Last October, my family and I went for a holiday to French Polynesia, also erroneously known as Tahiti (which is in fact the name of just one of the islands that make up the country). We loved it so much that I thought of sharing our experience with all my readers. As they say… better late than never!
We had already been there in 2013 (read about it HERE). That time we had limited our visit to the Society Islands and we had travelled only to Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora. This time instead, we decided to explore another archipelago: the Tuamotu islands.
In fact, French Polynesia is made up of 130 islands grouped in archipelagos: Marquesas Islands, Society Islands, Tuamotu Archipelago, Gambier Islands, Austral Islands and Bass Islands. It is a dependent territory of France, which also means people speak French (besides Tahitian) and are French citizens and that French food and wines (with local twists) are the staple. People were very friendly, always smiling and greeting you with their Ia Orana (hello – did you know that the term derives from the English “your honour”?).
Unlike the Society Islands, which are “real” islands with mountain peaks, the Tuamotu islands are atolls – narrow coral rings encircling turquoise lagoons. Hardly anything grows on the atolls, so there’s little fruit and vegetables, and the only drinking water is collected from the rain. Yet the silence, blue lagoons, coral beaches, idyllic motu (coral islets), amazing starry skies (I have lost count of how many shooting stars we saw!), and languid pace of life make it the perfect holiday getaway. Most tourists visit Rangiroa, Tikehau and Fakarava, which have the bulk of the tourist infrastructure, but it’s also possible to explore lesser-known islands like Ahe, Mataiva and Makemo. Keep in mind that accommodation is limited even on the “main touristic islands”. If you are after luxury, the Tuamotu islands are not the best place to go… better to turn to the Society Islands, where there is plenty of luxurious resorts.
Anyone who loves turquoise water will adore the Tuamotus. The vast, pristine marine area offers unparalleled opportunities to dive and snorkel in the amazing lagoons.
If you had to ask me which archipelago I prefer, I wouldn’t know. They are both amazing and so different. Many people usually go to both the Society Islands and the Tuamotu Islands to get a good mix between luxury, culture, nature, and relaxation, and I think that’s the best approach, especially if you are travelling all the way from Europe or other far away countries!
As far as the individual islands are concerned, these are my personal preferences among the ones we have visited (from best to worst): Moorea, Tikehau, Fakarava, Bora Bora, Tahiti, Rangiroa. If I could go again, I would definitely go back to Moorea and Tikehau and add some different islands… maybe Taha’a, Maupiti or the Marquesas. But that’s me.
The best time to visit the Society Islands (Tahiti, Bora-Bora) and the Tuamotus runs from June to September when the climate is at its driest and the weather is balmy, while for the Marquesas Islands it runs from August to November. November to April is the wettest and hottest time of the year, so it is not recommended to visit. We went at the end of September, which is considered “shoulder” season, or the end of the best season. The weather was very good. It did rain at times, but mainly at night and because it is really windy, the clouds never last long. Wind instead is the main issue on the islands. We had constantly windy days, both in 2013 and in 2017. In Rangiroa it got so bad that all excursions were stopped. We were lucky enough to do the last one to the Blue Lagoon! So, my suggestion is not to wait… if you want to go on an excursion, book for the first day it’s available, even if you are staying for a few nights. If the weather changes, you may miss out on the experience.
As we had already been to the main touristic spots of Moorea and Bora Bora, we decided to just go to the Tuamotu islands, so besides a quick stop-over in Tahiti (the main island, where the international airport is), we visited Tikehau, Rangiroa, and Fakarava. We flew Air Tahiti Nui from Sydney to Papeete (via Auckland) and then bought a pass (the Lagoons Pass) for the internal flights (Papeete to Tikehau, Tikehau to Rangiroa, Rangiroa to Fakarava, and Fakarava to Papeete) with Air Tahiti.
