Monday newsletters always feature top 10 travel lists to inspire.
Today : Top 10 best things to see & do French Polynesia
Commonly referred to as “The Islands of Tahiti”, French Polynesia is a collection of 118 islands and atolls scattered across an impressive nautical surface area the size of Western Europe. The islands – which are home to some fabulous luxury hotels – are situated halfway between Los Angeles, California and Sydney, Australia. Few places in the world have a more exotic feel to their name than French Polynesia has. Some of these islands, like Bora Bora and Moorea are amongst the most beautiful and paradisiac islands in the world, and it is no wonder that legendary artists like Paul Gaughin or Jacques Brel once called them home. Here’s my top 10 list of the best things to see & do in French Polynesia.
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10. FLY WITH AIR TAHITI NUI
If you want to start your holiday to French Polynesia before even setting a foot on the islands, I recommend to fly with Air Tahitu Nui, the country’s flagship carrier. In 2019, Air Tahiti Nui entirely renewed its fleet by four Boeing 787-9s, which it proudly calls its “Tahitian Dreamliners”. One of the great things about flying with Air Tahiti Nui is the tropical ambiance of its aircraft, which immerses you in the “mana” of the Tahitian island as soon as you step onboard (read my review here). For example, a floor-to-ceiling photo of Bora Bora island takes center stage in the plane’s entry galley, a reminder that the plane is about to head to one of the world’s most beautiful paradises. Upon entering the plane, the traditionally dressed and always smiling cabin crew also hands out Tiare flowers, the national flower of the islands of Tahiti. It all evokes a sense of holiday, which helps to leave behind the annoyances and stress of getting to and through the airport. Air Tahiti Nui provides service to Tahiti from Paris, Los Angeles, Seattle, Auckland and Tokyo. Through partnerships and code share agreements, the airlines offers connections from 30+ other destinations, including Sydney, Beijing and New York.
9. EXPLORE THE ISLAND OF MOOREA
Believed to have inspired the mythical Bali Hai from James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, Moorea is one of the most scenically striking islands in French Polynesia. Possessing a relaxed vibe and welcoming spirit, Moorea is just as warm and inviting as the Tahitians lucky enough to call this island home. Located only ten nautical miles from Tahiti, Moorea is easily accessible by ferry or plane from Papeete. This proximity, coupled with the island’s receptive and neighborly nature, makes Moorea a favorite destination for travelers. Still, Moorea has managed to maintain its small island feel despite this popularity and the presence of a few internationally branded resorts. The attraction toward Moorea comes as no surprise; the island is a geographical marvel. Eight voluminous mountain peaks rise from its translucent lagoon, creating a distinctive and rugged silhouette visible from the western coast of Tahiti. Splitting the northern shore are two symmetrical bays: Cook’s (Paopao) and Opunohu Bay. The island is roughly shaped like a heart from overhead; and in the theme of love and romance, Moorea is one of the top honeymoon destinations in Tahiti -second only to Bora Bora.
8. WATCH SURFERS AT TEAHUPOO, THE WORLD’S HEAVIEST WAVE
Made up of two parts – the larger part of the island called Tahiti Nui and the smaller section called Tahiti Iti – the island of Tahiti is a paradise for water sports of all kinds. This includes stand up paddle-boarding, canoeing, kayaking and body boarding, but the surfing here is a second to none, especially if you like your waves heavy. The best time to surf in Tahiti is from May to August during the dry season. The surf breaks along the south and southwest coasts are reef breaks, with large hollow waves similar to those found in Hawaii. Another popular season for surf is October to March when swells from the north and are generally better for less experienced surfers as they are less heavy and more wall-like than the hollow waves that hit in the summer. If you are looking to learn how to surf, Tahiti have several good surf schools that you can visit.
