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Tahiti & French Polynesia

Getting around

Getting around French Polynesia is half the fun. Travelling between islands involves flights or boat travel and, thanks to French government financial support, travel to the larger and more densely populated islands is relatively easy and reasonably priced, though getting to the remote islands can be harder.

Getting around French Polynesia is half the fun. There are regular and affordable connections between the larger islands by boat (wonderfully languorous) and aeroplane (dramatic and scenic). Getting to the remote islands can be time-consuming and difficult, but never boring.

On some islands there are paved roads, le truck (bus) services and myriad car-rental companies; on others there are rough dirt tracks and public transport is unheard of. Generally, your best bet is to rent a car or, even better, a bicycle and be controller of your own destiny.

Boat

Boat travel within the Society group is a delight. A number of companies shuttle back and forth between Tahiti and Mo'orea each day; other routes between the islands are less frequent but served at least twice a week.

In the other archipelagos travel by boat is more difficult. If you are short on time and keen to travel beyond the Society Islands you may need to consider flying at least some of the way.

Cargo ships, also known as goélettes or schooners, are principally involved in freight transport. They take passengers, however, and for those who want to get off the beaten trail such a voyage can, depending on the circumstances, be anything from a memorable experience to an outright nightmare. The level of comfort is rudimentary: some ships don't have passenger cabins and you have to travel 'deck class', providing your own bedding to unroll on the deck and all your own meals. You will get wet and cold. And then there's seasickness…

A notice posted at Chez Guynette in Huahine sums up the cargo-ship schedules: 'The boats arrive when they are here and leave when they are ready.'

Boat

It's no problem getting from one island to another in the Society group. Between Tahiti and Mo'orea, a number of companies shuttle back and forth daily; the other islands are served at least twice a week.

In the other archipelagos the situation is much more difficult as there are no passenger ships; if time is limited it's best you fly.

You can generally catch a ride on one of the cargo ships, known as goélettes (schooners), that transport goods between islands. Island hopping by cargo ship is likely to be memorable, to say the least. You mostly have to travel deck class and provide your own bedding, which you simply unroll on the deck. You're likely to get wet and cold, and possibly seasick. Plus, the ships run to uncertain schedules. But then again, if you wanted to get off the beaten track, you were looking for adventure anyway!

Bonitiers do many of the runs around islands or to nearby islands in the Tuamotus and the Marquesas.

Cruise ship

At the other end of the spectrum from rudimentary cargo ships are luxury cruise ships operating in the Society Islands. These vessels are incredibly stylish and comfortable and offer shore excursions at each stop.

Managed by Bora Bora Pearl Cruises (43 43 03; www.boraborapearlcruises.com), the Haumana is a magnificent 36m catamaran that accommodates up to 60 people and does three- or four-day cruises between Bora Bora, Ra'iatea, and Taha'a. The Tia Moana and the Tu Moana, both also managed by Bora Bora Pearl Cruises, offer seven-day cruises in the Society Islands.

You may see the enormous Paul Gauguin, a 320-passenger ship, anchored in Pape'ete. It departs Pape'ete every week for a one-week cruise that includes Ra'iatea, Taha'a, Bora Bora and Mo'orea. Contact Tahiti Nui Travel (54 02 00; www.tahitinui travel.pf) for information.

Ferry & cargo ship

It takes between half an hour and an hour to travel between Tahiti and Mo'orea, depending on which company you go with. The car ferries, such as those run by Mo'orea Ferry, are slower than the high-speed ferries, which take only passengers, motorcycles and bicycles. The Ono-Ono (Pape'ete 45 35 35; 1 way/return 1050/2200 CFP) has at least four crossings daily and docks at Cook's Bay rather than Vaiare, which is handy if you are staying nearby.

The Maupiti Express (Bora Bora 67 66 69; 1 way/return 2500/3500 CFP) runs a high-speed service between Bora Bora, Taha'a, Ra'iatea and Maupiti.