This was our itinerary:
Sydney – Tahiti (Papeete – 1 night)
Tahiti – Tikehau (4 nights)
Tikehau – Rangiroa (5 nights)
Rangiroa – Fakarava (6 nights)
Fakarava – Tahiti (Papeete – 1 night)
Tahiti (Papeete) – Sydney
The flight from Sydney to Papeete is a long one: 3+ hours till Auckland (we flew Qantas to go there and Air New Zealand on the way back) and then another 5+ hours to Papeete. Luckily Air Tahiti Nui has good planes with good entertainment, movies and games. We watched Moana/Vaiana 3 times, just to get “in the mood”! The food was also quite good to be airplane food. I had the vegan option, as that’s the only lactose/dairy-free option available.
When you board the plane in Auckland, you are greeted with a tiaré flower (a local kind of frangipane), which is the symbol of French Polynesia… this and the turquoise colour of the seats make you feel like you are already on a tropical island! Good start!
When we arrived in Papeete (at night), we got a taxi and went straight to the hotel to rest. We stayed at the Manava Suite Resort and Spa, just like in 2013, always a solid option. I will write a review for each hotel and its restaurant/s on separate posts.
The next day, we went straight to the centre of Papeete to visit the famous Papeete Markets.
If you want to buy souvenirs, this is the best place as the prices are cheaper and the quality is good. I bought some amazing vanilla beans from Taha’a and some Firi Firi, doughnut-like sweets made with coconut milk. We LOVE these so much that I often make them at home too!
The market is very colourful and filled with tropical fruits and veggies.
Shells and mother of pearl.
I highly recommend this visit, especially to foodies, as the colours and smells are amazing!
After visiting the markets, we saw the Cathedral.
Then we took a bus (the orange one) and in 15 minutes we went back to the hotel to check out to go to the airport.
The flight from Papeete to Tikehau is about 55 minutes! All internal flights are on small planes (ATR –72), but they are still quite comfortable.
The view from the sky is amazing!
We chose to stay at the Tikehau Pearl Beach Resort as we love snorkelling and we had heard that this place had great snorkelling. It did not disappoint.
We had an overwater bungalow and the view from our private deck was breathtaking.
The visibility in the water was AMAZING and the coral and marine life great!
There were much colourful fish around and we even had a little table with a glass to see them from inside our room (the girls loved this!).
The food was ok and the service relaxed, but attentive. The location is a gem: the colour of the lagoon is amazing! I loved it!
We also saw many shooting stars at night from our veranda!
And some of the most beautiful sunsets ever!
During our stay in Tikehau we just relaxed and swam every day.
There is also a tiny infinity pool, which is a nice touch, especially for the kids (though the lagoon was just too perfect not to swim in it!).
We will definitely be back!
The flight between Tikehau and Rangiroa is only 20 minutes! Yet the view from the plane was UNBELIEVABLE!
In Rangiroa we stayed at Hotel Kia Ora Resort and Spa. This is apparently the best hotel on the island (possibly of the Tuamotus!). It was nice, but nothing comparable with the hotels in the Society Islands.
The colours of the lagoon in front of the hotel are beautiful, but when it’s windy the visibility in the water reduces considerably because of the sandy ground.
We had a Duplex Beach Bungalow, which was great for 4 people. It was a 2 storey house on the beach with a private spa on the deck. It was lovely, even if the furniture looked a bit “tired”.
The snorkelling at the resort is not very good. Not much coral and not much fish either. I found that Rangiroa is mainly about excursions. The problem with that is that when it’s windy (and that happens often), you are stuck, as the excursions get cancelled.
The food is good – the best we ate in the Tuamotus. Still, there is only one restaurant and not much choice for lunch at all (see review).
There is also a little infinity pool, which is great for the kids.
And the sunsets are breathtaking.
We had decided to just relax, but in the end, we booked an excursion through the hotel. We did a full day excursion to the Blue Lagoon with snorkelling and picnic/barbecue lunch included. I will write a separate post on this excursion. The Blue Lagoon is a spectacular place. The colour of the sea is hard to describe and the photos do not do it justice at all. You would need filters for the lens, it is that bright!
The lagoon is famous for its baby sharks.
During this holiday, we got to see just one Polynesian dance show and it was in Rangiroa, at the hotel. The show was nice and guests had a turn to dance too.
The only other thing we did in Rangiroa was dolphin watching from Tiputa Passe.
Rangiroa was nice, even though it’s not unmissable in my opinion.
The flight between Rangiroa and Fakarava is 45 minutes long. The view from the plane was as breathtaking as always!
