But its peculiarities don’t end there. Geographically, the country is on both sides of the Equator, the northern and southern hemisphere, as well as, factually, on either side of the Date Line.
From its vast geographical expanse, 3,500,000 square kilometres, 99.9% of which is water, to the fact that it is one of the three most threatened nations by climate change, to the fact that the capital island of Tarawa is in sections just as wide as a causeway, Kiribati is a singular place to visit.
Since 1995, Kiribati decided that the entire country would be on the same timezone along with the rest of the Pacific nations, and so the International Date Line had to be modified. A similar thing happened in American Samoa, although the other way, as the island wanted to remain on the same as the US of which it is a territory.
Where is Kiribati
All three island groups are located near the Equator and spread from the Marshall Islands in the West to the Cook Islands on the southeast.
The country was originally called the Gilbert Islands but uses the local translation of the name since independence from the British Empire in 1979, like Tuvalu.
Despite its large size, only a small portion of the country is made of land, around 811 square kilometers of the 3.5 Million, 75% of which is made up by Kiritimati Islands (also known as Christmas Island which is the local translation, “ti” is pronounced as “s” in I-Kiribati language).
The majority of Kiribati is made of coral atolls, 32 of them, and highly susceptible to climate change because of its low altitude. There is also one raised coral island called Banaba.
The capital of Tarawa is part of the Gilbert Islands and it is where a large portion of the population live. However, the population is widely spread across 21 islands and there is a network of internal flights with Air Kiribati and ferry services that connect the main islands.
Is Kiribati sinking?
Like Tuvalu and the Maldives, and other delta cities like Dhaka, it is widely accepted that Kiribati is sinking, drowning under the rising seas, as reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scenarios which estimates that the 1.5 degree Celsius increase in global temperature will generate a global sea-level rise of between 1.7 and 3.2 feet by 2100.
As Kiribati’s highest point is only 3m, the country is at a very tangible and immediate risk of largely disappearing under the sea.
The country has seen scientists and researchers come write studies on the impact of climate change and, on the ground, the risk is visible.
I visited Kiribati after an unusually high tide and the guest house I was staying at, right by the sea, had to place sandbags all round it to prevent the waters from flooding it.
Interestingly, the owner, a British national born and raised in Tarawa to civil servant parents during colonial times, insisted that the country was not sinking and that coral atolls, living creatures, would rise and flow with the rising seas.
The former President, Anote Tong, seems to think otherwise. He has been a pioneer supporter of the idea of climate change impact on low-lying atoll islands through published articles, a 2015 TED talk, and even a movie.
After his third term ended, Tong championed a film about the impact of climate change on Kiribati that premiered at the 2018 Sundance Festival: Anote’s Ark.
Tong coined the term “migration with dignity” which he prefers to refer to his country’s situation instead of the media’s preference for climate refugees. For that, he was in government in 2014 when Kiribati purchased land in Fiji to relocate its population in case Kiribati disappears.
History of Kiribati
Kiribati was populated by Mircronesians believed to come from Southeast Asia or Indonesia before the arrival of Samoans and Fijians between the 14th to the 16th century.
Its English name was given by an English explorer called Gilbert who visited the islands in the 18th century, before they became a British Protectorate in 1892 together with Tuvalu, and a colony in 1916.
Unlike Tuvalu, Kiribati was invaded by Japanese forces during WWII and suffered major destruction. Some of the remnants of the war can be seen in the Japanese guns found on Tarawa’s shore.
Together with neighbouring Marshall Islands, Kiribati was the site of various British and US nuclear tests after WWII called operation Grabble mostly launched on Kiritimati Island and Malden Islands between 1957 and 1962.
The results of the test were catastrophic on the local population and the civilian and military personnel from the US, UK, New Zealand, Fiji and Australia, all of which were British colonies at the time. Marine and wildlife were also affected.
Today, Kiritimati is a protected area and an important fishing destination worldwide.
