French Polynesia


French Polynesia destinations

about Sculpted by sky-piercing, moss-green peaks and lined with vivid turquoise lagoons, sultry French Polynesia is a place to take it slow and experience warm, laid-back island culture.

The Dream

Tahiti: just the word conjures up centuries’ worth of images: hibiscus flowers; bronzed dancers in grass skirts; a humid breeze over turquoise sea. The islands of French Polynesia became legends the minute the first European explorers reached their home shores with tales of a heaven on earth where the soil was fertile, life was simple and lust was guilt-free. While the lingering hype is outdated, French Polynesia is still about as dreamy as reality gets. The lagoons are just as blue but there are freeways, more conservative values and nine-to-five jobs. It’s not the untainted paradise of explorer lore, but at least there’s an internet connection.

Lagoon Spectacular

The slim stretches of white-, pink- and black-sand beaches in French Polynesia are really just pretty springboards into the real draw: the lagoons. Most high islands are surrounded by fringing reef that creates a protected swimming pool of the most intense aqua imaginable. Coral atolls have this same calibre of lagoon minus the big island in the middle. Fish, dolphins, rays, sharks, turtles and more inhabit these clear-water coral gardens that are as excellent for snorkelling as they are for diving and swimming. Surfers ride glassy wave faces at reef passes while kitesurfers fly across the water with the trade winds.

To Luxe or Not to Luxe

Over-the-top indulgence has become French Polynesia’s – or more specifically Bora Bora’s – signature, and often overshadows what the rest of the country has to offer. Resorts on the ‘Pearl of the Pacific’ are a honeymooner’s dream, with private overwater bungalows and spectacular views of the island’s iconic, square-topped peak. But if this isn’t your cup of coconut water, or not in your budget, don’t let that dissuade you from visiting French Polynesia. Small, family-run lodgings offer a closer-to-the-culture experience for considerably less financial output.

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Ah, Bora Bora. The stuff of dreams. As you arrive by plane, the view says it all. How not to be mesmerised by this stunning palette of sapphire, indigo and turquoise, all mixed together in modern-art abstractions? And these sand-edged motu (islets) and soaring rainforest-covered basaltic peaks? With such a dreamlike setting, Bora Bora is, unsurprisingly, a honeymooners’ choice. But there’s much more to do than clink glasses with your loved one in a luxurious hotel. The good thing is that you can mix slow-paced sun-and-sand holidays with action-packed adventures. Diving, snorkelling, lagoon tours, hiking and parasailing are readily available. What you shouldn’t expect, though, is a thriving nightlife. Bora Bora is a quiet island. And this dream destination is much more accessible than you think. As well as five-star resorts, a handful of low-key midrange hotels beckon.

Sights

If arriving by air you’ll be transported from the Motu Mute airport to Vaitape, the island’s main settlement. It’s not the most evocative town, but it’s the only place on Bora Bora that doesn’t feel as if it were built exclusively for tourists. Vaitape is a great place to do a bit of shopping, take care of banking and internet needs and just get a feel for the way locals really live. Busy during the day, by late afternoon it becomes altogether sleepy, with pétanque (boules) players taking centre stage.

Vaitape is at its liveliest on Sunday morning, when numerous food stalls selling such delicacies as pahua taioro (clams marinated in coconut seawater sauce) and firifiri (doughnuts) take position along the main road. For tourists, it’s a great opportunity to catch local vibes.

A monument to Alain Gerbault, who in 1923 was the first yachtsman to achieve a nonstop solo crossing of the Atlantic, stands at Vaitape quay. Gerbault lived on Bora Bora in the 1930s.

Sleeping

Glossy brochures and promotional literature focus on Bora Bora’s ultraswish resorts, but a smattering of affordable establishments have sprung up over the last two decades.

Although places to stay can be found all around the island, as well as on the motu, the majority are concentrated along the southern coast.

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Entertainment

If there’s one thing you absolutely have to check out while you’re on Bora Bora, it’s a traditional dance show held in one of the luxury hotels. You can usually get in for the price of a drink at the bar, or for between 8000 CFP and 10,000 CFP, you can also feast on a buffet dinner. There are performances once or twice a week; ask at the reception desks about the schedule.

