This Micronesian atoll in the central Pacific used to be the capital of the British Gilbert and Ellis Islands, now fulfilling the same role for the Republic of Kiribati, an island nation of 33 atolls spread over 3.500.000 sq km (1.350.000 sq km) of otherwise empty sea. Kiribati extends north and south of the Equator, also east and west of the International Date Line.
Tarawa consists of a reef shaped like a rough triangle enclosing a lagoon, the eastern side of which is submerged and the remainder is made up of 24 thin islets, not all of which are connected. The largest is South Tarawa, extending along most of the lagoon’s south side. Tarawa supports many more people than the basic way of life generally practised by the Kiribatis should allow, even though some have been relocated to other islands to ease the pressure. The majority are concentrated on South Tarawa, which only has an area of 16 sq km (6 sq mi). Despite an influx of foreign aid, this has led to problems of overcrowding, unemployment and poor health.
However, that does mean that many of Tarawa’s other islets are uncrowded (some are uninhabited) and these typical tropical treasures may be explored by boat. However, whilst accommodation is available (from a luxury hotel down to basic guest-houses), this is not a tourist destination. That doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting, if only because it demonstrates what real life can be like for tens of thousand of Pacific islanders where the magic wand of tourism has yet to wave.
One of the bloodiest battles in World War II’s Pacific Theatre took place on Tarawa in 1943, when US marines landed and were met by 4.500 well-prepared Japanese defenders, who fought almost to the last man.
Population: 29.500 (2007 estimate)
When to go: To avoid the heaviest rains, visiting in May to October is recommended.
How to get there: Fly Air Nauru from Australia to Bonriki International Airport on South Tarawa. Highlights: Numerous World War II relics dating from the Japanese occupation.
Canoe racing in the lagoon off South Tarawata.
Ambo islet, with its beautiful beach and the famous Ambo Lagoon Club.
The good diving and snorkelling in the lagoon and all around the eastern islets.
You should know: Visitors to Kiribati require a visa.