Kiribati Atoll
Kiribati Atoll © luigig

Known to many under British rule as the Gilbert Islands, Kiribati (pronounced Kiribas) seems to be a tiny nation in the central tropical Pacific Ocean, but its 33 atolls, mostly surrounding turquoise lagoons and barely rising above the surrounding ocean, span a whopping 1.4 million square miles (3.5 million sq km). First sighted by British and American ships in the late 18th and early 19th-centuries, the main chain of islands was named the Gilbert Islands in 1820 after a British captain who crossed the archipelago en route to China in 1788.

Only two thirds of the islands are actually inhabited and, interestingly, uninhabited Caroline Island was the first place in the world to usher in the millennium, giving Kiribati much needed publicity and a helping hand onto the world's stage. The increased number of tourists in the past decade is proof of this. Kiribati's islands offer a multitude of fascinating and exquisite tourist attractions. Christmas Island, located in the southern part of the Line Islands, is a bird-watcher's paradise and is an important breeding habitat for the seabirds that flock there to swoon over the surface tropical fish, squid and tuna. Common sightings include the Wedge-tailed, Christmas, and Audubon's Shearwaters, as well as the Masked, Brown, and Red-footed Boobies.

The clear turquoise waters teem with the unique biodiversity found off the shores of the Kiribati islands, considered to be one of the few genuinely unspoiled and largely unexplored underwater sanctuaries remaining in the world.

The locals in the outer islands survive largely on coconuts, breadfruit and fish as Kiribati's recent colonial and WWII history has had little impact on them, but the main island of Tarawa was the scene of one of the bloodiest battles in WWII history, when more than 7,000 Japanese and American soldiers lost their lives. The locals here still reside in thatched houses, but there are signs of a stronger Western influence with more cars, movies, bars and internet access. Many people come here to sunbathe on one of the countless sandy white beaches, sip on an exotic cocktail and watch other beach goers partake in volleyball, surfing, kayaking and jet skiing. The Taiwan Park and Dai-Nippon Causeway on the eastern tip of the Betio Islet in Tarawa are definitely worth a visit.