Things to do in Kiribati
The majority of the visitors to Kiribati will either visit Tarawa or Kiritimati. Given that they are not connected and that there are very few flights to either, it is unlikely that you will visit both, although I highly recommend it.
If you are going to only visit one of the two, the below should help you figure out which one will be of most interest.
Things to do on Tarawa Island
The island of Tarawa is relatively large when compared to similar atoll islands but it is quite small overall so you will be able to see and do everything in a couple of days as the Nauru Airlines flights allow.
Between a third and half of the population of Kiribati lives in Tarawa, the majority of them in South Tarawa which has proper infrastructure, paved roads and urban centers.
Since 2017, South Tarawa causeways have connected the south from Betio to Buota. Given the 40km/h speed limit, it takes an hour to drive end to end.
In contrast, North Tarawa is made of sparsely populated islands connected at low tide and without any paved roads.
The majority of visitors will stay in South Tarawa and perhaps venture to North Tarawa on a day excursion or book a simple hut for a couple of days in true isolation.
Rent a car and explore.
The Battle of Tarawa, known as Operation Galvanic, is an infamous part of WWII because as many US personnel died in the 72 hours of the battle as they did in the 6 months of the Solomon Islands Battle of Guadalcanal.
The battle was expected to be a stepping stone in the US liberation of the Pacific, from the Solomon Islands to the Marshall Islands, and subsequently towards Japan. But the US troops encountered lots of challenges on their arrival which not only delayed the victory but also caused many life losses.
Today, you can still spot the remnants of the Japanese occupation on the island if you look closely. There is a set of four anti-aerial guns placed on the beach where they were left by the Japanese when they wanted to secure the island from invasion.
There is also a Japanese Command Bunker by the side of the road that is easily found when you drive and today fenced off and not possible to visit, and located on the grounds of a Mormon church.
Photograph colorful churches
As you explore Tarawa you will notice the island is dotted with colorful churches with beautifully decorated facades and front gates. I have not seen such a style anywhere else in the Pacific and they are all well worth a stop.
Inside, the walls are sparsely decorated and there are no benches, instead, devotees sit on the floor for service.
Explore North Tarawa
North Tarawa is the set of islets separated by narrow canals and interconnected by some bridges or canoes to South Tarawa. For the most part, the only way to cross the canals is by walking at low tide.
One of the nicest things to do on Tarawa is to walk from the last point on South Tarawa (cars can also drive there), and all the way to Tabuki Retreat. You could walk further but bear in mind that the only way to get back is to retrace your steps.
The walk along island paths takes about 1.5h each way and is mostly shaded by pandan and coconut trees. At times, the path is as narrow as a person, other times it can accommodate a small car (although they can only come when the tide is low and the canals are dried out).
What you see on the way are the various small communities with a community hut, cooking huts, a well, and the locals living there who are extremely friendly and happy to chat, Mauri is Hello in the I-Kiribati language which everyone will say as they walk past you.
There are also lots of dogs, pigs and chickens. You can also walk along the shore, where the beaches are fluffy white, albeit suffering from a trash issue, and take pictures of the palm trees.
The entire atmosphere of North Tarawa is incredibly peaceful, quiet, almost silent, except for the screams of children when they see a foreign visitor and will come to shake your hand. Locals use bicycles to get around, sometimes you hear a scooter, but you are more likely to hear a rooster or a piglet.
Sleep in the open
Like in Samoa, traditional I-Kiribati homes are wooden huts with open walls and there are a couple of lodges in North Tarawa and Abaiang where you can sleep in this simple accommodation and be lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves.
Two of the most recommended options are Tabon Te Keekee, right across the canal from Buota Island, and Tabuki Retreat which has a few concrete huts too but is only accessible by boat or by a 1.5h walk through the various island paths.
Both hotels offer all-inclusive rates (there is nowhere else to eat around) and you can also stop there for lunch if you are walking along North Tarawa.
Visit the Parliament House
Kiribati’s Parliament House is a pretty building with as sailing theme that is well worth a stop. The entire building as well as the island it is located on, are designed in the shape of a sail and surrounded by a mote. In front of the main building is a colored yet slightly faded, map of Kiribati.
