Tahiti, Bora Bora, French Polynesia — these words evoke romance, sun, sand, and tropical warm waters. The birthplace of the overwater bungalow, and the most popular place in the world to stay in one, these islands are premier destinations in the South Pacific.
Although most people simply call the country “Tahiti,” that’s actually just the name of one of the many islands in this tropical nation. The real name of the country is French Polynesia, which has over 100 islands including Tahiti, Bora Bora and Moorea.
In this South Pacific island nation, you can swim with humpback whales or stingrays. Listen to the tribal pahu and to’ere drums, and feel your hips moving along. Glide through the water on an outrigger canoe… or skip along the waves on a jet-ski. True, this country is most popular with honeymooners, but there’s so much to experience that French Polynesia is also ideal for families with young kids (the locals love children!) and retirees ready to enjoy the prime of their lives.
Getting There and Around
French Polynesia is located just East of the International Dateline. Coming from North America, there are nonstop flights departing from Los Angeles and Honolulu. From other countries, nonstop flights depart from New Zealand, Easter Island, New Caledonia, the Cook Islands, and Tokyo.
Once you arrive in French Polynesia, you’ll be on the island of Tahiti. Most travelers spend at least one night here, before or after they connect to another island. From Tahiti, you can fly to about 25 other islands in French Polynesia, or catch a 30-minute ferry to nearby Moorea.
Many travelers like to combine their stay in French Polynesia on more than one island. This is a great way to enjoy more of the unique experiences this beautiful country has to offer. Just remember that you will probably need to connect through Tahiti in between.
There are also several cruise lines that travel from island to island, stopping for a day or a night in each one along the way. They are ideal for travelers who want to see a little bit of a lot of different places, without packing and unpacking each day.
When to Go
From a weather perspective, French Polynesia is great any time of the year. The difference between wet and dry seasons isn’t as great as in other places, like Fiji or the Cook Islands. The risk of cyclones here is also much lower.
The drier season lasts from around June through October. These are also the cooler months. July through September is especially popular with travelers from Europe, Australia and New Zealand, so rates are higher at this time of year.
November through May is more hot and humid, with the heaviest rainfall between about December and March. The holiday season, from late December through January, sees the highest prices despite the risk of wetter weather, so we definitely recommend avoiding travel over the holidays. Instead, consider going in October or May, when you can avoid the crowds and take advantage of more affordable rates.
The Island of Tahiti
Tahiti is home to the capital city, Papeete, and the international airport. Tahiti is the largest island in French Polynesia and also the tallest, with its highest peak reaching over 2200 meters (7,300 ft). While most stay here just for a night and use it as a jumping-off point to reach other islands, it’s a great place to spend two or three nights if your schedule allows. The island offers many opportunities to experience local culture, history, and tropical forest.
Since the island’s interior is mountainous, you can easily spend a day or two exploring lush vegetation, waterfalls and great views over the ocean. Some of the most popular excursions include Papenoo Valley with archaeological sites, big waterfalls and a natural volcanic lake. Another is the remote Hitiaa lava tubes, created by ancient volcanic activity and accessed on foot through narrow caves and passages. Enjoy lunch at Le Belvédère Restaurant, perched up high with views all the way out to Moorea on a clear day.
The city of Papeete has a lively daily market, which is the heart of the city and one of the liveliest spots of all the islands. Make sure to visit the flowers and fruits section, full of heavenly aromas and bright color. Visit the upstairs for local handicrafts. Or explore the foods section in the early morning to rub elbows with locals.
Note that the beaches on Tahiti tend to be small and unimpressive, giving way to coral reef very quickly once you get off shore. Some hotels don’t have any beach, so enjoy the waters here by getting out in a boat, rather than swimming from a beach, and save your beach time for another island. Enjoy whale watching from July to November. Go deep-sea sport fishing, or learn how to surf. Go snorkeling or diving in the beautiful coral reefs immediately surrounding the island.
