Nothing says “tropical paradise” like sandy beaches, crystal-clear oceans, and warm weather year-round. One pictures palm trees filled with coconuts and long piers dotted with overwater bungalows while Jimmy Buffet’s greatest hits play in the background. No place exemplifies this lifestyle more than French Polynesia.
Many westerners have seen the Polynesian islands on the silver screen; Pixar’s 2016 blockbuster Moana and the 1958 musical film South Pacific were two box office hits that gave viewers a glimpse into the culture of the islands. In real life, Polynesian culture is spread throughout the Pacific from Hawaii to New Zealand to Samoa to Tuvalu. In the eastern corner of the so-called “Polynesian Triangle” sit the many islands of French Polynesia.
As much of the world remains in a precarious state due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s a safe bet that, for most CELEB readers, international travel is off the table for the near future. For a lot of people, vacation plans were called off or put on hold as the entire world changed overnight. But this shall pass; and when it does, you’ll want somewhere to go. In case that “somewhere” ends up being French Polynesia, here are some things you should know.
French Polynesia is a French overseas collectivity in the South Pacific, 2600 miles due south of Hawaii. It’s made up of 118 islands and divided into five island groups; the majority of the population is in Tahiti, part of the Society Islands, but there are also island groups such as Tuamotu Archipelago (which is the longest chain of atolls in the world), the Gambier Islands, and the Austral Islands. Fans of the long-running reality show Survivor will recall the Marquesas Islands as being the setting of Season 4, all the way back in 2002.
As a French overseas collectivity, French Polynesia has its own president and legislature. Nonetheless, it falls under the jurisdiction of the French Republic, and has its own representatives in the French Senate and National Assembly. The French Navy patrols its waters, and the French National Gendarmerie provide police services.
The People of French Polynesia
French is the main language spoken in French Polynesia, but Tahitian and other local languages are also common. The entire territory spans thousands of miles; the culture is very diverse and there is no “one size fits all.” An English-speaking tourist should have no problem in the touristy areas, but may want to learn at least a few phrases in French or the local language. It can’t hurt!
The culture is bright and vibrant; anyone lucky enough to see a Polynesian fire dance will see grass skirts and colorful robes and headdresses. Many hotels and resorts will have fire dances on the beach, where dancers twirl their flaming poles with logic-defying speed and precision.
Flowers feature prominently in the culture; the official flower of Tahiti is the tiare (also called the Tahitian gardenia), and it’s found everywhere on the island. In fact, the tiare is such a staple that the flight attendants on Air Tahiti Nui, the territory’s flag carrier airline, hand them out to passengers before they even step off the plane in Faa’a International Airport. Besides just looking nice and smelling good, the flowers serve a dual purpose. Tahitians (and tourists) wear the tiare tucked behind their left ear if they’re married or otherwise taken, and behind the right ear if they’re single. Make sure you’re sending the right signal!
As a territory made up of tropical islands, seafood and coconuts are both plentiful. It’s fitting, then, that French Polynesia’s must-have official dish combines both. Poisson cru, literally meaning “raw fish,” consists of chunks of raw fish that are “cooked” in citrus juice before being mixed with coconut juice and vegetables and served over rice. It tastes phenomenal and no trip to the islands is complete without it.
French Polynesia’s largest island is Tahiti, and with 134,000 residents, it holds 69% of the territory’s population. The island contains the territory’s capital, Papeete, and anyone flying into French Polynesia will inevitably land in Tahiti’s Faa’a International Airport.
Papeete Market has something for everyone, from groceries for locals to trinkets for out-of-town guests. All sorts of colorful clothing, hats, and handbags are available, as well as jewelry made from shells and pearls. The Tahitian pearl is the most valuable export from French Polynesia, and it adorns jewelry and clothing across the islands. And Maui’s hook from Moana? It’s an actual Polynesian symbol, and the same shape is seen in jewelry all over Papeete Market and elsewhere on Tahiti.
Tahiti is large enough that it has its own interior away from the ocean. A half-day tour of the island is well worth it. Safari vehicles that can comfortably seat two families are driven by a guide who knows all the best viewpoints and stops. The jungle spreads across the untouched Faarumai Valley, beautifully nestled between two mountain ranges. Your guide may stop at swimming holes, gardens filed with local flora, and stunning waterfalls. There will be steep climbs up and down narrow cliff-side roads, and you may wonder if the vehicle is about to stall as you ford rushing rivers, but when your guide tells you they’ve done this a million times, you may as well trust them.
One local attraction is the Arahoho Blowhole, a natural formation by the sea that shoots jets of water into the air with deafening intensity. It’s powered only by the power of the waves crashing into it, forcing huge amounts of water up a narrow hole in the rock.
From Tahiti, it’s only a half-hour trip by ferry to Moorea, 11 miles away. The island is dotted with pineapple farms, a huge export for French Polynesia. Stop by the Manutea Distillery and Juice Factory to see all the products that can be made from pineapple juice. In addition to pineapple drinks, the distillery offers plenty of rum and other beverages flavored by another primary export, vanilla.
Ancient temples, called marae, can be found on the island by those who know where to look (or whose guides know where to look.) They date back to the days before European colonization permanently changed the landscape. Moorea’s Opunohu Valley, now almost entirely uninhabited, has over 500 ancient sites, including over 100 marae temples. Each marae consists of a platform made of stacked stones, and while the jungle has encroached on their domain, many marae still stand intact. They were used for all sorts of ancient purposes, from archery competitions to consulting with the gods to practicing human sacrifice.
The entire region is known for its overwater bungalows (they were invented on French Polynesia’s Ra’iatea Island), and nowhere are they more stunning than on Moorea. Long piers jut out from the coast, branching out to make room for the huts that are perched on stilts over the clear water. Make sure to pack snorkeling gear so you can jump off your own balcony right into the water. Just don’t do it after dark; every night, a never-ending parade of sharks circles the waters below.
The island of Bora Bora is world-famous as a postcard paradise. Flights from Papeete are less than an hour in duration, and soon you’ll be flying past Bora Bora’s iconic jagged mountain and staring in awe down at the tiny island’s lagoon. Bora Bora’s fame has made it a favorite vacation destination for celebrities looking to get away from life back home.
Half-day catamaran cruises sail around the lagoon, stopping at reefs for some prime snorkeling. Champagne, barbeque, and more poisson cru await guests, and after you feed yourself it’ll be time to feed the sharks and rays that flock to the boat in droves.
Bike rentals are highly recommended for seeing as much of the island as possible. Artillery batteries nestled in the hills around the mountain remain pointed out at the sea, 80 years after they were put there to defend against a Japanese invasion that never came.
French Polynesia’s 118 islands, each more luxurious than the last, make it impossible to do justice to the whole territory in just one article. There’s only one way to get the full French Polynesian experience. As of January 2021, Air Tahiti Nui is offering flights between Papeete and Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Paris. Get excited; your first post-pandemic vacation will be one to remember.