Vaeanu (41 25 35) operates the Pape'ete-Huahine-Ra'iatea-Taha'a-Bora Bora return trip, leaving Pape'ete on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 5pm (the Wednesday trip does not stop at Taha'a). It sets out from Bora Bora on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. The Huahine and Ra'iatea arrivals are in the middle of the night (most guesthouse owners will not pick you up). Reservations are advisable. The office is at Motu Uta, near the Aranui office. Take le truck 3 from the mairie.

Hawaiki Nui(45 23 24) also travels the Society Islands circuit, and has two departures a week (Tuesday and Thursday at 4pm; per person deck/cabin 2000/5500 CFP); Aremiti 3 (74 39 40) sails from Pape'ete on Monday and Friday for Huahine (one-way adult/child 4500/2500 CFP) and Ra'iatea (one-way adult/child 6500/3000 CFP). Tickets can be bought at the quay in Pape'ete.

The small cargo ship Maupiti Tou Ai'a (50 66 71) goes to Maupiti from Pape'ete once a week, with an occasional stop at Ra'iatea and Mopelia. The ship leaves on Wednesday evening, arrives at Maupiti the following morning, and returns to Pape'ete on Friday. The one-way fare is 2500 CFP.

About 10 ships operate through the Tuamotus; routes and fares vary, so it's best to check with the offices for the individual ships. They include the Dory (42 30 55), Cobia I (43 36 43), Rairoa Nui (48 35 78), Saint-Xavier Maris-Stella (42 23 58), Nuku Hau (45 23 24), Mareva Nui (42 25 53), Vai-Aito (43 99 96) and the Kura Ora (45 55 45).

The Aranui (42 62 40; www.aranui.com) and the Taporo IV (42 63 93) go to the Marquesas, stopping in the Tuamotus en route. The Aranui, a veritable institution in French Polynesia, does 16 trips a year. The Taporo IV runs every 15 days.

Services to the Australs are limited; the Tuhaa Pae II (50 96 09/06; snathp@mail.pf) goes three times a month, stopping at Rurutu and Tubuai on every trip and other islands less regularly. From Pape'ete to Rurutu, Rimatara or Tubuai costs 4046/5664/7789 CFP for deck/berth/air-con cabin; to Raivavae costs 5832/8164/11, 226 CFP. Add another 2800 CFP per day for three meals a day.

All the ships listed as going to the Tuamotus, bar the Dory, go to the Gambier Archipelago. The Nuku Hau (45 23 24) sails to the Gambier Archipelago via the Tuamotus (7900 CFP per person deck class, plus 1950 CFP for three meals a day). The Taporo V (42 63 93) sails through the eastern Tuamotus and the Gambier Archipelago once or twice a month.

Yacht

French Polynesia is an enormously popular yachting destination.

Cruise ship

At the other end of the spectrum from rudimentary cargo ships are the luxury cruise ships that operate in the Society Islands. These ships are incredibly stylish and comfortable, and offer shore excursions at each stop - this is a long way from the leaky copra boats of traditional inter-island travel.

Managed by Bora Bora Pearl Cruises (43 43 03; www.boraborapearlcruises.com), the Haumana is a magnificent 36m catamaran that accommodates up to 60 people and does three- or four-day cruises between Bora Bora, Ra'iatea and Taha'a. The Tia Moana and Tu Moana, both also managed by Bora Bora cruises, offer seven-day cruises in the Society Islands.

You may see the enormous Paul Gauguin, a 320-passenger ship, anchored in Pape'ete. It departs Pape'ete every week for a one-week cruise that includes Ra'iatea, Taha'a, Bora Bora and Mo'orea. Contact Tahiti Nui Travel (54 02 00; www.tahitinuitravel.com) for information.

The society islands

It takes between half an hour and an hour to travel between Tahiti and Mo'orea, depending on which company you go with. The car ferries, such as those run by Moorea Ferry, are slower than the high-speed ferries, which take only passengers, motorcycles and bicycles. The Aremiti 5 (Pape'ete 42 88 88 in Mo'orea 56 31 10) and the Moorea Express 82 47 47 (in Pape'ete; in Mo'orea 56 43 43) jet between Tahiti and Mo'orea six or more times daily between 6am and 4.30pm. The trip takes about 30 minutes; fares are 900 CFP. You can buy tickets at the ticket counter on the quay just a few minutes before departure.

