I’ve wanted to visit French Polynesia since I began learning French in 8th grade. It always struck me as wildly alluring - a tropical paradise in the middle of nowhere. So when I got a last minute Scott’s Cheap Flights deal, I couldn’t help myself. I found tickets from San Francisco to Tahiti for $520, nonstop, on United. “What an amazing deal!” I thought. And it was. However, it was the first and last deal of the trip - haha. This might have been our most expensive vacation yet. But other than the cost, it lived up to all my other hopes and dreams. French Polynesia is an insanely beautiful place. You won’t regret a trip here. Just make sure to save up before you go.
Why visit French Polynesia?
If you like swimming, diving or snorkeling, go to French Polynesia. Prepare to see the bluest water of your entire life. It looks photoshopped, but it isn’t. The lagoons surrounding many of the islands are surreal in their multicolored hues, ranging from indigo to turquoise and every shade in between. And the marine life beneath the surface is equally amazing. Prepare yourself to see sharks, stingrays, parrotfish, octopus, giant colorful clams, beautiful coral, and a whole array of underwater awesomeness.
Other than the water itself, the island life is relaxed and peaceful. The islands are all geologically and culturally different. Some have impossibly steep mountains jutting straight out of the ocean with crazy pointy peaks. Others are flatter, made up of coral atolls from old coral reefs. Everywhere you go, people are friendly and the food is good. There is fruit growing LITERALLY everywhere and lots of jungle and palm trees. The pace of life is slower, but there is still a lot to explore. We loved hiking and swimming, or just sitting in a beautiful spot and reading books all day. It’s the perfect place to relax.
How to plan a French Polynesia Trip
There are 118 islands in French Polynesia.) that cover an area the size of Europe. It’s a big place. So how did I narrow down where to go? Well, I have a soft spot for Lonely Planet guides. While not perfect, they do provide a TON of in-depth local information. So I started by buying the Tahiti and French Polynesia guide. I read this cover to cover, and started to get a sense of which islands sounded the most ideal for us. If you are planning your own trip, remember that everyone travels differently! It’s okay to like different things. I’m aware that my husband and I are somewhat unique in our traveling style. We like to plan somewhat adventurous trips with a wide range of locations and accommodations. We like to spoil ourselves occasionally, but it’s usually more important for us to get off the beaten path, into nature, and to connect with locals. We are also birdwatchers, which makes us a little quirky and drawn to strange locations that might have cool birds, haha.
I quickly learned that Tahiti is the largest island, and it’s the hub for the country. Pretty much all international flights go through Faa’a international airport in Tahiti. Right next door to Tahiti is its beautiful sister island, Moorea. It’s very easy (and quick) to get a 30 min ferry between the two. So I figured that at the minimum it would be easy for us to see these two places. But with 16 days to kill, I was hungry for more.
Why visit the Austral Islands
Lonely Planet describes the Austral Islands like this: “Isolated and straddling the tropic of Capricorn, the magnificent and pristine Austral Islands are arguably French Polynesia’s most underrated destination. The Climate here is temperate, but everything else befitting a tropical paradise is here: flower-filled jungles, sharp peaks, outrageous blue water and genuinely friendly people.” This paragraph piqued my interest immediately.
After doing my research, I spent a LOT of time on Air Tahiti’s website. They offer “Island Passes” that cover a set of flights between islands in different archipelagos. I poured over the flight options and times during our trip, and discovered that a lot of these flights were NOT daily. More like once or twice a week. So this really helped me get the structure of our trip in place. I made one itinerary for the Marquesas Islands and one for the Austral Islands. In the end, we decided to go with the Australs, but I could definitely see us going back to explore the Marquesas someday too! Both archipelagos are remote and off the main tourist paths. They both offer dramatic landscapes and a strong cultural presence.
I also found this amazing travel blog called X days in Y and I read all about their Austral and Marquesas itineraries. This helped me narrow things down, and I’d highly recommend using their website as a resource!
Our Austral Island itinerary
We ended up visiting 6 islands on our trip and all of them spoke slightly different languages, had different geology, and unique vibes. I was worried that 6 islands might be too much in our 16 days, but we ended up loving the pacing of it. A lot of places we went were VERY small, so it was easy to get a good sense of the island in 2 nights while still having time to relax.
Day 1 - land in Tahiti at night, stay at Fare D’hôtes Tutehau guesthouse near airport
Day 2-3 - Morning ferry to Moorea, stay at Hilton Moorea in over the water bungalow
Day 4 - Ferry back to Tahiti in the afternoon, explore the city of Papeete, stay at Fare Suisse Guesthouse
Day 5-6 - Early flight to the Austral Islands - first stop - Raivavae - stay at Pension Vaimano-Raivavae
Day 7-9 - Fly to Tubuai - stay at Pension Taitaa Tubuai
Day 10-11 - Rurutu - stay at Pension Teautamatea
Day 12-13 - Rimitara - stay at La Perruche Rouge
Day 14-16 -Back to Tahiti - stay at a bungalow in the middle of mountains - Le Relais de la Maroto
Day 17 fly home.
