21 reasons to visit idyllic French Polynesia

Bungalows built over the Bora Bora lagoon.

Bungalows built over the Bora Bora lagoon. Photo: Caroline Gladstone

.

1. FABLED ISLE

Hang the expense – everyone needs to see Bora Bora once in their life. The awe begins even before landing, when the spectacular main island – with its eerie cloud-swathed peak, Mount Otemanu – comes into view, surrounded by a lagoon that is seven shades of blue. More than 30 small islands (motus) circle the lagoon, and dozens of resort bungalows float on the water like tiny broken rosary beads. Its allure captivated James A. Michener, who called it "the most beautiful island in the world". See tahiti.com/island/bora-bora.

French Polynesian churchgoers.

French Polynesian churchgoers. Photo: Raymond Sahuquet

2. MAGIC MOUNTAINS

Advertisement

Bora Bora has the knockout lagoon, but Moorea has mountains to take your breath away, with climbers rating them as some of the most rugged in the world. Some have hiking trails, such as the highest peak of Mount Tohiea and also Mount Rotui, the hulking mass that rises between  Cooks Bay and Opunohu Bay. Other impressive peaks are Mount Mouaputa, which means shark tooth and has a hole at its summit, and the jagged Mount Mouaroacalled Bali Hai, which is often depicted in postcards. See tahitievasion.com/ang.te.com/moorea-1.

3. TANTALISING TAHITI

Open-air dining at Les Roulottes, Papeete.

Open-air dining at Les Roulottes, Papeete. Photo: Tahiti Tourism

Towering jagged mountains, waterfalls, black sand beaches and even a blowhole, the island of Tahiti has it all. However, most travellers don't linger beyond a day and head to the other islands soon after arrival at Papeete airport. Stay awhile and discover how easy it is to drive around Tahiti's 114-kilometre coastal road, although the most attractions are found on the west side. Along the way there's a grotto, the Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands, the Paul Gauguin Museum, a golf course, several coral-and-lime churches and le trou du souffleur (blowhole), and that's before heading into the jungle-clad interior. See tahiti-excursions.com; tahiti-safari.com.

4. RANGIROA: HOW BIG IS THAT LAGOON?

Rangiroa, way off in the Tuamotu Archipeligo, has the largest lagoon in French Polynesia, so big the entire island of Tahiti could fit into it! Within this huge expanse is another watery enclave, evocatively called the Blue Lagoon. After an hour's boat ride from the main town of Avatoru, you'll swear you've finally found that South Seas paradise: turquoise water, palm trees bending down to brush the soft sand, fish en masse and on the lunchtime barbecue, too. See tahiti-tourisme.com.

Bucket-list destination: Everyone needs to visit Bora Bora at least once.

Bucket-list destination: Everyone needs to visit Bora Bora at least once. Photo: Alamy

5. SEA ADENTURES IN PARADISE

Rugged volcanic islands with sheer cliffs plunging into the sea, untamed jungles, deep valleys and hardy inhabitants known for their full-body tattoos and horsemanship... No wonder the Marquesas are called the Land of Men. Thousands of kilometres from the nearest continent, the best way to visit the six inhabited islands of the 12-island archipelago is by freighter. From January 2016, the new Aranui 5 cargo-passenger ship will take over from its predecessor, Aranui 3, on a 14-day itinerary that departs Tahiti every fortnight. While the 254-passenger vessel, with two extra decks and more balcony cabins and suites, will certainly be very comfortable, the journey will be just as fascinating as when Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson sailed there in the 1880s. See aranui.com.

6. LUXURY AFLOAT ON A PAUL GAUGIN CRUISE

A tiki at a French Polynesian marae.

A tiki at a French Polynesian marae.

Relax in style and let the captain steer you to five islands – Huahine, Tahaa, Bora Bora, Moorea and Tahiti – aboard the 330-passenger, five-star Paul Gauguin. The all-inclusive fares mean every meal, all drinks (wines, spirits and mini-bar of bottle waters, soft drinks and beer) and tips are covered, which definitely takes the sting out of French Polynesia's high prices. The itinerary includes a day picnicking on a private island in Tahaa, while an overnight stay in Bora Bora offers time to sightsee and take a shuttle to a private beach. See pgcruises.com.

