The overwater bungalows at Le Taha'a Island Resort and Spa offer incredible views.
The name “Tahiti” has become synonymous with French Polynesia, but in fact, Tahiti is only one of the 118 islands that comprise French Polynesia. Five archipelagos make up the country: the Tuamotu Archipelago, which includes the atoll of Rangiroa; the Austral Islands; the Marquesas Islands; the Gambier Islands; and the Society Islands, which include Bora-Bora, Moorea, Huahine, Raiatea, and Tahiti. Tahiti’s chaotic capital city, Papeete, is also the capital of French Polynesia.
Nearly all visits to French Polynesia begin in Papeete, which is an eight-hour flight from Los Angeles. Most people know the islands by their most popular tourist destinations: Tahiti, Bora-Bora, and Moorea, but those islands are just part of French Polynesia’s story. Here’s a handy guide to Tahiti and some of the country’s less-visited islands.
The name evokes images of white-sand beaches, grass-skirted dancers, fresh flower leis and palm trees swaying in the wind. Except for the beaches, this image isn’t far from the mark; most of Tahiti’s beaches, however, are of darker volcanic sand. To get to the vast stretches of white sand, most people jet off to other islands and the sandy motus (small islands) that dot the aquamarine lagoons around them.
There’s much to see in Papeete and throughout Tahiti, however. This island makes a great jumping-off point and an excellent place to stock up on supplies and get an introduction to island culture before heading to the hinterlands.
A circle-the-island tour will give you a taste of Tahiti’s lush interior and the sights around its perimeter. Typical stops include the home of Mutiny on the Bounty author James Norman Hall, the Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands, a small but charming Paul Gauguin museum, and Point Venus. One of the objectives of Captain James Cook’s 1769 expedition was to record the transit of Venus across the face of the sun in an attempt to calculate the distance between the sun and the earth; Point Venus is where he set up his observatory.
Allot time for the busy Le Marché public de Papeete, the cavernous market where you can buy anything from pareos (sarongs) and vanilla to fresh fish and produce. South Pacific Tours offers transfers and tours; ask for the knowledgeable and personable Ruth Chisaka.
For the more adventurous, the action is really in Tahiti’s lush interior, where you can hike in to see some of the island’s many spectacular waterfalls, climb Mount Aoraï, explore the rugged Papenoo Valle, or even go canyoning, an exhilarating sport that involves rappelling up waterfalls. Trails can quickly become lost in the dense foliage, and some trails require permits, so always go with a guide; contact Tahiti Tourisme in Papeete for recommendations at (011-689) 50-40-30.
Tahiti is also a great place to catch a Polynesian dance extravaganza, offered several times a week at resorts including the InterContinental Resort Tahiti & Spa and the Sofitel Tahiti Maeva Beach Resort.
Where to Stay
- The Manava Suite Resort Tahiti has the island’s largest infinity pool, well-appointed rooms with kitchenettes, and an excellent restaurant. Rates begin at about $236.
- The plushest option on the island—and probably the most convenient—is the InterContinental Resort Tahiti & Spa. It features marble bathrooms, balconies overlooking the sea, and over-the-water bungalows, as well as a gut-busting Polynesian buffet and one of the best Polynesian dance extravaganzas in the country. A nice plus: The hotel provides a set of transit rooms available to anyone who books a room here: if you’re passing through Tahiti on your way to another island later in the trip, you can rent a transit room and take a shower or catnap while you wait for your transfer. Rates begin at about $250.
Rangiroa is the world’s second largest atoll (after Kiritimati, or Christmas Island, in Kiribati). It’s one of more than 76 atolls and islands that make up the Tuamotu Archipelago, the largest of Polynesia’s archipelagos. The peaceful turquoise and lapis blue lagoon sheltered within the circle of coral islets that make up Rangiroa seem to extend forever. With visibility at more than 150 feet and a constant temperature of around 80 degrees, this natural aquarium is truly a diver’s paradise. The atoll is an hour’s flight from Papeete via Air Tahiti Nui.
You can arrange diving and snorkeling excursions through your hotel or choose from numerous dive shops in the main villages of Avatoru and Tiputa. The more adventurous can “shoot the pass” at the famous Tiputa Pass, an opening to the ocean filled with sharks and a fantastic range of sea life. If you’re a wine lover, don’t miss Vin de Tahiti, a vineyard surrounded by palm trees and located on a motu. Île aux Récifs (Island of the Reefs) is a popular attraction, an hour from Avatoru by boat. The area features coral outcroppings that have weathered into fantastic shapes and has excellent basins for swimming.
