All photos: Drew Limsky

French Polynesia: Tahiti Is Just Your First Stop

Surreal beauty and otherworldly accommodations are a potent mix on these South Pacific islands.

Many seasoned travelers can rattle off the names of Hawaii’s major islands, but they may have a harder time identifying the main islands of French Polynesia, which receives far fewer tourists than its cousin to the north. “Tahiti” is usually the shorthand term for the 121 tiny land masses that spill out over 1,200 miles in the South Pacific. But people don’t often make the long journey to this necklace of tropical islands, islets, and motus—which compose France’s semi-autonomous overseas collectivity of French Polynesia—solely to visit the island of Tahiti (more on that later). Nevertheless, it’s a good place to start the conversation, and virtually the only place for airline travelers to begin a visit. 

That’s because international flights land in the melting pot of Papeete, Tahiti’s main city. Of the approximately 71 inhabited islands of French Polynesia, Tahiti is the most modern and developed and by far the most populated. And bustling Papeete explains why. Tahiti is shaped like a figure-eight, but one that’s tilted on a diagonal, with the bigger circle (called Tahiti Nui) to the northwest and the smaller, somewhat elongated circle (Tahiti Iti) dangling off to the southeast. Papeete rests in a pie-shaped sliver in the northwest part of Tahiti Nui. It is a noisy but cheerful riot of car traffic and palm trees, patisseries and cafes, ferry terminals, and a small grid of urban streets, little shops, and one sprawling market.

Many tourists spend a day or two in Tahiti before or after heading off to other islands in the Society Islands archipelago, which includes, in addition to Tahiti, Bora Bora, Moorea, Huahine, Raiatea, Taha’a, and eight other lesser-known islands. (If that isn’t enough to get your mind around, French Polynesia contains four other archipelagos: the Tuamotus, the Gambier Islands, the Marquesas, and the Austral Islands. Of these chains, perhaps the Tuamotus are the best-known to travelers due to the far-flung beauty of the resorts in the atoll islands of Rangiroa and Tikehau.)

A Soft Landing in Tahiti

Tahiti constitutes the ultimate soft landing because its major resorts—such as the Hilton and the InterContinental—are so close to the airport. But once you’re rested and washed by the cool waters of their enormous pools, it’s time to explore. The Papeete Market is an immersive, exotic experience, a magnet for both tourists and locals. You can spot the latter because they’re the ones enjoying the prepared meals—plates of takeaway tuna carpaccio and sashimi, and tall containers of mixed tropical fruits. You’ll also find locals perusing the long tables filled with fish, vegetables, breadfruit, coconut, taro, pineapples, miniature bananas, and yams.

But there’s no shame in joining the tourists in a handicrafts section. Though you’ll find all manner of hats and handbags, the most evocative items are the shell necklaces and the variety of coconut oils. Of all the types of necklaces, the most iconic are the makau (fishhooks), which are typically carved from white or iridescent shells and symbolize prosperity, strength, and safe travels. They are usually strung on simple, adjustable strings and make fine gifts to carry home conveniently. 

The other highly iconic items are the small bottles of coconut monoi oil, traditionally accented with the white tiare flower, which carries a one-of-a-kind scent of gardenia, lily-of-the-valley, jasmine, and spice (though other scents are available). Monoi oil is versatile and economical—a great moisturizer that also works well for sunburn, insect bites, and as a hair tonic. Stock up. Months after you return home, the application of monoi will instantly transport you back to Polynesia; it’s uncannily evocative. 

Your next stop, Bora Bora, isn’t a shopping destination and is not the place to stock up on anything. This dreamy location is all about its resorts. That owes to its singular geography, which is composed of a central island where thrilling mountains seem to rise from the water, chief among them the mystical oblong Mt. Otemanu. 

