Alluring overwater bungalows on Bora Bora and other glamorous luxury properties in French Polynesia have long been fodder for Instagram posts and eye-catching magazine covers. But travelers need not spend nearly $1,800 per night on a trip to see the country’s turquoise waters, white-sand beaches, and lush jungles—especially those travelers who seek laid-back, personal experiences and insight into local life and traditions. On a recent visit, I went beyond the well-known resort walls and enjoyed a simple alternative that gave me a richer connection to the people of these islands.
Tahitian guesthouses, also known as pensions, are typically family-operated lodgings that are smaller and less manicured than the area’s resorts. There are currently 285 guesthouses in French Polynesia, from popular places like Tahiti and Bora Bora to remote spots like the Marquesas Islands and Rurutu in the Austral Islands. All of them offer a way to connect with a culture that many visitors know only superficially.
Pensions often feel like warm inns or bed-and-breakfasts. They can be found in less-visited areas away from the tourist path and tend to have up to 15 rooms or bungalows. Whether consisting of thatched-roof villas, bungalows, or fashionable rooms reminiscent of those found in boutique hotels, each property has a personality and style inspired by its owners and the surrounding island’s vibe.
The seven roomy bungalows at Vaitumu Village, for example, on remote Rurutu are rustic yet stylish and enjoy ocean and lush garden views; both the beach and the terrace with its swimming pool are right outside guests’ doors. On trendy Moorea, the 12 whitewashed bungalows at Moorea Beach Lodge have an air of exclusivity, as well as air-conditioning. Cocoperle Lodge on the atoll of Ahe in the Tuamotus boasts six open-air bungalows—each of them fewer than five steps from the clear, azure water of the atoll’s lagoon.
Unlike resorts, which may give guests a few glimpses into local culture, guesthouses provide ample and varied opportunities to get to know the many sides of the islands and their residents.
Many offer communal areas for dining and relaxing, where island locals, domestic travelers, and international guests mingle. Some guesthouses even serve favorite local dishes family-style, creating opportunities to try new food that may be specific to the island. While we were dining at Vaitumu Village, a guest from Tahiti made me a cheat sheet of Tahitian phrases, so I could get better at local conversation. After dinner, the owners’ granddaughter practiced her skills in orero—the Polynesian art of oration—and related her knowledge of the culture’s connection to the sea through dramatic storytelling.
Guesthouse owners love to share their local knowledge, like the location of the best hidden beach or a favorite ice cream shop. The owner of Moorea Beach Lodge pointed me in the direction of two exceptional local restaurants within walking distance, as well as an artisan ice cream shop owned by his wife—Les Sorbets de Moorea—which features tropical flavors like tiaré, pineapple, and Tahitian vanilla. In locations known for world-class diving and fishing, proprietors are often interested in showing guests what’s up down below. At Cocoperle Lodge, a fishing excursion in the lagoon yielded enough fish for a traditional beach barbecue; we cooked our catch in the style of the Tuamotu Islands, with coconut milk and ‘uto (the spongy inside of a coconut developed during germination).
Despite their culturally rich offerings, Tahitian guesthouses don’t have a high price tag: They cost on average $123 per night—a stark contrast to the $700 to $1,800-per-night range at swanky Bora Bora properties, depending on the season. Remote guesthouses that aren’t near restaurants and off-property activities often offer half- and full-board options and will arrange excursions and activities with local outfitters.
Many travelers plan a strategic combination vacation, pairing a few nights in an overwater bungalow with an extended stay at a guesthouse on a different island to get a deeper dive into local culture. Others reverse the order and finish their vacations in luxe surroundings. So even if your travel budget isn’t high-styling, you don’t have to jettison your dream of staying in a luxury resort.
Ultimately, the two most memorable things in French Polynesia are the scenery and the culture. Increasing your access to both is the best way to experience the region and come home with not only fabulous photos but also a greater understanding of the Polynesian people.
>>Plan your trip with AFAR’s Guide to French Polynesia