Chantae Reden explores island escapes to suit every travel wish list
With more than 100 islands and atolls in French Polynesia, finding the perfect one to visit can overwhelm even the most discerning travellers—no two are quite alike. No matter if you're in search of an overwater bungalow retreat or a family-run guesthouse, wisps of white sand or misty forest trails, laid-back seaside restaurants or quick street eats, all-day adventure or a relaxing getaway, there's an incredible island for you.
Best for: Archaeology, lagoon tours and laid-back living
Huahine just might be French Polynesia's best-kept secret. A fertile island rich with tropical fruit plantations, coconut groves and archaeological ruins, it's a place where locals seem to treat travellers like long-lost kin rather than newfound strangers.
Roam around the island and you'll find rivers with blue-eyed eels and ancient ceremonial sites, called marae, where a strong sense of spirit, or mana, is felt. From Huahine's main town of Fare, the mountainscape of the island looks like a woman lying down, and the name Huahine stems from the Tahitian word for woman, vahine. And while there's plenty of fun to be had ashore, head to Huahine's lagoon to swim next to reef sharks, pink whip stingrays and coral bommies.
Best for: Dining, shopping and black sand beaches
The island of Tahiti is the largest in French Polynesia and the first stop for most travellers, but you'd be remiss to skip over it. Head to Papeete, the capital, to experience Tahiti's take on big city living. The scent of ripe fruit, tiare flowers and vanilla lingers in the air of Papeete Market, where piles of produce, the catch of the day, colourful fabrics called pareau, iridescent pearls of every colour, and monoi oils are on display. Once sunset arrives, the waterfront of Papeete rumbles alive with food trucks doling out piping hot crepes and grilled seafood.
In Tahiti's interior, jagged mountain peaks cede to valleys misted by waterfalls, best explored on a 4WD safari or mountain bike. Flanking the island are black sand beaches with coral reefs just a few fin kicks away from the shoreline. If the swell is just right, venture out to Teahupoo, one of the world's most powerful waves, to witness surfers' skills and the sea's bravado. With so many accommodation, dining and activity options on the island, Tahiti is family-friendly and fun to explore.
Best for: Hiking, ocean sports and whale watching
If you're looking for natural splendour, you'll find it on Moorea. The emerald-like mountain peaks, the sugar sand beaches and the lagoon that seems to capture every shade of blue make it worthwhile to visit if only for the scenery. Spend your day lazing on a white sand beach or trek to the island's interior to grab a view of the island from above at Belvedere Lookout. Papaya, coconut and pineapple plantations cloak the tame parts of the island. Moorea's pineapples are rumoured to be the sweetest in the world, but there's only one way to test if this accolade is true.
Out on the lagoon, have a life-changing experience and come eye to eye with a humpback whale. These gentle giants cruise through the waters from July to November on their annual migration. Smaller critters like sea turtles, reef sharks and technicolour reef fish also abound. Once the day is done, experience the thrum of Tahitian drumming and dancing at a Polynesian cultural show.
Best for: Romantic stays, snorkelling and dining
The name Bora Bora conjures visions of sugar sand beaches, vivid blue waters and the signature silhouette of the island group's main island—but there's more to Bora Bora than just its beauty. Couples in search of a romantic escape will undoubtedly find it while sipping a cold drink on the deck of their overwater bungalow or while holding hands side by side at the spa.
When it's time for excitement, snorkelling trips to see manta rays, ATV rides to World War II canons and kayaking excursions ensure there will be plenty to talk about over an intimate candlelit dinner. While there are plenty of five-star resorts on Bora Bora's outer motu, affordable accommodations near Vaitape on the main island make a trip to Bora Bora in reach for those on a budget.
Best for: Scuba diving, snorkelling and getting away from it all
A stark contrast to French Polynesia's lush mountainous islands, the Tuamotu atolls rise just slightly above sea level. The lagoon inside the coral ring of Tikehau is a refuge for marine wildlife such as sharks, sea turtles, rays and other reef critters. Ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau hailed Tikehau as having the highest concentration of sea life in the South Pacific—and travellers can witness this abundance in Tuheiava Pass, Tikehau's small reef pass connecting its lagoon and open ocean.
Empty pink sand beaches and white sand islets beckon those who want to shun every semblance of city life, and the slow pace (and limited electricity) create a feeling of true disconnection. Le Tikehau by Pearl Resorts offers accommodation in overwater bungalow form, and a handful of guesthouses welcome travellers to experience family-friendly hospitality.
Best for: Dolphin spotting, wine tasting and mesmerising blues
A remote atoll in the middle of the South Pacific might be the last place you'd expect a vineyard to be, but Rangiroa is all about defying stereotypes. Sip a chilled glass of rosé made from grapes grown on the desert atoll at Tiputa Pass, where dolphins often leap out of the water like acrobats. For a big day out, take a boat trip to the aptly named Blue Lagoon. Most trips include a feast of coconut bread baked in banana leaves, poisson cru (raw fish with coconut milk, cucumber and lime juice) and sides of grilled root vegetables. Wade in the shallows around scores of blacktip reef sharks, lounge in the shade of a palm frond or beachcomb along the shoreline.
Rangiroa is also a scuba diving and snorkelling dream destination. The drift dive at Tiputa Pass is famous among thrill seekers thanks to its high concentration of grey reef sharks and pelagics such as barracudas, trevallies and tuna fish. Cheeky dolphins also often make their star appearance.
Best for: Diving with sharks, scenic views and art
A vast 1400 kilometres away from the island of Tahiti, Nuku Hiva hosts a rugged landscape of cloud-topped mountain peaks, a craggy coastline marked with quiet coves and rarely trod trails leading to ancient ceremonial sites. Intrepid divers will get a thrill from diving with scalloped hammerhead sharks, while those in search of more laid-back endeavours can browse the handicraft market. Artists from this region are renowned for their sculptures made from wood, stone and bone in a style not found anywhere else. A drive around the island reveals panoramic views of the moody coastline and access to untouched beaches.
Best for: Archaeological ruins and art
Hiva Oa has long been a muse to artists both local and foreign who find artistic inspiration in its terrain. The town of Atuona overlooks a jet-black beach and is flanked by verdant hills. The town's art centre displays intricate handicrafts made from painted tree bark called tapa, intricate sculptures and hand-painted pareau. The Paul Gauguin Museum depicts replicas of the artist's most famous works and outlines the conflict-riddled history he had with the island. With your own set of wheels (or the help of a local guide), venture to the Smiling Tiki and to the sacred site of Ma'ae Iipona, where five giant stone tiki guard the island from malevolent spirits.
If you'll be visiting more than two islands, check to see if the islands are covered under an Air Tahiti Multi Islands Air Pass, a cheaper way to travel between the islands than buying each flight one way.
For more on what to see and do in French Polynesia, see tahititourisme.com/en-us/
This piece originally appeared in New Zealand Herald Travel here.