A beginner's guide to French Polynesia

7 December 2016

The South Pacific is full of idyllic islands, but there's something special about French Polynesia. Few places in the world are more synonymous with luxury and relaxation than Tahiti, Bora Bora and Moorea – and those are just the better known of French Polynesia's 118 islands, all of them stunning tropical escapes.

French Polynesia 1 A young boy jumps into the water off the coast of Tahiti. Photo: Getty Images

 

Tahiti

Ahhh, Tahiti. The name is so evocative of Polynesian paradise that it's often used (incorrectly) to refer to other islands in the French Polynesia group. In fact, 'Tahiti' is only Tahiti island itself – the largest and most populous of the collective's 118 islands. This is where you'll find the vast majority of French Polynesia's social, cultural and economic activity, along with the capital, Papeete, where all international flights touch down. What you won't find is a lot of immaculate icing sugar-white beaches. This is black sand country, and one of the best places to see it is Lafayette Beach at the edge of Matavai Bay, where Captain Cook dropped anchor in 1769.

The island is divided into two sections: the larger, circular Tahiti Nui is where most Tahitians live, and is the location of many of Tahiti's historic landmarks, like the museum devoted to painter Paul Gauguin, who lived here between 1891 and 1893. Joined to Tahiti Nui like a bulbous tail, Tahiti Iti (more commonly called the Presqu’île, or Peninsula) is quieter and less developed. Most visitors head to the southwest coast to surf the famously intimidating Teahupoo wave or to swim at the island's best white sand beach, la Plage de Maui (Maui Beach).

French Polynesia 2 Over-water bungalows in Bora Bora, with Mt Otemanu in the background. Photo: Getty Images

 

Bora Bora and Maupiti

The ultimate luxury retreat, Bora Bora is known as one of the most romantic and beautiful islands in the entire South Pacific – little wonder “the Pearl of the Pacific” is rated among the top places on the globe to honeymoon. It's located less than an hour from bustling Papeete, but stepping off the plane in Bora Bora is like stepping into another world, where all you'll hear is the lapping of crystal clear water and perhaps the quiet murmur of your resort's butler asking if you'd like another cocktail.

The main island has one significant village with shops and restaurants, and if you're feeling active you can take a guided hike up the island's two mountains. But for most visitors, Bora Bora is about total relaxation in one of the ultra luxurious resorts that dot the iridescent turquoise lagoon. Most hotels are built on their own private islet, or motu; you'll need to hop on a boat for the short journey between them or to the main island. The accommodation itself largely consists of overwater bungalows, many with glass floors for watching the shoals of tropical fish that flit about the lagoon.

Maupiti, also known as Little Bora Bora, can be reached by air or by direct ferry from Bora Bora. Those in the know say Maupiti is Bora Bora as it was 50 years ago – no fancy restaurants or luxury resorts, just endless perfect beaches and an authentic Polynesian welcome. Be aware that Maupiti's only accommodation is a handful of small, privately-run guesthouses. Be sure to book well ahead, particularly on weekends, when French residents of Tahiti tend to arrive for a short break.

French Polynesia 3 Cook's Bay, Moorea. Credit: iStock.com

 

Moorea

A couple of years ago, Moorea was named the third best island in the world by readers of luxury travel magazine Conde Nast Traveler. Travel guru Arthur Frommer, the founder of Frommer's Guides, went one better, calling it the most beautiful island in the world, hands down. Moorea's interior is a series of dramatic volcanic mountains covered in lush greenery; the coastline is dominated by the stunning Opunohu Bay and Cooks Bay, where the majority of Moorea's restaurants and resorts are located. Just a 20 km/30 minute ferry ride from Tahiti, Moorea is an easy day trip from the mainland – but you'll want to stay much longer, we guarantee.

French Polynesia 4 The Rangiroa lagoon, Tuamotu Archipelago. Photo: Tahiti Tourisme

 

The Tuamotus

For a paradise as internationally famous as French Polynesia, there are still a surprising number of places where it's possible to get away from the world almost entirely. One such place is the Tuamotu archipelago, a largely undiscovered string of 80 islands and atolls located on French Polynesia's eastern edge. Only a handful of the Tuamotus are inhabited, and of these only Rangiroa, Fakarava, Tikehau and Manihi are usually frequented by tourists. If you're a keen diver, you'll likely already have the Tuamotus on your bucket list: both Rangiroa and Fakarava boast abundant lagoons offering some of the best diving anywhere in the world.

Catherine McGregor

Catherine McGregor is a New Zealand-born, New York-based writer and web editor. She is the former digital editor at Auckland's Metro, where she managed the magazine's online presence while writing about food, culture and travel. Her travel bucket list includes Petra, Jordan; Yosemite National Park, United States; and Kyoto, Japan.