As the Parliament building is not used a lot, there are only three meetings a year, the guard will let you walk in if you make it there, so you can explore the area at your own will. Make sure to go there when the tide is high and the mote filled.
At the back of the Parliament House there is a bar that has great views of the sunset and is occasionally, but unpredictably, open. It only sells beer and a couple of fizzy drinks from a fridge but you can also bring your own and go sit at the back dock, which is the tip of the sail, from where you have great views of the horizon and the sun coming down.
You should contact Tobaroi Travel or the accommodation you are staying at so they can point you in the right direction. You can also visit Tobaroi in person if you have a bit more time in Tarawa, they are at the Chatterbox Cafe.
Try kava at a kava bar
Kava is a traditionally a root and crop of the South Pacific grown across many countries and consumed in many more, most commonly in Vanuatu and Fiji, and it has recently made its way to Tuvalu where you can drink it at kava bars.
Kava is considered a drug in many countries and a prohibited substance, although you can import it into Australia since 2019. Locals drink the broth that is created from soaking the root and use it to relax. The word comes from the Tongan and it means bitter, which tells you something about its taste.
Kava was originally drunk at traditional religious and spiritual ceremonies but is today widely available to tourists in tourism complexes, cultural villages or even at hotels. Most of the places offering it to tourists try to replicate the ancient tradition, with large shared bowls and coconut husks used as glasses.
I first tried it in Vanuatu where it is usually stronger than in Fiji, at my hotel’s evening kava ceremony, and passed out completely for about half an hour.
The plant is a depressant and, as such, relaxes you, so it is common to have it in the evening. In Kiribati, the crop does not grow so in recent years, the powder form has been making its way here from Fiji where a lot of I-Kiribati live.
Kava bars are not bars per se, they don’t sell anything other than kava, and are rather bare affairs with plastic chairs and tables, but more of a unique experience in Tarawa.
I collect postcards from remote places and even mail them and Kiribati is not an exception. Visit the Post Office and you will be able to get your hands on idyllic South Pacific postcards and stamps.
Walk over to a heart-shaped island
When I first moved out and started living on my own I bought a stunning coffee table book by Yann Arthus-Bertrand that had a heart-shaped vegetation patch in the Amazon.
Little did I know that there is a heart-shaped island in Kiribati located by Dreamers Guest House, which I discovered when flying my drone from the guest house garden.
The island is located in the shallow lagoon and, at low tide, you can walk to it. It is lush and green with lots of palm trees, and a sandy shore. Just be sure to walk back before the high tide.
So you are on an island, and an atoll island at that, so it would make sense that swimming is one of the best things to do in Tarawa and you are not wrong.
However, because of pollution, I recommend you swim either in the shores of North Tarawa, in the area near Dreamers Guest House or in the canal around the bridge that connects South Tarawa with North Tarawa.
Try to avoid swimming too close to the main urban centers which are more prone to plastic rubbish.
Tarawa is a great fishing destination and Betio Lodge, one of the most popular places to stay on the island, also operates a charter fishing company which can organise fishing trips in the lagoon and beyond.
However, the best fishing in Kiribati is in Kiritimati Island, which is known worldwide as a great fishing destination yet to be discovered.
Things to do in Kiritimati Island
Kiritimati is the world’s largest atoll and unlike other islands in the Pacific and Tarawa itself, it is a pretty large island measuring over 600 square kilometers.
That means you can rent a car and go explore London, Paris and Poland, all names of villages on the island, without driving around the country 20 times in half a day like it happened to me in Nauru.
Because of its geographical location and the fact that the country chose to be on the same time zone as Tarawa, Kiritimati is the first place to see the New Year together with Samoa.
If you thought that few people make it to Tarawa imagine how few make it to Kiritimati. There are roughly 1,000 to 1,500 people visiting the island every year and only a fraction are tourists, the majority are officials and others working for international agencies.