Every August, Tahiti Iti becomes the home to the Tahiti Pro Teahupoo surf event hosted by the World Surf League. Professional surfers come from all over the world to compete in the crushing swell and ominous coral reef of Teahupoo, located on the southeast coast of Tahiti. Known as the “heaviest” wave in the world, Teahupoo or “Chopes” as it is sometimes called, is an ultimate surf spot for many professional surfers. It is well known for consistent barrels and while the waves are heavy, it is also shallow so this spot is considered too dangerous for all but the most experienced surfers. Travelers without any surfing experience can still go out on a boat with Teahupoo Adventures for a one hour tour, watching the famous Teahupoo waves and its surfers at close range.
7. DISCOVER THE ARCHIPELAGO’S MOUNAINEOUS INLAND SCENERY
The Islands of Tahiti are famed for their crystal-clear turquoise lagoons, stunning beaches and picturesque overwater bungalows. But although a large part of a tropical island’s charm lies around its coast, it’s absolutely worth venturing into the rugged interiors of French Polynesia’s larger mountainous islands such as Tahiti, Bora Bora and Moorea. Home to spectacular waterfalls, striking mountain peaks, lush valleys, and ancient ruins, there is much to be explored and appreciated. Whether you are a beginner or more advanced, there are plenty of opportunities for hiking in French Polynesia. Most hiking trails lead to lookouts with sweeping views, river slides, volcanic valleys and swimmable rock pools. On the remote Marquesas Islands, you can even combine hiking with a horseback ride across the plateaus and valleys that feel untouched by human contact. A local guide is recommended, as access to many of the trailheads can be tricky; certain areas require hikers to obtain permits beforehand, and others can only be accessed by four wheel drive.
6. RELAX ON A TROPICAL BEACH
With 118 islands dotted in the mighty blue South Pacific Ocean, French Polynesia has, as you probably expect, some pretty awesome beaches. From the black sand beaches on Tahiti’s east coast to the pristine white sand beaches on Bora Bora, visitors will enjoy turquoise water and lush vegetation no matter which beach they choose. Except in the Marquesas, which are almost devoid of coral, most islands in French Polynesia have bathtub-like lagoons that lap on white-coral sands draped by coconut palms. Some of the archipelago’s best beaches are Matira Beach (Bora Bora), La Plage De Maui (Tahiti), and Temae Plage Publique (Moorea). No matter what beach you visit in French Polynesia, always be respectful, pack out what you pack in and care for them like a local. Now grab a towel, some sunscreen and a good book to prepare to lounge in the sun on some of the best beaches in the world.
5. EXPLORE BORA BORA’S VIBRANT LAGOON
Just 12 miles (19 km long), the lush little slipper of land called Bora Bora lies in one of the world’s most beautiful lagoons. The lagoon’s clear, turquoise waters and the surrounding coral reef make for some memorable snorkeling with tropical-colored fish, harmless reef sharks and giant manta rays gliding leisurely through the coral gardens. Numerous companies offer day-trip excursions, but Lagoon Service is recommended for its well-maintained boats, friendly ukulele-playing guides, and excellent Polynesian fare. Guests get to cruise around the islands and make stops to snorkel in coral gardens, swim among playful rays, and experience the thrill of swimming with docile sharks. The trip concludes with a lunch, enjoyed at a table set up in the shallow aquamarine water. The picnic includes everything from poisson cru to coconut bread and all sorts of fresh fruits.
4. STAY AT THE BRANDO
The Brando is the ultimate luxury resort in French Polynesia and one of the world’s most exclusive private island resorts. Just 30 miles (50 km) north of Tahiti, the resort is located in the breathtakingly beautiful private atoll of Tetiaroa, which is comprised of a dozen idyllic islands surrounding a spectacular lagoon. With access provided by private plane, the atoll offers carefree luxury in the midst of pristine nature and is a special place of rare biodiversity and a natural sanctuary for birds and marine life. The all-inclusive The Brando Resort features 35 deluxe villas each with its own private beach area and plunge pool, restaurants showcasing Polynesian and French cuisine, a luxurious Polynesian spa, a beach bar & pool, organic garden, library, boutique, water sports, and an environmental research station with guest programs. It was in this natural wonderland that the legendary actor Marlon Brando settled down, and finally found his home. Read my review of The Brando here (or watch my YouTube video below).
