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Islands in the Sun

If you are like most Pacific Northwest residents, you wouldn't trade our region for anyplace in the world. But let's face it; there are times when it is distinctly necessary to get away to some exotic locale.

The question is where.

We picked the brains of several Northwest travel experts for recommendations on exotic island getaways, and now we can't wait to pack some bags.

Kim Faerber, who runs an Ashland travel agency with her husband, Douglas, rattled off a list of destinations that included Akumal on the Yucatan Peninsula and the beaches of southern Thailand. When pressed for one perfect spot, however, she settled on her husband's favorite getaway, St. John in the Virgin Islands.

"We love St. John because it is the perfect combination of five-star resorts and unspoiled natural beauty," says Kim, who is heading there in December.

St. John is the smallest of three main islands in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the others being St. Thomas and St. Croix. It is a 20-square-mile piece of forested paradise fringed by white powder beaches. The former Dutch colony reposes in the Caribbean, four miles east of St. Thomas, and four miles southwest of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands.

Because there are no airports on St. John, you'll fly into St. Thomas or Tortola and take one of the ferries that run hourly from St. Thomas and daily from Tortola.

"St. John is unique in the region, because it is still so unspoiled," Kim says.

The reason is that 75 percent of St. John is encompassed by Virgin Islands National Park, a 7,200-acre reserve deeded to the United States Park Service in 1956 by Laurence Rockefeller with the stipulation that the land remain undeveloped. Part of the original Rockefeller holdings, Caneel Bay Resort, operates on a lease agreement with the Park Service.

The world-class resort includes 170 lush green acres bordered by seven white sand beaches. When you book a stay at the resort you'll be greeted at the airport and given a complimentary bottle of island rum. The resort offers diving and snorkeling equipment, kite surfing, world-class cuisine and numerous other recreational options.

For families, Kim recommends the Westin St. John Resort & Villas. The Westin, a few minutes from the national park, features 174 guest rooms and suites, and 92 villas. There's also a spa, the Mahogany Run Golf Course - on nearby St. Thomas - incredible dining options, and every water endeavor you can imagine, from diving on the coral reefs to sailing and sport fishing.

Kelly Rasmussen of Jackson Travel Agency in Medford is also tempted by Caribbean resorts, but when pushed to pick one locale for Distinctly Northwest readers, he settled on the Cook Islands.

"The reason people like the Cook Islands is that they remind them of Hawaii in the 1940s and '50s," he says. "It's a low-key place where the people are wonderful, the facilities are equal to anything you'll find in Hawaii, and it's unique because not everyone goes there."

The Cook Islands comprise 15 islands scattered over two million-square-miles of crystal blue ocean in the center of the Polynesian Triangle. They are flanked to the west by Tonga and the Samoas and to the east by Tahiti and the French Polynesian Islands.

The islands lie in the same time zone as Hawaii, and are the same distance south of the equator as Hawaii is north. The capital island is Rarotonga, a 21-square-mile atoll where most people stay, but Bev Walker, senior travel agent at Jackson Travel, prefers the island of Aitutaki.

There are no high-rise hotels on the islands. Resort accommodations feature bungalow-style stilt houses built in gardens, on the beach or over water. Walker recommends staying at the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa, though the island offers numerous options.

To reach this Polynesian paradise you'll fly for 10 hours from Los Angeles or about 11 hours from San Francisco. Flights from Medford go through San Francisco. You'll need a passport, but English is the predominant language. Currency is the New Zealand dollar supplemented by notes and coins minted locally.

Barbara Spaght of Any Time Travel in North Bend holds a special place in her heart for Fiji. Adrift in splendid isolation in the South Pacific, Fiji has escaped the evils of industrial progress, the incursions of dangerous animals, poisonous snakes, spiders and pestilent diseases such as malaria. It is an archipelago of more than 330 islands where culture was shaped by the exotic customs of the Fijian, Indian, Chinese, Rotuman and other peoples who have made Fiji their home.

Fiji is a land of ancient rituals, such as the Meke - communal dance/theatre which combines singing, chanting and drumming. Mekes allow important historical events, stories, legends and culture to be passed between generations. In the dance, every motion and nuance has significance. Firewalking, another ancient ritual, may be seen at Pacific Harbour's Cultural Centre and at the annual Hibiscus Festival in Suva at the Civic Centre in August or September.

Taveuni, Fiji's third-largest island, is a paradise for nature lovers featuring cloud-shrouded mountain peaks, dense rain forests, more than 100 waterfalls and rivers, white sand beaches, world famous dive sites and great fishing. Weekly Fijian and Indian feasts showcase local delicacies, and cocktails at sunset are a must. For the more adventurous traveler, options include adventure walks in the rain forest, kayaking, world-class diving, snorkeling, game fishing, bird watching, cycling, massages, and weddings - Fijian traditional or basic.

Another glorious South Pacific destination, according to Beth Levich at Cruise Holidays of Portland, is Tahiti. Mostly, she says, because the islands remain unspoiled and relatively free of tourist hordes, especially Bora Bora.

The primary languages in Tahiti are French and Tahitian, but English-only speakers usually can get by. The language barriers may get a little tougher on the more remote islands, but if you are on a tour or with a cruise, you should have no problem. There isn't really a bad time of year to visit, although it is a bit drier and cooler from May to October.