Surrounding the main island are islets, known as motus, each offering spectacular mountain views. Because the sandy, low-rise motus nearly encircle the main island, between them is a freak of nature—a luminous lagoon: protected and calm and one of the few places on the planet that provides optimal conditions for the overwater accommodation. It is precisely that kind of hotel room that is synonymous with Bora Bora; the overwater bungalow was invented in French Polynesia in the 1960s and perfected on Bora Bora. 

Private Island Resorts

These are essentially private island resorts, and guests tend not to leave once they’ve checked in. The overwaters range from lovely one-room rustic bungalows to three-room villas, which were added to Bora Bora’s accommodation supply starting around 20 years ago. It was the overwater villas, epitomized by those dotting the turquoise waters at the Four Seasons Bora Bora, that represented a great leap forward for luxury and spaciousness in French Polynesia.

But what do you do at an overwater resort in Bora Bora? (Most of the resorts also offer land-based beachfront accommodations as well.) You wake up, throw on a swimsuit, and jump into some of the clearest, caressing waters anywhere, to swim among needlefish and colorful parrotfish. Expect a bountiful buffet breakfast featuring all kinds of croissants (these are French islands, after all) and other pastries and breads, fresh fish including the ubiquitous poisson cru (a Polynesian type of ceviche), fruits, cereals, Asian items, and traditional American dishes cooked to order. Then it’s time for kayaking, standup paddleboarding, and luxuriating (or vigorous lap swimming) in the pool or lagoon. The more adventurous should consider excursions where you get to feed stingrays and black-tipped sharks. 

It should be obvious by now that Bora Bora is for water lovers. If you’re the type of person who can’t get enough of the beach, Bora Bora is incomparable. However, for the curious, Bora Bora’s main island offers some diversions beyond delivering stunning scenery from afar. Bicycling around the island, especially along the southern route from Hotel Royal Bora Bora to the famed restaurant Bloody Mary’s—and throwing the shaka (hang-10) hand sign to friendly locals—is a fun and authentic way to wile away a few hours. Matira Beach, arguably the finest sandy strand in all of Bora Bora, stretches between the hotel and Bloody Mary’s and is definitely worth a swim.

It's typical to move on to Moorea after Bora Bora because the former lies between Bora Bora and Tahiti (and your flight home). Unlike Bora Bora, Moorea is not surrounded by motus, yet it boasts a similarly inviting lagoon kept calm by an offshore reef. On the outside of the reef, the waves are roiling, but inside, all is serene, and Moorea's waters boast even more coral heads and colorful fish than Bora Bora's. The snorkeling is world-class, and the island is replete with charming overwater bungalow resorts. While considerably more developed than it was a decade ago, owing to its proximity to Tahiti (a 30-minute ferry ride away), Moorea evidences enduring pulchritude. The technicolor green hues and dramatic folds of the mountain ranges in the island’s center still take your breath away.

Moorea is the best island for renting a car, buggy, or scooter. Touring the perimeter of this heart-shaped island, with its two deep bays cutting into the land in the north—'Ōpūnohu Bay and Cook’s Bay—gives you a feeling of independence that is difficult to find elsewhere in these Polynesian islands. Pull over for a waterfall hike, take photos at Belvedere Lookout, or wander tropical gardens. No schedule—just an island paradise. 

Traveler Fast Facts

What It Is: French Polynesia, a semi-autonomous territory of France, is a collection of more than 100 islands in the South Pacific. First-time visitors typically focus on the Society Islands (including Tahiti, Bora Bora, and Moorea), which are known for their overwater accommodations perched above calm lagoons.

Climate: French Polynesia enjoys a tropical climate with the driest and most pleasant weather from May to October (the busiest season). That said, though the islands are more humid between November and April, rains are typically scattered, and many days are still glorious. Temperatures range from the mid-70s to the low 80s Fahrenheit.

Getting There: The three Society Islands accommodate private jets. Tahiti’s Faa'a International Airport is the major gateway to French Polynesia and welcomes carriers such as Air Tahiti Nui, Air France, United, Delta, and French Bee.