3. FLY OVER BORA BORA’S STUNNING LANDSCAPE IN A HELICOPTER
One of the best ways to explore the island of Bora Bora – and its an infinite palette of blues and greens – is from the sky during a panoramic helicopter flight between steep mountains and the most beautiful lagoon in the world! Tahiti Nui Helicopters, specialist in panoramic helicopter flights over French Polynesia and a subsidiary of Air Tahiti Nui – offers exclusive tours over Bora Bora on board their helicopters. After a safety briefing with your pilot, you will be equipped with a headset with microphones and enjoy a guided tour of this magnificent island with bird’s eye views of the lagoon, the overwater bungalows, Mt Otemanu and the various motus that surround the island. The 10, 20 or 30-minute helicopter flights can be booked on a shared- or private-flight basis. The 30-minute tour reaches as far as the famous island of Tupai, the heart shaped island located next to Bora Bora.
2. STAY IN AN OVERWATER BUNGALOW IN BORA BORA
Symbol of exoticism, romanticism, and an absolute dream for thousands of travelers, nothing says relaxation and luxury like an overwater bungalow. It’s where you can truly immerse yourself in the seascape without actually being at sea. While you would think that this style of accommodation has existed for centuries, and certainly many cultures still reside in floating houses, the concept of overwater bungalows actually originated in the 1960s in French Polynesia. Back in 1967, three Californians, Hugh Kelley, Muk McCallum, and Jay Carlisle, later known as the “Bali Hai Boys”, built their very first hotel in Moorea. With no beaches or sand to satisfy travelers, they developed an idea that would profoundly transform tourism in the world: why not allow direct access to the lagoon and observe marine life from a room built above the water. The overwater bungalow was thus born. The resort’s popularity rocketed after a chance feature in the December 1962 issue of Life magazine, and the concept spread throughout Tahiti.
From the moment they opened, Marlon Brando stayed in the overwater bungalows, and today, the romance of Robinson Crusoe is still a hit with the celebs. Leonardo DiCaprio, Beyoncé, Keanu Reeves, Ellen Degeneres, Justin Bieber, Catherine Deneuve and Vincent Cassel, to name but a few, have all stayed in an over water bungalow in the turquoise waters of Tahiti and its islands. Today there are hundreds of over water bungalows in French Polynesia, spread across 22 hotels found on seven islands. All but one are found in the Society Islands, and Bora Bora in particular, which offers the most exclusive overwater hotels. The Four Seasons Bora Bora, St Regis Bora Bora, Conrad Bora Bora Nui and the InterContinental Bora Bora Resort & Thalasso Spa all provide luxurious overwater accommodations with a backdrop of lush, verdant mountains and peaks.
1. SWIM WITH HUMBACK WHALES
Humpback whales are seasonal visitors to French Polynesia. From early August to the end of October, the giant animals are abundant in the clear and warm waters around the archipelago as they search for a mate or nurse their young. French Polynesia declared itself a Marine Mammal Sanctuary in 2002 offering protection to all of the 20 species of whales and dolphins found here. It is also one of the few countries in the world where it is allowed to swim with whales. Several tour operators offer whale watch boat tours, hosted by a team of marine biologists and naturalist guides. Tourists are only allowed to enter the water with humpback whales after a biologist on board has observed their surface activity and deems it safe and non-invasive for both the guests and the whales. Although sightings are never guaranteed, your best chances for spotting (and swimming with) whales is on the island of Moorea.
Below you can watch a video in 4K documenting my whale watch trip in Tahiti (which I booked with a company called Topdive, based at the InterContinental Tahiti Resort & Spa). Looking humpback whales in the eye while swimming with them is a truly unforgettable adventure that touched my soul in an unimaginable way. I was extremely lucky to have an incredible close encounter with a family of three magnificent whales who stayed with our small group for more than one hour! I recorded the entire experience in 4K with my GoPro.
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