French Polynesia Travel Guide
Date Visited: August 2018
From its dazzling, turquoise-blue, lagoons to its emerald-coloured, razor-back, volcanic peaks, French Polynesia is a veritable south Pacific paradise.
For many years, I’d dreamed of travelling to French Polynesia but the cost of flights were always prohibitive. Then, one day recently, I learned of a little French Bee. In my opinion, the French low-cost carrier, French Bee, is the saviour of tourism in French Polynesia.
The airline flies from its base in Paris, to a number of popular holiday destinations around the world, including Tahiti, with flights departing Paris-Orly (with a stopover in San Francisco), every Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Refer to the ‘Getting There‘ section below for more details on flights to French Polynesia.
Of course, French Polynesia has never been a cheap destination and while it’s now more affordable to reach, travel costs, once on the ground, are still high.
While ‘deluxe’ resorts are the mainstay of the tourism industry, there are plenty of smaller lodges and guesthouses which offer affordable accommodation options and the renown, roulottes (mobile food vans), serve up delicious, budget-friendly meals, each evening on the waterfront in Papeete.
You could spend months exploring the 4,000 square kilometres of this vast territory, one which contains five separate archipelagos. I chose to spend my time exploring the main island of Tahiti and neighbouring Moorea, both of which are detailed in this guide. I enjoyed my time French Polynesia and look forward to returning one day to explore the other archipelagos.
French Polynesia is located in the South Pacific, almost halfway between Australia (6,000 km to the west) and South America (7,500 km to the east). Other nearby Pacific Island nations include American Samoa; 2,469 km (1,534 mi) to the northwest, Tonga; 2,733 km (1,698 mi) to the west, Tuvalu; 3,535 km (2,196 mi) to the northwest and New Caledonia; 4,717 km (2,931 mi) to the west.
French Polynesia is comprised of 118 islands, of which 67 are inhabited. The territory is divided into the Austral, Gambier, Marquesas, Society (home to the main island of Tahiti) and Tuamotu archipelagos, covering more than 4,000 square kilometres of Pacific Ocean.
The 283,000 inhabitants of French Polynesia are mostly (82%) Polynesian with the remainder of the population composed of European (i.e. French) and Asian immigrants. According to the last census, 68.5% of the population lived on the main island of Tahiti with 50% of the territory’s population living in Papeete.
Polynesians first arrived in the region from Tonga and Samoa between 300 AD and 800 AD. It’s believed the original ancestors of the Polynesians left Taiwan 3,000 years ago, stepping from island to island across the Pacific, eventually reaching Easter Island around 700-800 AD.
Currency & Costs
The unit of currency in French Polynesia is the cours de franc Pacifique (CFP), which is referred to as the ‘Pacific franc’. Financial institutions abbreviate the currency “XPF“, but in this report I use ‘CFP’.
The franc is pegged to the euro at a rate of 1 Euro = 119.33 CFP ($1USD = 103.60 CFP).
The same currency is used in the other French Pacific territories of New Caledonia and Wallis and Futuna.
Not cheap! I met few budget travelers in French Polynesia and for good reason – travel costs are very expensive. To really enjoy the territory, you’ll need a healthy and flexible travel budget.
Sample travel costs:
- Room in a hostel: 7,000 CFP (USD$67)
- Room at the mid-range (2-star) Hotel Tiare Tahiti in Papeete: 11,800 CFP (USD$113)
- Room at the top-end Hilton Moorea Resort: 42,000 CFP (USD$400)
- Entrée in a tourist restaurant: 1,800 CFP (USD$17)
- Main course in a tourist restaurant: 2,800 + CFP (USD$27)
- A pint (.5 L) of local beer: 900 CFP (USD$8.60)
- A can of Coca Cola (.33 L): 475 CFP (USD$4.50)
- Water (.33 L): 325 CFP (USD$3.10)
- Cappuccino: 550 CFP (USD$5.26)
- A combo meal at McDonald’s: 1,450 CFP (USD$14)
First adopted in 1984, the flag of French Polynesia consists of two horizontal red bands which surround a wider white band – the two colours being traditional Polynesian colours.
In the centre is a disk with a blue and white wave pattern depicting the sea on the lower half and a gold and white ray pattern depicting the sun on the upper half.
A Polynesian canoe (piroque) rides on the wave pattern; the canoe has a crew of five, represented by five stars, that symbolize the five island groups (Austral, Gambier, Marquesas, Society and Tuamotu) of French Polynesia.
