French Polynesia is paradise.
I mean, just look at this:
That’s Bora Bora and it was even more spectacular than I’d dreamed it would be.
But you know what? It was actually the islands outside of Bora Bora that captured my heart and that was a big surprise. I visited five of them over my two weeks in French Polynesia and I was thrilled to discover how much each individual island had to offer travellers — and they were all so different! I spent my time hiking volcanoes, spotting manta rays, learning how to crack open coconuts, swimming in lagoons, feeding sacred blue-eyed eels, and sunbathing on some of the best beaches I’ve ever seen.
French Polynesia was nothing like I’d expected. In some respects, island-hopping my way around was far easier than I’d thought it would be, but in others, it was frustratingly hard. More on that in the post.
Here’s what it’s like to travel in French Polynesia:
Arriving is Incredibly Easy if You’re From the EU
French Polynesia is, obviously, a French territory, so arriving was just as simple for me as it is to travel inside the EU. I know this really shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it was just so easy! At the airport, I was first off the plane and ambushed by two singing ukulele players along with a girl in a grass skirt. They performed a Polynesian dance for everyone as we trundled past them. I felt as far away from Europe as I could possibly get.
At immigration, the guy took my passport, glanced at it, then handed it back a second later. No stamp, no questions, nothing!
French Polynesia is Enormous and You’ll Never See it All
Click here to see an Air Tahiti map of French Polynesia overlaid across Europe — they’re essentially the same size. That’s a whole lot of islands, a whole lot of distance, and a whole lot of ocean!
When I first started planning my French Polynesia jaunt, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of islands I could visit. How could I possibly choose just a few?
There’s the Society Islands, just to the west of Tahiti. They attract the most number of tourists, thanks to Bora Bora, and they were ultimately where I decided to spend all of my time. Even when dedicating two weeks to this group of islands, I only managed to get to a third of them. And I was moving fast.
What did I skip over? The Tuamotos, a string of 80 atolls stretching roughly over the size of Western Europe. These are all low islands: sand bars atop coral reefs and look ridiculously beautiful. There’s the Marquesas, one of the most remote island groups in the world, 900 miles and a 3.5 hour flight from Tahiti. Unlike the Tuamotos, these are mostly tall, volcanic islands, and unlike most of French Polynesia, aren’t surrounded by coral reefs. Finally, there’s the lesser-visited Gambier Islands, which consist of 14 volcanic islands inside a large lagoon, and the Austral Islands, quiet islands with a few guesthouses and (supposedly) the most authentic Polynesian culture.
Guys, I want to go to them all. Reading through that list has me feeling as though I could easily spend three months in French Polynesia and still leave having seen so little of it. Which gives me many, many reasons to return!
Try to Travel as Slowly as Possible
I know, right? There I am, talking about how I want to visit as many islands as possible, and the next minute I’m saying to slow down.
Island time is real and in French Polynesia, it’s especially present. This is a place where everything happens slowly. It’s where the locals ride bicycles and sing out bonjour! to everyone who passes, no matter their nationality. It’s a place to unwind and meditate; to smell the flowers and laze in turquoise lagoons.
One of my biggest regrets was moving so fast during my two weeks that I didn’t get to properly embrace that way of life. I’d arrive at one guesthouse and be leaving for a new island three days later.
If I could do it again, I’d have cut out Raiatea (it was too big to explore on foot) and spent my two weeks in Maupiti, Huahine, and Bora Bora. Three islands (plus a night or two in Tahiti) over two weeks sounds perfect.
An Air Tahiti Pass is the Way to Go
Because everything is so spread out, ferries only run between a couple of the islands and they’re usually infrequent and hard to find any information for. To get anywhere in French Polynesia, then, your only real option is to fly.
I picked up an island hopping pass from Air Tahiti, which gave me close to a 50% discount on what I would have paid if I’d booked all of my flights individually. In total, I ended up paying just over $400 for seven flights. There are several options for island hopping passes, ranging from around $280 for three stops in the Society Islands to a whopping $750 to visit several islands in the Marquesas.