Other than that, nightlife is as restrained as it is on the other islands of French Polynesia.

Eating

There’s a good choice of restaurants on Bora Bora, ranging from European gourmet dining to roulottes (food vans) and snacks (a small snack-bar-cum-cafe serving Tahitian staples and sandwiches). Some top-end hotels have an in-house restaurant that is also open to non-guests. Other than the snacks, nearly all of the restaurants accept credit cards.

Drinking & Nightlife

For such a famous island, the bar scene is very tame on Bora Bora. However, there are a few cool spots where you can cut loose over some sunset cocktails in pleasant surrounds. If it’s just the setting you want to absorb, check out the bars in the big hotels. Many restaurants also have a bar section: check out Maikai Bora Bora, which has great tapas and occasional live music, Bora Bora Yacht Club and Le St James.

Shopping

Black-pearl jewellery is sold in many places around Bora Bora, at prices that are often higher than in Tahiti. Apart from pearls, shopping on Bora Bora tends to mean hopping between the few galleries and boutiques that are scattered around the island.

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What Tahiti lacks in wide white-sand beaches, it makes up for in waterfall-laden, shadowy mountains, unpretentiously beautiful black-sand beaches, sheltered blue lagoons and a distinctly Polynesian, modern buzz. This is the heart of the islands, where the cultures from all the archipelagos are mixed in the cacophonous, dusty, yet smiling and energetic capital of Pape'ete.

Outside the city, explore the majestic, mountainous interior on a 4WD tour, learn to dive in the translucent lagoon, wander amid mystical archaeological sites, and from July to October go whale-watching. In July, catch the country’s most spectacular festival; the percussion and dance-heavy Heiva. Stay at a resort or head to Tahiti Iti to experience a more traditional pace of life – all international air travel goes through Tahiti, and it would be a shame to miss such an essential part of this region's cultural puzzle.

Sights

Leased by Marlon Brando in 1965 after he filmed Mutiny on the Bounty and fell in love with his Tahitian co-star Tarita Teriipia, the stunning atoll of Tetiaroa, 59km north of Tahiti, is now the home of the country's most luxurious 'eco' resort, the Brando, with its 35 outlandishly plush villas. While Brando was alive, the atoll remained a bird preserve and housed only one small pension where visitors could live like Robinson Crusoe in paradise. Brando, a pioneer of ecotourism, always made it clear that he wished the island to remain preserved and that any development would have to be ecologically sound and conform aesthetically to the atoll. Brando died in 2004, and by 2005 his estate executors had sold the rights to development to a major property developer in Tahiti.

The Brando has made a valiant attempt to be sustainable via renewable energy, a cooling system that uses sea water and use of only solar- or human-powered vehicles (among other things), but its critics (notably The Brando-Apocalypse Now, find them on Facebook) claim that the building of the resort was incredibly destructive to the atoll due to its extraction of sand and coral from the lagoon and cultural sites from the land.

There's an airstrip on the island available only to guests of the resort (flights cost around 53,000 CFP return). The only other way to get to the island is by charter yacht, a few of which line up along the Pape’ete waterfront advertising lovely day trips to the atoll. These trips visit several other spots around the atoll, but not the resort.

Chose from sailboats like L'Escapade, which take around four hours to sail to the island, or the faster motorboat Excursion Tetiaroa, which gets there in three hours and 15 minutes.

During the Calgary Stampede (early July), rates rise and availability plummets. Book ahead. Eating In Calgary, the restaurant scene isn’t just fast-moving – it’s supersonic, with ever-better quality and greater variety. Where solitary cows once roamed, vegetables and herbs now prosper, meaning that trusty old stalwart, Alberta beef, is no longer the only thing propping up the menu. You’ll find good eat streets in Kensington, Inglewood, Uptown 17th Ave and downtown on Stephen St.

