Where to Go in French Polynesia

Papeete waterfront, Tahiti

Papeete waterfront, Tahiti

TAHITI: Tahiti is French Polynesia’s largest island. It’s the site of the territory’s only international airport, and anchor of the Society Islands chain. Papeete’s colorful morning market and stylish waterfront welcome you to Polynesia. Ships to the farthest islands depart from here, and outrigger racing canoes ply the harbor. The shops, restaurants, night markets, public buildings, parks, and colonial monuments of Papeete will keep you busy for a day at least. Then take a ride around Tahiti for the diverse scenery, beaches, historical relics, and museums—the Gauguin Museum and the Museum of Tahiti and the Islands are obligatory stops. For the more adventurous there are jeep safaris across the center of the island via the Relais de la Maroto, and the intrepid can climb to French Polynesia’s second highest peak Aorai.

MOOREA: Travelers should not pass up the opportunity to experience the high-speed catamaran ferry to Tahiti’s near neighbor, Moorea. The island’s stunning Opunohu Valley, replete with splendid mountain scenery, lush vegetation, and fascinating archaeological sites, should be at the top of everyone’s list. Moorea is a favorite of beach lovers, aquatic enthusiasts, and hikers, and it offers the best selection of accommodations of any island in French Polynesia. At Hauru you can snorkel with huge manta rays or join the legendary Dr. Poole on a quest for wild spinner dolphins. A half dozen scuba operators are based on Moorea, and snorkeling, parasailing, deep-sea fishing, surfing, sailing, and horseback riding are all on hand. It’s French Polynesia’s best-equipped resort island and the place where your travel dollars will go the furthest.

THE LEEWARD ISLANDS: Most of French Polynesia’s other famous destinations are in the Leeward Islands. The enchanting island of Huahine has the greatest concentration of old Polynesian marae (temples) in French Polynesia. It’s Moorea without the crowds, and Huahine’s little port town of Fare is among the most picturesque in the territory. Neighboring Raiatea and Taha’a are where the locals live–places to get off the beaten track. French Polynesia’s most important yacht harbor is on Raiatea. The natural wonders of Bora Bora have been applauded many times. This chic resort with a sheer volcanic plug plunging from its heart is surrounded by a brilliant lagoon. In the past decade tourism has proliferated on Bora Bora and some of French Polynesia’s finest hotels are there. To see a comparable isle still untouched by high-powered Hilton and InterContinental developments one must travel farther west to Maupiti.

THE AUSTRAL ISLANDS: Few travelers visit the remote Austral Islands to the south of Tahiti. It’s noticeably cooler in the Australs, and getting around by air can be expensive. Those who do make it this far can enjoy some excellent hiking on scenic Rurutu and wonderful swimming and snorkeling in the broad Tubuai lagoon. Raivavae is a mystery island far off the beaten track whose massive stone tikis are remarkably similar to those of the distant Marquesas Islands. Whale-watching, from July to October, is offered at Rurutu. Remote little Rapa is the southernmost island in the South Pacific, accessible only by boat. Cruise ships call at Rapa occasionally to visit the ancient Polynesian fortress on the crater rim.

THE TUAMOTU AND GAMBIER ISLANDS: The second most visited island chain of French Polynesia is the Tuamotu Islands, where Rangiroa, Tikehau, Manihi, and Fakarava all bear shiny resort hotels. Polynesia’s most spectacular atoll may be Rangiroa, where the Avatoru and Tiputa passes are world-renowned for tidal-drift diving. The marinelife here is outstanding, although it’s even better at lesser known Fakarava. The other 74 Tuamotu atolls are largely undeveloped, although many have regular air service and family-operated pensions. The Tuamotus are mostly for the scuba diver or ardent beachcomber, and sightseeing possibilities above the waterline are limited. Although the atolls look romantic in the pictures, the non-diver might find the daily sameness dull. Most of French Polynesia’s black pearl farms are in the Tuamotus. The far-removed Gambier Islands are best known for the massive churches and crumbling buildings erected under the orders of a fanatical Catholic priest in the 1830s.

THE MARQUESAS ISLANDS: The remote Marquesas Islands group has much to offer, but high travel costs discourage most potential visitors. The passenger-carrying freighter Aranui cruises the Marquesas 15 times a year–the easiest way to go. Islands such as Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa harbor many archaeological and scenic wonders seldom forgotten by those who make it that far, plus a reasonable choice of accommodations. Taiohae on Nuku Hiva is the capital of the Marquesas, and many huge Polynesian stone tikis are located just across the island. The impressionist painter Paul Gauguin and the French chanson singer Jacques Brel both lived and died at Atuona on Hiva Oa. Ua Pou, Ua Huka, Tahuata, and Fatu Hiva are true islands of adventure, each with its own individual character and charms.