Social Island Hopping (French Polynesia)

A long time without any update. I have stopped posting weekend trips as they are not that interesting for most people and I no longer have the time for frequent write-ups. So for now, I’ll concentrate on maybe a few major trips, but leave the blog mostly as is. I have also taken down some materials due to the changes in EU copyright law, but friends and family will know how to still access the more personal memories. 😉

So here goes another big one: French Polynesia.

One of the few remaining items of my old bucket list of many years back. An overseas territory of France, the Polynesian islands, are located on the other side of the planet from a European perspective (exactly 12hrs time difference) and consequently quite hard to get to. There are actually dozens of islands and atolls, grouped into the (most popular) Society Islands, the Gambier Islands, the marquesas, the Tuamotu Archipelago, and the much smaller austral islands. A trip to the famous south sea is every escapist’s (including Gauguin) ultimate destination.

Trip Details:

  • Trip Date: 2019
  • Trip duration: 17 days
  • Vacation required: 9 days
  • Trip cost: 258€ / p.P. / Day (high) (all in, all tips, drinks, taxis etc. included)

Day 0: Transfer
Day 1 – 3: Chicago:
Day 4: Transfer
Day 5: Tahiti
Day 6: Tahiti
Day 7: Bora Bora
Day 8: Bora Bora
Day 9: Bora Bora
Day 10: Tikehau
Day 11: Tikehau
Day 12: Rangiroa
Day 13: Rangiroa
Day 14: Moorea
Day 15: Moorea
Day 16: Moorea
Day 17: Return (+ Arrival on Day 18)

Getting there

In the past, the easiest way to get here was via Australia and New Zealand. And even today, this variant is common. However, it is much more expensive than flying via the U.S. The best, cheapest, and faster route nowadays is via San Francisco or L.A. Nonetheless, I would say when you are travelling anyway to New Zealand for a longer vacation, an excursion to Polynesia is a perfect addition. You can also combine a trip with a stopover in some of the major U.S cities, a nice variation to the endless beaches and water activities of Polynesia.  But I will skip a description of the stopover part of the trip and focus on Polynesia.

It is almost impossible to do all islands or even all island groups in one trip, so you have to make some choices. The most common and developed are the society islands, volcanic mountainous islands, with incredible Bora Bora leading the pack. The Tuamotus are more remote coral atolls, best for diving, and offer very few high end luxury resorts or simplistic guest houses. The other island groups are less populated and less developed from a tourist perspective. The larger marquesas and gambier islands are similar to the society islands in nature and geography, as they are also volcanic islands.

The best way to experience French Polynesia is by buying an island pass from Air Tahiti, which combines several islands in one flatrate price. There are two Polynesian airlines. Air Tahiti, which covers the domestic flights between the islands, and Air Tahiti Nui (Nui means big) which is the international carrier. I bought a Tuamotu+Society Pass, combining 5 stops on both island groups, to get a glimpse of all aspects of this region. The five islands are:

  • Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora (Society Islands)
  • Tikehau, Rangiroa (Tuamotus)

We had also decided to split the trip into diverse experiences by changing the type of accommodation and a style on each island. This ranged from AirBnB apartments and self-catering, remote island guest houses, plain hotels with self-arranged activities, up to upscale luxury resorts. Therefore, different from how I usually split my travel report into days, I will split them this time into the different islands and vacation-type experiences.

Tahiti

No matter from where you arrive or which island you visit, your first stop is Tahiti with the international airport. The largest island is most developed, with the capital Papeete being a proper city. However, it is also the most mass touristy. Large cruise ships dock here, and up to 4000 guests rush into the island. With a few exceptions, the beaches in Tahiti are mostly black sand, interesting to see, but overall less nice than the other islands. You also have opportunities for diving and snorkeling, but other islands offer a bit more in this regard. The shoreline also mostly features tourist bars and shops. Public transport is not very good and taxis are incredibly expensive. So I strongly recommend to rent a car at the airport, this way you can at least somewhat head off the beaten path. There are a few historic ruins to see (but hardly more than rubble) and some select museums, such as the Gauguin museum. All quite nice, but no must-do. Some spots I recommended to visit, are the Faarumai Waterfalls and the Teahupoo Beach (world famous for surfers due to the incredibly high waves), but one day is sufficient to see the island.

I recommend to get a private apartment and self-cater. This cuts cost, as the islands are all quite expensive. And with a rental car you can see all main sights and stop at some local shops for Poisson Cru (as the name suggests, raw fish with coconut and lime, very good!) There is a nice food truck area near the port which is quite busy with locals and good fun for dinner.

Many tourists skip Tahiti entirely and sadly I have to say this is the right call, as your arrival/departure day will be enough to see the essentials and for each preference (hiking, snorkeling, resort, diving, animals, nature) there is another island, more specialized, offering a better experience.