Sleeping

Hands down, this is the best luxury resort on the island. The Intercontinental is as posh as Tahiti gets. Marble bathrooms, plush canopies and Mo’orea views from private balconies are standard both in the rooms and romantic overwater bungalows, which range from smallish to quite spacious.

The two swimming pools are fabulous (one features a slick, cascading horizon) and the water-sports centre is the best on the island. On the downside, the beach here is artificial (it’s made from imported white sand) and the lagoon is not nearly as translucent or dreamy as ones that you’ll find on other islands or even further away from Pape'ete.

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Travel with Children

Travelling with children is extremely easy in Tahiti. They’ll love having dinner at the roulottes (mobile food vans) in Pape’ete, and families are welcome in most restaurants and snacks (snack bars) around the island. Most beaches on Tahiti are safe and suitable for children. With the kids in tow, it’s also great fun exploring the walking paths winding through the Jardins Botantiques on the south coast, past ponds and palms, eels, crabs, ducks and chickens.

Between July and October, whale-watching is a great activity for families. Children over eight can also try an introductory dive with any of Tahiti’s dive centres.

Gay & Lesbian Travellers

French laws concerning homosexuality prevail in French Polynesia, which means there is no legal discrimination against homosexual activity. Homophobia in French Polynesia is uncommon, although open displays of affection in public should be avoided. French Polynesia does feel remarkably heterosexual, given the preponderance of honeymooning couples, but you will meet lots of mahu (men living as women) working in restaurants and hotels.

Travellers with Disabilities

With narrow flights of steps on boats and difficult boarding facilities on Air Tahiti aircraft, French Polynesia resembles a tropical obstacle course for those with restricted mobility. What’s more, hotels and guesthouses are not used to receiving guests with disabilities. However, all new hotels and public buildings must conform to certain standards, so change is happening.

When to Go

Tahiti enjoys a year-round tropical climate, but you're most likely to get good weather in the dry season, from May to October. During this time the weather is cooler, and the drier west and north coasts in particular will likely have lots of sun and clear skies – but this is the tropics and rain is possible at any time of year.

The rainy season begins in November and continues until the end of April, with frequent heavy showers and occasional storms, but you could also luck out and have clear skies. The island has a rather busy social calendar year-round, but in July Pape’ete is in full swing with the Heiva.

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If you've been dreaming of holiday-brochure turquoise lagoons, white-sand beaches, vertical peaks and lush landscapes, you'd be hard-pressed to find better than this gem of an island. Hovering less than 20km across the 'Sea of the Moon' from its big sister, Tahiti, Mo'orea absorbs its many visitors so gracefully that its feels surprisingly non-touristy. Mo’orea has a healthy selection of top-end resorts, but it is also host to a good choice of smaller hotels. There are pretty white-sand beaches, but nothing big and sweeping. The drawcard is the limpid, warm water of the vibrant lagoon. If you need some action, learn to kitesurf, take a hike, go on a whale- or dolphin-watching tour, hire a bike or a kayak, or go horse riding. Whatever the experience, there’s only one word to describe Mo’orea: divine!

Sights

From Mo’orea’s two great bays, valleys sweep inland, meeting south of the coastal bulk of Mt Rotui. Both valleys are of great historical significance. In the pre-European era, they were densely populated and the Opunohu Valley was dotted with marae (traditional temples) as well as dwellings, archery platforms and other structures, some of which have been restored and maintained. It's believed the valley was continuously inhabited for six centuries, and the oldest surviving structures date from the 13th century.

Sleeping

Most accommodation is concentrated on the eastern side of Cook’s Bay and around Hauru Point.

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Getting Arround

All ferries dock at the quay in Vaiare. In principle, buses (300 CFP) meet all Aremiti 5 catamaran arrivals and departures but not the Aremiti ferry. From the quay, one bus heads south and the other north, completing the island circuit and dropping you off wherever you need to be. Mo’orea’s taxis are notoriously expensive: from the airport to the Intercontinental Moorea Resort & Spa will cost about 4500 CFP.

The airport is in the island’s northeastern corner. Most hotels offer airport transfers.

