To wax poetic over the cerulean waters and peachy skies in French Polynesia would be redundant. The images of the archipelago in the south-central Pacific Ocean I’ve seen splashed across social media and marketing ads were certainly spot on when I arrived in Tahiti and Bora Bora for the first time in late January.
But paradise needs some advance planning. As the country strives to maintain COVID safe protocols since reopening its borders May 1, 2021, preparing for the trip included a number of steps to ensure it was a smooth one. Here are a few things I learned during the trip, which might come in handy if you’re planning a trip to French Polynesia.
French Polynesia travel restrictions and COVID health protocols
All travelers to the region must show a certificate of vaccination against COVID-19 issued by the country of origin. Additionally, all travelers 12 years of age and older are required to supply a negative RT-PCR test result obtained within 24 hours of departure. French Polynesia also requires that all visitors fill out an online ETIS health declaration form between 30 to 7 days prior to arrival. If anything changes between then and your trip, you can update the form in the web portal at your convenience. All updated entry requirement details are available on the Tahite Tourisme site.
For the required COVID test on the return to the United States, travelers can pre-register for an airport test before the departing flight to expedite the process. Be sure to arrive with ample time before your flight for them to conduct the test and process the results, which are typically available within 45 minutes.
Other general planning tips that came in handy to prepare for my trip included packing reef-safe sunscreen and rash guards to protect against the very strong sun in the region during January. For water adventurers, reef shoes are great to wear on lagoon excursions to prevent any potential scratches that can result in infection.
Getting there and checking in
Air Tahiti Nui offers nonstop, eight-hour flights from Los Angeles International Airport, with an arrival time that landed me at Tahiti’s Papeete airport two hours behind L.A. time and early enough in the morning to be able to enjoy a full day.
The Barbie-colored seating was the perfect precursor to the tropical colors waiting some 4,000 miles away. A speedy 10-minute drive from the airport leads to the Hilton Hotel Tahiti, a brand-new property that opened in November 2021. The 200-room hotel’s design is inspired by Polynesian culture, with decor that includes plant-shaped lamps, a wooden va’a (outrigger canoe) suspended at the entrance of the hotel, and tikis—which have a strong spiritual meaning of power, knowledge, and prosperity and are believed to protect against bad energy. There are three on-site restaurants where the hotel’s sous chef Puarani, who won the Award of French Overseas Chefs in 2018, sources as many local products as possible to create dishes like miso mahi mahi and yuzu granita.
For those using Tahiti as a starting point on their French Polynesia journey, or need a place to rest before departing, the Hilton Hotel Tahiti’s transit lounge offers a place to work or relax by the pool at the same rate as a one-night stay (approximately $350). Additionally, there is a pharmacy directly across from the hotel for guests to easily test for COVID prior to departure.
Creating overwater bungalow vibes
A visit to the region naturally had to include a stay in one of French Polynesia’s ubiquitous overwater bungalows. A 40-minute plane ride from Tahiti’s Papeete airport landed me on a small runway adjacent to a dock in Bora Bora, with water so clear that it glowed. Just 20 minutes later, that water appeared in all its glory again at Conrad Bora Bora Nui’s glass-bottom lobby.
Rows of wooden overwater bungalows jutted out of the ocean, but it was a jagged, shiny black lava rock formation outside my room that caught my eye and remained my favorite focal point. That mountain isn’t the only thing that moved me, because my island host butler, Killian (available to help out with anything from food orders to laundry), greeted me in my room to the tunes of one of my favorite Afrobeats artists: Wizkid. The icing on the cake was the overwater hammock and infinity pool, which I happily danced all the way to—with a fresh coconut in hand.
Conrad Bora Bora Nui, located on the southwest end of Motu To’opua, reopened on May 1, 2021. There are 86 overwater rooms and 28 land rooms scattered across the private, lagoon-fringed island, as well as a half-mile-long white-sand beach—the longest in Bora Bora. Overwater bungalow decor is wood toned, chic, and minimalist, with the deck serving as the star of the show. Bluetooth speakers that connect to both indoor and outdoor areas provide the perfect soundtrack to the glittering ocean below.
The Conrad has the only hilltop spa in the region, with 360-degree ocean views and a couples massage treatment room. A five-minute boat ride takes guests to the resort’s private island, Motu Tapu, where activities include a picnic helmed by executive chef Michael Wenger and pastry chef Urielle Moulin, vow renewal, or a photo shoot. I chose simply to relax with a cocktail in hand at the infinity pool.
Discovering Polynesian culture
Though 75 percent of the population in the region is of Polynesian descent, the French influence in the region is ever present. Some resorts and companies make an effort to keep Polynesian culture at the forefront of guests’ experiences. Maohi Nui offers a number of excursions, including a lagoon trip that highlights the land’s biodiversity in a traditional outrigger canoe, or a culinary celebration with a Polynesian feast on a private island.
Conrad Bora Bora has a traditional underground oven made of coconut leaves and stones (called an ahi ma’a), where guests can experience a powerful prayer and blessing over the food before partaking in a beach barbecue. Other activities guests can enjoy include making flower leis, weaving coconut leaves, and Tahitian dance lessons. They can also learn how to speak Tahitian, how to wear a pareo, how to open a coconut, and more.
Stay at the Hilton Hotel Tahiti: From $389/night, expedia.com
Stay at the Conrad Bora Bora Nui: From $900/night, expedia.com
>> Next: AFAR’s Guide to French Polynesia