Kiritimati island is best known as a world class fishing destination. Since the island and atoll have been a protected marine area for years, marine wildlife thrives and attracts eager fishing fanatics all year round, especially because it is one of the best fly fishing destinations in the world.
Kiritimati is the mecca for bone fishing and accessible for giant trevally. There are several fishing lodges and charter companies, the most popular are Ikari House and Christmas Islands Outfitters.
Kiritimati is also well known as a surfing destination to the pros with a couple dozen surfable breaks with consistent waves. They are ready to please any surfer from June to April with both Southeast and Southwest as well as Northwest swells.
Best of all, you are most likely going to be on your own and very few people make it to the islands and those who do, are here for fishing. Bring all your equipment and get in touch with Christmas Island Surf.
Diving is also possible on Kiritimati and the same lodges who provide fishing support can help you organise a diving trip. Make sure you plan ahead and check what will and will not be provided, it’s not like the diving tourism is very developed.
Kiritimati is a nesting place for many birds and a great place to see them all year round. The island has a lot of potential to develop as a tourism destination for bird lovers.
Other islands to visit in Kiribati
There are several other islands that are well worth a visit in Kiribati but beware, they are really remote places so you should plan enough time (there may only be a couple of flights a week there and weather can cancel them) and the expectation of simple living.
Located at a 2h ferry ride away from Tarawa or a mere 20min flight with Air Kiribati, Abaiang is a step beyond North Tarawa in seclusion, remoteness and peace.
This small atoll island north of Tarawa has all the makings of a Pacific island with fluffy white sand beaches, minimal pollution, swaying palm trees and clear waters. Accommodation is modest, in the open air hut format, and affordable.
Also known as Fanning Island, Tabuaeran is hardly visited island most known to foreigners for its surfing possibilities. It is part of the Line Islands of Kiribati and only connected to Tarawa via ferry services.
There are also some cruise ships that make stops on the island, most popular Holland America’s 51-day Pacific cruise or shorter ones which include only Hawaii and Marquesa Islands. The same cruise ships also stop on Kiritimati.
Restaurants in Kiribati
On the main island of Tarawa there are a handful of places to eat and that is even more limited on Kiritimati. Here are a few of the Fanning Island.
I wish we had discovered this casual hut earlier because the menu looked promising. Simple set up serving from breakfast to dinner (not easy to find a breakfast place in Tarawa) and a few local dishes (beyond the typical Chinese fare).
Highly recommended by many, this simple lodge has a fun bar called Beer & Bullshit and a decent restaurant to have simple Chinese dishes and fish. It is popular with travelers and a fun place for a drink.
A unique combination of menu items including toasted sandwiches, fantastic iced coffee and milkshakes, and instant ramen noodles, plus, if you don’t have a local SIM you can buy time-based internet access here. This is also the place to come get souvenirs, books and any travel arrangements through the in-house travel agency.
This supermarket has an attached bakery with some outdoor tables and serves a different dish at lunch time everyday. It also has lots of pastries and even ice cream for sale.
Popular Chinese restaurant in Betio serving all the typical Paciifc Chinese dishes like fried rice, chopsuey, grilled meats, etc. Located by the side of the road and with simple plastic chairs.
Public market on Bairiki
If you are looking for a really simple meal or for some snacks, there is a laid-back market in Bairiki along the main road where locals sell a meal in a plastic bag including tide, causes and fried/grilled chicken.
Hotels in Kiribati
There are not a lot of places to stay in Kiribati but here are the best choices from my experience and recommendations from others who have been.
I stayed here. This family-run guesthouse right on the lagoon offers three very large apartment-rooms with two beds that can easily accommodate three people. There are small kitchens in the room and fans (no AC), but the sea breeze was enough to sleep. No hot water in the shower.
The rooms are a bit dated and could do with a layer of paint but the set-up is pleasant and the sunrise views from the small garden are great. The I-Kiribati and English owners will gladly share anecdotes and stories and rent you one of their cars. They can also organise whatever ferry or plane tickets you need ahead of time and are quick to respond via email.