And the Best Way to Get Around is by Bicycle
I haven’t had the best of luck with bicycles when I travel, so it was a surprise that I grew to embrace them in French Polynesia. Like the island time I mentioned above, cycling slows you down, chills you out and ensures you don’t miss anything. I was always moving slow enough that the locals could call out to me as I passed, I was able to stop every few metres to snap a photo of a colourful flower or deserted beach, and the roads were well-paved, so it wasn’t painful to ride.
If you travel around in a car or on a scooter, you miss a lot of that. You don’t see as much, smell as much, experience as much.
There are, of course, exceptions, like Raiatea. The main road on the island runs for 92 miles around the coastline and the attractions are spread out, so exploring on foot or by bike was difficult.
It’s Cheaper Than People Think
When I announced that I was going to be visiting Bora Bora on a budget, people seemed skeptical. Big travel bloggers told me it wouldn’t be possible, because it was the most expensive place on the planet. After having been there, that statement simply isn’t true. Sure, it’s not Southeast Asia cheap, but I found prices to be in line with those in the Maldives or the Cook Islands, and less on some of the lesser-visited islands.
Bora Bora is home to a dozen decent guesthouses with nightly rates that start from $50 (I’ll post my budget guide with all of the details within the next couple of weeks!) so if you’re travelling as part of a couple, that’s pretty cheap for somewhere that’s one of the prettiest places I’ve ever been.
And yeah, I’ll be honest, there are some pain-in-the-ass-rip-off expenses that I totally expected for a place that attracts so much luxury tourism (see: the ridiculous costs at the luxury resort I stayed at in the Maldives). My guesthouse in Bora Bora, for example, emailed before I arrived to ask if I wanted to order a daily breakfast for $13 a day, stating that if I didn’t order it in advance, they’d increase the price to $19 a day after I arrived. Assuming they do that because there were no other food options nearby, I agreed. Bleh. There were plenty of places I could have eaten at, which would have been cheaper and tastier.
Having said that, some things were cheaper than I expected: Air Tahiti offers a free ferry shuttle from the airport to the mainland for anyone who isn’t staying at a fancy resort. Most guesthouses offer free transfers from where the shuttle drops you off. Food wasn’t crazy-expensive and I usually ate for $10-15 a day. You can rent a bicycle for $10 a day to explore the island.
When it came to the other islands, things got even more affordable. My guesthouse in Maupiti was $70 a night, but that included all of my meals, an airport transfer, and a free snorkelling trip to swim with manta rays, so I didn’t have to pay for anything else while I was there. In Huahine and Raiatea, I averaged $50 a day in total, and that’s as a solo traveller.
French Polynesia is stunning, but you don’t have to pay a fortune to see it.
The Best Parts of French Polynesia are Outside of Tahiti
I was so freaking excited to get to Tahiti, because even just the name made it sound like this mystical, magical, tropical island paradise.
Compared to the other islands I visited, it wasn’t. It’s built up, it’s developed, there’s traffic and trucks and it’s busy and there are enormous shopping malls and supermarkets. And a Mcdonald’s. When you compare that to a place like Maupiti, which has no ATMs, where everyone rides bicycles, where there’s a population of 1000, and where there’s not a single resort, there’s no competition. I much preferred the laid-back, go-slow, way of life outside of Tahiti.
Tahiti felt a bit like being in the U.S. but with everyone speaking French.
The Language Barrier was One of the Highest I’ve Ever Come Across
Speaking of French, if you can’t speak more than a few words of it (like me), you’re going to struggle here. I’ve rarely come up against such a high language barrier in a place so set up for tourism, so this was a real surprise.
I can count the number of locals I had a conversation with on two hands. Most of the guesthouses owners only spoke French, airport officials couldn’t understand my questions, and the cabin crew on Air Tahiti rarely used English. Even on Bora Bora, it was rare to find a local who spoke more than a few words of English. On Maupiti, my guesthouse owner spoke so little English that whenever she wanted to ask me a question or talk to me, she’d have to drag an English-speaking guest to my door to translate for her!
