These gorgeous Polynesian Islands inspired Disney’s latest princess movie

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The Polynesian Triangle is a region of the Pacific Ocean anchored by Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island – and it just happens to contain some of the most unique and beautiful islands in the world. The Polynesian people are the original inhabitants of these islands and much of their culture, customs and history is still evident in the well-preserved traditions of the islands’ modern inhabitants, especially those revolving around music, dance and the importance of family. Sound like the perfect setting for an uplifting story? Disney thought so, too. Walt Disney Animation Studio’s newest princess is Moanaa headstrong Polynesian heroine who discovers that her ancestors had a strong seafaring history as excellent navigators, something she taps into in order to save her island.

Like Disney’s last princess movie, “Frozen,” Moana’s story is set against a picturesque backdrop that may seem unfamiliar to North Americans. Unlike “Frozen,” “Moana” is set in the land of sun and sand rather than snow and ice. It’s safe to say these Polynesian islands are undeniably beautiful and worthy of any travel bucket list. If you’re heading out to see the movie, you might want to pack your bags in case you come home ready to book a flight (we can help with that if you do).

The South Pacific might sound like half a world away, but thanks to increased flight operations between North America and popular destinations like Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand, finding an affordable flight is more realistic than ever before. So if you find yourself inspired to start planning a far-flung vacation to Moana’s homeland, we’ve pulled together a quick guide to help you discover what you can expect from some of the main Polynesian islands.

Hawaii

Make like Moana: Polynesia’s not really that far out of reach
Paul Bica, Waipio Valley via Flickr CC BY 2.0

Hawaii is a perennially popular vacation destination, for good reason. Its diverse beauty and broad range of attractions make the 50th state attractive to many types of travelers. Hawaii is filled with natural wonders and a is haven for beach-lovers, hikers, divers and surfers alike. In terms of accessibility, Hawaii ranks highest when it comes to making like Moana and experiencing a little slice of Polynesia for yourself. Hawaii is made up of eight main islands – Hawaii, Maui, Kahoolawe, Oahu, Kauai, Lanai, Molokai and Niihau – and hundreds of smaller islands, and inter-island Hawaii flights are relatively inexpensive. The best way to get to Hawaii is to choose your island and fly directly there. Whether you’re hiking Diamond Head for breathtaking views over Waikiki, visiting Pearl Harbor, checking out awe-inspiring volcanoes in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, swimming in waterfalls on the Hamakua coast, or learning to surf, you won’t be bored no matter where you end up in Hawaii.

Tahiti

Make like Moana: Polynesia’s not really that far out of reach
Mayumi Ishikawa, Tahiti via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Tahiti is part of Polynesia’s Society Islands and the largest island in French Polynesia, which also includes beautiful Bora Bora. Tahiti is also one of the most accessible islands in the region, being just an eight-hour flight from Los Angeles or a five-hour flight from Hawaii. Known as the Queen of the Pacific, Tahiti offers a lot more than just the chance to hit the beach. Make sure you visit the Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands to learn about Polynesian history before you start exploring. Then, the island is your oyster. Tahiti is known for its lush, mountainous interior, filled with waterfalls, emerald valleys and lakes, which you can see via a guided nature hike or a helicopter tour. The island is also known as a great destination for diving.

Tonga

Make like Moana: Polynesia’s not really that far out of reach
Tony Bowden, Coastline, Tonga via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Known as the Friendly Islands, the Kingdom of Tonga is comprised of a whopping 176 islands, only 40 of which are inhabited. This means there are a myriad of opportunities to relax on a pristine beach (which you might just have all to yourself). There’s a slow pace of life here, known as “Tonga time,” so this is the place to really slow down and enjoy life. When you’re not chilling out on a beach, Tonga offers plenty of opportunities to get active in the form of hiking, kayaking, diving, snorkeling, surfing and kite surfing. You can reach Tonga from Auckland, New Zealand directly, or via Fiji from San Francisco, Los Angeles and Hawaii.

Cook Islands

Make like Moana: Polynesia’s not really that far out of reach
Robert Linsdell, Rarotonga via Flickr CC BY 2.0

The Cook Islands are made up of 15 islands and lie halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand. No matter what you’re interested in – be it romance, family-friendly adventures or underwater exploration – there’s a good chance you can find it somewhere among the Cook Islands. Rarotonga is the largest of the Cooks and the capital of the island group. Here you’ll find over 50 restaurants and cafes, as well as a thriving local arts scene and plenty of opportunities to shop for island-made souvenirs. A 45-minute flight from Rarotonga gets you to Aitutaki, known as “Honeymoon Island” for its secluded, romantic vibe. Rarotonga and Aitutaki are the most-visited among the Cooks, but you can get even more secluded with visits to lesser-traveled islands like Atiu and Mangaia. No matter where you end up, the Cooks are renowned for water sports, from diving and snorkeling, to windsurfing and paddle boarding. Air New Zealand offers direct flights to Raratonga once a week from Auckland and Los Angeles.

