Getting to French Polynesia
Getting from the US to French Polynesia used to be hard and expensive, with Air Tahiti Nui being the only option from the Los Angeles airport (LAX). In 2018, French Bee and United Airlines started direct flights from San Francisco (SFO) to Papeete (PPT). Papeete, the main island, is relatively dull, and there is nothing much to do on it. The two best islands are Moorea and Bora Bora. Alternatively, one can take a 10+ day-long cruise from New Zealand or Australia.
Do check whether you need a TOM visa or not on the official website. For some nationalities like India, a French Schengen visa suffices.
Traveling between islands
A ferry runs between Moorea and Papeete multiple times a day. Bora Bora is much further, and the only practical way to access it is to fly or take a cruise. If you are planning to fly, then consider taking a multi-island pass, which allows you to access multiple islands. If you are planning to cruise, Windstar and Paul Gauguin are your two options for week-long leisure cruising and Aranui for a longer adventurous cruising beyond the society islands. Eventually, I decided to go with Windstar.
Traveling on islands
On almost all islands, except Papeete, public transport is non-existent. One can rent a scooter, rent a stick-shift manual-transmission car, or take a cab. Do note that for the taxis, prices are closer to Europe than the Caribbean.
What to do
- Snorkeling/scuba – good coral gardens are accessible on most of the islands. Stingrays and lemon sharks visit shallow sandy areas, and one can snorkel there as well.
- Visit a motu (islet) – there are tons of small motus around most islands, especially Bora Bora. Spend some time on one. Do note that beach access is not public in French Polynesia. And very few motus are public.
- Visit a pearl farm – to see how Tahitians harvest black pearls
- Visit a vanilla plantation – to see how vanilla, the second most expensive spice after saffron, is extracted
- Watch Tahitian dance
What not to do
- Visit a marae (Polynesian temple) – they are not worth it. They are hyped, and unless you are an archeologist, they do not make much sense. Avoid them completely. And if you want to visit, get a guide, so that they can tell you the historical significance.
- Visit local markets – most stuff in the local markets is imported from China, France, the US, and New Zealand. Don’t visit a local market for the sake of it; you will be disappointed to see the lack of locally produced goods.
- Everything you can do elsewhere – French Polynesia is an expensive place. Don’t do anything which is not unique to French Polynesia.
Some useful Tahitian phrases
French is the official language, and everyone speaks French, some local phrases are still helpful.
- La Ora na – Hello
- Maururu – Thanks
- Maeva – Welcome