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 While the lingering hype is outdated, French Polynesia is still about as dreamy as reality gets.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. As you advance towards the first platform, you’ll first notice the reclining Tiki Maki Taua Pepe, representing a woman lying on her stomach, her head stretched out and arms pointing to the sky. Experts believe she represents a woman giving birth. The petroglyphs on the pedestal represent dogs but their meaning is unknown. Tiki Takaii, at 2.67m, is the largest ancient tiki in French Polynesia; it’s named after a warrior chief renowned for his strength. Tiki Te Tovae E Noho is to the left of Takaii, on a lower platform. Less finely worked than the others, its upper torso is hard to make out and the head has disappeared. Note that its hands each have six fingers. Further back stands Tiki Fau Poe. Measuring about 1.8m, it is sitting with its legs stretched out, a position typical of women when they work in the fields. Experts believe it to be Takaii’s wife. Tiki Manuiotaa is in complete contrast to the others: less massive, its proportions are harmonious and balanced. The hands are clearly recognisable, as is its female sex. It was decapitated, but its head has been replaced by archaeologists. Known to ethnologists and archaeologists in the 1800s, the Iipona site was extensively restored in 1991 by French archaeologists Pierre and Marie-Noëlle Garanger-Ottino. To reach the site from Puamau, follow the track directly back from the seafront, next to the football ground, and continue for about 1.5km. You will need to pay 300 CFP to the person who maintains and guards the site.
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. At the base of Cook’s Bay is the sleepy village of Paopao. The road inland from Paopao and Cook’s Bay is called Route des Ananas (Pineapple Road) and meets the Opunohu Valley road, just before the agricultural college. Note that only the first kilometres are asphalted – a 4WD is recommended.
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.
This is what many people visualise when imagining a Polynesian paradise: a string of motu and coral reefs has formed a natural pool on the edge of the main reef, a lagoon within a lagoon. You can walk knee-deep across a (mostly dead) coral seabed to visit a bird island and laze on incredibly photogenic spits of white-and-pink coral sands. This intimate paradise is reached only on lagoon-excursion boats from Avatoru, about an hour away.
A double crescent of dreamy beaches split by a narrow spit of white-and-pink coral sands, Les Sables Roses seems to come right out of central casting for tropical ideals. The turquoise water laps both sides of the sandy strip and there’s only one boat: yours. It’s perfect for relaxing, swimming and evening up your sunburn. It’s near the southernmost tip of the atoll, not far from Tetamanu, and is reached only on lagoon-excursion boats.
Magnificent Opunohu Bay feels wonderfully fresh and isolated. The coastal road rounds Mt Rotui, and at about PK14 turns inland along the eastern side of Opunohu Bay. There is less development along here than around Cook’s Bay, and it’s one of the more tranquil and eye-catching spots on the island. At PK18, a road turns off inland along the Opunohu Valley to the valley marae and the belvédère (lookout).
About 300m towards Taipivai from the Hikokua site, these three connecting sites make up the largest excavated archaeological area of Nuku Hiva. A team led by the archaeologist Pierre Ottino began restoration in 1998. The importance and sheer number of these structures testify to the dense population this valley once sheltered. With its large moss-covered basalt rocks and huge banyans, the largest of which has been estimated to be more than 600 years old, Kamuihei exudes mana (spiritual power). At the foot of the largest banyan is a deep pit, presumably dug for the remains of sacrifices or for taboo objects. Other pits are scattered about the site; these are mostly ua ma, which stocked the all-important breadfruit. A little higher, on Teiipoka, are two large rocks about 2.5m high by 3m wide and decorated with petroglyphs that represent turtles, fish and the eyes of a tiki, along with human figures. It’s estimated that the valley contains more than 500 other petroglyphs like these. On the other side of the track is the restored tohua Tahakia, one of the biggest in the Marquesas, as well as some pae pae.
A Pape'ete institution. If you see one site in town, make it this market, which fills an entire city block. Shop for colourful pareu (sarongs), shell necklaces, woven hats and local produce in the main hall. Dotted among the meat and fish sellers are lunchtime hawkers selling takeaway Ma’a Tahiti (traditional Tahitian food), fresh fruit juices and local ice cream. Grab an ice-cold coconut before strolling upstairs to peruse pearl shops or sit in the cafe sipping an espresso or smoothie. The most fun time to visit is early Sunday morning when local residents flock in as early as 4am.
A more scenic spot you’d be hard pressed to find. Here the lagoon is crystal clear and the bone-white beach is nearly all sand (no smashed coral or broken rock). This beach is a stunning place to sun yourself and the east side is deep enough for swimming. There are no facilities except two small beach restaurants. At sunset, the spot becomes downright romantic. From Tereia Beach it’s easy to wade across the lagoon to Motu Auira during low tide. Or you can walk along the coastline to the south and find a string of secluded coves past Tereia Varua point.