Eating

There's a good range of independent restaurants on Mo'orea, with Maharepa, Cook’s Bay and Hauru Point the island's dining epicentres. Many hotels and resorts have in-house restaurants also open to nonguests.

There are quite a few supermarkets and smaller shops around the island where you can buy fresh baguettes and basic supplies.

Activities

Mo’orea is one of French Polynesia’s main underwater playgrounds, which is no surprise considering its high visibility and clean waters. Although it can't rival with the Tuamotus, it offers safe, relaxed diving, and for beginners, it's a great place to learn to dive and get certified. The underwater scenery is every bit the equal of what’s on land: you can dive sloping reefs and may go nose-to-nose with sharks – especially lemon sharks – rays and numerous reef species. Most dive operators are concentrated at the northwest of the island. Prominent sites include Tiki, with a good shark population, Taotoi and Opunohu Canyons/Eden Park.

For snorkelling, join an organised lagoon tour or DIY around Hauru Point and its motu, around the interior of the reef beyond Temae Beach or off Ta’ahiamanu (Mareto) Beach.

Lagoon Excursions

The best way to discover Mo’orea’s magnificent lagoon is by joining a lagoon excursion. Tours typically visit the Cook's and Opunohu bays, stop to swim with the rays at a spot off the Intercontinental Moorea Resort & Spa, and picnic and snorkel on a motu.

Note that Mo'orea has a long history of shark and ray feeding, but mentalities are changing. It's now illegal to feed the animals within the lagoon or near a pass. Some tour guides do 'bait', though, using tuna scraps they put in a box.

Whale- & Dolphin-Watching

This activity has exploded in recent years. You can count on finding dolphins year-round, but it’s the whales, who migrate to Mo’orea from July (or August) to October, who draw in the crowds. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to swim with the mammals, but just seeing them in the water is a real thrill. Most dive centres run whale-watching trips, or you can contact the following outfits, which have green credentials and employ well-trained guides.

Shopping

There are two small shopping centres on the island. The shopping centre in Maharepa has a few shops and stores.

The coastal road is littered with places selling pareu (sarongs; some of them hand-painted), T-shirts and other curios. There are also a number of places dotted around the island where artists display their work.

Although no pearl farms are located on Mo’orea, a number of places around the island specialise in black pearls. Prices are generally the same as on Tahiti, but you’ll have to shop around.

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Huahine is immaculately tropical and effortlessly Polynesian. Lush and scarcely developed, this is an island to visit for extreme calm, communing with nature and a genuine taste of culture. There are plenty of opportunities for diving, surfing, snorkelling, exploring top-notch archaeological sites and horse riding, but the beauty of this place is just how easy it is to relax and do very little at all. The days go by, your skin gets a little darker and your smile a little wider.

Huahine feels like one island, but in fact it's two, connected by a short bridge. Huahine Nui (Big Huahine), to the north, is home to the bustling little village of Fare and most of the main tourist and administrative facilities. Rugged and isolated Huahine Iti (Little Huahine), to the south, offers the islands’ best beaches, azure lagoons and a serene, get-away-from-it-all atmosphere.

Sights

Huahine Nui

A convenient way to see the sights is to start in Fare and complete a 60km circuit around the larger island in a clockwise direction.

Hana Iti Beach

Here’s a secret spot (shhh): the beach of the former Hana Iti Hotel. This dreamlike cove lapped by lapis-lazuli waters offers a nice patch of sand backed by lush hills, with a row of palm trees leaning over the shore. There’s no access road; get there by kayak or hire a dinghy.

Marae Walk

This walk up Matairea Hill is a high point for anyone interested in archaeology. A signpost on the Fare side of Maeva, about 200m west from the Fare Potee, points to the start of the hiking trail. You’ll go past a fortification wall, which was built during the pre-European era, probably as protection against the warlike Bora Bora tribes, before reaching Marae Tefano, draped upon the hillside. There’s a massive banyan tree overwhelming one end of the ahu (altar).