Samoa

Make like Moana: Polynesia’s not really that far out of reach
Andrew Moore, Samoa via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Considered the heart of Polynesia, Samoa has a culture that is over 3,000 years old. People here have largely stuck to a traditional way of life, making a visit to Samoa a culturally rich one. Savai’i is the largest Samoan island and is also the fifth largest island in Polynesia (after two of the eight Hawaiian islands and both the North and South Islands of New Zealand). The “Big Island” as it’s known, Savai’i, is a good place to get a taste of traditional Samoan way of life, which might involve watching (or even playing) a game of kirikiti (similar to cricket), or having a meal cooked in an umu, which is an overground volcanic rock oven. A 90-minute ferry ride gets you to Upolu, home to the airport and Samoa’s capital of Apia. You’ll find more action on Upolu, but Samoa in general offers some spectacular beaches, waterfalls and rain forests to explore. You can catch a flight to Samoa via New Zealand, Australia, Fiji and Hawaii.

Easter Island (Rapa Nui)

Make like Moana: Polynesia’s not really that far out of reach
kevincure, Easter Island moai via Flickr CC BY 2.0

Easter Island is one of the most remote destinations on earth and the most remote inhabited island in the world. It’s most well-known for the massive statues (called Moai) erected across the island, of which there are around 900. The statues range in height from six to 66 feet tall and can weight more than 80 tons. It remains a mystery how the giant Moai would have been transported to their location and erected on the platforms where they stand by the ancient Polynesians who carved them. A large portion of the island is protected within Rapa Nui National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and where you’ll find many interesting archaeological sites beyond the Moai. Easter Island is also home to a couple of white sand beaches and it’s also a good spot to do some snorkelling, diving, hiking, horseback riding and indulging in some seriously fresh seafood. Since Easter Island is a territory of Chile, flights are available from Santiago.

New Zealand

Make like Moana: Polynesia’s not really that far out of reach
Paul Bica, Queenstown via Flickr CC BY 2.0

New Zealand is a bucket-list destination for a variety of reasons, chief among them being its profound natural beauty. For starters, there’s more than 9,000 miles of coastline in New Zealand so you know that there are going to be some pretty stunning beaches to check out. That much coastline also means access to whatever water sport strikes your fancy, from surfing and sailing, to diving, windsurfing and kayaking. If you’re more into getting your adrenaline pumping, New Zealand is also a haven for adventure-lovers. Head here to try your hand at bungee jumping, zip lining, sky diving, off-roading and more. If that weren’t enough, New Zealand is a skiing destination, home to three main skiing areas; a mecca for hikers with numerous national parks and protected areas; and, boasting an impressive number of vineyards, a haven for wine-loving travelers as well. Also among New Zealand’s popular tourist attractions are cultural sites like Rotorua in New Zealand’s North Island, preserving and educating visitors about New Zealand’s native Maori people, who trace their roots back to Polynesian ancestors.

Norfolk Island, Australia

Make like Moana: Polynesia’s not really that far out of reach
thinboyfatter, Beautiful Norfolk Island via Flickr CC BY 2.0

Norfolk Island is part of Australia and is easily accessed via flights from Sydney, Brisbane or Auckland. Don’t let the island’s small size fool you – there’s plenty here to keep intrepid travelers busy. There’s good snorkeling right off the beach, five miles of walking trails to explore, beautiful beaches to relax on, a national park to check out, museums to visit and markets to shop. The friendly island also offers surfing, sea kayaking, fishing and a quaint weekend farmers’ market on Saturday mornings.

Thinking we missed a few? While there are plenty of wonderful South Pacific islands to choose from, including those highlighted here, we’ve left out Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands as they are actually Melanesian islands, not Polynesian, so we’ll save those for a future post.

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These gorgeous Polynesian Islands inspired Disney’s latest princess movie was last modified: June 26th, 2019 by Jessica Padykula
Author: Jessica Padykula (91 posts)

Jessica Padykula is a Toronto-based writer and editor who regularly covers travel and lifestyle trends. When she’s not writing or researching a story she can be found planning trips to places near and far in a never-ending quest to travel the world.