French Polynesia and Austral Island Travel Tips
I hope you like fish. You will be eating a lot of it. We ate fish every day for two straight weeks. Lots of grilled fish and raw “poisson cru” which is kind of like poke salad or ceviche. They also eat a lot of taro root and fresh fruit. And baguettes.
Plan to spend a lot of money on food and accommodations. The cheapest guesthouses are $100-150 a night ($150 minimum in the Australs). Many guesthouses include room and partial board, but the food will be $20-$40 per meal. The exception is if you can find cheap baguette sandwiches for lunch - those are huge and usually like $5. The airports in the Australs all have snack shops with cheap sandwiches.
You can find nice hotels and resorts in the main tourist areas, but I highly recommend staying at local guesthouses, known locally as “pensions.” We stayed in guesthouses for our entire trip, with the exception of our Hilton splurge. Its a way better way to meet locals, fellow travelers, and eat local cuisine. We had a great experience everywhere we stayed.
Excursions and activities usually start around $50 per person. Your pension will help you arrange them.
Learn how to say hello and thank you in Tahitian! Hello is “Ia Orana” (pronounced ya-rah-nah). Thank you is “Mauruuru” (Maw-roo-roo).
A lot of places are cash only, especially in the Australs or anywhere off the main tourist path. Make sure you take out enough and keep track of which islands have working ATMS, and which don’t. We took out the max amount every couple of days and spent all of it because everything cost so much, haha.
Download French in Google Translate before you arrive. You’ll thank me later.
There is very minimal internet in the Australs and it is very slow. Plan accordingly or enjoy life disconnected for awhile (we did!).
Bring a water filter device with you. Many islands have drinkable tap water, but many others don’t. As you island hop, you constantly have to re-assess and buy more bottled water. We found that we could drink the water in Papeete, but it was not recommended in Moorea. And then it was not recommended in Raivavae, but safe in Tubuai and Rurutu. And unsafe in Rimatara.
Water shoes are a must. Everywhere you go, there is sharp coral and danger of stonefish. We saw one on Raivavae. I bought these Keens on Amazon before the trip and they were perfeect for water and hiking.
You will need a lot of sunblock and a lot of bug spray.
Our first real stop, after a quick night in Tahiti, was Moorea. This place is a dream. If you don’t have a ton of time and you want to save on airfare, you can just fly to Tahiti and go to Moorea and you will have a great time. Yes, it’s more touristy than the Australs. But there’s a reason: it is STUNNING.
Due to life, and the hectic things that had been going on right before this trip, we decided to begin our vacation by deeply spoiling ourselves and relaxing. I couldn’t go to French Polynesia without staying at least a few nights in one of those fancy over-the-water bungalows, so that’s exactly what we did. After freaking out at the price tag (and booking everything 1 week before we left), we realized we could use our Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa credit card points to pay for a room at the Hilton Moorea. It was absolutely worth it. I’ve learned that a lot of times I am REALLY TIRED by the time I actually arrive on a vacation. I was so happy to relax in a 5 star resort for 2 days before beginning the more intense adventure part of our trip.
The Hilton Moorea was an amazing hotel. Our bungalow might have been the nicest room we have ever stayed in. Our clear glass coffee table had a perfect view of coral, fish, and even sharks below! We could jump straight into the water from our little deck. We could watch the sunset. The beach at the Hilton and the snorkeling in the lagoon was actually some of the best of our entire trip. It was everything we needed to unwind. We were there for a full 48 hours straight, which was the perfect amount of time. By the end we were just starting to get that “trapped at the resort” feeling, and we were ready to go. 3 nights would have been too many for us; 2 was perfect.
We spent most of our time relaxing in our room, snorkeling and hanging out. But we did take one epic excursion to swim with sharks! We booked this through the Hilton and it was so worth it. A little boat took 6 of us down the coastline to a shallow area in the middle of the lagoon. We hopped out and were immediately surrounded by friendly black-tipped reef sharks and stingrays. This population was well-fed and used to humans, so overall I felt pretty safe. We were also standing in shallow water, which helped my fear. We snorkeled with the sharks for awhile, and then took the boat out to a fringing island (known in French Polynesia as a motu) and snorkeled in much deeper water for a bit. It was fantastic. I didn’t take many photos with my pro camera, but we took a ton of underwater videos on my husbands iphone in a cheap underwater case. You can find the videos buried at the very end of this Instagram Highlight haha.
We had to spend one more night in Tahiti in the city of Papeete after our trip to Moorea, so we chose a place close to town so we could do a little exploring. To be honest we spent most the day napping and reading, but we finally escaped our room at Fare Suisse around sunset. We wandered around the city taking photos, found a kareoke bar for some drinks, and then ate dinner at a “Rouloutte” a French Polynesian food truck. So good.
Raivavae is often described as “what Bora Bora used to be like 75 years ago.” As soon as I read that in Lonely Planet, I was like “I must go here.”