7. YACHTING PARADISE

Hundreds of years ago, the island of Raiatea, just a little south-east of Bora Bora, was the cultural centre of what is now French Polynesia. Today, it's a sailors' paradise, with a deep harbour, good moorings and many charter yacht companies. Sailing around the Leeward Islands of the Society group – Raiatea, Tahaa, Huahine, Maupiti and Bora Bora – is a delight, with many places to drop anchor within the protective barrier reefs. For the inexperienced who want to sail the open waters between islands, there are several week-long crewed trips to hop aboard, while bareboat charters are available for proficient yachtsmen. See moorings.com.au.

The Aranui 5 freighter-cum-cruise ship in Cooks Bay, Moorea.

The Aranui 5 freighter-cum-cruise ship in Cooks Bay, Moorea. Photo: Kent Steffens

8. SLEEP WITH THE FISHES

The dreamy thatched hut on stilts hovering over the lagoon was "invented" in Moorea by a trio of Californian guys, known as the Bali Hai boys, who came to the island in the early 1960s. Nothing beats falling asleep to the gentle lapping of lagoon waters and waking up to a refreshing dip a few ladder steps away. The bungalows have a glass panel in the floor to reveal the marine life below, which local wags call "Tahiti television". See overwaterbungalows.net.

9. THE BRANDO

A dance group performs during the Heiva i Tahiti cultural festival in Papeete.

A dance group performs during the Heiva i Tahiti cultural festival in Papeete. Photo: Alamy

In 1960, Marlon Brando was so captivated by both Tahiti and his Tahitian love interest in the movie Mutiny on the Bounty (Tarita Teriipaia), he scouted around for a home and eventually bought the private island of Tetiaroa, 48 kilometres north of Tahiti. More than four decades on, after years of planning, owner Richard Bailey (who was a friend of the late actor) opened the luxurious 35-villa resort The Brando last July. Said to be the most exclusive digs in French Polynesia, the daily villa rates are about €2400 (about $3355), meaning it's still pitched at the Hollywood and celebrity set. Marketed as an environmental beacon, the resort strives to be carbon neutral, with features including deep seawater airconditioning and coconut oil bio-fuel. See thebrando.com.

10. TATTOOS AND TAHITIAN DANCE

Full-body tattoos and erotic dance moves were entrenched in Polynesian culture until members of the London Missionary Society arrived in Tahiti in 1797 and set about banning them. When the French took control of the islands in the 1860s, dance re-emerged, but in a less risque fashion, evolving into today's hip-shaking routine known as "tamure". Tattooing, from the Polynesian word "tatua", made a comeback in 1980s. Today, there are many artists at work, with a few still practising the traditional – and painful – method of marking the skin with an ink-dipped comb and stick. These traditions are celebrated with festivals: the Heiva dance spectacular held over June and July and the Polynesia Tatou in April. See mooreatattoo.com; tahitinow.com.au; maisondelaculture.pf.

11. ANCIENT ALTARS

Tales of human sacrifices and discoveries of stone tikis buried deep within the jungle are the stuff of a Boy's Own adventure. Remains of many marae or ancient temples are located just off the main roads on some islands, although the most significant and best preserved are on Huahine, whose Matairea-rahi Marae was also a royal compound dating back 1000 years. Huahine's dominance was usurped by the nearby island of Raiatea, which in the 16th century developed a powerful cult to Oro, the god of war, honouring him with the imposing Taputapuatea Marae. Both were the site of human sacrifices and are largely intact today. See tahiti-excursions.com..

12. SPIRITUAL STIRRINGS

While they were no doubt killjoys, the legacy of those fervent missionaries is a devout Christian society of ardent churchgoers. For an uplifting experience, the Sunday service at Paofai Temple Papeete, the main Protestant church in Tahiti's capital, Papeete, is a must. Dressed all in white and wearing beautiful handmade hats, women (and a scattering of men in their Sunday best) sing heavenly hymns and flutter their fans in the morning heat. Service begins at 10am and visitors might find the gallery level has the best view. See tahitinow.com.au.

13. MINGLING WITH MARINE LIFE

Frolicking with stingrays and harmless black-tipped reef sharks is all in a day's play in many of the islands. Boat trips take swimmers and snorkellers to clear, shallow waters to wade with the friendly lagoon inhabitants, who might swim up hoping for a morsel or two. Shark feeding was banned in French Polynesia a few years ago, but the creatures are blissfully unaware of the new rules and are always on the lookout for a feed. They can be often spotted in the translucent waters near the beach. See maohinui.net.

14. SHOOT THE PASS

The Tuamotu Archipelago atolls of Rangiroa and Fakarava have legendary status among divers who come to "shoot the pass" or drift dive. In Rangiroa, divers are dropped off on the ocean side of Tiputa Pass and sucked through by the current for a swift journey to the calm waters of the lagoon on the other side. Along the way, they encounter an aquarium of manta and eagle rays, turtles, dolphins and sharks. A similar thrill awaits divers in Fakarava's Tetamanu Pass, known for its "wall" of grey reef sharks and beautiful corals. See rangiroaplongee.pf; topdive.com.