I don’t really mind language barriers, and I definitely can’t complain about them, but it was isolating as a solo-traveller-who-couldn’t-find-any-other-solo-travellers and I did feel lonely at times. It also made it harder to get things done. When a guesthouse owner forgot to pick me up from a ferry terminal, for example, on an island with no taxis and where nobody seemed to speak English, I struggled to get out of the situation.
But the Locals are Lovely
I’ve never been to a place where literally every single local you pass calls out hello to you. That was French Polynesia for me. Everywhere I went, I was greeted with, “bonjour!” “bonjour!” “bonjour!” I felt so welcomed and safe, even with the big language barrier that meant we couldn’t exchange much else.
On Maupiti, one of the guesthouse owners motioned for me to follow him after breakfast and proceeded to teach me how to crack open a coconut to wash down my meal with. He didn’t speak a word of English, but still took half an hour out of his day to teach me a new skill.
On Raiatea, my apartment owner offered to take me dancing in the main town with her friends one night.
On Huahine, a local I cycled past told me about a hike that isn’t well publicised, and insisted that he show me where the island’s sacred eels were, so that he could help me feed them.
On Bora Bora, a group of local paddle boarders took me under their wings, plied me with a lime-coconut liquor, and told me everything I could possibly want to know about what it’s like to grow up in somewhere so isolated from the rest of the world.
Hostels are Rare
I stayed in a dorm room in Tahiti, but didn’t find any hostels on any of the other islands I visited. And to be honest, at $25 a night for a crappy dorm that was full of mosquitoes, it offered far worse value than the $40-70 a night guesthouses I stayed in elsewhere.
Outside of Tahiti, if you’re visiting on a budget, you’ll be staying in fares, small guesthouses with a single-digit number of rooms. They’re actually really lovely places and I felt like they offered great value for money. They’re also kind of like resorts for budget travellers: you’ll often eat your meals there, take a tour with the owners, and borrow their bicycles or car. It made everything really easy.
Solo Travelers Are Also Rare
I met a handful of solo travelers in my hostel in Tahiti — staying in a dorm room no doubt helped — but as soon as I left, I didn’t meet any others. Just like I experienced in the Cook Islands, this felt very much like a destination for couples (especially honeymooners!) and families.
Unlike in the Cook Islands, this wasn’t as much of an issue in French Polynesia. Because the fares are set up to be far more communal, I wasn’t eating alone every night and having nobody to chat to. Dinners were often included in the price of the guesthouse and were at a set time, so I got to hang out with other travellers and chat, which I loved.
Bora Bora Was Just as Spectacular as I’d Hoped
It’s funny: I was so unenthusiastic about going to Bora Bora. It was my final stop on my trip and I’d already fallen in love with so many wonderful islands. I fully expected Bora Bora to look exactly the same as them, but to be full of fanny pack-brandishing tourists and overpriced everything.
But Bora Bora is special and you should totally go there.
Was it my favourite island? No. It was a little too hard to travel on a budget, had me feeling a little too much like I was being ripped off, the food wasn’t as good, and the beaches actually weren’t as nice as the ones I’d spent time on on other islands. But it was 100% the prettiest island overall. Being in Bora Bora is like being in a dream.
So, Which Island Was My Favourite?
It’s tough to choose between Maupiti and Huahine, but I think the latter wins it for me. Huahine was gorgeous. It had the best beach I found in French Polynesia, it had tons to do, from exploring old abandoned hotels to feeding blue-eyed eels to hiking up a volcano. The locals were welcoming, the lagoon was beautiful, and the seafood was delicious. My favourite guesthouse was also in Huahine.
Back when I was planning out my South Pacific jaunt, I believed that spending two weeks in French Polynesia would be enough for me. I thought that all of the islands would be similar, so if I could see a few, I’d be set for life.
Every other year, I spend Christmases down in Oceania, which gives me the perfect opportunity to add on some South Pacific exploration either on the way there or afterwards. I thought that my next trip would be all about visiting Samoa, Tonga, and Vanuatu, but now I’m not so sure.
Now, I’m fairly certain I’m going to return to French Polynesia for at least a month. I miss it already.