Vaeanu (41 25 35) operates the Pape'ete-Huahine-Ra'iatea-Taha'a-Bora Bora round trip, leaving Pape'ete on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 5pm (the Wednesday trip does not stop at Taha'a). It sets out from Bora Bora on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. The Huahine and Ra'iatea arrivals are in the middle of the night (most guesthouse owners will not pick you up). Reservations are advisable. The office is at the Motu Uta port area in Pape'ete, near the Aranui office; take le truck No 3 from the mairie (town hall).

Hawaiki Nui(45 23 24) also travels the Society Islands circuit and has two departures a week (Tuesday and Thursday at 4pm; deck/cabin per person 2000/5500 CFP). Aremiti 3 (74 39 40) sails from Pape'ete on Monday and Friday for Huahine (one way adult/child 4500/2500 CFP) and Ra'iatea (one way adult/child 6500/3000 CFP). Get tickets at the quay in Pape'ete.

The Maupiti Express (67 66 69) makes regular trips between Bora Bora and Maupiti (one way 2500 CFP) and Taha'a and Ra'iatea (one way 2500 CFP). The boat departs the Vaitape quay in Bora Bora for Maupiti at 8.30am on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday; the return trip leaves Maupiti at 4pm on the same day. Tickets can be purchased at the quay.

The small cargo ship Maupiti Tou Ai'a (50 66 71) goes to Maupiti from Pape'ete once a week, with an occasional stop at Ra'iatea and Mopelia. The ship leaves on Wednesday evening, arriving at Maupiti the following morning and returning to Pape'ete on Friday. The one-way fare is 2500 CFP.

The tuamotus

The small cargo vessels that serve the Tuamotus, goélettes, are true lifelines between Tahiti and the atolls of the archipelago. They take passengers but their main purpose is to transport freight and the standard of comfort is generally basic.

The routes and fares mentioned here are purely an indication and are subject to change. It's best to check with the shipowners in the Motu Uta port area in Pape'ete (take le truck No 3 from the mairie). The offices are generally open from Monday to Friday 7.30am to 11am and from 1.30pm to 5pm. Some offices also open on Saturday morning.

The Dory (42 30 55; office 7.30am-noon & 1.30-4.30pm Mon-Thu) runs Pape'ete-Tikehau- Rangiroa-Ahe-Manihi-Apataki-Arutua- Kaukura-Pape'ete, departing Pape'ete on Monday and returning on Friday. There's deck and berth accommodation available, but no meals for passengers, so you must buy food at each stop. A single trip costs around 4000/5500 CFP deck/cabin class (children travel half-price).

The Corbia(43 36 43; office 7.30am-3.30pm Mon-Fri, 8-11am Sat) travels Pape'ete-Kaukura-Arutua-Apataki-Aratika-Toau-Pape'ete once a week; there are no cabins and no meals are served. The fare is about 3150 CFP.

Rairoa Nui (48 35 78; fax 48 22 86) runs the Pape'ete-Rangiroa-Arutua-Apataki-Kaukura-Pape'ete loop once a week. There are no cabins and no meals are available; the cost is around 3000 CFP.

The Saint-Xavier Maris-Stella (42 23 58; office 7.30-11am & 1.30-4pm Mon-Fri) travels a circuit from Pape'ete every 15 days, taking in Mataiva, Tikehau, Rangiroa, Ahe, Manihi, Takaroa, Takapoto, Arutua, Apataki, Kaukura, Toau, Fakarava, Kauehi, Raraka and Niau. Departing from Pape'ete, allow 5500 CFP to Rangiroa, 6500 CFP to Manihi and 8000 CFP to Fakarava. Prices are for deck class, but meals are included.