 

Moorea

Moorea is the sister island of Tahiti and can be reached either via a 15min flight or a 30min ferry ride. Unless you can work this into your Air Tahiti island pass, I strongly recommend the ferry as it is much cheaper and more flexible. Actually there are two ferries. The Aremiti and the Terevau ferry, the latter being slightly cheaper. They run frequently during the day and you do not need to book in advance unless you want to bring a car. Moorea is like a smaller, cleaner and more beautiful version of Tahiti and more laid-back. It takes about one hour to go around the island by car. You can find decent snorkeling and swimming options at the public beaches and near some of the resorts. Tahiti is easier for surfing but Moorea offers some nice spots near the reefs. The reef and mountain views are quite nice and essential stops include Belvedere lookout, Cook’s Bay, Opunohu Bay and the public beaches. Accommodation options are some (older) resorts like the Sofitel, Intercontinental and Hilton or one of many pensions and guest houses. Although much better than Tahiti, the resorts still have a slightly mass touristy feel. The Intercontinental has a turtle shelter which is nice to visit. Taxis are very expensive (4000 from the airport, 4500 from the ferry), but there is a shared shuttle service which is considerably cheaper and a car rental station near the ferry dock. Or just chat up some other travelers to share a cab – there are only 3-4 resorts on the island and many people take the ferry to get there. Most local restaurants offer free transfer for dinner and you can rent jetski, scooters, paddle boards, kayaks, snorkeling gear etc. at all Guest houses and resorts. So I would recommend to find a nice home base and then start 2-3h excursions from there and stay for 2-3 days in total. Other islands offer better diving options than Moorea, so no need to do that here.

Tikehau

Now onto the diving destinations. Tikehau is one of the most beautiful atolls and famous for its dense fish population. Jacques Cousteau visited here on an underwater expedition in 1987 and confirmed one of the densest fish populations on the planet! Part of the Tuamotu Archipelago, Tikehau’s geography is very different from the volcanic society islands. There is no central mountainous main island, just the circular coral atoll with the lagoon in the center. Thus infrastructure is mostly non-existent and population is very few. There is one small village nearby the airport and the inlet canal into the lagoon, some remote cottages, one premium resort and the rest is uninhabited. Unless staying directly in the village, all transport is via small motorboats across the lagoon. The only resort here is incredibly expensive so the village guest houses or cottages are a better option. However, whereas English was totally sufficient on the Society Islands, French is virtually a must for a local stay on Tikehau. Instead of a village guest house, we went for a remote island cottage. This is definitely not for everyone. Brackish, cold shower water, no electricity at night, no air-conditioning. But you have a private island all for yourself. There was not a single light or person to be seen in any direction. Sadly the weather did not play along this time, strong winds and heavy rain meant all dives were cancelled. Also no chance for drone shots. Nonetheless, taking the kayaks out to the lagoon and the uninhabited islands, jumping in for a snorkel with black tip reef sharks whenever you feel like it, was fantastic. Another aspect that Tikehau is famous for are the rose-pink beaches. And the sand (from the coral remains) really is pink. Beautiful. On a side note: they shot the trash tv show “Adam&Eve” on one of the islands nearby and we kayaked over and saw the film sets. Weird. 😉

Rangiroa

Rangiroa is just a few kilometers east of Tikehau, but is considerably larger. The lagoon is also much bigger and waters are wilder. Rangiroa is better than Tikehau for drift dives and for larger fish, especially dolphins and sharks. You have similar choices as on Tikehau with several guest houses or one luxury resort called Kia Ora, which I chose. The Kia Ora resort is definitely not cheap, but worth the money. Sadly the bungalows are not fully sealed so you have to deal with lots of mosquitos. There is one diving station on the island – located inside the Kia Ora resort. At 6pm every evening when its season, you can also walk to the canal (the only deep water connection between the lagoon and the ocean) to see dolphins play and jump in the high waves and currents. Perfect for sunset. There are tours available to the blue lagoon, probably the main highlight of Rangiroa and a must-do. Don’t book the tour with the resort, search online and you can find local tour companies which offer the exactly same tour for 20% cheaper and they pick you up at the resort. You can also find some local small shops nearby, so no need to eat in the expensive resort all the time. The canal dives are drift dives and pretty amazing. Your chance for big fish is high and we saw hammerhead sharks, barracudas, tiger sharks, dolphins and many others. Besides that the options for Rangiroa and Tikehau are very similar. Both Rangiroa and Tikehau are also amazing for night sky pictures – you can see the entire southern hemisphere and there is almost no light pollution.

