At lower latitudes, the best time to go on a South Pacific cruise is during the winter, May-Nov (although small ship cruises run year round in certain areas, such as Fiji). The temperatures are very comfortable, because of the tropical climate, varying from 20°C in New Caledonia, 27°C in Papua New Guinea and 31°C in the Solomon Islands. Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands get most rain Dec-Mar, while in French Polynesia Mar-Apr are hottest and rainy.

French Polynesia Weather Chart

RAIN (mm)
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Roderick Eime] [Canoes: Roderick Eime] [Passengers: RAYANDBEE] [Food: Geoffrey Rhodes] [Onboard: Michael R Perry] [Fiji: Chad McMillan]