Postal services in French Polynesia are provided by the Office des Postes et Télécommunications (OPT), who produce colourful local stamps featuring the fauna, flora, culture (and pretty girls) of the territory.
Tahiti is the largest island in French Polynesia and home to almost all the population. Shaped like a figure-8 (to me it looks like a turtle with Tahiti Iti forming the head), it’s divided into Tahiti Nui (the larger, western section) and Tahiti Iti (the smaller, eastern peninsula).
One of the highlights of Tahiti Iti was being able to climb up into the central plateau which offers panoramic views of both islands and lots of bucolic, rural scenes which are unexpected in this part of the world.
With a population of 136,771 in its greater urban area, Papeete is home to 50% of the population of French Polynesia. The city serves as the capital of the main island of Tahiti, and also as the capital of French Polynesia.
Offering good shopping, markets, gardens, a picturesque waterfront and a variety of cultural activities, this compact capital can easily be explored in half a day on foot.
Papeete Central Market
In the heart of the city, Papeete central market should be the first stop on any walk around town.
Apart from the usual fresh produce, there are plenty of souvenir stands, an upstairs foot court and flowers sellers who create spectacular boutiques using local tropical flowers and plants.
The market is lively and vibrant and a good place to meet friendly locals.
Papeete Catholic Cathedral
Across the road from the market, the Papeete Catholic Cathedral, known as Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Papeete, has a modest exterior which belies its richly decorated interior.
Named after its famous Parisian counterpart, the cathedral, which was completed in 1875, includes artwork that features both European and Polynesian influences. Notable is the statue of the Madonna and Child which includes the child clutching a Breadfruit, an integral part of the Polynesian diet.
Stained-glass windows include artistic representations of the Stations of the Cross, which incorporate both Tahitian and Roman cultures but include only Polynesian people. The artistic style of the artwork was influenced by Paul Gauguin.
A short walk from the cathedral is Bougainville Park, which is dedicated to Louis Antoine de Bougainville – a French explorer who believed he had discovered Tahiti and claimed it for France, unaware that less than a year prior it had been discovered by the British explorer, Samuel Wallis.
In a strange twist of geographic-naming-irony, Wallis’s name is now used for one half of the French Territory – Wallis & Fortuna and Bougainville’s name is used for a key island in Papua New Guinea (formerly British New Guinea).
The park features a bust of Bougainville, a giant Banyan tree which provides ample shade, a tranquil stream, benches and lush vegetation. A nice place to escape the midday heat!
Across the road from the park is the Territorial Assembly building, the Parliament house for French Polynesia.
Around Tahiti Nui
Traveling around the main island is simply a matter of following the one ring road which circumnavigates the island. The rugged and impossibly steep interior is almost without roads, which makes sightseeing very easy as everything is located along, or close to, the main ring road and everything is well signposted. I drove a car around the island for two days which allowed ample time to visit all sights.
Traveling in an anticlockwise direction from Papeete, I visiting the following sights:
Located in the district of Pa’ea, the relaxing and beautifully maintained Arahurahu Marae is the largest Marae in French Polynesia. Marae’s in French Polynesia consist of raised stone, rectangular platforms. Inside the rectangle is a raised stone altar – the ahu.
Marae’s were used by Polynesians for ceremonial gatherings, religious rituals and other important events.
Continuing south along the west coast, my next stop was the beautiful Maraa Grotto. Located directly on the side of the main road, a short walking trail leads you to this gloriously beautiful and lush freshwater grotto, the ceiling of which is covered with ferns dripping with water. Paul Gauguin was also impressed, mentioning the grotto in his letters home.
Located at the 51 km mark, the Harrison Smith Botanical Garden is a little forlorn and unloved but does boast a Giant Galapagos Turtle, which is apparently 90 years old. You can photograph the poor captive turtle through the wire fence of its enclosure, but if you prefer your turtles ‘free-range’, you can view photos of happier ones in my Galapagos Islands Travel Guide.
Located next to the entrance of the botanical garden is the Paul Gauguin Museum, which closed its doors in 2015 and is not scheduled to reopen anytime soon. There is a security guard posted at the main gate, who kindly allowed me to take a photo of the museum grounds (from the gate).
After the botanical garden, I reached the southern town of Taravao, which provides access to the adjoining island of Tahiti Iti (refer to the next section for more on Tahiti Iti).
Continuing beyond Taravao, now traveling north, along the east coast of Tahiti Nui, a left turn past the village of Tiarei, leads to the parking lot of the incredibly high – Faarumai Waterfall.
