If you’ve ever dreamed of visiting an island in the South Pacific untouched by modern civilization, then the closest you’ll probably ever get is the Tabuaeran Atoll, also known as Fanning Island. The island is actually in the Central Pacific Ocean, part of the Line Islands of the small nation of Kiribati (pronounced Ki-ri-bass in the local Gilbertese language). We visited in March 2023, as a stop on our cruise on Holland America’s Koningsdam.
The land area is approximately 34 km², the elevation is about 3 m above high tide, and the population is a little over 2,000. Ironically, if all 2,500 passengers from the Koningsdam had disembarked on the atoll (they didn’t), the population of the island would have more than doubled!
There isn’t much commercial ocean traffic to the atoll. A supply ship visits 3 to 4 times a year, and the atoll doesn’t get many visitors. Until 2007, Norwegian Cruise Lines used to make occasional visits. In 2010, Holland America started to include Tabuaeran on some of its itineraries. However, in March 2020 with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the already limited visitor traffic came to a complete halt. Our trip on the Koningsdam was the first visit by a cruise ship in three years!
Most residents farm a vegetable plot, and the men fish. There are many fruit trees on the island, including the ubiquitous jackfruit and breadfruit. The islanders supplement their diet with rice and tinned meat that is brought in on the supply ships. The little money they earn comes from seaweed farming. Sticks are placed vertically in the water, and netting is stretched between them. The seaweed grows on the surface of the mesh, which is then harvested, dried and sold for export.
Given how big the Koningsdam is, we anchored several miles away from the atoll, and tendered in. The first tender in the morning was only for the crew carrying gift supplies for the islanders. Because we were the first large ship visiting the island since the onset of Covid in March 2020, the crew also brought in tools and lumber. Since the pier had been unused for three years, the crew expected that they would need to complete some dock repairs. Later in the morning, once repairs were complete, passengers began tendering to shore. By the time we got there at about noon, the atmosphere was one of a small country fair. As we stepped off the tender, a group of men were singing traditional songs to welcome us. In the area around the dock, local women and children had set up tables where they displayed their handmade crafts for sale . Groups of school children were singing and dancing. An enterprising, gap-toothed, elderly gentleman with a wide grin was offering tours around the island in a rickety little truck.
We had been warned that the amenities on the island were very limited. There were no restaurants, and there was no food for sale. There were no tourist attractions, and no bathrooms. But there was something else! We were captivated by the people we met. There was genuine joy in their faces and voices. They were clearly excited to have visitors again, and welcomed us to wander around their island to explore. And we were enchanted by the sea-green lagoon ringed with beautiful, sandy beaches.
Individual homes were mostly thatched huts, and almost all were on stilts since the island is only at about a 3 m elevation. There are some concrete buildings, but they are primarily community facilities.
Probably the most beautiful sight on the Tabuaeran Atoll are the beaches. White sand, minus hordes of tourists, gradually tapering into the impossibly-green ocean. Several cruise ship visitors donned their swimsuits and were happily splashing in the water.
Many of the cruise visitors had brought gifts, supplies and cash donations for the Islanders. Since we had researched this in advance, we brought packages of Crayola crayons and HB pencils to distribute to the children and to the school programs. In addition we knew we wanted to spend some money on the locally-made crafts, if for no other reason than to contribute to their fragile economy. Merge bought some beautifully handcrafted shell jewellery from the women at their tables. This wasn’t really jewelry that she wanted, so she later gifted it to some of the crew on board the ship who were pleased to receive it for their families back home. We also bought some very unique Kiribati stamps as a souvenir.
If you are looking for a tourist mecca, complete with hotels, beach amenities, restaurants, tours, and souvenir shopping, then the Tabuaeran atoll is not the place to visit. But if you are looking for a glimpse into the day-to-day lives of people who live off the land and the sea and have very little beyond that, but yet are happy and stress-free, then this may be the place to visit. This is how life might have been 100 years ago, before modern civilization made its mark on most of the world.
Don’t forget, there are no hotels or motels here, so if you’re going to visit, probably best to plan for a day trip!