Further on, a trail branches off to the left and runs slightly downhill to Marae Matairea Rahi. Once the principal marae at Maeva, where the most important island chief sat on his throne at major ceremonies, it was superseded by Marae Manunu, on the motu below. Also surviving are the foundations of a fare atua (god house), where images of gods were guarded day and night. Retrace your steps to the main trail and continue to the turn-off to Marae Paepae Ofata, a steep climb above the main trail but worth the effort. The marae is like a large platform perched on the edge of the hill, with fine views down the hillside and across Motu Papiti to the outer lagoon, and down to the mouth of Lake Fauna Nui. Return to the main path, which drops steeply down to the road.

Given the lack of signboards and proper waymarks, it makes sense to hire a guide. Contact American anthropologist Paul Atallah, from Island Ecotours – a more knowledgeable person you’d be hard-pressed to find. Count on 5000 CFP for the tour (about three hours). Take some drinking water as well as strong insect repellent.

Sleeping

The places listed here are either right in town or a few kilometres to the north or south.

Huahine Iti

The (marginally) smaller island has several ideally situated places.

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Getting Arround

Huahine’s airport is 2.5km north of Fare. Pensions and hotels will arrange taxi transfers (sometimes included in the tariff – usually meaning that they will pick you up). It costs from 500 CFP to go to Fare and up to 2000 CFP to get to Huahine Iti.

You can hire bicycles from Europcar or Huahine Lagoon for about 2000 CFP a day. For scooters, check with Europcar, which charges 6200 CFP for 24 hours.

A sealed road follows the coast all the way around both islands. Huahine’s car-hire operators will deliver directly to the airport or to your hotel. Public rates are exorbitant – from 9200 CFP per day – but discounts are available if you book through your hotel or pension. There are two petrol stations in Fare.

Travel With Children

Mo’orea

The best beaches, dolphin- and whale-watching, horse riding, dive centres catering to kids and lots of amenities.

Huahine

A true Polynesian cultural experience, plus soft, white beaches and places to swim and snorkel. Enjoy a history lesson by taking an island tour and strolling the Maeva archaeology site.

Bora Bora

The lagoon is like a giant swimming pool and resorts will cater to your every need, including babysitting. Cycling around the island is a good family outing.

Tahiti

Great for teens, with lively beaches, dances and a surf scene. Hike, surf, horse ride and find dive centres with kids' programs.

Rangiroa

For water- and beach-loving families wanting to dive, snorkel and watch dolphins frolicking at sunset.

Gay & Lesbian Travellers

French laws concerning homosexuality prevail in French Polynesia, which means there is no legal discrimination against homosexual activity. Homophobia in French Polynesia is uncommon, although open displays of affection in public should be avoided. French Polynesia does feel remarkably heterosexual, given the preponderance of honeymooning couples, but you will meet lots of mahu (men living as women) working in restaurants and hotels.

Travellers with Disabilities

With narrow flights of steps on boats and difficult boarding facilities on Air Tahiti aircraft, French Polynesia resembles a tropical obstacle course for those with restricted mobility. What’s more, hotels and guesthouses are not used to receiving guests with disabilities. However, all new hotels and public buildings must conform to certain standards, so change is happening.

What to do in Huahine

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Ra’iatea is the second largest of the Society Islands after Tahiti and also the second most important economic centre, but its lack of beaches has left it relatively off the tourist radar. What dominates here are the high, steep mountains and the vast, reef-fringed lagoon – the combination of the two are quite awe-striking and tend to override any disappointment that there’s no beach. The capital, Uturoa, is the only real town; explore the rest of the island and you’ll find an intensely calm, back-to-nature reality.

Ra’iatea is home to Marae Taputapuatea, once the most important traditional temple in Polynesia, which many believe still exudes power today. What is undeniable is that the island emanates a hard-to-pinpoint, mysterious energy that you won’t feel anywhere else in French Polynesia.

Sights

Uturoa

At first glance you’d never guess this little place is French Polynesia’s second largest town (after Pape’ete), but wander around and you’ll catch its feisty buzz, especially on weekday mornings, when you’ll experience the only traffic jams outside of Tahiti. For a peek at local life, nothing beats the covered market, right in the centre. The town's name means 'long mouth' in English and many islanders believe that the name comes from the locals' propensity for gossip.