The Nuku Hau (45 23 24; office 7.30am-4pm Mon-Fri) travels Pape'ete-Hao-Nego Nego-Tureia-Vanavana-Marutea-Rikitea-Tematangi-Aruanuraro-Nukitepipi- Hereheretue-Pape'ete every 25 days. It costs around 8000 CFP on the deck; it's an extra 2000 CFP per person per day for meals.

The Mareva Nui (42 25 53; office 7.30-11.30am & 1.30-5pm Mon-Thu) runs a circuit from Pape'ete taking in Makatea, Mataiva, Tikehau, Rangiroa, Ahe, Manihi, Takaroa, Takapoto, Raraka, Kauehi, Aratika, Taiaro, Fakarava, Arutua, Apataki, Niau, Toau and Kaukura. Fares vary from 3000 to 6000 CFP for a part-journey (add 2500 CFP per person per day for meals) on deck and from 4000 to 8500 CFP in a sleeper; the complete trip takes eight days.

The Vai-Aito (43 99 96; office 8am-4pm Mon-Fri) travels along a Pape'ete-Tikehau- Rangiroa-Ahe-Manihi-Aratika-Kauehi-Toau-Fakarava-Pape'ete trip two to three times a month. From Pape'ete it's 5500 CFP to Rangiroa, 8500 CFP to Manihi and 19, 000 CFP to Fakarava on deck, meals included; the trip takes seven to eight days.

The Kura Ora II and Kura Ora III (45 55 45; office 7.30am-3pm Mon-Thu) do a trip every 15 days to the remote atolls of the central and eastern Tuamotus, including Anaa, Hao and Makemo. Deck-class prices cost from around 6000 CFP, depending on the distance travelled, plus around 2300 CFP per person per day for meals. The complete trip takes about three weeks.

The Hotu Maru, Taporo V and Taporo VI also visit the Tuamotus. The Taporo VI and Aranui serve certain atolls in the Tuamotus en route to the Marquesas, as does the Nuku Hau on its way to the Gambier Archipelago.

The marquesas

The Aranui and the Taporo VI both go to the Marquesas. The Aranui (42 62 40; www.aranui.com) is a veritable institution, taking freight and passengers on 16 trips a year from Pape'ete. The Taporo VI (42 63 93; fax 42 06 17) takes a maximum of 12 passengers on its 10-day trip around the Marquesas; the boat runs every 15 days. The shipowner, Compagnie Française Maritime de Tahiti (43 89 66), has its office at Fare Ute, just before the entrance to Pape'ete's Motu Uta port area.

The australs

Services between the Society Islands and the Australs are limited, so make sure you plan ahead.

The 60m Tuhaa Pae II leaves Pape'ete for the Australs three times a month. It stops at Rurutu and Tubuai on every trip, Rimatara and Raivavae twice a month, Rapa once every two months and Maria Island in the Gambiers very occasionally.

You can choose between deck class, berths and air-con cabins. From Pape'ete to Rurutu, Rimatara or Tubuai a deck/berth/air-con cabin costs 4500/6000/8000 CFP; to Raivavae it costs 6000/8500/12, 000 CFP. Three meals add another 3000 CFP per day. The Tuhaa Pae II office (50 96 09, 50 96 06; snathp@mail.pf) is in Pape'ete's Motu Uta, between the Kura Ora and Mareva Nui offices.

The gambier archipelago

Every three weeks, the Nuku Hau does a 15-day circuit to Rikitea on Mangareva in the Gambier Archipelago via several remote atolls in the eastern Tuamotus. One-way places on the deck cost 8000 CFP, plus 2000 CFP per day for meals. The Nuku Hau office (45 23 24) is in Pape'ete's Motu Uta port area, close to the warehouses of the other ship operators.

Once or twice a month the Taporo V does a 16-day trip through the eastern Tuamotus and the Gambier Archipelago. One-way places on the deck to Rikitea cost around 33, 500 CFP, meals included. The Taporo V office (42 63 93) is at Fare Ute, in the same building as the Taporo VI office.

