French Polynesia Travel Guide

Ia ora na (hello in Tahitian). Welcome to paradise! French Polynesia has all the ingredients to make your tropical dreams come true. With tropical islands sculpted by nature’s finest artists, friendly locals wearing exotic flowers in their hair and shades of blue like nowhere else – you’ll be pinching yourself throughout the day to check if you’re really awake. If you’ve made the decision to visit this remote part of the world, you’ve come to the right place. With the help of this French Polynesia Travel Guide, exploring paradise at the edge of the world is easier than you imagined.

About This French Polynesia Travel Guide

I first visited French Polynesia in 2015 on the tail end of a six-month backpacking trip across the South Pacific Islands. The three months spent island hopping in the French territory completely changed my life. I have since returned six more times to French Polynesia, most recently on my month-long honeymoon. I also lead group tours in the islands and offer consulting and itinerary planning services with my local partners in Tahiti.

French Polynesia Travel Guide - banner

Tahiti, Tailor Made!

The Islands of Tahiti are among the last places to be colonized by mankind, 118 islands, each with its unique personality.

Get expert advice and assistance with planning your trip to the destination where tropical dreams come true!

French Polynesia Travel Guide Video

Here’s a relatively lengthy but (I guarantee) enjoyable video that takes you across all five archipelagos in French Polynesia. You might need to disable your ad blocker for the video to load. 

Why Should You Visit French Polynesia?

traveling in french polynesia during covid - maupiti - post cover

With 5 unique archipelagoes, your island-hopping adventure brings you to unique stops that challenge your senses throughout the day.

Picture Perfect

Your tropical dreams come true every day in these picture-perfect islands, whether surrounded by protective lagoons, exposed to nature’s forces, or flat as a coral atoll.

Heiva Festival Tahiti - Stone lifting competition

Friendly Polynesians still wear flowers in their hair and many live off the land. Proud of their exotic and courageous heritage, there are plenty of ways to meet the locals.

Facts & Brief History

French Polynesia, commonly referred to as the islands of Tahiti, is a French Overseas Territory spanning an area of the South Pacific Ocean roughly equalling Western Europe. Across this endless blue are 118 islands and atolls concentrated in 5 archipelagos: the Society Islands, the Tuamotu Atolls, the remote Gambier Islands, Austral Island, and the Marquesas Islands. About 285,000 lucky islanders live on 67 inhabited islands and atolls, with over 70% of the population concentrated on the big island of Tahiti.

French Polynesia Flag
The flag of French Polynesia

Early discovery

The islands of French Polynesia were among the last to be settled by humans. Debate and mystery still shroud the colonization of the islands. Still, it is widely believed that Polynesians from Southeast Asia (likely Taiwan) arrived in the Marquesas Islands after discovering much of the South Pacific. Later, these masters of the sea spread across the rest of what is referred to today as French Polynesia until finally discovering the Society Islands at around AD 300.

You may also like
Polynesian migration map
Polynesian migration across the Indian & Pacific Oceans

European Colonization

Europeans first arrived in the 16th century, beginning with the Spanish. However, when the British landed in Tahiti in 1767, stories of paradise and friendly exotic locals spread like wildfire. Among the notable captains who paid a visit were James Cook and William Bligh (the one from the mutiny on the Bounty). Europeans brought missionaries and diseases that significantly reduced the local population in most islands. First, it were the English Protestants and then the French Catholics. When the latter experienced problems, France came in full force, eventually claiming the territory for herself.

Tahiti missionary grave Calvary Cemetery Hiva Oa French Polynesia
A missionary buried in Hiva Oa

This process was not without ‘classic’ colonial behavior. Tahitians were forced to abandon their traditional way of life: language, religion, tattoos, dance, and cannibalism (thank God). In the 1970s, France even tested nuclear weapons in the remote atolls of the Tuamotus chain, a controversy still in debate these days. Presently, there is minimal conflict between the parties. Tahitians are French citizens, enjoying a standard of living that can only be envied by some other South Pacific island nations.

Nuclear testing victims memorial - Rotoava - Fakarava - French Polynesia
Nuclear testing victims memorial in Fakarava

French Polynesia Today

Adjust your watches and get used to ‘island time.’ Despite the modernities imported from France, Tahitians still enjoy life in the slow lane. This unique mix offers visitors the best of both worlds: a taste of the exotic Polynesian past with the comforts of Western standards (more or less).

Sunset in Atiha Bay - Moorea - French Polynesia
Sunset in Moorea’s Atiha Bay

Locals are amiable and inviting. There is very little chance you’ll pass an islander on the roadside and not be greeted with a warm hello. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll discover a rich culture that, despite French influence, is unique and mysteriously interesting.

Tahitian dancing Tahiti French Polynesia
Dancing is an essential part of life in French Polynesia

What sets the islands of French Polynesia apart from other South Pacific islands is their diversity. Every island is different. Some have massive lagoons, essentially giant saltwater swimming pools, while others are flat, remote atolls or are bordered by giant cliffs without a protective reef.

Bora Bora and Tupai aerial view - French Polyensia.
Aerial view of Bora Bora and neighboring Tupai Atoll

Tourism Challenges

French Polynesia’s image as solely a luxury destination has been a double-edged sword, especially after the 2008 financial crisis. Travelers seeking a tropical escape switched to more accessible destinations, while independent travelers did not even know that French Polynesia could be authentically enjoyed without spending thousands of dollars on an overwater bungalow.

Flower necklace welcome - Fakarava - French Polynesia
A typical welcome in French Polynesia

As you visit the islands, you’ll undoubtedly come across several resorts that did not survive the tourist crash and stand today as mini ghost towns. The COVID pandemic has also hit the French territory hard. Extreme but necessary measures were taken to curb the spread of the virus, leaving the tourism industry in shatters. I was fortunate to visit the islands in September 2020, during a brief moment of reopening.

abandoned sofitel resort beach in Huahine French Polynesia
The abandoned Sofitel Resort in Huahine

Tourism in French Polynesia has quickly bounced back after COVID-19. In fact, visitors who try to plan a last-minute trip to the islands during the high season can face a challenge in finding suitable accommodations on some islands, if any. To add to this challenge, the local government introduced a cap on the number of annual visitors to the territory to protect the islands’ natural ecosystems.