Where to Stay
- Maitai Rangiroa is planet-friendly, being both Green Globe and Earth Check certified. Its charming thatched-roofed bungalows line the lagoon and lush Polynesian gardens, and the sumptuous offerings at its open-air waterfront restaurant invite a guest to linger. Rates during the low season—November through March, excepting December—start at about $250.
- If you can splurge, consider Hotel Kia Ora Resort & Spa, which has 10 over-the-water bungalows, each featuring a window in the floor, and 25 villas that include spacious outdoor gardens and a plunge pool with a coral fence. Its main restaurant, Te Rairoa, offers a blend of French and Polynesian cuisine. Rates for bungalows start at about $650 a night, including meals.
- As is the case throughout the islands, budget travelers can choose from a selection of pensions, such as the Pension Bounty, which offers rooms with kitchenettes for about $94 per person, breakfast included.
If you seek wilderness, tranquility, and authentic Polynesian culture, you can do no better than Huahine. Dotted with small villages and one of the country’s best-preserved marae complexes, Huahine remains a tranquil tropical refuge.
Island highlights include the marae walk at Maeva, a collection of ancient stone fish traps that are still in use, and the drive around the island, which is as full of folklore as it is spectacular scenery. To enjoy the former, go with an engaging and knowledgeable guide, such as Paul Atallah (011-689-71-30-83). Atallah has lived on the island for much of his life and shares his passion for the place.
For a nautical adventure, try Huahine Nautique , which offers a motu picnic, snorkeling and shark-feeding expeditions, personal watercraft tours, and houseboat rentals. You can also shop for pearls at pearl farms.
Where to Stay
- Peter Owen founded Maitai Lapita Village Huahine on the site where Captain Cook passed by in 1769. Owen, a California native who arrived here years ago as a young potter, chose Huahine as his home because of the rugged landscape and authentic feel. Lapita Village is the culmination of an eight-year project that marries ancient cultural designs and artifacts with a modern artistic sensibility. The lushly landscaped grounds include Marae Tahuea, sketched by Cook’s artist and included in his journals. There’s also a small museum that explores the island’s archeological roots. Garden bungalows start at $307 during low season.
- Chez Guynette is a basic but comfortable and conveniently located pension just 50 yards from the beach in the town of Fare. Its open-air restaurant looks out on the sea and is a favorite hangout for Huahine locals and travelers alike. Prices range from $21.50 for a bed in one of the dorms to $66 for a private double room.
Raiatea and Taha‘a
A single lagoon connects these sister islands, each of which has a different feel. Mountainous Raiatea, home to the famous Marae Taputapuatea, is considered the spiritual center of all Polynesia. It’s great for hiking, soaking up the local culture, and exploring untouched tropical wilderness; you can also take a kayak tour up the Faaroa, the only navigable river in French Polynesia. Taha‘a is smaller and less mountainous and is famous mainly for its vanilla production.
Activities available on both islands include tours of vanilla and pearl farms, snorkeling in Taha‘a’s beautiful coral gardens, and excursions to the abundant motus that surround the islands.
Where to Stay
- The Opoa Beach Hotel, on the south side of Raiatea, is small and charming in a French provincial way. Surrounded by a lush forest, it’s located on Opoa Bay near Marae Taputapuatea. Rates begin at $281 for a garden bungalow.
- Located on its own motu, Le Taha‘a Island Resort & Spa has over-water suites and villas, built with bamboo and exotic woods and pandanus-thatched roofs. Designed with a nautical theme, they offer vistas of Bora-Bora, Raiatea lagoon, and the surrounding mountains of Taha‘a. The soaring entrance to the lobby and tree-house-like restaurant guarded by a fierce tiki evoke an authentic Polynesian air. Over-water suites start at about $800, including breakfast.
- Alternatively, you can book a cruise through Tahiti Yacht Charter and get a room and meals on board and transfers from Raiatea Airport included in the price. The four-day, three-night private Iti Iti Cruise, for example, begins at $2,600 per person during low season; the price includes the services of a skipper/captain and a cook, the use of snorkeling and fishing gear and two sea kayaks, and all meals, including one dinner at Le Taha‘a Island Resort & Spa.
For more information about French Polynesia read In the Wake of the Ancients.
Your AAA travel agent can provide more information about travel to French Polynesia. Call 1-800-814-7471 or visit your local Auto Club branch.
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