Photo Courtesy of Pierre Lesage
With 118 islands and atolls spread across five distinct archipelagos, French Polynesia has versions of paradise for every traveler. Most stick to Tahiti and the Society Islands, like Mo'orea and Bora Bora, but if you venture a little farther afield you'll find stunning experiences in the Tuamotus an…d ultra-remote Australs. From black pearls to world-class scuba diving, waterfall hikes to epicurean and cultural adventures, French Polynesia will keep you entertained, should you tire of lounging on white-sand beaches, sipping coconut drinks, and staring at the most amazing azure and turquoise sea.
What to know before you go to French Polynesia
It's best to visit between May and October during the "dry season," when the weather is slightly cooler and the rainfall much less significant. Temperatures rise during the November-to-April summer rainy season when it's humid, cloudy, and very wet. Three-quarters of the annual rainfall occurs during these months, and although it is generally in the form of brief, violent storms, torrential rains can sometimes last several days.
All international travelers must pass through the country's only international airport, Faa'a, a few miles west of the capital city of Pape'ete, on Tahiti. The airport is easy to navigate and served by all the major international carriers. Flight time from LAX is only eight hours or so. There is no departure tax within French Polynesia.
With the exception of Tahiti and Mo'orea, which are linked by high-speed ferry, travel between islands is mostly by airplane. This is more affordable than one might expect, since the French government underwrites some of the flight costs to encourage tourism between islands. Air Tahiti is the main airline and flies to 38 islands in all five of the major island groups.
Fresh fish and seafood is a staple in Polynesia. The national dish is Poisson Cru, which is fresh-caught raw fish (usually tuna) with diced vegetables marinated in lime and soaked in coconut milk. It is absolutely delicious and can be served with rice. Chevrettes are another popular Tahitian delicacy. These are freshwater shrimp often cooked in a butter sauce or grilled.
Family is important in French Polynesia, and the traditional Tahitian family is a fluid, open-armed force serving as the country’s backbone. Weekends are spent with family, and when strangers strike up conversations they usually begin with questions about family. The tattoo art form was also invented in Tahiti, and today many Polynesians sport beautiful work-of-art tattoos as symbols of their personal identities.
The Billabong Tahiti Pro Surfing Tournament happens over three days in May; it's an international pro-level surf contest on the big waves of Puna'auia in Tahiti. Heiva i Tahiti is a major traditional Polynesian festival held in Pape'ete throughout July. The Kawaiki Nui Canoe Race is held in November.
French Polynesia is expensive by anyone's standards, with over-water bungalows usually starting in the thousands, not hundreds, per night and a simple cheeseburger and fries from a street stand costing upwards of $30 in some places. It's best to know what you're getting into before heading out. If you can score an all-inclusive deal here, it's usually worth shelling out, as drinks are even pricier than food. Also note that if you stay on the more remote islands—pretty much anywhere other than Tahiti, Mo'orea, or parts of Bora Bora—you'll want to pay for at least half-board wherever you stay, as restaurant options can be extremely limited.
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Becca Blond is an award winning freelance travel writer based in Denver, Colorado. She is the author of more than 30 Lonely Planet guides across five continents and contributes content to publications like USA Today, The Guardian, Los Angeles Times, AFKTravel, Cadillac Magazine and Jetsetter. She is also a Personal Travel Planner for Jetsetter. When not on the road she lives with her three dogs, Duke, Bobbi and Poppy, who assist with pet friendly hotel reviews. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @PlanetBlond or check out her blog at Totally True Adventures in Travel Writing.