By Terry Ward
May 16, 2022
WHEN MOST PEOPLE THINK OF the French Polynesia islands, it’s probably honeymoon favorite Bora Bora and its overwater bungalows with some of the best views on Earth that spring to mind. But French Polynesia — a seaborne territory made up of 118 islands and atolls that belongs to France and covers an area of water roughly the size of all of western Europe — encompasses so, so much more.
From the far-flung islands of the Marquesas, with their rich cultural heritage and tattoo lore, to world-renowned surf breaks on the island of Tahiti and legendary scuba diving alongside walls of sharks in the Tuamotu Archipelago, read on for some of the best islands in French Polynesia you might not have had on your radar.
The largest atoll in the French Polynesia islands and the second-largest atoll in the world, Rangiroa looks like a donut tossed across the ocean as you come in for a landing from Papeete in Tahiti, a full hour’s flight (on Air Tahiti) away. Most of the hotels here are near the tiny, thatched-roof airport where you land, with Mai Tai Rangiroa and Hotel Kia Ora Resort & Spa among the favorites for oceanfront villas and even overwater bungalows at the latter. Scuba divers don’t miss filling their tanks to dive Tiputa pass with Rangiroa Diving Center, where even snorkelers can get in the water with the resident dolphins that make frequent passes on the ocean side of the atoll.
For the perfect day trip, head out with family-owned Tereva Tana e Vahine. After the hour-long boat trip across the lagoon’s interior, you’ll arrive at Blue Lagoon, a placid and protected oasis where baby sharks frolic and you can enjoy a seafood lunch on the sand before snorkeling with larger reef sharks and lemon sharks (if you dare). Looking for a pearl souvenir? Take a tour at Rangiroa’s famous Gaugin’s Pearl Farm, then save money on some black beauties to take home by stopping at the small shack called Pearly right across from Mai Tai Rangiroa.
You’re really off the beaten path in the Tuamotus when you stay on the gorgeous atoll of Tikehau, where a rustic spin on an overwater bungalow stay awaits at Le Tikehau by Pearl Resorts, situated on its own private motu (islet). Just a short boat ride from the resort, you can head out snorkeling with Tikehau Diving at a location known as a “cleaning station” for mantas, where the winged giants regularly arrive to get their gills detailed by smaller fish (who in turn get a fear-free feed).
For a day trip with a local that’s a real learning experience about ocean life in the Tuamotus, head out on a private boat tour with Tikehau Ocean Tour. Owner Denis Grosmaire is an accomplished free diver and will spear-fish for your lunch (and show you the ropes if you want to try) after a trip to L’île aux Oiseaux — a fascinating little island in the lagoon full of nesting boobies, frigates, and terns. Tikehau is best tacked on with an itinerary that takes in Rangiroa, too, just a 20-minute flight away (Papeete is roughly 55 minutes by air from Tikehau).
It’s just a half-hour catamaran ferry ride from bustling Papeete —Tahiti’s main city, where you first land in the French Polynesia islands — to the island of Moorea, right across the channel. As the boat pulls in to dock, Moorea’s jagged peaks carpeted in shades of emerald rise sharply from the shoreline and beckon for adventure. Follow scenic driving routes through the middle of the island that thread through pineapple fields to the incredible lookout at Belvedere, where you can bask in bewildering views of Mt. Totui, Opunohu Bay, and Cook’s Bay. Or follow the coastal route to hit the hidden beach of Tipaniers, down a sandy path in Moorea’s northeast corner. Just a few minutes down the road from there, Moorea Island Beach Hotel has comfortable bungalows lining a beach with vibrant corals and complimentary kayaks you can use to explore.
For the chance to see migrating humpback whales and their babies just offshore from Moorea, plan to visit between July and early November, when Tahitian-owned outfitters like Enjoy Boat Tours Moorea can put you in the water alongside the behemoths for the eye-to-eye encounter of your life.
Tahiti, the largest of the French Polynesia islands, is where you first land on most international arriving flights. And tourists who only use Tahiti as a jumping off point for heading elsewhere in French Polynesia miss out on some serious natural beauty and true Tahitian hospitality. Book a room with views of Moorea at the Hilton Hotel Tahiti, newly opened in 2021 just a few minutes from the airport. Then get your bearings by walking around bustling Papeete and its central market (where everything from flopping fresh tuna to black pearls from the Tuamotus and handprinted pareos are sold) before renting a car to explore the rest of the island.
Keen surfers — and those who just like to watch monster waves ridden by the pros (including many a Tahitian surfer raised on these killer island breaks) — beeline it to the southwest coast and Teahupo’o, a small village where one of the heaviest waves in the world barrels near a channel just offshore. For more leisurely explorations, take your time road tripping along the Monoï Road, which rings the island and is named after Tahiti’s famed infused coconut oil, to visit tiare (flower) plantations, perfumeries, and other iconic spots.
5. Bora Bora
It’s impossible to mention islands in French Polynesia without talking about Bora Bora, also in the Society Islands and a 50-minute flight from Papeete. Its name alone conjures swaying palms, calm lagoons and, of course, canoodling couples who flock for romance to the ubiquitous overwater bungalows. Competition in the romance category is stiff in these paradise-made-reality parts, but one of the finest places to sleep in Bora Bora with the water lapping the stilt structure beneath your bed is The St. Regis Bora Bora Resort, with its famed waterfront restaurant Lagoon by Jean Georges. A new bar, 727, is set to open at the hotel in Spring 2022 with swoon-worthy Mount Otemanu views.