What to Know Before You Go: French Polynesia is one of the simplest destinations to prepare for. You don’t need a visa. And the vibe is so casual and the temperature variation so limited that men don’t even need long pants (but bring a pair anyway). Stay hydrated, take the sun in increments, and be sure to swim in deep water only if you are a top swimmer; the lagoons do experience currents. English is widely spoken (as is French), and locals are very friendly.

Traveler Report Card

Accommodations: The Four Seasons Bora Bora (A+) has something in common with New York’s Central Park: when designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed the latter, they were not initially looking at a wonderland; they turned a site of swamp and rocks into a manmade paradise—a “new” nature. This is what the designers of the Four Seasons Bora Bora have achieved with a flat coral reef. The resort offers an asymmetrical garden of delights where every rise and fall and twist and turn uncovers a visually jaw-dropping surprise: from the row of tall, thatched, arched cabanas reflected in the main pool to the private raft (with a pair of loungers—perfect for a couple) floating atop one of the fingers of the lagoon that snakes into the property to the fanciful mirror-image plunge pools at the spa—one facing the open ocean and the other set beneath a view of Mt. Otemanu. The resort’s overwater villas set the bar for this type of accommodation: luxurious, yet with thoughtful use of cultural cues. And they are huge: a living area is cunningly separated from the bedroom by a large, indulgent bath sanctuary anchored by an enormous soaking tub.

Forgive the pool at the Sofitel Kia Ora Beach Resort Moorea (A) for being a tad small, because this French-style resort boasts one of the finest half-mile sandy strands in the Society Islands, with perfect waters for swimming, kayaking, and snorkeling. A lovely series of curved terraces floating over the beach represent the hotel’s bars and restaurants, and the inland section is gorgeous, with ample thatched-roof bungalows set in a loose circle around a lotus pond topped by a fountain.

The swanky Manava Beach Resort & Spa (A-), though only a 10-minute drive away, offers a very different environment, as it is walkable to shopping and simple cafes. The plush red daybeds by the swimming pool are backed by vistas of spectacular verdant mountain ranges. The snorkeling beneath the snug but cute overwater bungalows is excellent. Two resorts in Tahiti, both convenient to the airport, show a marked contrast...The relatively boutique-style Hilton Hotel Tahiti (A) exudes texture and warmth, and it has a freeform tiled swimming pool that stuns daytime or night, with spectacular sunsets...Meanwhile, the InterContinental Resort Tahiti (A) is the mainstay where nearly everyone who’s been to Tahiti has overnighted. The rooms are super-comfortable, with canopy beds, granite bathroom counters, and deep soaking tubs. The environmentally sustainable property is vast and social, with a large pool set between the land and the water, and an impressive man-managed fish-filled lagoon beyond (there’s also an adult pool with a swim-up bar).

Cuisine: In French Polynesia, it’s best to stay locally sourced. At the Four Seasons’ Arii Moana (A+), the grilled chunks of spiny lobster served out of the shell are a game changer…On the main island of Bora Bora, the casual Bora Bora Beach Club (A-), right off Matira Beach, is a find, with a staff that’s full of heart, excellent tropical cocktails, and surprisingly delicate fried shrimp to accompany them…The Vue Bar at the Sofitel Moorea (A) has Tahitian beers, great mai tais, and toothsome Mediterranean tapas…All the properties have killer breakfasts, but the one at the Intercontinental Tahiti (A) is especially indulgent and expansive, with a hearty sampling of Polynesian specialties…Finally, the Taitea Brasserie at the Hilton Hotel Tahiti (A) turns a simple mahimahi dinner into something sublime.

The author received free or discounted accommodations and meals at the five resorts and hotels mentioned above. —Ed.

Drew Limsky is a New York- and Miami-based writer and editor who has contributed to such publications as the New York TimesWall Street JournalArchitectural DigestMiami HeraldMen’s Journal, Business Insider, Robb Report, and Los Angeles Times