Australians love the South Pacific. But most don't venture beyond Fiji, missing some stunning experiences, writes Rose Jacobs.
Look at a chart of tourism arrivals for the South Pacific's numerous island resorts, and one destination towers over every other. Fiji, which features in the Nine Network TV series Love Island, has more than three times the number of visitors than its neighbours.
Yet almost all of the island paradises boast similar, if not better, attractions: fabulous beaches, clear waters, friendly locals and unspoilt scenery. And in a world that is just waking up to overtourism, the lack of tourists visiting some of the destinations becomes a drawcard in itself.
Take the Cook Islands. Officially awarded the title "world's most beautiful lagoon" numerous times, Aitutaki (pronounced Aye-tu-tacky) alone is a magnet enough for global tourism. But the country has 15 stunning islands spread across two million square kilometres of ocean - all about six hours' flying time from Australia.
A flight from Auckland northeast to "the Cooks" takes just under four hours. Although, for Australian travellers, there are few direct flights and only a handful of options available with Qantas, Virgin and Air New Zealand that all involve lengthy stopovers.
But the time and effort is worth it. Arriving at the main island, Rarotonga (or "Raro" to the locals), you're at the gateway to the Cook's coral reefs and endless white sandy beaches. Here, the breeze carries scents of frangipani, ripe mango and cool ocean spray.
Men as large as wardrobes carry flowers and pineapples to warmly welcome visitors - while equally large women wearing traditional floral dresses ride small scooters around the islands with ease.
Unlike many Melanesians, who can be shy, reserved and mild-mannered, Cook Islanders are Polynesian and tend more towards the loud, vibrant and extroverted.
It's not uncommon to be greeted at the airport by your tour guide "Aunty" who, despite you having never met, will welcome you with a warm and slightly bone-crushing bear hug.
Once you've adjusted to the heat, the high pitch of Aunty's laugh and the slow pace of customs (which is still faster than the pace on the rest of the islands), then it's time to strap on your scooter helmet and get ready to explore.
The Cook Islands is closely connected to New Zealand: the people automatically have dual New Zealand citizenship, the currency is the NZ dollar, they drive on the left and everyone loves rugby.
The islands are grouped into the north and the south, and the prize gem is the north's Aitutaki, about a 45-minute small-plane ride from Raro.
But no matter which of the islands you visit, you will be surrounded by some of the best beaches and reefs for water sports and snorkelling in the world. The Cook Islands is not renowned for its cuisine, shopping or high-end accommodation - but you've come for the warm locals and exquisite landscape, and those will certainly not disappoint.
Cook Islands essentials
What to do
Head to Muri Lagoon on Rarotonga for an afternoon of yoga on a stand-up paddleboard (SUP) in the sunshine. The 90-minute floating yoga class ($37) includes your lesson, a photo session and a refreshing drink to finish. The paddleboards are easy to manage for beginners - ideal for perfecting your yoga poses. kitesup.co
If you're up for a challenge, try the 3.5-hour Cross-island Trek with Pa ($65). It's a steep climb through the dense jungle of Rarotonga, stopping at waterfalls for a refreshing papaya snack. pastreks.com
For a snorkelling trip with an adrenaline-rush, grab a sea scooter - it's a handheld motor that pulls you through the water - and hit up the reefs. Ariki Adventures in Raro runs 90-minute safaris (from $85). arikiholidays.com
Some of the best kite-surfing in the world can be found on Aitutaki island. The amazing view is just a bonus. southpacifickiteboarding.com
Also on Aitutaki, take a five-hour snorkelling safari cruise with Teking Lagoon Tours ($118). It includes BBQ lunch and all snorkelling equipment. tekinglagooncruises.com
Where to stay
The Aitutaki Lagoon Private Island Resort is a 36-room, adults-only sanctuary set on a private island reached by a one-minute ferry ride. Go for a Premium Beachfront Bungalow, from $558 per night.
On Rarotonga, catch the sunset at Crown Beach Resort & Spa. It has 36 villas and suites set in two hectares of gardens with a pool, from $502 per night.
Where to shop
The Cook Islands is not really the shopping capital of the world. But if you are determined to spend your tourist dollar then buy something that is authentically from the Cooks, such as black pearls. They are cultivated on the local atolls and are stunning.
For the kids, there's ukuleles (from $139) made by prisoners and sold at the Prison Craft Shop, near Crown Beach Resort.
Punanga Nui Market in Avarua, Rarotonga's main town, is held every Saturday and is as good for local art and craft shopping as it is for people-watching and soaking up the Cooks' tribe vibe.
Where to eat
The Cook Islands has some of the highest obesity and diabetes rates in the world, largely attributed to the locals' increasing reliance on imported foods. Their traditional diet has been long since replaced by calorie-rich and nutrient-poor imported foods.
For tourists, however, there are plenty of dining options available. Local seasonal produce, such as fish, seafood and tropical fruits, is the star. It's hard to find better flavours anywhere else in the world.
Housed in a shipping container beside Rarotonga's Avana Harbour, the Mooring Fish Cafe is a casual lunch spot serving another local favourite, fish burgers.
The Waterline is a wooden beachfront eatery serving fish dishes and hosting soulful live music a few nights per week.
Muri Night Market has good street food and is a hub for local families who gather to hear the live music, bringing their own picnic rugs and sense of community.