I will always have a special place in my heart for French Polynesia, as it's where my husband and I went on our honeymoon. It really was everything you could ever imagine about paradise in the middle of the Pacific Ocean: dramatic volcanic peaks blanketed with verdant jungles, crystal clear turquoise lagoons, friendly smiling locals at every turn. Since the arrival of the Europeans in the 1700s, the place has been the subject of countless stories, books and films featuring explorers, mutineers, and beautiful Tahitian women. And there’s a reason for it: the place is one of a kind. However, I did learn a few things after our visit, some of which were a bit surprising:
You’re probably thinking, excellent work, Sherlock, it’s called FRENCH Polynesia for a reason. Well yes that’s true but I was surprised by how French the place actually is, considering it is literally on the other side of the world. Everyone speaks the language, be it slowly, with a lilting, melodic accent. Europeans make up 12% of the population, running restaurants, hotels and tourism businesses. Justice, education, security and defence systems are directly provided and administered by the French government. And many locals speak wistfully of children who went off to France for university, not wanting to come back and take over the family plantation. Oh and there are some pretty awesome French restaurants. Who knew you could get a great foie gras in the middle of the Pacific?
It must have been his first day
I have to admit, before planning our trip there the only two islands I had heard of were Tahiti and Bora Bora. As beautiful as it is, Tahiti should really only be a brief mandatory stop for it has the territory’s only international airport. The capital Papeete is the main commercial centre, and there are a few nice beaches and resorts in the area, but the real gems lie further afield.
Bora Bora will always be Bora Bora: beautiful and glamorous, but with a casual, island feeling. It reached its heyday in the 70’s and 80’s as the ultimate luxury destination, and now boasts numerous big, lavish resorts featuring those world-renowned overwater bungalows. Yes, Bora Bora is gorgeous and you can’t go to French Polynesia without setting aside a couple of days to enjoy it. But its fame is also its downfall; the resorts are big and beautiful but can be soulless, the main drag is full of pearl shops and it’s packed with cruise ship passengers. There are other islands close by that offer the same beauty with more authenticity.
Though you have to admit, the Bora Bora sunset is pretty spectacular
Mo’orea, shaped like a gecko’s foot and just a 20 minute flight from Tahiti, is just as stunning and features a dramatic, volcanic peak in its centre. Enjoy the spectacular snorkeling in its pristine lagoon (I literally walked out three metres from shore, stuck my face in the water and watched thousands of colourful fish swim around the coral beds), take a hike or quad tour into the mountain for its stunning views or just relax on the deck of your overwater bungalow (yes they have them here too). Visit other nearby islands such as Taha’a, Raiatea or Huahine, which are less developed and quieter but no less beautiful. If you have more time, leave the Society Islands (to which all of these islands belong) and visit the Tuamotu or Marquesas Islands for an even more far-flung experience.
Mo'orea from the peaks
Black tipped sharks and lemon sharks live in the area and tend to get very close to shore. One evening my husband was about to go for a dip outside our bungalow when he saw a fin slowly meander by (he swore the Jaws music was playing in the background but I’m sure he was exaggerating). You can even go on shark diving expeditions, but it’s all a conservationist’s nightmare; the hotels and tourist guides depend on the sharks for business and dump food into the water to make them come closer. The sharks get lazy and depend on the humans for food. It’s a vicious cycle. But not to worry – they’re small, harmless and would prefer the leftover tuna scraps to your tasty body. No tourist has ever died of a shark attack.
Though most people around the world think of Tahitian vanilla, most of French Polynesia’s vanilla is actually produced on the island of Taha’a. Because of the pervasive aroma of the plant, the island is known as “Vanilla Island”, and it produces 25 tones of pods annually. Because vanilla was brought over by European traders to French Polynesia, the plant has to be painstakingly pollinated by hand (the bee that originally pollinated the plant in its native Mexico and Central America doesn’t live in the middle of the Pacific). The beans are sorted, graded and shipped the world over.
Yes, you need to stay in an overwater bungalow at least once because that is the thing to do, and the nicest ones tend to be part of big resorts such as the Four Seasons or St. Regis in Bora Bora. Plus you need to make all of your Facebook friends jealous with photos of your feet in front of the clear blue lagoon. But don’t pass up the opportunity to stay on a small private island. Vahine Island, a 30 minute speedboat ride from Taha’a, has only 9 bungalows but is completely charming. The rooms have a rustic feeling, the staff is incredibly friendly and you really feel like you’ve been shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe style (but still have access to a gourmet chef, excellent piña coladas and wifi.) How about a massage on the deck of your bungalow? Or a snorkeling trip with the beach boy who’s at your beck and call? And even better: unlike those huge resorts, you don’t need the staff to chauffeur you in a golf cart just to get to dinner.
Excited to go to French Polynesia? I hope so, put it on your bucket list!