Breakfast is served continental style, with toast, fresh fruits from their garden and French press coffee. WiFi is included via a mobile dongle connection. The owner will pick you up from the airport.
Pro tip: Dreamers can prepare dinner if you ask in advance and accommodate vegetarian options and it is the only “local” food I had in Kiribati.
Simple lodge in Betio popular with single travelers because of the fun bar which is popular with the (very small) expat crowd. Rooms are sparse but come with small fridges and AC. There is free WiFi in the common areas and they will pick you up from the airport.
The lodge is the base for the Game Fishing Club so they can help you organise diving and fishing trips as well as any other tours or car rentals. If you don’t plan to rent a car, this lodge is a good place to stay because you are in a village and walking distance from the WWII relics.
Pro tip: There is a set of new rooms, ask for one of those instead of the older ones.
This is the only accommodation on Kiribati that is bookable via a hotel booking site, Booking.com in this case.
Rooms are simple but better than at Betio, and newer, and they come with AC and hot water. Some of them are spacious and have fully equipped kitchenettes. Wifi is not free and can be expensive (AUD4 for 1h) so consider buying a SIM card.
This is the preferred hotel for business travelers like those from the World Bank. Location right across from Kaokao restaurant is a plus.
Pro tip: Ask for a room in the new wing.
Practicalities and other information for visitors
Because Kiribati is such a remote and unique place, there are a lot of things that need to be well thought-out before your trip.
How to get to Kiribati and around
Getting to Kiribati is not easy as there are not that many flights, but it is easier than getting to Nauru or Tuvalu.
There are flights to Tarawa via Nauru on Nauru Airlines once a week as well as Nadi with Fiji Airways, twice a week. Kiritimati is also connected to Fiji on a weekly service (reinstated in 2011) that continues onwards to Honolulu with Fiji Airways. There are no other international flights with any other airline.
Air Kiribati operates small propeller planes that connect the various islands. Some flights are as short as 20min others a few hours. There is no flight from Tarawa to Kiritimati so you would have to go via Nadi in Fiji or Tabiteuea Island with Air Kiribati.
You can book flights online with Fiji Airways, but Air Kiribati is not online so flights can only be booked in person at the ticketing offices in Kiribati. Your hotel or guest house can help buy them for you in advance or you can go to Chatterbox Cafe where there is a travel agency desk, Tobaraoi Travel.
When you book your accommodation, make sure to confirm the airport pick up, they all offer it in the price of the room. You won’t be able to get a taxi when you land as there are none so you need to be picked up.
The best way to get around in Kiribati is by renting a car or scooter. There is limited public transportation available and if there is at least two of you, a car makes more sense than a scooter. It is also more practical because of how hot it is and the 80+ speed bumps on Tarawa (I counted them!).
If you want to rent a car it is best to ask the place you are staying at. Chances are they have cars you can rent. No need to sign contracts or show driving licenses, you are basically borrowing someone’s car and it is all pretty casual. It takes about an hour to drive Tarawa end to end because the speed limit ifs only 40km/h.
Best time to visit Kiribati
The best time to visit Kiribati is in the dry season, which runs from July to October. When it rains, because of rising sea levels, flooding and bad weather make a visit difficult as most of the activities are outdoors and rely on good weather.
Temperatures in Kiribati are practically the same all year round with temperatures between 24 and 31 degrees, but high humidity makes the sensation of heat much higher during the stay, especially if the sun is shining.
Unlike other countries in the Pacific, it is relatively easy to get cash in Kiribati. Credit cards are practically useless and not accepted anywhere, but there are several ATMs from ANZ Bank that accept international cards and are usually stocked.
Visa for Kiribati
The majority of the passports do not require a visa for Kiribati making it a relatively easy country to visit. You will have to fill in a landing card when you arrive, and complete customs and agricultural quarantine questionnaires. You can find the visa requirements via the Emirates website which uses IATA information.
