French Polynesia

Tipanier's Pier at sunset, Tiahura, Mooréa Island

Tahiti and her islands are officially known as 'French Polynesia' and while 75% of the population is of Polynesian decent, the French influence over these islands is unmistakeable. Situated in the southeast Pacific Ocean they cover an area over four million square kilometres comprised of 118 islands spread over five large archipelagos.


The Society Archipelago is made up of the Leeward and Windward Islands and is a group of high tropical islands surrounded by thin beaches and lagoons. This archipelago includes the famous islands of Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora, Huahine, Raiatea, Taha’a and Maupiti. Tahiti is the largest of the Polynesian islands and is also the principal island and Papeete, on the island of Tahiti is the administrative capital. Seventy-five per cent of the population of Polynesia live in the Society Archipelago on the islands of Tahiti and Moorea, and the majority of offices, shops and banks are concentrated on these islands.

The Tuamotu Archipelago is a collection of low islands or 'atolls' (a ring-shaped island composed of various small islands which border a central lagoon) and each island is encircled by a ring of coral. Islands include Rangiroa, Manihi, Fakarava and Tikehau.

The Marquesas Archipelago is a collection of 12 high islands (only six of which are inhabited) that rise up like fortresses with magnificent vegetation and steep mountains. These islands have a rugged coastline and so few beaches. This archipelago includes the islands of Nuku Hiva, Hiva Oa and Ua Pou.

The Austral Archipelago is situated in the extreme south and is made up of five wild islands with gently sloping hills. Humpback whales congregate here from July to October.

The Gambier Archipelago is situated at the east end of the Polynesian territory and consists of the high island of Mangareva and its circle of small islands.

Tourist Office

The official tourism website is: Tahiti Tourisme.

What to do/Where to go/What to look out for

Maohi heritage is very important and their Tiki (carved stones) and Marae (sacred religious sites) built of raised and aligned stones are preserved and can be found throughout the islands. The Marae sites of the Society Islands were sacred and very important areas for political and social gatherings in ancient Polynesia.

Keep an eye out for French Polynesia's most prized product - black pearls. The Cuminingi variety of the Pinctada Margaritifera is the unique. Tahitian cultured pearls are the islands' largest export and a local specialty, they can only be found in French Polynesia. You can find them in the Tahitian cultured black pearl farms in the Tuamotu atolls Manihi, Rangiroa and on the islands of Raiatea, Taha'a and Huahine where you can watch the grafting of the blacked-lipped oysters that create these exotic and highly prized pearls. TIP: Before buying pearls, stop by the Tahiti Black Pearl Museum in Papeete to learn how to judge the value based on size, colour, luster and shape.

'Tattoo' is one of the few Polynesian words that has worked its way into our language ('taboo' is another). This ancient Polynesian custom dates back to the days of warring between neighbouring tribes. Full of symbolism, the tattoos are often applied without anaesthetic and using traditional instruments, tattoos remain an important part of Tahitian tradition. Before starting a tattooing ceremony, Polynesian artists still appeal to the gods to guide their hands in the perfect execution of the designs. Many tattoo artists operate shops throughout the islands offering a safe and creative tattoo service using modern, sterilised equipment.

The cuisine of Tahiti and her islands is a delectable array of fresh fish, exotic tropical fruits and vegetables, with a Polynesian influence and unmistakable French flair. Not to be missed is 'Poisson Cru' - fresh fish marinated with lime and coconut, mixed with vegetables. Parrotfish, 'Ahi', 'Mahi-Mahi' and other fresh fish are delicious in a light sauce made from vanilla beans and coconut milk. Eating well and enjoying food is as important to Polynesians as music and dance, and the motu picnic floating on the water is a treasured tradition. Exotic fruits are abundant in Tahiti including the breadfruit, dozens of varieties of bananas, papaws, mangos, watermelons, grapefruit, lemons and pineapples which are often turned into delicious fruit salads with a hint of vanilla. Another famous Tahitian dish is the raw tuna marinated in lime and coconut milk along with traditional dishes such as pork and chicken cooked in the 'A'hima'a' (a steam oven).

Tamure means 'dance' in Tahitian, and it is done with an energy and passion that is unsurpassed. From slow, graceful dances to fast, rhythmic movement, this demonstration of native culture is a must-see for visitors. The traditional songs and dances that visitors will experience during their stay are also part of Maohi culture.