The falls are a short walk from the car park along a well maintained track but, since a tourist was hit on the head by a falling rock a few years ago, swimming is not allowed.
The last stop before returning to Papeete was Venus Point, which is located at the tip of a peninsula, 8 km east of Papeete. The location was visited by Captain James Cook, who, on his first voyage to the Pacific, was tasked with observing the 1769 Transit of Venus from the South Pacific. Cook’s expedition was funded by the Royal Society of London for the primary purpose of viewing the transit of Venus.
After viewing this astronomical event, Cook got on with his ‘other’ mission which was to find the legendary Terra Australis Incognita – the great southern continent. Less than a year later, on the 29th of April 1770, Captain Cook first set foot on Australia at Botany Bay in New South Wales and the rest is history.
Around Tahiti Iti
Tahiti Iti has two coastal roads which extend halfway down the east and west coast and one road which travels up to a central plateau, providing access to a very different part of the country – one which is rural and bucolic.
The west coast road terminates in the village of Teahupo’o which is a famous surf spot and the venue for the annual Tahiti Pro surf competition which was due to commence a week after my visit.
The east coast road terminates in the picturesque, beachside village of Tautira, which is 49 km southeast of Papeete. The village offers spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and was once used as a place of convalescence by Scottish author, Robert Louis Stevenson, who referred to it as “The Garden of the World”.
Before departing Tahiti Iti, it’s worth taking the one other road on the island which climbs up onto a large, central plateau (from Taravao), eventually arriving a panoramic lookout – the Belvédère de Taravao.
Like Tahiti, exploring Moorea is made easy thanks to the islands impossibly steep interior. A single ring road circumnavigates the island with a couple of short roads providing a glimpse of the interior.
There is almost no public transport on Moorea so I hired a car (not cheap!) for the duration of my stay on the island. Following the ring road in an anticlockwise direction from the ferry terminal in Vai’are, I visited the following sights:
The first stop was the roadside lookout above the Hotel Sofitel Moorea which provides panoramic views of neighbouring Tahiti, the turquoise lagoon and the over-water bungalows of the resort. A right-hand turn to a popular public beach lies just beyond the lookout.
Beyond the lookout, the road curves to the left, passing the airport before arriving in the small village of Maharepa where I stopped (more than once) to eat at the amazing Café Caraméline (see the ‘Eating Out‘ section below for more on this delicious place).
After Maharepa, the road sweeps to the left, entering the incredibly scenic and narrow Cooks Bay (named after the man himself).
A Detour into the heartland of Moorea
From Cooks Bay, a left-hand turn leads off the main ring road and onto the signposted Route des Ananas (The Pineapple Route).
This is one of two roads which provide access to the interior of the island, with the route passing through huge pineapple plantations before joining up with the one other interior road – which winds its way up through many switchback turns to the lofty Belvedere Lookout.
The lookout offers breath-taking views of the north coast of Moorea and is the starting point of numerous walking trails which provide access to the jagged peaks and ridges which form the craggy backbone of the island.
Below the lookout, in the densely forested Opunohu Valley, lie an impressive collection of ruins, the largest of which is the (signposted) Marae Titiroa, which is located next to a roadside car park.
The marae, which is surrounded by overgrown Tahitian Chestnut trees, features a stone altar at one end; with small standing stones in the centre of the platform where the chiefs and priests once sat. When I visited I had the complex to myself since most visitors to the island are there to enjoy the beach.
Back on the main ring road beyond Cooks Bay, a side road in the village of Piha’ena leads to the foot of Mount Rotui and the industrial complex which is the Manutea Tahiti – Rotui Juice Factory & Distillery.
This is the company responsible for all the concentrated fruit juice served throughout the territory and a factory visit will shed light on how fresh fruit is turned into carton juice.
Back on the ring road, the next deluxe, ‘over-the-water bungalow’ accommodation option is the stunningly located Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort which is located in the village of Papetoai. If your budget can’t cover the Hilton, there are some backpacker lodges in the neighbourhood.
Further along the north coast, in the village of Tiahura, is the equally impressive (although no ‘over-the-water bungalows’) Intercontinental Resort Moorea which is home to the highly recommended scuba diving operation – Top Dive (see the following section for more on Scuba diving).
While on Moorea, I went scuba diving with the professional and competent team from Top Dive, who operate out of the Intercontinental Resort Moorea. The warm waters of the lagoon offer an abundance of marine life (including Lemon sharks), lots of colourful coral and visibility that has to be seen to be believed – excuse the pun!