For something out of the box in Bora Bora, drag yourself from your resort beach to explore the lagoon and surrounds by traditional Polynesian pirogue during land and sea outings with Bora Bora Cultural Lagoon Tour. You’ll visit the owner’s family motu and learn about medicinal plants, too. And it wouldn’t be a trip to Bora Bora if you didn’t get in the water to snorkel with blacktip reef sharks and rays, an activity that can easily be worked into any lagoon itinerary.
The second-largest atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago, Fakarava reveals itself in layers, making it more interesting with every return visit as you peel another aspect of the atoll back. Most tourists come here with scuba diving the famous south pass, Tetamanu, at the top of their wish list. The reward? A wall of hundreds of grey reef sharks patrolling the entrance to the atoll lagoon as soon as you enter the water. But the atoll’s north pass, Garue, is less visited and just as exciting for an underwater adventure with an outfitter like O2 Fakarava, which also makes regular trips to the south pass. It’s common to see huge Napoleon wrasse in addition to scores of sharks at both sites, and most other places around Fakarava, for that matter.
For an interesting education on land, local Enoha Pater can teach you all about the medicinal plants growing here and leads low-tide walks on the ocean side of the atoll at night, where you’ll discover creatures you’d never spot snorkeling during the day. To stay in a sweet little bungalow right on the beach surrounded by flowering hibiscus and frangipani, you can’t go wrong booking in at Havaiki Lodge, which also has an onsite black pearl farm and resident nurse sharks that frequent its pier.
One of French Polynesia’s Society Islands (along with Tahiti and Moorea), Huahine is considered more off-the-beaten path and requires a 40-minute flight from Papeete to reach. Come for an Eden-like ambiance of gardens bursting with hibiscus and bougainvillea, fields of vanilla and bananas, and atmospheric villages where traditional Tahitian hospitality prevails (get ready to hear the local greeting, “Ia Orana!,” absolutely everywhere you go).
Hotel Le Mahana is an idyllic place to stay along the island’s south coast, with thatched-roof bungalows fronting a white-sand beach. Make a pilgrimage to see Huahine’s sacred blue-eyed freshwater eels and try your hand at feeding them mackerel snacks. And if you do just one thing on land here, visit Maeva village to see two important cultural sites — the Marae of Maeva and The Fare Pōte’e Maeva Huahine — where you can delve into the significance of Polynesian ceremonial activities.
Yachties love Raiatea, another Society Island that’s a 45-minute flight from Papeete, for its deepwater bays and bountiful beautiful and safe anchorages. Visitors without sails to sleep under can bed down in atmospheric pensions like Opoa Beach Hotel, with just nine bungalows fronting a stunning beach on the island’s southeast corner. For something even more secluded, Motu Nao Nao (accessed via a 20-minute flight from Raiatea) has just three bungalows on its own 30-hectares private island.
If you’re looking for adventures inland, pick up a paddle to try kayaking along the only navigable river in the French Polynesia islands — Raiatea’s palm-lined and lovely Faaroa River. And challenge yourself to an 11-mile hike to Mount Temehani for views that extend past the beautiful lagoon below to take in Huahine, Bora Bora, Taha’a and Maupiti islands beyond.
9. Nuka Hiva
If you know the lyrics from “Southern Cross,” you’ll remember Crosby, Stills, and Nash mentioned the Marquesas Islands along with the “downhill run to Papeete.” And if you’re coming to the Marquesas by air, it takes over three hours to reach Nuka Hiva (the largest island in the chain) from Papeete. It’s not about snorkeling in sparkling clear lagoons here — they don’t exist in the Marquesas, where the waters are darker and rich with nutrients. Rather, come for rich Polynesian cultural encounters and forays into lush rainforests to hike to thundering waterfalls.
Get your bearings with a stay at Le Nuka Hiva by Pearl Resorts, the nicest place to stay on the island — with some of its very best views, too, from the sprawling infinity pool. Then take a boat with Cannibal Art to reach the Hakaui Valley to hike to Vaipo Waterfall, one of the tallest in all of Polynesia. The sight of the single cascade plunging down from 350 meters is well worth the 1.5 hour return hike to reach it. Speaking of art, Marquesans are known throughout Polynesia as some of the most talented artists, and their traditional wares extend from jewelry and carvings to tattoos — so don’t be surprised if you’re tempted to come home with a souvenir in the form of body art. You won’t be the first one. That’s for sure.
Popular with French families looking for a little escape from Papeete on mainland Tahiti, Maupiti (a 50-minute flight from the capital) is revered for its utterly relaxed vibe and pristine — and for the moment, overwater bungalow-free — lagoon. There are no big hotels here, only Tahitian guest houses for a stay that promises lots of local culture and hospitality as welcoming as the flower leis that greet you on arrival nearly everywhere you venture in the French Polynesia islands. Visitors come to Maupiti to snorkel and scuba dive with manta rays with Maupiti Diving at a cleaning station in the turquoise lagoon, near Maupiti’s south pass, and to stroll the shallow waters along the china-white sands of Tereia Beach. Natural beauty is all around in these parts. And your only mission is to soak it all in.