This tiny island has a population around 900 people. Landing here after being in bustling Tahiti was a shock. The airport is tiny. We had no data on our cell phones. There were hardly any businesses in sight. But it was GORGEOUS.
Our guesthouse host, Clarice, picked us up at the airport. We had a beautiful bungalow at Pension Vaimiano-Raivavae overlooking colorful gardens and the lagoon. It was incredibly quiet, save the buzzing of bees and flies (lots of those, haha). We spent our first day reading and relaxing, then borrowing a few bikes and taking a little ride around the island. We went in search of bottled water and came to a disturbing conclusion: both stores on the island were completely out! My water scarcity fear set in, but luckily Clarice had plenty in her own storage and we were able to buy some from her. In retrospect I really wish we had packed a water filter!
We were the only people staying at the guesthouse, so we enjoyed meals alone with Clarice, speaking a hilarious blend of broken French, broken English, and broken Spanish. She told us she had lived in Mexico for 6 months back when she was a traveling Polynesian dancer, so my husband and her practiced their Spanish together during meals. Her local cooking was delicious.
On our second day, we planned a motu tour - a trip to a fringing island on the outside of the lagoon. We didn’t know what to expect, but we were excited. Clarice drove us to the boat launch location where we were joined by her brother. All four of us boarded a traditional, 40 year old pirogue boat, (except with an engine!) and set off. Before arriving at the motu, we took a brief stop on a rocky, pyramid shaped offshore island that their family owns, known as “pig island.” Our boat was loaded up with buckets, and at the moment I realized they were filled with pig slop! As we approached, 15 pigs of all shapes and sizes started swimming toward us. Before I could stop it, a huge pig practically crawling on my lap, spilling the bucket of slop all over the boat. It was kind of scary! Clarice and her brother shooed it away and they proceeded to feed the pigs from the slop buckets and coconuts. It was fascinating and the baby piglets were SO cute.
After that, we rinsed out the boat and were on our way across the lagoon to the motu. We spotted a number of seabirds along the way - frigatebirds, tropicbirds, and terns.
The motu was isolated paradise. Pure white sand, pure blue water. This particular motu is owned by the family and we were the only people on the island. Mikael and I walked around the entire thing in our water sandals. We snorkeled, ate an incredible homemade lunch of fruit and poisson cru, and lay in the shade reading books. The perfect way to spend the day. We were there from 10am-4pm or so. We made one last stop at pig island to give the hungry hogs our lunch scraps too. We ended the night back at the guesthose eating a dinner of fresh caught clams that Clarice and her brother had gathered while we were on the motu.
We flew to Tubuai the following afternoon, and stayed with Nadi and Nathalie at Pension Taitaa Tubuai. Their beautiful home is set in a spacious garden setting (with a pool), and the row of guesthouse rooms seperate from the main house. Nathalie and Nadi speak very minimal English, so I really got to put my high school French skills to the test here! It was also hilarious because everywhere in the Australs, the hotel owners knew each other. As we left Clarice, she told us to give “bisous” (kisses) to Nathalie and Nadi for her. And Nadi told us that he considered our next host to be like a brother to him. It was such a small world.
Tubuai was way different from Raivavae. Its the economic center of the Australs and is a much larger island overall. The rolling hills give way to many farms, and this is where much of the produce in the Australs is grown. There is a stunning mountain, beautiful lagoon, and a much larger population here - closer to 2200 people.
We spent our first evening relaxing by the pool and chatting in broken French with our lovely hosts. Again, we were the only guests on the property.
The following day, we did ANOTHER motu tour, because Mikael and I could not get enough of motu life. This one ended up being completely different from the last, which was so cool! We took Nadi’s beautiful speedboat out to a much larger motu, with multiple cottages and families relaxing on a Saturday. They explained that their little motu house was where their family spent holidays and Christmas. We were joined by some of their good friends - a beautiful French military couple from the West Indies, and their 3 children. We spent the day speaking more broken French, miming a lot, drinking beer, laughing, and eating continually. Nadi cooked us the most fabulous traditional lunch. He made homemade banana bread rolled into banana leaves and cooked on open fire. He also cooked 2 freshly caught parrotfish on the grill. And any lunch would be incomplete without poisson cru, the famous raw-fish dish. He scraped multiple coconuts (with everyones help) to make fresh coconut milk for the dish. It was really cool to make a huge meal with everyone’s help, entirely outdoors and over a fire.
We snorkeled more at the motu, going out to deeper water with towering coral that rose from the depths to the surface. We swam over huge colorful clams that would move open and shut as our shadows passed over them. The water was clear as glass.
At around 4pm, we packed up and took the boat to yet another motu! This one was completely bare - save for a few recently planted saplings. Just a small strip of golden sand alone at the edge of the lagoon. We stayed til sunset, rolling around in the sandy warm water, tossed by tiny waves.
The next day we did an island tour of Tubuai with Nadi. We drove around the entire island in his truck and he took us to several ancient marae - or polynesian archealogical sites. It was SO cool to learn more of the island history!