This is not a comprehensive guide to sailing the South Pacific but it is our impressions after our first pass through combined with the impressions of fellow cruisers.
When crossing from Mexico first landfall will usually be the Marquises. From the Panama Canal most boats stop in the Galapagos and no one we talked to had problems getting permission upon arrival for their stay. From the Galapagos most boats proceed to the Marquises but some take a more southerly route and visit the lower islands of the Tuomotus chain. We heard great things of this strategy but it was from seasoned sailors.
In our crossing we had poor winds from the Equator to the Marquises and this was experienced by most boats but some had good wind all of the way so luck plays a factor. The best strategy is listening to the boats ahead of you on a marine sideband net. These nets are formed by boats in the harbors of departure and usually you will learn of more while underway.
The Marquises are a welcome sight after many days at sea. You may land in Hiva Oa or Nuka Hiva. Conventional wisdom says land in Hiva Oa because normal trade winds set it on the windward side of the chain making it easier to sail down to Nuka Hiva later. The problem with this strategy is that everyone does it and the harbor isnt very large so it becomes jammed and it isnt much fun to hassle with a tight anchorage after 20 days at sea. Our experience was that the trades arent very well developed in the month of April and it is easy to move Southwest from Nuka Hiva and it made the better landfall with a large, protected though slightly rolly anchorage. Hey, you wont notice the roll after being at sea. Most boats posted their bond in the Marquises but a few boats figured out that you could avoid posting your bond until Tahiti by getting a 30 day visa which requires no bond and getting to Tahiti before it runs out. The advantage is that you can post your bond at Westpac bank which gives a better rate and guarantees that they will return the same amount of money in US currency.
We didnt venture passed Nuka Hiva but we heard good things about Oa Huka, Oa Poa and Fatu Hiva.
The Tuamotus are both dangerous and beautiful. We only visited Ahe which had an easy entrance and marked channel, it was easy. It was a good training exercise. We heard great things about Rangiroa. It is very touristy and expensive but the tourists are there for a reason, it is beautiful. The pass dives are amazing and the snorkeling is really good. The passes need to be hit at slack water because the current is really fast during the tides, worst of all the ebb tide. The current runs 6 + knots and standing waves get set up that are 6 to 8 feet high. The water ran over the decks of some of the biggest boats we know but smaller boats seemed to ride over it better but is was scary for most people we talked to so get the tide timing right.
Papeete is a modern city with good shops and services. We heard a number of horror stories about poor repair work so be careful. Parts may be imported duty free so it is not necessarily expensive to get parts in Papeete. It is the last city where you will be able to get yacht parts until Suva in Fiji.
Moorea is a good place to spend time if you are waiting for mail in Papeete. Moorea is just a short ferry ride from the center of Papeete. From Moorea you have an overnight sail to Huahine and then day sails to Raiatea/Tahaa and Bora Bora. From Papeete to Bora Bora you will find grocery stores with good fresh produce and meat and a wide selection. It is expensive but readily available. Fuel is also readily available throughout French Polynesia but you get the opportunity to buy duty free diesel when you depart Papeete. It is half off the normal $3.40 a gallon so run the tanks low to take advantage.
From Bora Bora you have several options. For those wishing to head North to Samoa you may plan to visit Palmerston Island or Suvarov Island. Palmerston Island is more direct and we recommend it but we heard great things about Suvarov and it provides a protected anchorage and an easy entrance which has advantages over Palmerstons outside anchorage.
Aitutaki is the first available stop and a beautiful island. It is a great place for boats with a draft under 5 feet 6 inches. If you crowd this number you will bump along the bottom of the entrance at high tide but it is just sand. If you are over this draft you will get stuck. There is about 100 feet of shallow sand in the channel. The outside anchorage is uncomfortable and unsafe in bad weather. From Aitutaki it is still easy to get to Palmerston Island and you can get official permission to visit as Palmerston is not an official port of entry.
Rarotonga may be reached with a slightly southerly course from Bora Bora. Raro is the capital of the Cook Islands and offers many modern conveniences and recreational opportunities. Everyone we know that went to Raro (the local name for Rarotonga) really liked it.
Again from Rarotonga you can head north to Palmerston or take a westward course to Niue, Beveridge Reef or Tongatapu.
Beveridge Reef has no exposed land and in rough seas the anchorage is uncomfortable. In moderate seas it is a great place to stop and dive and fish. We didnt get there but we have talked to several people that have been there and it is worth the stop if the weather permits. Pick up the waypoint for the entrance from our waypoint list (we havent verified it so use at your own risk.).
Niue is a great stop as described in Ports of Call. The mooring are only safe during Northeast to Southeast wind but as these are the predominant winds it is usually acceptable. If the weather doesnt permit a stop when you arrive then you will probably proceed to Vavau.
If you are in a hurry you can go straight from Rarotonga to Tongatapu in the Southern Tongan Islands. This will set you up for a nice sail up through the Haapai and Vavau groups of Tonga.
Thats all for now. We will update this further as we learn more.