Sculpted by sky-piercing, moss-green peaks and lined with vivid turquoise lagoons, sultry French Polynesia is a place to take it slow and experience warm, laid-back island culture.
Tahiti: just the word conjures up centuries’ worth of images: hibiscus flowers; bronzed dancers in grass skirts; a humid breeze over turquoise sea. The islands of French Polynesia became legends the minute the first European explorers reached their home shores with tales of a heaven on earth where the soil was fertile, life was simple and lust was guilt-free. While the lingering hype is outdated, French Polynesia is still about as dreamy as reality gets. The lagoons are just as blue but there are freeways, more conservative values and nine-to-five jobs. It’s not the untainted paradise of explorer lore, but at least there’s an internet connection.
The slim stretches of white-, pink- and black-sand beaches in French Polynesia are really just pretty springboards into the real draw: the lagoons. Most high islands are surrounded by fringing reef that creates a protected swimming pool of the most intense aqua imaginable. Coral atolls have this same calibre of lagoon minus the big island in the middle. Fish, dolphins, rays, sharks, turtles and more inhabit these clear-water coral gardens that are as excellent for snorkelling as they are for diving and swimming. Surfers ride glassy wave faces at reef passes while kitesurfers fly across the water with the trade winds.
To Luxe or Not to Luxe
Over-the-top indulgence has become French Polynesia’s – or more specifically Bora Bora’s – signature, and often overshadows what the rest of the country has to offer. Resorts on the ‘Pearl of the Pacific’ are a honeymooner’s dream, with private overwater bungalows and spectacular views of the island’s iconic, square-topped peak. But if this isn’t your cup of coconut water, or not in your budget, don’t let that dissuade you from visiting French Polynesia. Small, family-run lodgings offer a closer-to-the-culture experience for considerably less financial output.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout French Polynesia.
Iipona is one of the best-preserved archaeological sites in French Polynesia. You’ll be moved by its eeriness and impressed by the five monumental tiki – it pulsates with mana.
Prior to European influence, Maeva village, about 7km east of Fare, was the seat of royal power on the island. It’s mostly famous for its concentration of pre-European archaeological sites, including a host of marae (traditional temples) scattered along the shoreline and also up the slopes of Matairea Hill.
This walk up Matairea Hill is a high point for anyone interested in archaeology. A signpost on the Fare side of Maeva, about 200m west from the Fare Potee, points to the start of the hiking trail. You’ll go past a fortification wall, which was built during the pre-European era, probably as protection against the warlike Bora Bora tribes, before reaching Marae Tefano, draped upon the hillside. There’s a massive banyan tree overwhelming one end of the ahu (altar).
Most islanders live in Tuherahera, in the southwest of the atoll. Find peace in this pretty village, bursting with uru (breadfruit), coconut trees, bougainvillea and hibiscus. Fancy a dip? Head to one of Tuherahera’s coral beaches. The best one lies east of the village, near the airstrip. The sand is wide and the waters are calm and translucent. Another beauty lies at the western tip of the village; this strip is lapped by a glassy turquoise channel and has pinkish sands.
The spectacular Cook’s Bay is something of a misnomer because Cook actually anchored in Opunohu Bay. With Mt Rotui as a backdrop, Cook’s Bay is a lovely stretch of water. There’s no real centre to Cook’s Bay; shops, restaurants and hotels are simply dotted along the road.
Most islanders live in Rotoava village at the northeastern end of the atoll, 4km east of the airport. Aside from Rangiroa’s Avatoru, this is the most developed and busiest town in the Tuamotus, but it’s still pretty quiet by most people’s standards. With only a few streets, a couple of churches and stores, a town hall and a school, it’s easy to explore.
South of the atoll, an hour by boat from Avatoru, Île aux Récifs is an area dotted with raised feo (coral outcrops), weathered shapes chiselled by erosion into petrified silhouettes on the exterior reef. They stretch for several hundred metres, with basins and channels that make superb natural swimming pools. There’s a good hoa (shallow channel) for swimming and a picturesque coconut grove by the beach. You'll need to take a boat tour from Avatoru to get to Île aux Récifs.
Very few visitors venture to this charmingly quiet village edging the eastern side of Tiputa Pass. Although it doesn't have tourist facilities (all accommodation options are on Avatoru), it's well worth the trip for its wonderfully relaxed atmosphere and to get a sense of atoll life; getting a boat across the Tiputa Pass adds to the whole experience. A track continues east from the the village through coconut plantations until it’s halted by the next hoa (shallow channel).
A bit of a local’s secret, Plage du PK9 is – you guessed it – 9km west of Rotoava (go past the airport and follow the dirt track towards the northern pass; at the PK9 marker, take the path to the left). It’s a thin, laid-back stretch of white coral sand backed by palms and lapped by sparkling turquoise waters. It’s equally good for sunning and swimming and there’s excellent snorkelling not far offshore. Bring plenty of water. Beware of falling coconuts.