Why you should add French Polynesia to your Big Trip
- Natural Diversity: The five archipelagos of this island nation each offer unique experiences. The lush mountain forests of the Society Islands, the multi-hued beaches of the Marquesas, and the atolls of the Tuamotus are all incredibly clean and inviting, while the remote Austral and Gambier archipelagos offer pristine sea life.
- Culture: French Polynesia combines South Pacific hospitality with cosmopolitan European sensibility. Generally warm and inviting, it helps if you speak French. Each archipelago has a distinct culture with some common traits. They are all technically part of France, and French tourists don’t seem shy about pointing that out. French influence wanes the further you go from Tahiti and the Society Islands, and an ongoing renaissance of traditional Polynesian customs and knowledge is a source of local pride.
- Safety: Aside from falling off a cliff or not heeding your scuba dive tables, there are very few natural dangers in French Polynesia - even the sharks are friendly. One exception can be late night drunk drivers on weekends. There is very little crime or violence.
- Water sports: Clear water, colorful fish, and top-notch dive operators make the country a scuba diver’s dream. If you are not already certified, there are plenty of options here. Or you can just strap on fins, mask and snorkel and experience spectacular sea life from the surface. Wind surfing, kite-sailing, yachting, surfing and deep sea fishing round out an impressive array of water based activities.
- Trekking: From easy strolls to strenuous mountain hikes, your feet are a great way to explore these islands. Mountain trails reveal inspiring vistas, while ocean-side saunters provide exceptional encounters with people. Unforgettable memories await those who don’t mind a little exercise.
- Surfing: It was invented here, and it still plays a big role in the lives of many Polynesians. From beginners to pros, the breaks in French Polynesia will leave you feeling exhilarated and alive. The monster of all waves - Teahupoo - is only for skilled surfers, but anybody can watch the insanity from the nearby beach.
- Tattoos: Modern meets traditional at island tattoo parlors where bold, black designs from the Marquesa islands or colorful contemporary styles are available. An important part of the culture, worn with pride by professionals, people in the service industry, and laborers, the designs are highly symbolic. Look long enough, and you’ll likely spot people with intricate designs on their faces and hands as well. If you want one, shop around and make sure the artist and the hygiene of the shop meet your expectations BEFORE you start talking price.
Indie Travel Tips
- Plan ahead: You could just show up and figure things out on the fly - but you face the possibility of being stuck without accommodation during the high-season (June-August & December-January). You could also discover the room available is a $500-per-night overwater bungalow. An internet search in French will reveal many options - look for pensions, gîtes or B&Bs if you don’t want to be limited to international chains or luxury resorts.
- BYOTent: Many pensions or small family-run establishments will let you pitch your own tent for a greatly reduced rate. These places will also have well equipped communal kitchens - so you can leave your camp stove and cookware at home. Not all have ovens, so you may have to rely heavily on a frying pan.
- Travel during shoulder season: If you're flexible, travel in the shoulder season rather than high season, and you’ll save a ton of money and avoid the crowds.
- Dine locally: Supermarkets on almost every island are well stocked, but prices vary from store to store. Watch what the locals get and choose accordingly. The cost (and yumminess) of baguettes is consistent everywhere as the price is legislated. You’ll find these crusty French breads filled with everything from ham and cheese (Croque Monsieur) to ground beef, chicken french fries, and chow mien. They are filling, tasty, and affordable. Do not miss the food trucks, called “roulottes”. You’ll find them near major towns on most of the islands, offering everything from steak frites (thin cut New Zealand beef with french fries) to chow mien, crepes, pizza, and the national dish of poisson cru (a kind of ceviche with coconut milk). They are the most affordable places to dine in the evenings. With few restaurants on the more remote islands, you are likely to dine with your host.
- Do not barter: Unlike many countries popular with indie travelers, prices here are fixed. With very few exceptions (tattoos being one) there is no room for negotiation. Tipping is not common (except at the high end resorts), so even if you try to leave some change behind, you’ll likely be chased down and given the money back. Also, there is no sales tax on anything, so the price printed is the price paid.
- Respect taboo: Some things - especially the spiritual and cultural centers known as marae, are off limits for tourists. You are welcome to visit them, but unless you are brought by a Polynesian do not touch them or walk on the stone and coral surface. Bad mana results from breaking taboo.
- Internet is sporadic: Many accommodations offer wifi connection or access to a ManaSpot (the quality of service provided by the Mana serve provider fluctuates' however, so don’t expect lightning fast connectivity everywhere you go). Prices vary incredibly from accommodation to accommodation, while access to the Mana system is by the hour, rather than by the amount of data transmitted. Another option is to purchase a local smart phone or SIM card from Tivi of Vodaphone, but service areas (especially for the latter) is limited.
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Everything starts in the capital city, Pape’ete (pah-PAY-eh-tay). A short cab ride from the airport, this bustling center is the seat of government and commerce for the island nation of just over 250,000. Home to about 10% of the population, Pape’ete feels much bigger. If you haven’t arrived with a plan, head to the harbor and find the tourist booth where friendly multi-lingual staff will provide plenty of options. This is also the place to go when you get hungry in the evening, because it has the country’s largest collection of roulotte food trucks. Beware though - when a cruise ship comes in, the place gets crowded and loses some of its charm.
Each island offers different experiences, but some can be very difficult to get to. From the luxurious (some might say ridiculous) extravagance of Bora Bora’s over-water bungalows, to the busy, gritty streets of the capital city, to the remote outer islands of the Marquesa and Australian chains, there is literally something for everyone in French Polynesia. You could spend a lifetime exploring the diversity of this country, but your visa (and finances) will likely expire long before you can reach them all.
There are no dangerous plants or animals on the islands, but there are plenty of mosquitoes, and outbreaks of chikungunya and dengue fever do occur. If you get a fever and soreness in the joints, seek medical attention. Hospitals and doctors are common in tourist areas, but not available on every island. There is no malaria.
Unless you have a lot of time and money, you can’t do it all, so pick the piece of paradise that’s right for you.
- International flights: Air Tahiti Nui is the country’s flag-bearing airline and code shares with Air New Zealand and Qantas with regular flights from Sydney, Auckland, and Los Angeles. Air France flies from Paris, Air Japan from Tokyo, and Hawaiian Airlines from Hawaii and L.A.. You can also get to Pape’ete from Santiago, Chile (via Easter Island) using LAN Airlines. Air Calin flies from New Caledonia.
- Domestic flights: Air Tahati (which is different from Air Tahiti Nui) dominates intra-island air transport. There are daily flights from many islands to and from Pape’ete, but some of the more remote locations are served far less frequently. Check out their website for a variety of different priced packages which let you choose combinations of islands to explore.
- Boat: It is possible to cut down travel expenses by traveling by boat from island to island - but this can be tricky for travelers, and some operators prefer to provide space for farmers or local people trying to get back to their own island. There is regular ferry service between Pape’ete and Mo-orea, and the Maupiti Express travels between Ra’aitea and Bora Bora at a fraction of the price of a flight. The seas can get rough though, and the Sunday sailing from Bora Bora to Ra’aitea is likely to be full of high school students going back to class at Uturoa.
Unless you are roughing it in a tent or visiting the more remote outer islands, your accommodations can be as simple as a single room in a bungalow by the sea or a western style hotel chain. If you’re going to splurge, you can get an over water bungalow with air conditioning and your own private steps into a gin-clear lagoon full of fish. There really is a great variety of accommodation in French Polynesia, so it’s worth checking out your options before you leave home.
Photo credits: Styve Reineck