French Polynesia has become so well known for its three main islands, Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora and their collection of magnificently decadent resorts. But did you know that these 3 islands are just a small part of one archipelago, the Society Islands? There's more. French Polynesia is a country spread over 118 islands and another 4 more archipelagos, the Tuamotu Archipelago, the Marquesa Islands, the Austral Islands and the Gambier Islands.
We've picked some of our favourite snapshots of this stunning South Pacific destination to give you an introduction to paradise.
Credit: Paul Gauguin Cruises
This is surely a dream destination. Fine ribbons of palm-fringed sand stretch around glorious lagoons. If you’re looking for picture postcard landscape with a volcanic backdrop then you’ve come to the right place. Bora Bora’s twin peaks of Mount Pahia and Mount Otemanu form one of French Polynesia’s most recognisable vistas and work their way into many a luxury hotel brochure. They also formed the backdrop for the 2009 film ‘Couples Retreat’, set on Bora Bora.
The volcanic origin of French Polynesia's islands birthed of some of the world’s most picturesque landscapes, like the lagoon around Huahine above. Crystal clear lagoons fringe coral atolls that have gradually subsided into the water. The warm, clear waters are protected from currents by the coral barrier, creating calm waters that are a haven for marine life and a snorkeler’s dream.
Credit: R. Sahuquet/Tahiti Tourism
The distinctive fragrance of vanilla orchids can be appreciated on the island of Taha’a in the Society Islands. These edible orchids flower during July or August, producing vanilla seed pods that flavour both local rums and green tea. Tahitian vanilla is grown on the windward side of the island where you can visit a vanilla plantation and find out how it’s grown and extracted.
Fertile valleys are home to tropical plantations of tasty crops including pineapples, bananas, coconuts, coffee and sugarcane, as well as gardens full of Frangipani and Bougainvillea. Considered to be the sweetest tasting pineapple on earth – you can try Moorea’s pineapples at any road-side stand or you could even head to the tasting counter of the delightful fruit-juice factory on Moorea to sample the local guava, lemon, mango, pawpaw or grapefruit juices.
Credit: N.Perez/Tahiti Tourism
The origins of tattoo are mysteriously vague, but Tahitians tattooed patterns to signify status, life events and rites of passage. Originally, bone or tortoiseshell combs and ink were used to create patterns in the skin. After the missionaries banned the art form, it made a revival in recent years and many Tahitians now proudly display symbols important to them.
Snorkelling and diving are certainly two of the top 10 things to do here since this part of the South Pacific is home to world-class dive sites, with the best known sites in the Tuamotu islands. If you’re more of a snorkeler, this is a great area to snorkel all year round, whether close to the shore or further afield with the help of a local guide. Look out for sharks, manta rays, whales, parrot fish, clownfish and many, many more!
Out in the Tuamotus, Fakarava’s ‘Tumakohua Pass’ is home to an underwater valley known as Shark’s Hole. It’s heavily populated with lemon, whitecap and hammerhead sharks, making this a popular choice for divers. These somewhat shy creatures don’t represent a threat to divers, but nevertheless, show them respect!
Credit: © Grégoire LE BACON/Tahiti Tourism
After tourism, pearls are the second largest economic resource of French Polynesia and the country’s main export . Produced inside black-lipped oysters, Tahitian pearls are diverse in size and colour, but a truly ‘black’ (as opposed to charcoal grey) Tahitian pearl is incredibly rare and considered amongst the most beautiful in the world.
As early as 1797, the first Protestant missionaries arrived in Tahiti to evangelise to the people of Oceania. In less than 30 years, all five of the archipelagos were converted to Christianity. Moorea’s Ha’apiti church is a great place to experience religion in this part of the world.
If you want a break from the beach, simply head inland. Travel through deep valleys, towering waterfalls and vast plantations and you'll discover lush island interiors. Jeep safaris and quad bike trips are an exciting way to explore. Booking a tour with a local, English-speaking driver is your key to decoding mystical Tahitian legends. Top spots are the royal village of Maeva on Huahine, Moorea’s magic mountain or 4WD tour to admire the breath-taking views of Haamene Bay on the island of Taha’a.
Both the endangered Green Turtle and the Hawksbill Turtle are found here and are protected. Both the Le Meridien Bora Bora hotel and the Intercontinental Moorea have turtle sancturies that shelter and rehabilitate these special creatures in protected lagoons, before being releasing them back into the wild.
The elegant, white flower ‘Tiare Tahiti’ or Gardenia taitensis is the country’s national emblem. Its supple stems, delicate shape and gentle aroma make it the nation’s choice for ‘hei’s (flower necklaces) and flower crowns, worn during festivals and used to greet visitors. It tends to grow mostly on the high islands like Tahiti, but is also found in the lower-lying islands in the Tuamotus.
“A flower behind the left ear means the person is single, behind the right, they are taken. But no matter who wears the flower or how, it’s the ornament of choice of the entire country”. Source: Polynesie.com
Credit: R. Sahuquet/Tahiti Tourism
Flower garlands are common throughout Polynesia and in Tahiti you may be welcomed with a ‘lei’ (sometimes ‘hei’ in Tahitian). These lovely floral necklaces are composed of orchids, frangipani and Tiare Tahiti flowers and should be treated with respect; simply cut the cord and release the flowers when you leave, never put them in a bin.
Few places in the world offer the variety of coloured beaches you’ll find throughout French Polynesia; white sands, black volcanic shores and most uniquely, serene, pink sand beaches. Head to the remote island of Tikehau or Fakarava’s ‘sables roses’ for undisturbed enjoyment.
There are numerous waterfalls all over this region, but Fautaua waterfall is one of the most breath-taking, and at 443 ft it’s the 28th highest waterfall in the world. It’s well worth the trek. Head inland from the beaches of Raiatea and you’ll discover mountainous jungles and three magical cascading waterfalls (known locally as les Trois Cascades).
Paddle through turquoise water in outrigger canoe, (known as a 'va’a' in Tahitian) and you might even spot a dolphin or two. A unique part of Polynesian culture; outrigger canoes were originally used for exploring and fishing. 2 major outrigger races take part here, one with a course around Huahine, Raiatea, Taha'a and Bora-Bora, and the 3-day Tahiti Nui Va'a race around Tahiti, held every 2 years.
Credit: Shigeo Kobayashi/Tahiti Tourism
Polynesian dances are a major tourist attraction for the luxury resorts. The aparima is a dance of gestures with hands describing a story, whilst the ote’a is characterised by abrupt moves and a quick rhythm.
Many lagoon tours (“safaris”) include the opportunity to stop and feed Manta Rays. Standing in waist high water, you’ll be able to enjoy the unique experience of getting up close to these magnificent creatures.
Credit: Le Meridien Bora Bora
The iconic Polynesian overwater bungalow originated here; truly the epitome of luxury, this is what honeymoon dreams are made of. Head to Bora Bora for the best examples and expect exclusive locations, breath-taking views and direct access to the lagoon from your doorstep!
Credit: Le Meridien Bora Bora
It would be remiss of us not to mention that some bungalows have a unique glass floor allowing you to gaze down at the clear waters teeming with tropical fish below. Le Meridien Bora Bora is one!
If all this has made you consider dipping your toes into French Polynesia, but you’re not sure where to start – just give us a call. Our experienced and knowledge South Pacific experts can arrange direct or multi-stop flights, stopovers, accommodation and trips to the main islands and to some of the wonderful and much less visited isles. Call us on +44 1273320580 or request a quote by email to start planning your dream trip to French Polynesia.