In the spirit of their ancient ancestors, Tahitian sporting events include stone lifting, fruit carrying (running through the streets with hundreds of pounds of fruit carried on a pole), gruelling canoe races between the islands, and javelin-throwing, where contestants aim at a single coconut 60 feet away, on top of a 40-foot high pole. Visitors can observe these events during the seven-week long Heiva I Tahiti celebration in June and July.

Interesting/Useful Blogs

Green Global - Blogging couple Brett Love & Mary Gabbett have written a series of posts about Tahiti and its islands. They are mostly bundled together but you may need to search to find them all.

Interesting/Useful Blog Posts

Solo Traveller's Guide to Tahiti - Jessica Festa's tips for exploring Tahiti as a solo traveller.

Tahiti: First Impressions - Brett Love & Mary Gabbett's lead-in post. And I rather like Pearl Diving in Bora Bora.

Practical Stuff (Info from Tahiti Tourisme)

French Polynesia enjoys a tropical climate, which is cooled all year round by the Pacific trade winds. The average air temperature is about 27ºC, whereas the water of the lagoons is more or less constant at 26ºC. There are two seasons:

  • November to March is hot and humid
  • April to October is drier and slightly cooler

Time difference: 10 hours behind UK GMT.

Getting there:
The Faa'a International airport on Tahiti is located 5km west of Papeete and the flying time from the UK to Papeete is 22 hours. The usual route from the UK is via Paris and Los Angeles with Air Tahiti Nui. The main airlines which fly to Tahiti and her islands are:

  • Air Tahiti Nui, the national airline operates up to six summertime/five wintertime flights a week from Paris via Los Angeles to Papeete
  • Air France operates three flights a week also from Paris via Los Angeles to Papeete
  • British Airways and Virgin offer feeder flights from London to Los Angeles to connect with Air Tahiti Nui

Entry formalities: UK citizens entering French Polynesia require a passport which is valid for at least six months. UK citizens flying to Tahiti via the U.S will also need a U.S visa.

Getting around:

By air

  • The Polynesian domestic airline, Air Tahiti services over 40 of the islands with a fleet of 48-seater ATR 42 and 66-seater ATR 72 aircraft. There are several flights a day between the main Society Islands. Flights leave daily from Tahiti for the Tuamotus and Marquesas Islands, and there are five or six flights a week to the Austral Islands. Flights to the Gambier Islands are less frequent. The 'Air Tahiti Passes' are packages of internal flights which can be bought from tour operators and are very good value for money. The baggage allowance for all travellers with intercontinental air tickets is 20 Kg.
  • Air Moorea also operates a ten-minute flight every day to and from Tahiti and Moorea, with connecting flights for intercontinental departures.
  • Charter flights on Wan Air's Dornier 328 or Beechcraft 1900D are available on request. Air Archipels specialises in on-request charter flights in its comfortable seven or nine-seater Beechcraft. Helicopters are also available on request for private transfers departing from Tahiti.

By land
Cars, scooters and bicycles are available for hire and a UK driving license is required. Transport is not necessary on the smaller islands, as everything is close by. On the Marquesas Islands 4WD jeeps are available for hire and it is also possible to travel on horseback.

By boat
Ferry services do operate between some islands. Between Tahiti and Moorea there are several departures a day on catamarans and ferries and the crossing time is about 30 to 45 minutes. Ferries also run several times a week between Tahiti and the other Society Islands. There are weekly departures for the Tuamotu atolls, and several departures a month for the Marquesas and Austral Islands. Ferry services to the Gambier Islands are monthly and the crossing takes an average of 10/15 days. For travelling from one island to another in the same archipelago various means of transport, from outboards to small motorboats are available for visitors. Cruising around the islands of French Polynesia is an alternative and very popular way of visiting the islands. Raiatea is the base for small luxury ships for cruises of four/five days. The Leeward and Tuamotu archipelagoes can also be explored by cruises on catamarans.

The Pacific Franc (XPF) is the local currency (£1 = 140 XPF) but the Euro and USD are widely accepted. The main international currencies and credit cards are accepted by the majority of hotels, restaurants, shops and tourist attractions. The international banks on Tahiti also have branches on the main islands and all currencies in circulation can be exchanged at these. Tipping is not customary and tips are not requested.

French and Tahitian are the official languages. English is however widespread and spoken in hotels and shops.

Christianity is the main religion of the islands with a majority of 54% belonging to various Protestant churches while 30% are Roman Catholic.

Image: Flickr/dany13


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