Ia ora na (hello in Tahitian). Welcome to paradise! French Polynesia is the stuff dreams are made of. If you’ve made the decision to visit this remote part of the world – congratulations. 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. In fact, visiting French Polynesia really is a dream, and you’ll be living it! With the help of this French Polynesia Travel Guide, seeing the paradise at the end of the world will be easier than you imagined.
About This French Polynesia Travel Guide
I spent three months in French Polynesia as part of a six-month backpacking trip across the South Pacific Islands. I split my trip into two parts: before French Polynesia and after – that’s how special this place is. In fact, I even returned here for a second visit a year later for another month in paradise and I now consult other paradise-seeking travelers headed to Tahiti and her islands, as well as leading large groups. In October of 2018, I returned for a third visit, this time cruising from Tahiti to Easter Island, and have since returned on two additional occasions.
This French Polynesia Travel Guide was written based on my experiences and is meant to help you make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime destination. The travel guide is geared towards independent travelers, but any visitor will find it useful. I’ll try and break the myth of French Polynesia belonging only to luxury travelers.
This post is the first of many in the Independent Traveler’s Guide to French Polynesia. In this post, I’ll share with you everything you need to know in order to plan your visit. Click on the below image to access in-depth travel guide to all 5 archipelagos. You can also get in touch if you want to get some specific advice for your trip and, if French Polynesia is just one stop on a longer trip to the South Seas, plan with this guide on how to island hop in the South Pacific.
What’s Included In The French Polynesia Travel Guide?
- Essential travel tips and practical information
- In-depth travel guides to 12 islands: tips, costs, top things to do & sample itineraries
- Sample itineraries to French Polynesia: 1-week itinerary, 10-day itinerary, 2-week itinerary
- The top 10 things to do in French Polynesia
- The best islands in French Polynesia
- The best hikes in French Polynesia
- The best beaches in French Polynesia
- Tahiti tailor-made: expert consultation and trip planning services
You can also explore the various travel guides organized by archipelago
Video Tour of the Islands of Tahiti
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.
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 that of Western Europe. Scattered across this endless blue, are 118 islands and atolls, some with names you’ll likely steal for your future newborns. These are concentrated in 5 archipelagos: the Society Islands, Tuamotus, and the remote Gambier, Austral & Marquesas Islands. About 280,000 lucky islanders are living on 67 inhabited islands and atolls, with over 70% of the population concentrated on the big island of Tahiti.
The islands of French Polynesia were among the last to be settled by humans. Debate and mystery still shroud the colonization of the islands, but it is widely believed that Polynesians originating from Southeast Asia (likely Taiwan) arrived in the Marquesas Islands after already 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.
Europeans first arrived in the 16th century, beginning with the Spanish. It wasn’t until the British landed in Tahiti in 1767, that stories of paradise and friendly exotic locals spread like wildfire. Among the notable captains that paid a visit are James Cook and William Bligh (the one from the mutiny on the Bounty). Europeans brought with them missionaries (and diseases that greatly 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 with full force, eventually claiming the territory for herself.
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 1970’s France even tested nuclear weapons in the remote atolls of the Tuamotus, a controversy still very much in debate these days. Presently, there is very little conflict between the parties. Tahitians are French citizens, enjoying a standard of living that can only be envied by some of the other South Pacific island nations.
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).
Locals are extremely friendly and inviting. There is very little chance you’ll pass an islander on the roadside and not be greeted with a warm hello. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll discover a rich culture that despite French influence, is nonetheless unique and mysteriously interesting.
What sets the islands of French Polynesia apart from other South Pacific islands is their diversity. Every island is different. Some have massive lagoons that are essentially a giant saltwater swimming pool, while others are flat remote atolls or giant cliffs with no protective reef around.
French Polynesia’s image as solely being a luxury destination has been a double-edged sword, especially after the 2008 financial crisis. Travelers seeking a tropical escape simply switched to destinations easier to get to, while independent travelers did not even know that French Polynesia can be authentically enjoyed without spending thousands of dollars on an overwater bungalow. As you visit the islands, you’ll no doubt come across several resorts that simply did not survive the tourist crash and stand today as mini ghost towns. The recent 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.
So fear not the luxury hype! There is much to be discovered. The big question is: how will you feel during your next vacation after seeing the wonders of French Polynesia?