Spanning an area as large as Europe, French Polynesia 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.
With its idyllic beaches, postcard-worthy sunsets, and incredible turquoise waters filled with abundant marine life, French Polynesia’s Society Islands (most notably Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora, Raiatea, and Taha'a) attract the majority of the region's visitors. Yet there's all this – and more – to discover in these halcyon isles.
Here, Eric Grossman takes us through French Polynesia's highlights in a (coco)nut shell.
Tahiti Island is the largest and most populated of the 118 islands and atolls that make up French Polynesia. 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 has 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 everyday Polynesian life by seeking out a beach or market (such as the Marché Papeete) crammed with friendly locals.
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.
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 colorful 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.
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.
While no one will confuse the Society 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 colorful 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, snorkeling, or boating. Just don't expect anything by way of shopping or nightlife visitor services are at a minimum in these sparsely populated destinations.
About a three hour flight from the Society Islands resides the Marquesas Islands; these rugged, quiet islands are renowned within French Polynesia 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).