5 Dream Islands to Visit in French Polynesia
The Islands of Tahiti, officially known as French Polynesia, are a collection of 118 dream islands and coral atolls floating in a vast area of the South Pacific Ocean, roughly the size of Western Europe. Despite their image as an over-the-top luxury destination, the islands offer a wide array of activities for those willing to explore its diverse landscapes. If you’ve ever wondered what paradise might look like and where to book your next stay, let’s discover five of French Polynesia’s finest islands.
Written and photographed by Avichai Ben Tzur
Tahiti: the “Queen of the Pacific”
Rising out of the depths of the ocean in the shape of a figure-eight, Tahiti is the starting point for any visit to French Polynesia. Begin your visit to paradise with a stroll through the colourful Papeete Market, the capital city’s biggest attraction, as you put all your senses to work while examining exotic local delights such as vanilla, black pearls, taro and seafood. When you’ve had enough of the “big city”, hit the road and explore Tahiti’s coastline, famous for its black sand beaches, ancient Polynesian temples, botanical gardens and legendary surf spots.
To really get a feel for the island, head to its uninhabited mountainous interior on a 4X4 guided trip to the waterfall-laden Papenoo Valley, or set off on a challenging hike through the island’s valleys and peaks. What happens at night? Head to the evening food market in Papeete’s main square for some poisson cru, the territory’s signature dish of raw tuna marinated in coconut milk, lime and veggies.
Where to stay: if you’re looking for the overwater bungalow experience in a luxury setting, nothing beats the Intercontinental Resort Tahiti. For a stay immersed in nature and away from the city, Vanira Lodge is a top choice in the heart of Teahupoo, the surf capital of French Polynesia.
Moorea: the “Magical Island”
Connected by a ferry from Tahiti, life on Moorea moves at a much slower pace. The island’s star attractions are concentrated on its northern coast, carved by two deep bays which sculpt the island into the shape of a heart. The Belvedere scenic lookout is the best place for a bird’s-eye view of the two bays, your starting point for a number of hikes, or to simply admire the sublime views of the lush Opunohu Valley with its patches of pineapple fields.
Moorea is blessed with an impressive lagoon whose clear waters attract colourful fish of all denominations. Outside the lagoon, scuba divers can get acquainted with sharks, dolphins and whales. You can easily spend a few relaxing days on one the island’s fine white-sand beaches, indulging in watersports, snorkelling and even feeding stingrays. When night falls, head to the Tiki Village for a Polynesian buffet dinner followed by a spectacular fire and dance show.
Bora Bora: the “Romantic Island”
Saved as a computer screensaver around the world, Bora Bora is perhaps the most famous tropical island in the world. With dreamy overwater bungalows sprinkled across its immense lagoon, Bora Bora is the ultimate romantic getaway. Aside from cocktails and massages, there is a lot to see and do on the island, starting with a trip along its coast and up its mountains to enjoy spectacular panoramic views. Here you can also learn about the island’s strategic WWII role, as attested by the rusting remains of large cannons facing the lagoon’s entrance. At night, head to Bloody Mary’s, the preferred dining choice for celebrities visiting the island.
Without a doubt, Bora Bora’s star attraction is its lagoon, best explored on a guided tour of the top sights. On a day you’ll likely never forget, you can swim with sharks, snorkel in pristine coral gardens, feed a few hungry (but friendly) stingrays and enjoy a traditional Tahitian picnic lunch on a tiny island at the very edge of the lagoon.
Where to stay: for the ultimate Bora Bora experience, Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora boasts the finest views of the island’s signature peaks and the highest standard of service. For a more intimate setting, stay at one of only three bungalows at the scenic Rohotu Fare Lodge.
Taha’a: the “Vanilla Island”
Sharing the same lagoon as its larger sister Raiatea, Taha’a is a sparsely populated island where time has very little meaning. The island is home to the finest vanilla in the world, grown in small farms deep inside the lush interior. Visitors are welcomed to learn about this sweet cash crop as part of a tour of the island, which also includes a visit to a local black pearl farm and a scenic drive to impressive lookouts where there isn’t much in the way aside from coconut trees.
While the main island is not known for its beach scene, the small islets dotting the edge of Tahaa’s lagoon are home to stereotypically beautiful white-sand beaches and coral gardens for those who wish to snorkel.
Where to stay: Le Taha’a Island Resort & Spa is one of the best-kept secrets in French Polynesia, perhaps the reason why so many Hollywood stars choose to go incognito over here. For a down-to-earth stay, Au Phil Du Temps provides that warm Polynesian local touch.
Nuku Hiva: the “Real Jurassic Park”
Nuku Hiva is located in the distant Marquesas Islands, one of the most remote island chains on the planet. Here, nature’s elements are free to sculpt the islands as they wish in the absence of a protective coral reef. Centuries of complete isolation from the outside world have created a unique culture in Nuku Hiva that coupled with the island’s dramatic pristine nature have the makings of an unforgettable adventure.
Nuku Hiva’s only town, Taiohae, is located 90 minutes from the tiny airport. En route, awe-stricken new arrivals traverse multiple micro-climates, from alpine to tropical, and make several stops that include an overlook above the South Pacific’s version of the Grand Canyon. Of Nuku Hiva’s many attractions, none are more memorable than the journey to Vaipo Falls, the highest in French Polynesia. After a quick boat ride, hikers enter the rain forest squeezed on both sides by jagged basalt cliffs, the island’s signature feature. After passing ancient temples, stone statues and fruit trees galore, the waterfall comes into view and a mad dash begins to splash in its secret pool at the base.
Where to stay: visiting such a remote island doesn’t mean you need to compromise on comfort. Stay at Keikahanui Nuku Hiva Pearl Lodge, high atop the hills overlooking the main town and enjoy spectacular panoramic views.
About the author: Avichai Ben-Tzur is the publisher of XDAYSINY.COM and an expert on tailored-made travel experiences to French Polynesia.