Tuhaa Pae II occasionally stops at Maria Island.

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Hitching

Hitching (auto-stop in French) is a widely accepted - and generally safe - way of getting around the islands in French Polynesia, and you'll see locals and travellers alike standing with their thumbs out on the roadside. Of course, hitching is never entirely safe, but if you're going to hitch, French Polynesia is an easy place to start - usually you'll never have to wait more than 15 or 20 minutes for a ride, plus you'll get a chance to meet some interesting folks. Of course, always take the necessary precautions and use your judgement before jumping into a car; drunk drivers are probably your biggest problem.

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Car & motorcycle

Car & scooter

If you want to explore the larger islands of the Society group at your own pace, it is well worth renting a car.

Hire

There are many different car-hire agencies on the more touristy islands, but the prices really don't vary much. For a small car expect to pay between 7500 CFP and 10,000 CFP per day including unlimited kilometres and insurance. Most places also rent vehicles for four- and eight- hour periods at reduced rates. If you only plan to hire a car for one day, eight hours is more than enough time to check out even the largest islands.

At certain times of year (July, August and New Year's Eve), it's wise to book vehicles a few days in advance; on the smaller islands it's best to always book ahead as the number of cars are limited. You'll need a credit card, of course.

On Tahiti you will find the major international car-hire agencies such as Avis, Budget, Europcar and Hertz. On other islands such as Mo'orea, Huahine, Ra'iatea and Bora Bora, as well as on Rangiroa in the Tuamotus, the market is divided up between Avis and Europcar. Smaller local agencies exist on some islands, but the rates are almost as high.

You can hire a car on Rurutu in the Australs, but on the Marquesas, rental vehicles are mainly 4WDs complete with a driver. Rental without a driver is possible only on Atuona (Hiva Oa) and Taiohae (Nuku Hiva).

Avis and Europcar hire scooters on a number of islands. It's a good way of getting around the small islands, but bear in mind you won't be wearing protective gear, so this is probably not the place to learn to drive a scooter. You'll pay around 6500 CFP a day. After numerous accidents there are no scooters for hire on Tahiti.

Car & scooter

If you want to explore the larger islands of the Society group at your own pace, it may be worth renting a car or scooter, particularly given the price of taxis and the dismal state of public transport outside Pape'ete.

Hire

There are many different car-rental agencies on the more touristy islands, but the prices really don't vary much: compared with rental costs in the rest of the world, prices are high. For a small car expect to pay from 2000 CFP a day, plus 40 CFP per kilometre and 1400 CFP a day for a collision-damage waiver - and that's not even including petrol! A daily rate with unlimited mileage will probably work out cheaper (from around 10, 000 CFP a day, including insurance). Rates drop slightly from the third day onwards.

Fortunately, the cars available are pretty economical and you won't cover too many kilometres, no matter how hard you try. Off-road excursions into the interior are usually off limits to anything other than a 4WD.

Most places offer four-, eight- and 24-hour rates, as well as two- and three-day rentals. At certain times of the year (July, August and New Year's Eve) it's wise to book vehicles a few days in advance. You'll need a credit card, of course.

On Tahiti you will find the major international car-rental agencies such as Avis, Budget, Europcar and Hertz. On other islands such as Mo'orea, Huahine, Ra'iatea and Bora Bora, as well as on Rangiroa in the Tuamotus, the market is divided up between Avis and Europcar. Smaller local agencies exist on some islands, but the rates are almost as high.

You can hire a car on Rurutu in the Australs, but on the Marquesas rental vehicles are mainly 4WDs with a driver. Rental without a driver is possible only on Atuona (Hiva Oa) and Taiohae (Nuku Hiva).

Avis and Europcar rent scooters on a number of islands. It's a good way of getting around the small islands, but bear in mind you won't be wearing protective gear, so this is probably not the place to learn to ride a scooter. You'll pay around 6500 CFP a day. After numerous accidents there are no rental scooters on Tahiti.