15. ISLAND HOPPING

A vast area, French Polynesia's 118 islands are spread over a whopping 4 million square kilometres. The best way to visit a few of the 47 islands that have airstrips is with a month-long Air Tahiti island pass: aircraft hop between islands of the same archipelago or connect two island groups. The Bora Bora-Tuamotu pass includes 10 islands in a loop (from Tahiti) and costs €564.80 (about $790). If you prefer a ferry, the Maupiti Express travels between Bora-Raiatea-Maupiti and Bora Bora. See airtahiti.com; maupitiexpress@mail.pf.

16. JUNGLE TOURS

Beyond the shoreline, there is plenty to discover in the heart of the volcanic islands. Quad-bike tours of Moorea travel over the rough roads of the Opunohu Valley to the Belvedere Lookout for views to stunning Cooks and Opunohu bays and visit an agricultural college's vanilla and fruit plantations. Bora Bora's dense jungle conceals four sets of World War II cannons and rusting ammunition bunkers, while Tahiti's interior has lava tubes, steep valleys, precipitous peaks, and waterholes ideal for swimming. See atvmoorea.com; tahiti-activities.com.

17. SURF'S UP IN TAHITI ITI

Surfers flock to Tahiti Iti (little Tahiti) to try their luck on the notoriously dangerous "heavy wave" called Teahupoo. In August, pros such as four-time title winner Kelly Slater battle it out during the Billabong Pro Tahiti surf competition. Non-surfers can take a boat ride to view the famous wave and reef break from a safe distance, as part of a day tour that also includes a coastal hike, snorkelling and swimming in a waterfall-fed rock pool. Tahiti Iti is quite remote, with just two roads, both of which are less than 10 kilometres long. See facebook.com/pages/Teahupoo-Tahiti-Surfari-Taxi-Boat-Excursions.

18. MARCHE DE PAPEETE

Shopping for sarongs, baskets, carvings and pearls is a multisensory experience at Papeete's public market, where the sweet aromas of vanilla, coconut and monoi oil fill the air, musicians strum ukuleles and the vibrant flower and fruit stalls call for plenty of photo ops. Stalls open about 6am (5am on Sunday). Start with a French pastry and coffee and stick around to watch the catch of the day arrive in the late afternoon. On Sundays, local women queue to buy delicious prepared meals for traditional family lunches. See papeete.com.

19. JEWELS OF POLYNESIA

If splurging is on the agenda, it's not hard to find a pearl shop in French Polynesia. Visiting a pearl farm before you buy will help you understand the complicated cultured pearl process. The exotic Tahitian black pearl, Pinctada margaritifera, also come in shades of pink, green, blue, silver and yellow. Start at the Robert Wan Pearl Museum in Papeete to see gorgeous items such as a ninth-century pearl-encrusted prayer book and a copy of the 57-pearl rosary beads presented to Pope John II in the 1980s. See robertwan.com; borapearl.com.

20. CHEAP EATS

Dining is notoriously expensive in French Polynesia, but not at the roulottes (or caravans), which serve tasty meals in huge servings. When the sun goes down, head to Papeete's waterfront Place Vaiete, pull up a stool and browse the vendors offering poisson cru (raw fish marinated in lime juice and coconut milk), Asian stir-fries, crepes and other treats. Other islands, including Moorea and Huahine, also have a few roulottes, where a mini-feast can be had for $20. It's cash-only and there are often roving musicians to add to the fun. See papeete.com.

21. BIG-TICKET TUCKER

At the other end of the spectrum is Villa Mahana, a restaurant set in a Tuscan-style house, on Bora Bora. Patrons book three months in advance to snag one of the seven tables and dine on chef Damien Rinaldi-Dovio's fabulous French fare with a definitive Polynesian twist, such as perhaps filet mignon with vanilla cream gnocchi. There are a la carte and tasting-plate options (with matching wines, if you wish), and while the website omits the prices, expect to pay from €100 (about $140) a person for one of the four-course degustations. There's the bonus of a shuttle pick-up from your hotel. See villamahana.com.

Caroline Gladstone is one of the writers of the Fodor's guide to Tahiti and French Polynesia. She has travelled to the islands several times, courtesy of Tahiti Tourisme and Paul Gauguin Cruises.

- Traveller