If you want to experience arts and culture, then you can spend a whole day visiting several museums, located along the coast. Learn local history and nature at the Museum of Tahiti. See artwork by Paul Gauguin, who lived in French Polynesia for the last 12 years of his life, at the Paul Gauguin Museum. Visit the unique home of James Norman Hall, an American war hero from World War I who lived here from 1920-1951.
There are some lovely overwater bungalows as well as traditional hotel rooms, in either luxury chain hotels that range from about 3-4 stars, or at small, independent, more rustic hotels. Most accommodations are near the airport, ferry port, and capital city of Papeete for easy transportation to other islands. But from here, you can easily get around the island for exploring. Rent a car if you feel especially confident, or we recommend hiring a guide to access locations you can’t reach in a rental car. If your budget allows, then when it comes time to leave the island of Tahiti for an outer island, consider hiring a helicopter for incredible sightseeing en route!
The Island of Moorea
Moorea is the closest island to Tahiti, just 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) away, and yet offers such a different, unique tropical island experience. You can reach Moorea by 10-minute flight, 30-minute ferry, or private helicopter from Tahiti. With such easy access, Moorea is a great place to find a tropical island experience without having to travel very far. We recommend spending at least three to four nights here, though there’s plenty to fill a week if you have the time.
Moorea is most well known for its authentic island culture, walking trails, dolphin and whale watching, and a multitude of water activities. Like Tahiti, it is made up of tall peaks and surrounding coral reef, though the beaches are a bit better here than on Tahiti.
Moorea offers a good balance of land-based and water-based activities. Head to the interior of the island on a 4WD tour for access to great hiking trails, pineapple plantations, horseback riding, and scenic viewpoints.
For insight into local culture, head to the Tiki Village. At this recreation of a traditional village, you can visit artisans making traditional handicrafts, dine in the traditional way on food cooked in an underground oven, and enjoy a thrilling dance show that emphasizes local history and legend.
For watersports, Moorea has it all. Sailing, parasailing, waterskiing, underwater viewing boats made of glass, jet-skiing, deep-sea sport fishing, and of course, great snorkeling and diving. Some of the unique offerings here are whale and dolphin watching trips, led by a specialist and focusing on the science behind these spectacular marine mammals. Moorea is also well known for its impressive fish feeding and ray feeding demonstrations.
Resorts here range from about 3-star to 4.5-star, with plenty of overwater bungalows. Like Tahiti, the overwater bungalows here are often right overtop the coral reef, meaning you can see fish and coral right through a glass window in the floor! Many of our guests also enjoy beach bungalows or garden bungalows, many of which offer private pools and courtyards. Some resorts are close to the ferry port or airport, while others are farther afield in quieter spots with closer access to nature activities.
Once you’re on Moorea, the best way to get around is by tour guide or on the public bus, though you can also rent bicycles and scooters if you feel adventurous.
Moorea is a great place for families, since there’s so much to do that everyone can find something they enjoy. It’s also convenient, with easier to access to Tahiti and its international airport than farther islands. On Moorea, you can have the full tropical island experience, with beaches, jungle, and beautiful blue waters teeming with coral and marine life.
The Island of Bora Bora
For many visitors to French Polynesia, Bora Bora is the one and only destination that interests them. The name itself evokes soft white sand, a tropical blue lagoon, swaying palm trees, and exclusivity. Unlike Tahiti or Moorea, Bora Bora is an atoll. That means that although it has a volcanic peak in the center, surrounding that peak is a wide, shallow lagoon. Around the lagoon are tiny islands made from coral called motus, which keep the lagoon protected and calm.
These motus are where visitors to Bora Bora spend most of their time. Even the airport is on a motu, so when you arrive by plane from Tahiti, your resort transfer will actually be by boat!
There is a range of three to five star resorts on Bora Bora, including most of the world’s top luxury chains. Most of these resorts are located directly on a private motu. The lagoon creates a perfect environment for an overwater bungalow, because it has calm waters that are protected by motus from the strong ocean waves. For that reason, Bora Bora is probably the most famous place in the world to stay in an overwater bungalow. Just remember that since you’re in a bungalow over a lagoon, most of what you’ll see through the glass floor is sand, not coral or fish like on Tahiti or Moorea. Of course, that sand does mean the beaches here are much nicer than either Tahiti or Moorea! Most resorts have more than one beach, with plenty of space for all their guests to find room on the sand.