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Bus & tram

Bus

French Polynesia doesn't have much of a public transportation system, and Tahiti is the only island where public transport is even an option. The colourful, old le trucks (trucks with bench seats in the back for passengers) have been almost entirely replaced now by a less personable, but more modern fleet of proper air-con buses. Buses stop at designated spots (marked with a blue clock) and supposedly run on a schedule - although times are hardly regular.

Bus

French Polynesia doesn't have much of a public transportation system; Tahiti is the only island where public transport is even an option. The colourful, old le trucks (trucks with bench seats in the back for passengers) have now been almost entirely replaced by a more modern fleet of air-con buses. Buses stop at designated spots (marked with a blue sign) and supposedly run on a schedule - although times are hardly regular. Although there are official le truck stops, complete with blue signs, they are rather difficult to spot, and le trucks will generally stop anywhere sensible for anybody who hails them. Note that you pay at the end of your trip and that for many routes there is a set fare, irrespective of distance.

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Air

There are some (expensive) charter operators with small aircraft and helicopters, but essentially flying within French Polynesia means Air Tahiti (86 42 42; www.airtahiti.pf) and its associate Air Moorea (86 41 41; www.airmoorea.com). Air Tahiti flies to 38 islands in all five of the major island groups. Window seats on its modern fleet of high-wing turboprop aircraft offer great views, but for the nervous flyer these flights can be rather hair-raising. Air Moorea is the secondary airline, operating smaller aircraft between Tahiti and Mo'orea and Tetiaroa. Note that Pape'ete is very much the hub for flights within French Polynesia and, with only a few exceptions, you'll generally have to pass through Pape'ete between island groups.

Flight frequencies ebb and flow with the seasons, and extra flights are scheduled in the July-August peak season. Air Tahiti publishes a useful flight schedule booklet, which is essential reading for anyone planning a complex trip around the islands. If you are making reservations from afar, you can email or call; see the individual island chapters for Air Tahiti's island-specific phone numbers. You can pay for flights by credit card at all Air Tahiti offices or agencies.

Note that Air Tahiti and Air Tahiti Nui are different airlines: Air Tahiti Nui is the international carrier, while Air Tahiti operates domestic flights only.

Air

With the exception of a few charter operations, flying within French Polynesia means Air Tahiti (86 42 42; www.airtahiti.pf) and its associate, Air Moorea (86 41 41; www.airmoorea.com). Air Tahiti flies to 38 islands in all five of the major island groups. Window seats on its modern fleet of high-wing turboprop aircraft offer great views, but for the nervous flyer these flights can be rather hair-raising. Air Moorea is the secondary airline, operating smaller aircraft between Tahiti and Mo'orea and Tetiaroa.

Flight frequencies ebb and flow with the seasons, and in the July-August peak season, extra flights are scheduled. Air Tahiti publishes a useful flight schedule booklet, which is essential reading for anyone planning a complex trip around the islands. You can pay for flights by credit card at all Air Tahiti offices or agencies.

Note that Air Tahiti and Air Tahiti Nui are different airlines; Air Tahiti Nui is the international carrier, while Air Tahiti operates domestic flights only.

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Bicycle

Cycling around the islands of French Polynesia is a sheer pleasure. The distances are rarely great, the traffic is rarely heavy (except in Tahiti) and the roads are rarely hilly. Bikes can be rented on many of the islands for about 1500 CFP a day, but you may find yourself riding an antique. Consider bringing your own bike if you are a really keen cyclist. Bicycles are accepted on all the inter-island boats.

Bicycle

French Polynesia is an ideal region to explore by bike. Distances are manageable, the coast roads are generally flat, traffic is light (outside Pape'ete) and you can travel at your own pace. You can ride around many of the islands in a morning or afternoon. Bicycles can often be rented for about 1500 CFP per day, and many guesthouses have bicycles for their guests, sometimes for free, though you might be riding an old rattler. A mountain bike is ideal for some of the rougher roads and it's even worth bringing your trusty steed with you; they're accepted on all the inter-island ships.

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