What to pack and bring to Kiribati
The country’s remoteness means that a lot of the things that you would regularly and easily find in most places may just not be available in Kiribati so you should bring everything you need with yourself.Because this is a tropical holiday with a chance for swimming, diving or lazing by the beach, I would suggest to pack the usual suspects. Plus, not to exacerbate the country’s garbage management efforts, I highly recommend taking your trash with you when you leave.
Here is a list of the things you should take with you to Kiribati.
This is a must, the sun is hyper strong in the Pacific and you are right by the Equator so bringing high SPF sunblock and applying it regularly and continuously is a necessity. I always love and use Biore which is non stick
A hat or cap
You really need to protect yourself from the sun, especially at the conservation area, on the boat ride, and while walking around. This is not a place for a pretty Instagram hat but for a practical one with lanyard so it does not fly away on the boat.
This one for women is good, and this one for men. I would usually think that a cap is enough but after severely burning my neck I know that you need to make sure to cover that part too so a wide brim option is best.
Mosquitoes in the Pacific are vicious and ever present. I used three pots of repellent in my ten days and just moderate spraying did not protect me, I had to literally douse myself in repellent, also when I went to sleep.
You really need a repellent that has DEET in Kiribati, eco-friendly options with ingredients like citronella will not work.
OFF is a reliable brand and this one has 25% DEET (I brought it to Kiribati). Or if you are really prone to mosquito bites try Coleman which has 40% DEET. Make sure to thoroughly wash hands after applying it, DEET is really toxic and will upset your stomach.
I am practical in this department, just like with the mosquito repellent and hat. You can wear designer glasses to the luxury resort in Taormina, but you need to bring heavy duty sunglasses to Kiribati.
Because the sun rays are strong and you need to protect your eyesight from the sun and the wind. I am a big fan of Oakley, they are heavy duty, they last, they are polarised and not too expensive. I have been using them since I was a lifeguard at age 16 and spent 8 hours a day staring at the ocean, sand and sun.
Although I will admit I have bought the same black Oakley sports model for years and love it because it holds my hair when I place them on my head and doesn’t let any sun or sand get into my eyes because it covers them all the way.
Clothes and swimwear
In terms of clothes, I highly recommend shorts and t-shirts and long sleeve cotton or linen shirts which both protect you from the sun and the mosquitoes. A sarong or kaftan is useful for many things and helps you if you want to get in the water in the main island.
If you want to go swimming, consider wearing a rash vest, shorts or a sarong, or at least a full swimming costume rather than a bikini. Nobody will say anything if you just bathe in a bikini but you will blend in better the more you cover up.
Given how strong the sun is, I strongly suggest bringing a rash vest, I always wear them to protect from the sun when snorkeling so I don’t sunburn without realising it. Make sure it is long sleeved and has SPF protection.
For women, they make some really cute ones these days and I like the ones with a zipper which can be taken on and put back on easily. This flowery one is very cute and ticks all the boxes and this black one is more plain and goes with everything. Or get a super sexy onesie or Billabong’s silver shinny one (beware it does not cover your arms).
Other things to pack
You should bring any medical and personal hygiene products with you because the range of options available is very limited and regularly runs out. Any prescription medication should also be carried with you because it may not be available on the island.
Kiribati has limited medical facilities and only one anesthesiologist shared with Tuvalu. That is, the doctor spends six months in each country.
You should never leave home without travel insurance and remember that this needs to be bought before your trip.
World Nomads is a very widely used insurance company with affordable prices. You can get a quotation and purchase insurance pretty quickly and easily with the box below.
- Check if you need a visa, get help processing it at iVisa.
- Never ever leave without travel insurance. Get affordable coverage from World Nomads or long term insurance from Safety Wing.
- I find all of my flights on KAYAK. Check their Deals section too.
- Search for all your transportation between destinations on the trusted travel booking platform Bookaway.
- I book all my day trips and tours via GetYourGuide, they are the best and their tours are refundable up to 24h in advance.
- Get USD35 off your first booking with Airbnb.
- Compare hotels EVERYWHERE at HotelsCombined and book with Booking.com.
- Compare car rental prices at Rentalcars.com