Ron Burgess of Burgess Travel in Medford also favors the Tahitian Islands, citing a cruise on the Paul Gauguin as "the best ever."

The cruise begins in Papeete and moves on to Huahine, with its ancient temples and coral reefs. Raiatea is next, the legendary birthplace of their gods. History says the ancient Polynesian explorers left Raiatea to explore Hawaii and New Zealand. "The rare, white gardenia called Tiare Apetahi only grows on the slopes of Mount Temehani and nowhere else on Earth," he adds.

The cruise goes on to Rangiroa, one of the world's greatest diving destinations. The next stop is the tiny but beautiful island of Bora Bora. The island is only six miles long and 2.5 miles wide, but offers incredible panoramas and valleys. Hundreds of brilliantly colored fish, intricate gardens and clear water create some of the very best undersea worlds. The daring traveler can swim with and watch local divers feed small, non-dangerous lagoon sharks.

The next stop is Taha'a Motu Mahana, an ideal island to escape the 21st century.

"Taha'a is slowly awakening to tourism, and yet it still maintains an authentic flavor of Polynesia," Ron says. The ship moves on to Moorea, the lovely island that inspired James Michener to write about the fictional "Bali Hai." From there, passengers reluctantly return to Papeete.

The marvelous 10-day cruise costs less than $3,000 per person. Air fare to Tahiti is not included in that price.

No matter your tastes or desires, you can find your special island whenever and wherever your dreams take you.

If you're looking for an island paradise where you won't have to compete with other travelers or other people's schedules, where you can literally be the king or queen of all you see, you might consider renting your own island.

One such option - perhaps the best option - is Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands, owned by the well-known British knight, Sir Richard Branson. Necker Island is a 74-acre sanctuary of white sand beaches and dense forest surrounded by turquoise waters. Groups of up to 28 people can rent the island for $46,000 a night. A five-night minimum is required. Several times a year, the island is open for Celebration Weeks, when couples can stay for $22,500 to $24,800 per week.

While you're there, the entire island and staff of 50 is at your complete disposal. You can set your own menu or leave it up to their award-winning chefs. You can eat whatever you want, whenever you want, wherever you want. If you have special requests, they will have it flown in at no extra cost. No limit is placed on the amount of food or beverage you can consume, and you can have it served any way you want: formally, informally, in the pool, on the beach or in your room; and you don't have to be afraid to go grazing in the kitchen late at night - it is encouraged.

Accommodations include The Great House, a majestic Balinese-style villa that commands panoramic views of the ocean and the island from atop Devil's Hill. Each room features a balcony, king beds and ensuite bathrooms. The Master Suite offers an outdoor Jacuzzi, outdoor bath and state-of-the-art home entertainment system.

You may also stay in one of several Bali Houses, private, multi-level villas that feature meditation rooms, private verandahs, high-tech sound systems and all the amenities of a world-class resort. The villas are scattered about the island, giving you a choice of cliff-side dwelling, beach repose or tropical seclusion.

The Great House boasts an infinity pool with a Jacuzzi, while the Beach Pavilion features a pool with a swim-up bar. Main Beach is where most of the water activities are based, while Turtle Beach, a more peaceful, palm-fringed beach, offers hammocks between the trees and an aqua trampoline that is anchored to the ocean floor.

All guests are given golf carts to get around the island. Your recreational opportunities include a tennis pavilion, a gymnasium, speedboats, sailing, kayaks, wind-surfing, kite-surfing, snorkeling, personal coaches, spa treatments, movies, libraries and much more.

While the menu of facilities and amenities is impressive, the real selling point of Necker Island is the effort put into tailoring your stay to the unique personality and desire of your group.

"Necker Island really is the Queen Bee of private islands," says Janine Cifelli, vice president of Sanctuare, the United States representative for Necker. "We question you to death to understand everything about you and your group so we can tailor your stay to exactly what you want. If we can get close to the traveler, we can make their stay something special."

Although no expense was spared in building the accommodations and amenities, Necker Island is not about glitz and glam, Cifelli says. "It's not marble bathrooms, it is open air and breezes. You get there and you lose your shoes under the table immediately. You have the ability to feel you're in your own home, but with the most amazing staff of professionals at your service."

Necker isn't the only private island in the world, but when it began in the early 1980s it was one of the first in what has recently become a rather crowded industry. As a result, Necker focuses on raising the bar, coming up with ways to outdo the competition in terms of personalized, custom service.

"Necker set the stage for every private island that's come on since then," Cifelli says. "We are ever on a mission to makes things more interesting and more creative."

To reach the island you'll fly into Tortola on Beef Island, which has the closest international airport. Flights generally connect from San Juan, Puerto Rico, Antigua or St. Thomas. You can also fly into Virgin Gorda, which has a smaller airport. It's a 30-minute boat ride from Beef Island or a 10-minute commute from Virgin Gorda. Boat transfers to and from Necker Island are covered in your rental fee. You can also arrive by helicopter or anchor a yacht off the island.

A 2.5-percent gratuity, which is divided among island staff, is included in your cost. Tipping beyond this is at your discretion. The local currency is the U.S. dollar. Children are welcome - and special programs can be tailored for their enjoyment - when you rent the whole island. Celebration Weeks are for adults only. For more information, visit www.neckerisland.com.

The beaches of Tahiti.