I filmed the following video of a cruising Lemon shark on one of my dives with Top Dive – magic stuff!
Being home to almost 70% of the entire population, there’s no shortage of accommodation options on the main island. While in Papeete, I stayed at the wonderfully clean and simple, ‘Hotel Tiare Tahiti‘ which is a good mid-range option located on the waterfront in the heart of the downtown area. Rooms on booking.com range from USD$113 – $142.
While there are more deluxe options on Moorea, I chose to stay at the relaxing and more humble Linareva Moorea Beach Resort which is a seaside lodge located in the remote west coast village of Haapiti. If staying here, it’s best to have your own transport.
Room rates are from USD$150 upwards, which is cheap for Moorea. This doesn’t include breakfast which is available for an extra 1,500 CFP and includes fruit, coffee and a few pastries. A load of washing cost me USD$25.
The owner of the resort, Roland, use to run the dive shop up the road and, over the years, has trained the local sharks to come to his wooden jetty (a little food doesn’t hurt). Each evening, (large) Lemon, (numerous) Black-tip and several (huge) Nurse sharks appear from the murky depths. All are all very friendly and don’t mind you swimming around them. A great snorkeling experience!
Also on Moorea, I stayed at the Hotel Hibiscus which offers spacious bungalows arranged around a well-maintained garden (by the seaside) from USD$150. The bungalows include a kitchenette which allow some self-catering and nearby restaurants offer free shuttle services for those wishing to dine.
Papeete is well endowed with cafes, bars and restaurants, offering plenty of opportunities to sample local and French cuisine.
By far the most popular place for dinner is at Place Vaiete Roulottes, which is the public square in front of the Gare Maritime (ferry terminal).
Each evening, the country’s famous roulottes (mobile food vans) set up their plastic stools and tables, fire up their BBQ and grills and serve up a veritable feast of cultural and gastronomic delights – all under the starry, night sky.
Brewed by La Brasserie de Tahiti (owned by Heineken), the local beer is the perfect match for any meal served at the roulottes. The beer is brewed longer than most, giving it a more delicate, distinct flavour. It is possibly my number one favourite beer in the Pacific region and certainly very quaffable.
Where will you find the best mille–feuille on Moorea? Café Caraméline of course! Located in a small shopping centre in the village of Maharepa, the always busy, Caraméline is renowned for its all-day American, French or Tahitian breakfasts and lunch menu which features burgers, pizzas, salads and fresh seafood. The fine French pastries are the speciality of the house and are the perfect accompaniment to one of their freshly brewed coffees.
While French Polynesia is an overseas collectivity of France, it is not part of the Schengen Area and as such applies its own visa policy (which largely mirrors the Schengen Area policy).
Generally, EU citizens are free to enter and reside indefinitely while many other passport holders are granted a 3-month stay. To check your requirements, click here.
Immigration in the French territories is the breeziest of anywhere in the Pacific. No questions asked, no need to show a return ticket, nothing! Most visitors are processed in a matter of seconds – the way travel should be!
International flights to French Polynesia arrive at Faa’a International Airport (IATA: PPT), which is located in the municipality of Faa’a, 5 km (3.1 miles) southwest of the capital, Papeete. The airport serves as the base for the domestic carrier – Air Tahiti – and the international carrier – Air Tahiti Nui.
Flights to French Polynesia are never cheap but, thanks to the recent introduction of thrice weekly (Sunday, Wednesday and Friday) flights from Paris (Orly) to Papeete via San Francisco by the excellent French low-cost carrier, French Bee, reaching paradise is now much more affordable.
One way fares from San Francisco start at US$375, which has forced other airlines flying from San Francisco and Los Angeles to drastically reduce their tickets prices in order to compete – a boon for travelers.
Despite being a low-cost carrier, French Bee are a slick operation which feels more like a full-service carrier, providing a comfortable seat on a brand new Airbus A-350 with excellent service, tasty meals and a professional crew.
The following airlines provide connections to/ from Papeete:
- Air France – flies to/ from Los Angeles, Paris–Charles de Gaulle
- Air New Zealand – flies to/ from Auckland
- Air Tahiti Nui – flies to/ from Auckland, Los Angeles, Paris–Charles de Gaulle, Tokyo–Narita
- Aircalin – flies to/ from Nouméa
- French Bee – flies to/ from Paris–Orly, San Francisco
- Hawaiian Airlines – flies to/ from Honolulu
- LATAM Chile – flies to/ from Easter Island, Santiago de Chile
Taxis to downtown Papeete cost approximately 1,900 CFP (USD$19) while bus #3 and #7 pass by the airport, stopping at the stop on the main road, before continuing to Papeete.
