Spanning an area as large as Europe, French Polynesia islands can be intimidating to the first-time visitor. Technically an overseas collectivity of France, this globally renowned destination is considered by many to be a slice of heaven on earth. Here, Eric Grossman takes us through French Polynesia's highlights in a (coco)nut shell.
The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guides guidebooks — your essential guides for visiting the world.
Tahiti Island — French Polynesia's largest island
Tahiti Island is the largest and most populated of the 118 islands and atolls that make up French Polynesia islands. Most visitors use Tahiti as a base from which to explore the region's many highlights; all the major destinations can be reached from the international airport in Faa'a.
With its ubiquitous pearl shops, lively roulottes (food trucks), and occasional traffic jams, the capital city of Papeete is the closest thing French Polynesia islands have to a metropolis. To truly appreciate the island’s many natural wonders, however, be sure to explore its rugged coastline, myriad historical sites, and mountainous interior.
Tahiti also affords visitors their best chance to get a taste of normal Polynesian life by seeking out a beach or market (such as the Marché Papeete) crammed with friendly locals.
Moorea Island — a secret getaway
Only a 30-minute ferry ride from Papeete, the charming island of Moorea is less populated and developed than its famous neighbour. Visitors exploring the mountainous, mostly rural island are more likely to encounter more chickens than humans.
From an elevated perch inland (for which you'll need a 4x4 vehicle) one can view the two small, nearly symmetrical bays on the north shore where most of the island’s action takes place.
Explore Temae Bay, one of the most famous snorkelling beaches on Moorea. Swim in calm, shallow water and enjoy the white sand and fabulous sea life.
- For all sorts of activities: Linareva Moorea Beach Resort
- For a luxurious holiday: Sofitel Kia Ora Moorea Beach Resort
Where to stay on Moorea Island
Bora Bora - romantic paradise among French Polynesia islands
Perhaps the most lauded honeymoon spot on the planet, Bora Bora benefits from its natural lagoon that’s monitored by the imposing, majestic Mount Otemanu. The clear, warm waters are filled with colourful fish and majestic rays, and most visitors spend as much time here as possible.
A handful of upscale resorts, including the family-friendly Four Seasons and opulent St. Regis, are famous for their overwater bungalows. These pricey accommodations offer an exceptional, once-in-a-lifetime splurge perfect for celebs looking for some peace and privacy, as well as mere mortals celebrating a special occasion.
Enjoy snorkelling in the aquamarine waters of Bora Bora on a two-and-a-half-hour shark safari. Search for Black Tip sharks, Sting rays, Moray eels and tropical fishes.
- For an active honeymoon: Le Bora Bora by Pearl Resorts
- For the ultimate Bora Bora experience: InterContinental Bora Bora Le Moana Resort
Where to stay on Bora Bora
Raiatea and Taha’a for clear waters and more
The islands of Raiatea and Taha’a can be seen from Bora Bora, and like their world-famous neighbour, both offer astoundingly clear waters and a relaxing break from modern life (in other words, don't expect perfect internet access).
Prized by yachters and sailors, Raiatea is the larger and more visited of the two. The island is believed to be the site from which organised migrations to Hawaii and other parts of Polynesia were launched many centuries ago. Smaller, quieter Taha'a is also worth a visit, especially for those interested in its two most famous products: vanilla and pearls.
- For couples: Hôtel Raiatea Lodge
- For breathtaking views: Faré Mahi Mahi
Where to stay on Raiatea and Taha’a
Tuamotu Islands for a quiet destination
While no one will confuse French Polynesian Islands for busier, more developed tropical destinations, certain visitors may seek something a little quieter; those looking to completely disconnect are wise to consider the Tuamotu Islands.
This vast archipelago of coral atolls is headlined by Rangiroa and Tikehau, where pink sand beaches give way to clear waters filled with a kaleidoscope of colourful fish (the famed underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau was a fan).
If you've ever fantasized about seeing a shark swim under your bungalow, look no further. Rangiroa, comprised of 240 small islets that form the second-largest atoll in the world, is a mecca for divers.
Few visitors leave the Tuamotus without diving, snorkelling, or boating. Just don't expect anything by way of shopping or nightlife visitor services are at a minimum in these sparsely populated destinations.
Marquesas Islands for an experience rich with culture
About a three-hour flight from the Society Islands resides the Marquesas Islands; these rugged, quiet islands are renowned within French Polynesia islands for their rich culture and breathtaking nature.
Some of the Marquesas have remained untouched since the era of European exploration. Fearless visitors traverse steep mountains while keeping an eye out for the wild horses, pigs, and goats that roam inland.
Nuku Hiva, the largest of the Marquesas, lures visitors with its lush valleys, ancient religious sites, and towering waterfalls. The island of Hiva Oa also receives tourism due to its wild landscape, giant stone tiki, and rich history (it’s the final resting place of the performer Jacques Brel and artist Paul Gauguin).
Huahine Island for water sports
Huahine is a small island situated between the islands of Raiatea and Bora Bora. Huahine is known for its beautiful tropical nature and rich history. The island is divided into two main parts, Huahine Nui (Big Huahine ) and Huahine Iti (Little Huahine), which are connected by a bridge.
Huahine is a popular destination amongst the French Polynesian islands for those interested in water sports such as snorkelling, diving and surfing. The island's coral reefs are home to a variety of marine life, including colourful fish, sea turtles and even sharks. In addition to exploring marine life, the island is also home to the ancient temples of Huahine, or marae, which date back to Polynesian ancestors.
Austral Islands for hikers
The Austral Islands are a group of volcanic islands located in the southern part of the French Polynesia islands. They are located about 600 miles south of Tahiti. The inhabited islands that comprise the Austral Islands are Tubuai, Rurutu, Rimatara and Raivavae. While all are part of the same archipelago, each island has its own distinct culture, language and traditions.
Austral islands are renowned for their spectacular natural scenery, rugged coastlines, pristine turquoise lagoons and lush tropical rainforests. Here you can explore the numerous hiking trails, go snorkelling or diving in the crystal clear waters, or just relax on any of the many secluded beaches.
Gambier Islands for architecture buffs
The Gambier Islands comprise the main island, Mangareva, and several smaller islands and atolls. The islands are rich in diverse flora and fauna, incorporating many endemic species.
The Gambier Islands have a rich history and culture and are known for their exceptional architecture, including numerous ancient stone constructions and churches that can be found all over the island. Visitors can explore these historic sites as well as numerous hiking trails and sites for snorkelling and diving.
The Islands are also famous among French Polynesia islands for their black pearls, which are highly prized for their unique lustre and colour. Visitors can learn about how pearls are grown and also purchase these beautiful pearls from local shops.
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