Everyone has an idea of what to expect from French Polynesia, whether it’s diving in turquoise seas, snorkeling in crystal clear lagoons or relaxing in an overwater bungalow. Following a recent trip, Audley Travel country specialist Selina highlights the range of both water and land-based activities offered on the islands and shares her favourite aspects about visiting this far-flung destination.
How did you become a French Polynesia specialist?
I studied French and Spanish at university, which involved spending a year abroad in Argentina and Spain. After graduating, I went backpacking for a year around Southeast Asia and Central America.
My love of travel led me to join Audley’s Hidden Beaches team, who specialises in creating beach trips, but where you also get to explore, at destinations around the world. I recently travelled to French Polynesia for two weeks – a place I’ve always wanted to visit because it’s so far away and mysterious. When I arrived, it exceeded my expectations – the views of the mountains and lagoons are incredible, and it’s just so relaxing. I’d love to go back.
Which is your favourite French Polynesian island?
Bora Bora, purely because of its small size, which gives it a village feel and means you can drive around the whole island in just over an hour.
When you fly in, the views over the island and its lagoon almost take your breath away, and you can hear other passengers gasp in awe. On the island itself, I loved going to Matira Beach to watch the sunset – the local people head here in the evening for drinks or to enjoy a quick swim, so you feel like you’re taking part in island life.
People on Bora Bora are incredibly friendly and the whole island feels safe and welcoming. Despite the island being popular with visitors, it doesn’t seem busy because most people stay at resorts on the motus, or islets, rather than on the mainland.
What water-based activities does French Polynesia offer?
You can go snorkeling, jet skiing, paddle boarding and kayaking from each of the islands. Tahiti is also a great place for surfing – seeing larger waves came as a surprise, as I’d imagined the islands to have only calm waters.
One of the best activities for me was swimming with blacktip reef sharks and stingrays. You’re taken out by boat to where the water’s still fairly shallow and you can get into the water (or just watch from the boat, if you prefer). The blacktip reef sharks are harmless and swim around you without paying much attention to your presence. I was struck by how big they were, and how close you could get to them in the wild.
We were also lucky enough to swim with a manta ray – a rare occurrence as they normally only frequent deeper water. While the ray looked fairly small from where I was swimming, I was told that it was actually around six metres long. I’d definitely recommend Bora Bora as the place for this experience, as the boats only hold six to eight passengers compared with around 100 passengers in boats from Moorea Island.
Diving is excellent in French Polynesia, and you can even dive near humpback whales if visiting between late June and October, when they migrate to the islands for their breeding season. You’re taken out on a boat to where the whales are thought to be, based on experience and information supplied to the team by fishermen. Once they’re located, you can dive just 50 metres away from them – and, with luck, hear them singing underwater. You can also sometimes spot the whales from land – on the eastern side of Bora Bora the water drops to around 2,000 metres, making viewings more likely.
What land-based activities does French Polynesia offer?
I’d recommend touring the mountainous interiors of Moorea and/or Bora Bora by 4×4. You’re driven up to the peaks to take in the incredible views over the ocean. On the Moorea tour, you’ll learn about the island’s history and culture as the guides tell you of island life before the Christian missionaries arrived in the late 18th century. Islanders worshipped their own gods and made human sacrifices in temples that you can still see in their ruined state today.
What I particularly enjoyed about the Bora Bora tour – other than the views – was learning about the island’s role in the Second World War, when it was used as a US military base. You’ll be shown the quite unexpected sights of bunkers in the middle of the forest and the island’s last remaining cannon.
Moorea and Tahiti are particularly suitable islands if you prefer to keep active rather than just relax on a beach. You can cycle, follow hiking trails, explore on a quad bike or horse ride, and in Tahiti you can visit the botanical gardens. I also visited the Arahoho Blowhole on the island’s rugged east coast, where ocean water shoots into the air from a hole in the rock, covering onlookers with a refreshing spray.
Taha’a is a quieter island where Polynesian life seems just that little bit more authentic. Many of the local people live off land passed down through the generations. You can stop by vanilla plantations and black pearl farms and I think it makes a nice contrast with the more developed islands.
Are there any activities you’d recommend for honeymooners?
The sunset cruises offered on most of the islands make an ideal experience for honeymooners. They’re also good because you often can’t see the sunset very well if you’re staying on a motu in Bora Bora.
Some resorts can help to arrange proposals or offer scenic helicopter rides at sunset. There’s also a small, heart-shaped island, which makes the ultimate proposal spot.
Which is your favourite resort?
One of my top choices is Vahine Island Private Resort, located on a tiny islet just off mainland Taha’a. I love the seclusion and quietness of this private island, and the resort only has nine rooms so it feels like a tropical home-away-from-home.
The service is fantastic and the food is great – Lawrence the chef creates a rotating menu so you can enjoy a different meal each day. When I was eating dinner one evening, taking in views of Taha’a and the ocean, blacktip reef sharks actually swam up to the beach.
Accommodation is in spacious beach bungalows and overwater suites with a rustic charm, decorated with dark wood and bright Tahitian pinks, yellows and lime greens. The atmosphere is really relaxed, and the staff get to know you by your first name. A reef runs along one side of the islet where you can see marine life among the coral.
Another pick of mine is the larger InterContinental Le Moana on mainland Bora Bora. As I found, it offers great value for money and has the best of both worlds, as you get the views of Bora Bora and Mount Otemanu usually restricted to a motu resort but within strolling distance of local shops and restaurants. I enjoyed watching local Tahitian dances in the evenings, which are performed in traditional dress.
Are the islands good for viewing wildlife?
French Polynesia is best known for its marine life, which includes hundreds of tropical fish species, spinner and bottlenose dolphins, manta, eagle and sting rays, and blacktip reef sharks. The islands are a garden for brightly coloured tropical flowers, including French Polynesia’s national flower, the Tahitian gardenia.
How long would you suggest visiting for?
I’d recommend going for a minimum of ten days. It takes about 33 hours to get to French Polynesia, with a change usually in Los Angeles (a great stop-over point if you want to contrast French Polynesia’s tropical islands with a city).
If you’re strapped for time you can complete the journey all in one go, which is tough but ultimately worth it. A recent client of mine combined French Polynesia with Easter Island for a completely different, once-in-a-lifetime trip.
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