Onward Air Travel
The national carrier of New Caledonia, Aircalin, connects Papeete with Noumea every Friday and Monday, providing a useful (and sometimes affordable) connection between two far-flung French Pacific territories. I paid just €350 for a one-way ticket between the two territories, a flight of 4,717 km (2,931 mi).
Easter Island and Chile
Thanks to a weekly LATAM Chile connection, French Polynesia can be used as a springboard for trips to the remote Easter Islands with an onward connection to Santiago de Chile in South America. Flights depart from Papeete every Tuesday with a flight time of 5 hours to Easter Island then onward to Santiago de Chile (also 5 hours). Easter Island is connected to Santiago de Chile by a once daily flight.
Tahiti and Moorea are popular ports of call for visiting Cruise ships with ships visiting the islands several times a month. You can view the current schedule here.
Onward Sea Travel
The French Polynesian island of Mangareva (part of the Gambier Islands) is 480 km (300 mi) north-west of Pitcairn Island and is the departure point for the weekly boat connection.
The Pitcairn government vessel, the MV Bravo Supporter, departs from the wharf in Rikitea every Tuesday, arriving 32 hours later at Pitcairn, and returning back to Mangareva 3 days later. The current sailing schedule can be viewed here with the cost of a berth on the return journey being NZD$5,000.
For travel enquiries or bookings you should consult the Pitcairn Government Tourism website at ‘VisitPitcairn‘ or contact email@example.com
Air Tahiti domestic services from Faa’a airport include: Ahe, Anaa, Arutua, Atuona, Bora Bora, Fakarava, Hao, Huahine–Fare, Kaukura, Makemo, Manihi, Mataiva, Maupiti, Moorea, Niau, Nuku Hiva, Raiatea, Raivavae, Rangiroa, Rarotonga, Rimatara, Rurutu, Takaroa, Tatakoto, Tikehau, Totegegie, Tubuai–Mataura
Public buses provide services from Papeete to points around the main island with bus #3 and #7 passing the airport.
There’s no shortage of taxis in and around Papeete during business hours, but after-hours it’s best to book a taxi through your hotel. Meters are unheard of, so it’s best to confirm the fare (in French, if possible) before getting into a taxi. Current taxi tariffs are published here.
Papeete is very small and easily covered on foot so there’s no need to take a taxi anywhere downtown, however to the airport, the fare is about 1,900 CFP (USD$19).
There are very few taxi services on Moorea. One operator who has a published schedule of fares is Jo Faua of Moorea Jo Tours.
Cars on the main island can be rented from downtown offices in Papeete or from the airport. I comfortably circumnavigated the main island in 2 days (stopping at all sights) using a rental car.
Note: When renting in French Polynesia, you should check the fine print as some companies (Hertz) have very low daily kilometre limits with a high charge for excess kilometres. I booked a car through Rentalcars.com and was informed upon collecting the car that I had a limit of 45 km per day. I changed this to ‘Unlimited kilometres’ which tripled the cost of the rental! Ouch!
The following rental agents maintain and office at Faa’a International Airport:
- Avis (Tel: +689 40 85 02 04)
- Europcar (Tel: +689 86 61 96 )
- Hertz (Tel: +689 82 55 86)
- Tahiti Easy Car (Tel: +689 86 96 32)
There are very few rental car agents on Moorea and, as can be expected in such a closed market, rates are not cheap with an economy-size car costing from 10,900 CFP (USD$100) per day.
Both Avis and Europcar have branches conveniently located opposite the wharf in Vai’are but vehicles are limited so best to book in advance. Avis also have branches at Moorea airport and the Intercontinental resort which have limited operating hours.
On the northwest coast, a few companies rent out roadsters with a 4 hour rental from Moorea Fun Roadsters costing an eye-watering 15,000 CFP (US$150).
Papeete to Moorea
The Aremiti ferry company has regular sailings from the ‘Gare Maritime‘ (ferry terminal) in Papeete to Moorea (1,500 CFP one way), a distance of 17 km with a crossing time of 40 minutes.
You can book tickets online and view the current sailing schedule here.
Other travel reports from the Pacific region:
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Author: Darren McLean
Owner of taste2travel.com – an avid traveler, photographer, travel writer and adventurer.
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