When people think of French Polynesia, it usually evokes visions of a tropical paradise: gorgeous sandy beaches, crystal clear turquoise-blue water, and luxurious thatched huts perched over lagoons. It’s all true; this must-see destination is jaw-droppingly gorgeous.
French Polynesia covers over two million square miles of the South Pacific Ocean and is comprised of 118 islands and atolls spread over five archipelagos. Most visitors visit one or more of the stunning islands within the world-famous Society Islands archipelago — Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora, Huahine, Raiatea and Taha’a. Legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Michener called Bora Bora’s lagoon “the most beautiful in the world.” And the heart-shaped island of Moorea was the inspiration for his mythical, romantic island of Bali Ha’i.
There are so many reasons to visit French Polynesia — delicious exotic cuisine, welcoming Tahitian people, incredible coral reefs, fascinating history — too many to include in one article, so we’ve pared it down to five.
1. French Polynesia is closer than you think
We always thought, due to French Polynesia being located in the Australasian zone of our big, beautiful world, that we’d be sitting on a plane for an least 15 hours. Not so. French Polynesia is only eight hours from Los Angeles by air.
Air Tahiti Nui flies direct from L.A. to Papeete (Tahiti) every day. From Tahiti, you can take an inter-island flight to one of the local islands.
2. Overwater bungalows
Close to the top of our personal bucket list was to one day stay in an overwater bungalow in French Polynesia.
We were able to check that off our lists this past April, when we stayed at the incredible world-class Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa. Our heavenly bungalow with modern conveniences and a “Tahitian television” — a glass panel built into the floor for observing the wondrous marine life — had us swooning.
If you’re visiting dreamy destinations like Bora Bora or Moorea, we highly recommend you splurge and stay at least one night in a super-romantic thatched-hut on stilts, overlooking the water. For most people, this trip is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so why not do it right?
The nightly rate of your overwater bungalow will depend on when you are travelling. In low season (November 1 to April 30), overwater bungalow rates start at US$665. In peak season (May 1 to October 31), expect to pay US$800+ a night.
3. The ultimate destination wedding location
In 2009, France approved a law allowing non-French nationals to wed in the islands of Tahiti (including same-sex couples). Can you imagine getting married on a picture-perfect, palm-covered private islet or with your feet in an azure-coloured lagoon surrounding one of French Polynesia’s five-star resorts? It sounds pretty idyllic to us.
Couples seeking more adventurous nuptials should check out the award-winning Hilton Bora Bora Nui‘s unique underwater wedding package, for those wishing to say “I do” wearing white dive masks and suits. Post-ceremony, the happy couple can celebrate wedded bliss with a feet-in-the-sand lobster and champagne lunch on the Hilton’s private islet, Motu Tapu.
If the Hilton Bora Bora Nui sounds familiar, it’s probably because this tropical paradise was used as the romantic backdrop on two of America’s biggest reality TV shows – the 2010 season finale of the hit ABC show The Bachelorette as well as three hour-long episodes in the 2011 season of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
4. Swimming with sharks
When we first were told that we would be feeding and swimming with sharks, we were absolutely terrified. Who wouldn’t be?
Although the idea of feeding sharks may sound somewhat ominous, it is now one of the most popular excursions in the South Pacific. Originated on Bora Bora, your close encounter begins after you don a snorkeling mask and float in the shallow lagoon waters behind a secure rope. Your experienced guide summons the docile reef sharks by throwing chum into the water, just a few feet away. When the time is right, he will bring you into the water to experience swimming with these incredible creatures.
Our guide Leo Tepeva of Bora Bora-based Raanui Tours made us feel very comfortable, and soon we were snorkeling with them and trying to capture shark selfies with our underwater camera. This is a definitely must-do in Bora Bora.
5. Tahitian Cultured Pearls
One of the most popular souvenirs to take home from French Polynesia is the world-renowned Black Pearl — the jewel of the South Pacific.
Created in the warm waters of Tahitian lagoons, each cultured pearl ranges in size and shape, and the colours range from the darkest black to shimmering shades of green, blue, bronze, or even, surprisingly, pink.
We visited the second floor of the public market, le Marché de Papeete, where there are several vendors selling pearls. Here you can either purchase ready-made jewellery or hand-pick your perfect pearls from tubs — each container varies in price depending on the size and quality of the pearl — and have them set into your chosen design within hours.
Other places to purchase pearls can be found here.
For more information on French Polynesia, visit www.gototahiti.com