Bora Bora is most well known as a place to pamper yourself, relax on the beach, and enjoy a water sport or two. Since most of the resorts are located on motus instead of the inner volcanic island, there aren’t as many land-based activities. Any excursions that involve hiking, shopping in local markets, and visiting local villages and restaurants mean you have to catch a boat from your resort to the “mainland.” While the distance isn’t far, it does make land-based activities a little less convenient than they would be on Tahiti or Moorea. In fact, the best way to get around Bora Bora is by boat, not car. If you do end up heading to the mainland, we recommend a small group tour by 4WD to explore the interior.
Where Bora Bora excels is on the water. The lagoon is like a giant natural swimming pool with an ancient volcano dominating its center, and whose stunning beauty demands attention from every angle. For an adrenaline rush, try driving a jet-ski all the way around the lagoon. You can even stop along the way to swim with rays. Or maybe paddling a kayak or outrigger canoe through the lagoon is more your speed. Divers and snorkelers will find less coral than other islands, though there are still some good areas.
We recommend spending at least three nights on Bora Bora, though four to five is ideal. Any longer than that, and you can expect to find some real down-time to relax. The resorts here tend to cost more than those on other islands, so if budget is a concern, then you can always combine a short stay in Bora Bora with more time on Tahiti or Moorea. Honeymooners are especially drawn to Bora Bora, since having a resort on a private motu feels most exclusive, quiet and romantic.
Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora are the most popular islands to visit in French Polynesia. We also recommend them most, because they have the best accommodations, the most activities, and the easiest access from the international airport. However, there are a few others that might interest you, depending on your travel style…
•Taha’a — near Bora Bora, with five-star barefoot luxury in a pristine, less touristed environment
•Tikehau, Manihi and Rangiroa — very quiet and great for divers, these islands have no volcanic peaks, just massive lagoons teeming with marine life and surrounded by motus. Accommodations are a bit more rustic.
•Hiva Oa and Nuku Hiva — in the Marquesas Archipelago, a long flight from Tahiti and with rocky coastline (not as many beaches), but where ancient Polynesian culture is still alive and well. Accommodations are rustic, yet feel very authentically Polynesian.
Accommodations and Meals
Yes, overwater bungalows are always the favorites here. However, since French Polynesia tends to be on the pricey side, you may find that your budget doesn’t allow for an overwater bungalow the entire time. To save on costs, we often recommend staying in a lower-cost room at the start of your trip, and then upgrading to an overwater bungalow for the last few nights as a treat. Overwater bungalows typically line a dock that extends out into the water, with the bungalows at the end of the dock occupying the most favorable locations and the highest price.
Most resorts in French Polynesia do not include meals. You can buy meals à la carte or as part of a meal plan, with a lot of flexible options. For example, you could get a meal plan that includes only breakfast and dinner, buying a small snack lunch on your own or having lunch as part of a day tour outside the resort. You may also wish to save on meal costs by dining at local restaurants away from the resort, just keep transportation in mind, especially on Bora Bora where travel is by boat.
French is the official language, though English is commonly spoken by resort staff. Outside of resorts and tours, it can be more difficult to find an English speaker. This is especially the case in small local villages, shops and restaurants so make sure to bring a guide when you’re out and about.
French Pacific Franc is the local currency, but most prices are in Euros thanks to the country’s popularity with European visitors. The culture is friendly and welcoming, though you may find it a bit less “warm” than other nearby countries like Fiji or New Zealand, thanks to the heavy influence of European culture and their more minimalistic type of service.
In terms of dining, you will find a fusion of French and local island cuisine, especially fresh fish and tropical fruit.
If you’re visiting on honeymoon, keep in mind that since most tourists to this country are also on honeymoon, you may not receive any special treatment. And while these islands certainly are great for romantics, they are also popular with families, and cater to children very well.
Are you in love with French Polynesia, and ready to go? Everyone needs to see French Polynesia at least once in their lives. Ask us today how to start planning!