With over 100 islands spread throughout five archipelagos, French Polynesia is as varied as it is exotic. Island hopping allows you to see every landscape, from geometric ridges strung with waterfalls on the high islands to flat, desert-like atolls where lagoons far outsize the landmass.
Getting around the islands requires flying on Air Tahiti, the country's only domestic airline. All the islands are small and require no more than a day or two to see the sights but add more if you want to melt into the pace of island life. The best time to visit is the cooler dry season months of May to October, which also fall outside the cyclone season.
Now, where to go? Here's the low down on what makes each island region special.
All international visitors arrive on Tahiti so your adventure will begin here. Home to the small yet busy capital of Papeete, over half of the country's population and few resorts, most visitors quickly depart for more far flung islands. It's worthwhile hanging around a day or two to explore Tahiti's many mountains and waterfall valleys such as Papenoo and Fautaua Valleys, on foot or by 4WD (try www.tahitievasion.com and www.tahiti-safari.com respectively).
In July, the Heiva festival takes over the island with fast percussion performances, elaborate traditional costumes, shaking hips and sport, dance and singing competitions. This is by far the most vibrant time to visit.
While Mo’orea is only a short flight or ferry ride from Tahiti, it's home to more of the things you expect on a tropical holiday: white beaches, luxe resorts and an intensely blue lagoon. It rivals Bora Bora for lush, high-peaked beauty but caters better to midrange travellers and families.
Rent some wheels to tour the island, making sure to go up through the Opunohu Valley, where many ancient Polynesian temples are hidden in Indiana Jones-worthy jungle. At the top of this valley is the Belvedere viewpoint which lets you look over unfathomably sharp cut ridges to the Cooks and Opunohu bays. These two deep bays can be visited on lagoon excursions with operators such as Moorea Boat Tours (www.mooreaboattours.com), which also head to fringing white sand islets for snorkelling, sunbathing and a picnic. A highlight is a thrilling stop at a shallow sandy area to feed and swim with reef sharks and stingrays.
This majestic, square peaked island rises from its aquamarine lagoon like a Photoshopped image of paradise. This is where you'll find those world famous overwater bungalows where glass coffee tables let you peer into the fish-filled waters below and nightly buffet feasts are served by fiery torch light.
Private, beach-laden islets encircle Bora Bora's spectacular lagoon. The most outlandishly luxurious resorts on these islets include the Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora and the St Regis Resort. If you want to see the island with a less shocking price tag the mainland hosts some small hotels and family-run pensions, including Sunset Hill Lodge (www.sunset-hill-borabora.biz).
While most of the island's lagoon has a sandy bottom, head out to the fringing reefs to sites such as Anau and Tapu and you'll be rewarded with dive sites renowned for lemon shark sightings and manta ray encounters.
Less tourist infrastructure, plenty of beaches and a picture perfect waterfront village make Huahine the best island for those looking for warm Polynesian bliss without the hype.
Beach bum on gorgeous Fare Beach, hike the Maeva archaeological site and its extensive collection of ancient stone temples or visit Huahine Nui Pearls & Pottery to see how Tahitian pearls are farmed. After a day or two you'll be waving to new friends on the road and blissfully unaware of what day of the week it is.
Ra'iatea & Taha'a
Known as the ‘Sacred’ and ‘Vanilla’ Islands respectively, Ra'iatea and Taha'a share a common lagoon but are otherwise quite different. Ra'iatea is home to the country's biggest and most important marae (ancient religious site), Taputapuatea, as well as to the rare Tiare Apetahi, a white flower that only grows on the slopes of Mt Temahani. To visit these sites you'll need to rent a car or take a tour (offered at all hotels and pensions).
Sleepy Taha'a is the vanilla capital of the country, but it also hosts a few elegant resorts on fringing islets that rival the glamour of Bora Bora. The most luxurious are Le Taha'a Private Island & Spa and Vahine Island Private Island Resort.
With land elevations reaching no more than a few metres, the ethereal rings of coral that make up the Tuamotu islands surround lagoons rich with corals, fish, sharks and rays. Rangiroa is the largest and most developed atoll and is known for its scuba diving through shark-filled passes. In the afternoons you can watch dolphins frolic in Tiputa Pass, the shores of which are an easy stroll or bike road from most hotels.
Nearby Fakarava's lagoon is Unesco Biosphere Reserve known for its reef sharks, manta rays, tuna and barracuda. Non-divers can explore the lagoon via boat excursions (available through all hotels and pensions) that take in a spectacular pink sand beach and the ‘Lagon Bleu’, an indescribably blue area of the lagoon lined by white sand beach.
Over the centuries these dramatic mountainous landscapes of the Marquesas have attracted and inspired the likes of Paul Gauguin, Herman Melville and Jack London. Hike huge and sparsely populated Nuku Hiva where treeless, wind battered cliffs lead to jungles of wild mango and rivers lined with the crumbling stone platforms of long-abandoned villages. Take a tour of the most impressive archaeological sites with Jocelyne Henua Enana Tours (www.marquisesvoyages.com).
Hiva Oa is where you'll find Gauguin's grave and a museum dedicated to the artist (who spent his last years here). You can also hop in a 4WD to discover petroglyphs hidden in tall grass and the country's most awe-inspiring tiki (carved humanlike statue). Vehicles and drivers are available at hotels and pensions.
This article was published in February 2013 and updated in April 2013.