But in New Zealand, those daydream-y small islands of the South Pacific are our neighbors. Places that would take incredible logistical effort (and a lot of money) to reach from Chicago are now just a three-hour direct flight away.
Over the cool and drizzly winter, the newspapers here were full of ads for discounted flights to Fiji, Rarotonga, Samoa and Bora-Bora. The travel agents in town filled their windows with special deals for over-water bungalows. Neighbours, colleagues and backpackers we met travelling told us they’d already booked their tickets.
Our little fale was truly just a few meters from the gentle waves on a white-sand beach. When we waded knee-deep into the water, brightly colored fish swam around our feet. Almost every morning, we put on our snorkels and paddled around the coral reef in front of our hut. Every afternoon, we drank icy coconut water in the shade. We floated in freshwater cave pools with water so blue that I expected it to feel icy. (It was warm.) We swam under waterfalls, hiked over old lava flows and bought fresh papaya at a bustling market.
I expected this island holiday to be lovely but I didn’t expect to find a place so truly unspoiled. The natural beauty was even more pristine and the traditional culture was even stronger than I had expected. I hadn’t believed a place like this really existed in today’s world. And even more, I didn’t realize that such a dreamy vacation (the palm frond hut of my imagination!) would be so affordable and easy to reach.
Now that I’ve seen Samoa with my own eyes, my daydream travel list is a little longer. My mind is wandering to Tonga, where you can see humpback whales swim by the beach. Or how about Vanuatu with its volcano, or Fiji with its temples in the forest? For now, I love my memories of waking up in the fale on the beach and swimming in blue water with bright-coloured fish.