Merely mention that you’re planning to visit French Polynesia, and you’re likely to solicit oohs and aahs. The scenery throughout the island chain is the stuff that dreams (and screensavers) are made of, with jagged volcanic peaks, placid seas in shades of turquoise and cobalt, white-sand beaches, and crystalline lagoon waters with tropical fish and rays.
But with 118 islands and atolls scattered across five different archipelagoes (67 of which are inhabited) in the South Pacific Ocean, French Polynesia offers unique pockets of paradise for every type of traveler. From the international hub of Tahiti and other popular Society Islands, to the remote shores of Tikehau, we’ll dig deeper into the distinct landscapes and personalities of five French Polynesian islands you should visit.
Best for: a bustling cultural experience including art, shopping, and food
No matter where you’re coming from, your international flight into French Polynesia is likely to land at the airport in Papeete, the French Polynesian capital city on the northwest coast of Tahiti. The island is the economic and cultural hub of the country and its most populous; it’s home to more than two-thirds of the population.
Relative to the other islands, Tahiti is bustling and industrialized. Yes, you’ll encounter traffic here. Expect large hotels with the nameplates of global brands.
Vsitors will find specific pleasures in Tahiti: Art fans will pay a pilgrimage to the island for its Musée Gauguin and historical connection to the painter Paul Gaugin, who escaped the bustle of Europe for these shores. (Gaugin, it should be noted, made his works through the problematic lens of colonialism and also had predatory sexual relationships with young Tahitian girls.) Shoppers will delight in the municipal market—Le Marché—which dates back to the 1800s, a central place to score Tahitian products and produce just a block from the waterfront. Don’t miss a stop to Papeete’s food trucks, or roulottes, which rendezvous at Vaiete Square, dishing up large portions in a lively atmosphere of residents and visitors alike.
Where to stay
This pensione offers a collection of stand-alone villas with private pools and well-equipped kitchens. The Tahitian family behind the property built most of it with their own hands, favoring wood, roofing shingles, and decorative objects made locally for a gracious Polynesian feel. Villas are all tucked into a lush garden with sea views and natural ventilation from the trade winds.
Book Now: From $170 per night, omati-lodge.com
Whether you’re on an overnight layover or extending your stay on Tahiti, the Intercontinental is a well-located and long-established pick: It’s just over a mile from the airport and city shopping. A 60-acre tropical garden surrounded by the sea and infinity pools offers views of nearby Mo’orea.
Book Now: From $231 per night, expedia.com
Best for: knockout views and wide-ranging outdoor adventures amid dramatic mountain peaks
Mo’orea is easily accessible compared with other islands in the volcanic archipelago known as the Society Islands: Reach Mo’orea by short ferry journey (about 40 minutes) from Tahiti. Although it’s only 10 nautical miles away, it’s far apart in vibe. The island is known for its dramatic mountain and lagoon vistas and jaw-dropping beauty. Here, you’ll find rugged volcanic peaks soaring over lagoon waters in every shade of blue.
Mo’orea maintains a relaxed atmosphere with a small-island feel and fewer internationally branded resorts compared with islands such as Bora Bora. Come here for a wide-ranging roster of outdoor activities and adventures. Many artists live on the island, and various galleries showcase their works. Guides lead hiking, biking, and 4x4 tours of the mountainous destination with stops to admire the postcard views of Opunohu Bay and Cook’s Bay.
Where to stay
Hilton Mo’orea Lagoon Resort & Spa
This Hilton property is situated between Mo’orea’s two bays, with a northern location that offers equally amazing sunrises and sunsets. Snag an overwater bungalow—French Polynesia’s signature accommodation—or set up shop in garden bungalows, some with private pools.
Book Now: From $411 per night, expedia.com
Best for: opulent resorts from which visitors can view sparkling lagoons against the dramatic backdrop of Mount Otemanu amid pampering hospitality
Even the name of this island conjures a magical and indulgent once-in-a-lifetime experience, and indeed honeymooners frequently choose Bora Bora as a destination. Located on a dormant volcano island surrounded by a crystal-clear lagoon, Bora Bora is the island to visit if you seek pampering and luxury amid a landscape of resorts prepared to cater to the most discerning—and deep-pocketed—guests.
The tallest and most recognizable point is the jagged Mount Otemanu at the center of the 15-square-mile island. Set out for the day on a boat into the lagoon to try a popular activity: swimming with sharks and rays as they glide around you in shallow waters.
Where to stay
Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora
Located on the outer reef along the island’s northeastern side, the resort offers tricked-out overwater villas (some with private plunge pools), walls made of volcanic stone, and decorative accents rendered from mother of pearl. This honeymoon hotel is also family friendly, with a kids club and a resident marine biologist on hand to take the whole family on an educational snorkeling tour.
Book now: From $1,132 per night, expedia.com
Best for: a less-touristed environment where the snorkeling is stellar and vanilla fragrance permeates the air
The quiet island of Taha’a doesn’t have an airport; you access it by boat or helicopter. Accordingly, this island with a smattering of lodgings maintains an understated charm and an easygoing atmosphere. Idyllic beaches ring the island, which resembles the shape of a flower.
Nicknamed the “vanilla island” because it produces most Tahitian vanilla, Taha’a has a fragrance that wafts on its breezes. Visiting a vanilla farm is a must; plantations dot the island. Pearl farming is also a long-standing tradition here.
But snorkelers will most of all delight at the beauty under the water around Taha’a, which is viewed easily in this less-touristed environment: Visit the so-called coral garden by boat for spotting outrageous tropical fish and sea life. Here, you’ll see a colorful array of clownfish, lionfish, wrasse, butterfly fish, anemones, giant clams in electric blue, and more.
Where to stay
Le Taha’a by Pearl Resorts sprawls over the private islet Motu Tautau, with views of both Taha’a and Bora Bora. (It’s 15 minutes away by helicopter.) The intimate property, one of just a few here, offers 58 suites and villas inspired by traditional Polynesian architecture. The property prizes authenticity and an atmosphere in harmony with culture and nature.
Book now: From $861 per night, expedia.com
Best for: a remote-feeling escape with few other people or distractions from the natural beauty and abundant fish
The only one on our list outside the Society Islands, Tikehau is paradise for visitors seeking an off-the-grid feeling (albeit one with Wi-Fi and phone access). Find pink and white sand on Tikehau’s beaches throughout this utterly remote-feeling atoll of the Tuamotu archipelago, vestiges of an ancient volcano. The tiny islands here form a lagoon that opens onto the ocean through a single pass.
About 500 inhabitants live here. In the Tuamotu language (which has several thousand active speakers in the region), Tikehau means something like “peaceful landing,” an apt descriptor. Ditch your shoes when you come here, and let the elements pace your plans.
In the long-standing tradition of residents here, head out on the water for both your recreation and your lunch: Protected by a single pass, the lagoon here is famous for its abundantly fish-filled waters, even by French Polynesian standards.
Where to stay
Le Tikehau by Pearl Resorts
Situated upon one of the many pink-sand motus (islets) that comprise the atoll, amid the lushness of a wild coconut grove, this resort features villas over the water and on the beach. There’s a single restaurant and bar, plus a spa (but you’ll probably spend most of your time on and in the water).
Book Now: From $461 per night, expedia.com
>> Next: AFAR’s Guide to French Polynesia