The town is dominated by the bulky 294m Mt Tapioi.

Uturoa to Marae Taputapuatea

Bustling Uturoa blends seamlessly into Avera. From here the road follows the contours of the narrow and magnificent Faaroa Bay. The islet that lies offshore is Motu Iriru. After going round the base of the bay and crossing Faaroa River, you reach the inland turn-off to the south coast.

From the turn-off, the road runs to a belvédère, with great views of Faaroa Bay, the coast and the surrounding mountains, before dropping down to the south-coast road.

If you don’t take the turn-off to the south coast, the road winds around the lush south coast of Faaroa Bay and through the village of Opoa to Marae Taputapuatea. Next to the marae (traditional temple) there’s a small artificial beach that makes for a great picnic spot.

Motu Oatara

The glassy waters around Motu Oatara, just across from Opoa village, are excellent for snorkelling. This idyllic, deserted islet also harbours a small colony of sea birds. It can be visited on excursion tours or reached by kayak from Opoa Beach Hotel or Hotel Atiapiti.

Getting There

Ra’iatea is separated from Taha’a by a 3km-wide channel.

The navette (shuttle boat) services on the Te Haere Maru run between Uturoa and various stops on Taha’a – Apu, Poutoru, Tiva, Tapuamu, Patio, Hipu and Haamene – twice a day, at 5.30am and 11.30am. From Taha’a, they leave at 9.30am and 3.30pm. There is no service on Saturday afternoon or Sunday. It takes less than 15 minutes to get from Uturoa to Apu, the closest stop on Taha’a (but almost one hour to Patio); the one-way fare is 780 CFP. You can buy tickets onboard.

There is also a taxi-boat service between the two islands, which operates daily. It costs 7000 CFP to go to southern Taha’a and 13,700 CFP to get to the north of the island (prices are for two people). You can be picked up at the airport or any of the accessible pontoons. Advance booking (24 hours) is required.

The Maupiti Express travels between Bora Bora, Taha’a and Ra’iatea. On Monday and Friday it departs from Vaitape (Bora Bora) at 7am, arriving at Taha’a (Poutoru) at 8.30am and at Uturoa around 8.45am. It leaves Uturoa on the same days at 4pm, stopping at Taha’a (Poutoru) and arriving back at Bora Bora at 6pm. On Sundays the same route runs, but starts from Bora Bora at 2pm. Fares are 5400 CFP one way between Ra'iatea and Bora Bora and 800 CFP to go from Ra’iatea to Taha’a.

The cargo ships Taporo and Hawaiki Nui also make a stop at Ra’iatea.

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Entertainment

For complete entertainment guides, pick up a copy of ffwd (www.ffwdweekly.com), the city's largest entertainment weekly. The paper is free and found in numerous coffee bars, restaurants and street boxes in Calgary, Banff and Canmore.

Eating

In Calgary, the restaurant scene isn’t just fast-moving – it’s supersonic, with ever-better quality and greater variety. Where solitary cows once roamed, vegetables and herbs now prosper, meaning that trusty old stalwart, Alberta beef, is no longer the only thing propping up the menu.

You’ll find good eat streets in Kensington, Inglewood, Uptown 17th Ave and downtown on Stephen St.

Drinking & Nightlife

Hit 17th Ave NW for a slew of martini lounges and crowded pubs, and 4th St SW for a lively after-work scene. Other notable areas include Kensington Rd NW and Stephen Ave. Evenings bring out stretch limos and noisy stag nights in corporate bars. For Calgary’s gay and lesbian nightlife, pick up a copy of Outlooks (www.outlooks.ca).

Shopping

Calgary has several hot shopping spots, but these districts are reasonably far apart. The Kensington area and 17th Ave SW have a good selection of interesting, fashionable clothing shops and funky trinket outlets. Stephen Ave Walk is a pedestrian mall with shops, bookstores and atmosphere. Inglewood is good for antiques, junk, apothecaries, and secondhand books and vinyl.

What to do in Ra'iatea

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