In Fakarava we stayed at Havaiki Pearl Lodge. This is apparently the best hotel of the island, even though it is more like a “pension”. It was nice, but the bungalows are quite small – they would be ok for 2, but a bit too crowded for 4.
The décor is very simple, yet nice. It recycles local things like broken corals, shells and wood.
The colours of the lagoon in front of the room, however, were just dreamy. So I spent most of my time relaxing on our deck and looking at the water!
Havaiki is also a pearl farm. In fact, the Tuamotu islands are famous for their pearl farming. We got to learn a lot about how pearls are cultivated, which was very interesting.
The snorkelling at the hotel is very good. There is not much coral or fish, but the coral they have is so colourful. I had never seen anything like it. Usually coral is bleached/dead because of el nino, but in Fakarava you can still see some good colours!
However, we were not able to do any excursion. It was too windy and it was not recommended. If you go to Fakarava, head to the south as well. Apparently the snorkelling there is even better. We had planned to go on a day trip, but couldn’t. The south is much more basic. I think there’s only one place to stay and it has no electricity (or very little of it).
Sunsets were possibly even better than in the other islands!
The food is ok. The snack bar has a good menu, but for dinner at the restaurant it’s a fixed menu and there is no choice. You get what you get and you don’t get upset. I must say they tried to cater to my lactose intolerance, but it was hard as all the food was made with butter, milk and cream. I kid you not (see review).
There is no pool, but who cares… that sea is a huge pool anyway! And a couple of big sharks come to swim right near the shore every day!
What I really liked about our stay in Fakarava was the fact that we had the possibility to walk to the main village, which was about 1 km away. There is also a little monument to commemorate those who have lost (and keep losing) their lives because of the French nuclear experiments in the area.
We even went for mass in the local church on Sunday morning. This beautiful church is made out of coral!
Masses in these islands are renowned to be an amazing sight. People dress up nicely and many still wear traditional clothes and flowers.
The local community is mainly Catholic and the mass is in the local language. The best part of it was the hymns. So beautiful. You don’t need to understand the words to get touched by the way they sing.
There is also a little cemetery behind the church. It’s near the side of the island where the ocean hits the reef. Interesting how shells substitute flowers on many tombs.
And this statue of the Virgin Mary has a pearl necklace around her neck!
During our walk, we saw plenty of chickens and even a little pig! So cute! It really felt like we were inside the Disney movie Moana/Vaiana!
I found people here to be extremely nice and relaxed. It is a nice island with a fabulous lagoon. I just wish we could have explored it more.
The flight from Tikehau to Tahiti was 1 hour and 15 minutes. But the view was amazing… we got to see Papeete and the island at sunset!
When we arrived at the hotel (the Manava Suite Resort), it felt like “home” having been here 4 times already. We just couldn’t wait to eat a “proper” dinner at the hotel’s restaurant… the food was good just as we remembered it to be!
The next morning we had our flight to go back home.
Just a quick reminder: if you are transiting via another country, do NOT buy any liquor at the duty free shop in Tahiti or you will either have to exit transit and customs and recheck it into your luggage at departures or throw it out during transit (and yes, it did happen to us at Auckland airport in 2013! This time we did not fall for it, but saw many other people having the same issue)!!
Also, if you buy a pearl you can get it duty-free. To do so, you will need to follow the instructions from the shop you buy it at. Just remember that the duty-free counter mailbox to send your receipt is just after the check-in area and BEFORE you pass security!
Having already been to French Polynesia, we more or less knew what to expect, so many things did not come as a surprise. The islands are really beautiful… great nature and seaside and the people are among the most hospitable in the world. This time the hotels and food were not as good as in the Society Islands. This part was a bit disappointing… or maybe we had too high expectations. You can read my hotel and restaurant reviews for all the details.
If I had to re-organise this trip, I would probably stay no more than 4 days on each island of the Tuamotu and do 3 days at the Hilton in Moorea to enjoy some good food and great service… and even a massage at the spa. 😉
French Polynesia is definitely a place I would recommend to visit and one I can’t wait to go back to, possibly to visit new islands!
Mauruuru Roa Polynesia! We will be back.