Bora Bora

The queen of all the French Polynesian islands and most popular. Actually not the last stop of the trip, but Bora Bora is an amalgamation of all the other islands I wrote about so far, so it is a fitting conclusion. It has the large central volcanic island of the Society Islands, plus the outlying Motu’s which are similar to the atoll structure of the Tuamotus. The airport is also located on a motu and when you land, you are shuttled by an airport ferry to the main village Vaitape. If you have time to visit only one island in all Polynesia, choose Bora Bora. It is one of the most expensive, but you have all options in high quality. Tikehau and Rangiroa might be slightly superior for divers, but around Bora Bora you have plenty of amazing dive spots as well. The extreme luxury resorts are located off the main island on the surrounding motus (e.g. the St. Regis or the Le Meridien) whereas some other resorts, the guesthouses and the mid-range hotels / resorts are located on the main island. Both has ups and downs. On the Motu you have the view of Mt. Otemanu, and higher quality beaches / snorkel, whereas on the main island you can see the outer motus and have convenient access to the main supermarkets, restaurants or can do day trips to the other resorts. Many resorts (e.g. the intercontinental) offer day-passes, often with lunch included, for a fraction of the overnight prices. Two popular spots on the main island include the Bloody Mary bar – mostly famous for some VIPs who stumbled in here – and the St. James restaurant – a high quality restaurant and bar with an ideal sunset view. Most resorts and restaurants offer free transfer with a booking, so once you are on the main island life is very convenient and far less expensive than on the outer motu resorts. I recommend to do a lagoon tour, which takes you around the whole island, with several stops for snorkeling and swimming, plus a nice barbecue on one of the remote motus. There are also several dive centers on Bora Bora – I can [recommend] Bora Diving center in the southern part. They also offer transfer and are conveniently located on Matira Beach – the most beautiful beach of the main island. Beyond that you of course have a gazillion other options for water sports or can hire a scooter / jeep to explore the main island.

Shoot

  • All the society islands are picture-perfect, so ideally get on a boat or an outlying atoll/motu to take a shot of the high mountains.
  • Bring a zoom lens to catch the high waves, jumping dolphins and surfers.
  • Bring a drone! Polynesia is the ideal location for drone pictures and the French laws are reasonable. Be aware: Almost all resorts now prohibit drone use on their grounds.
  • Bring a tripod and a wide-angle high-light lens for night sky pictures, especially on the remote islands the light pollution is very low and the views are fantastic
  • Sunsets and sunrises are amazing in French Polynesia, make sure to check for ideal locations.
  • Underwater photography is a must, so bring a good underwater camera. As many larger fish and swarms are below 20m, consider bringing a flashlight as well.

Plan

  • Getting to French Polynesia can be painful, try to find good connections with United, French Bee or Air Tahiti Nui (Air France cooperating). Via the U.S. is generally cheaper than via ANZ.
  • Book ground transfers in advance
  • Get an island hopping ticket with Air Tahiti, for approx. 500€ you can visit many islands and the check-in times as well as facilitation times are very short. So it is easy to fly around for short trips.
  • You might sometimes get amazing rates very short notice in the luxury resorts. However, I would not bet on it and Polynesia is more and more popular with French and American tourists and – much more extreme – with Japanese and Chinese. So everything sells out fast. Book and reserve early.
  • Make sure your ground transport is arranged. The islands are small and taxis are rare and very expensive
  • With good planning you can visit Polynesia on a budget. Example:
    • Get a discount ticket with United and combined with a U.S. stopover. ~1000€ p.P. is doable for the flight if you go off-season.
    • Go to the supermarkets and self-cater or eat (great seafood) at the local snack shops. The shops all have excellent French baguette, cheese and good wine.
    • Get share rides instead of taxi or hotel transfer
    • Book directly with the diving schools, tour organizers etc. instead of via the resort, you can save up to 25%
    • Stay in local hotels (only on the bigger islands) or guest houses and get day passes to the resorts. Price difference: 80€ vs. 500+€ per night.
    • Prices are much lower in off season and the weather is volatile anyway, so you can save on specific date ranges.
  • Bring swim-shoes, slippers or other protection as the corals are very sharp and you must have these for swimming or snorkeling
  • French basics are very useful, especially on the remote islands.
  • Part of France, Polynesia is not part of the EU. So roaming is expensive. Also network coverage is very bad, as is wifi in almost all hotels. Be prepared to really be offline for most of the trip (and look foward to it 😉 ).

Avoid

  • Be very careful with mosquitos. They are everywhere and both day and night active. While we were there, the government also issued a dengue infection warning. Bring High DEET repellent and possibly long sleeve clothing.
  • The islands are French and proud of it – don’t offend.
  • The sun in French Polynesia is very strong. Bring high factor sunscreen and re-apply frequently. Do not underestimate.
  • French Polynesian women marry very young and have children early. A large part of the population is also heavily overweight due to the major changes in food diet in just 1-2 generations. Be polite.
  • There are dangerous sharks in these waters. Be careful and dive only with experienced instructors. Tiger sharks are common and are amongst the most aggressive sharks in the world.
  • Bring shoes or other protection as the corals are very sharp and you must have these for swimming or snorkeling.
  • The tap water is not potable everywhere. Check with the hotel and better rely on bottled water if you are sensitive.
  • Tipping is not common.
  • Otherwise the islands are very safe, people are incredibly friendly and there is no need for security concerns.

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