French Polynesia Travel Guide

French Polynesia Travel Guide

French Polynesia Travel Guide

Last updated on March 9th, 2022

French Polynesia Travel Tips

Listed in this section are travel tips to help you start planning your trip to the islands of Tahiti.

Quick Finds

Why Should You Visit French Polynesia?

Ever seen one of those perfect beaches in a magazine or postcard and wondered if such places really exist? Well, they do in French Polynesia. Traveling to French Polynesia is to explore the far reaches of the globe, where time ticks at a slower pace, breathtaking scenery awaits you just around the corner and exotic culture that you thought existed only in film is present every day. This is paradise and it’s totally within reach. If you like tropical destinations, get a thrill for the remote, curious about island life and South Pacific cultures – French Polynesia is a top choice!

What To Expect?

Unless you’re on a package resort holiday or a cruise – independent travel in French Polynesia is totally different than what you’re used to. It’s not the easiest place to travel to, but the rewards for your effort, the return on investment, the stimulation you feel every minute of every day – are priceless. It can be challenging getting to and around the islands while staying within budget – but have no fear. I managed to see 11 islands in French Polynesia over the course of 3 months and I was traveling solo (I have since returned on four additional occasions). With a bit of planning, you’ll be fine. Though French Polynesia is not a budget destination, it is certainly not exclusive for luxury travelers. I do recommend setting expectations with yourself and understanding that it’ll cost a little more than the usual vacation to see paradise. However, it is certainly not out of reach and if you go through the travel guides, you’ll be able to see more of French Polynesia for a lot less!

Island life in Fakarava French Polynesia

The Independent Traveler’s Guide to French Polynesia: a collection of in-depth guides to islands in all five archipelagos

How to Island Hop in the South Pacific: a guide for those planning multiple stops in the South Seas 

The X Days In Y Blog: personal accounts of most of my visits to the island

Lonely Planet: ‘the bible’ for any independent traveler. For such a dreamy yet challenging destination, I recommend grabbing one of these for the road to go along with this travel guide.

Tahiti Tourisme: the official site of the local tourism office. You’ll find relevant information about Tahiti and the outer islands.

Lonely Planet Tahiti & French Polynesia

When Is The Best Time To Visit French Polynesia?

Weather will make or break your trip to paradise. Nobody wants to travel this far and be kept indoors with heavy rain. Seasons in French Polynesia vary between wet & dry. Each season has its pros and cons, with the shoulder seasons being good options as well. Also to consider are school holidays, which create peaks in domestic travel and a shortage of pensions, flights, availability in dive centers, etc. The best website for checking the weather in French Polynesia is meteo.pf. It allows you to drill down per region. That said, predicting the weather in this part of the world is mighty hard so take borderline days (i.e. not absolute sun or rain) with a grain of salt. Windguru is also a good option. 

Dry season (June – October): temperatures are moderate, with 25-28 degrees Celsius during the day and 18-25 at night. The easterly trade winds are blowing, keeping the mosquitos and the clouds away and making the nights a bit chilly. Though rain is less frequent, it will still happen. This is the tropics after all. Lots of yachts make their way across the islands and visitor numbers peak.

Wet season (December – April): hot, humid with frequent rain that can last for a few minutes or a few hours. Hiking can be dangerous and some inland tracks might be closed (especially in Tahiti). Cyclones are developing not too far away, but hardly ever hit French Polynesia. If you’re coming for a long stay, fear not the wet season. There is plenty of sunshine! Clouds tend to form around the mountainous interior, leaving the lagoon side sunny and gorgeous.

Tautira Valley - Tahiti - French Polyensia

I have personally visited French Polynesia during all seasons (wet, dry, and shoulder). There is no doubt that the dry season is most optimal (especially July for the Heiva festival and August for dry weather) but traveling during the wet season, especially if for an extended period is OK. Just try to avoid December, which is a particularly wet month on the Society and Tuamotu archipelagos. 

Keep in mind: December and January experience a surge in visitors and locals heading home. With that comes a surge in prices and difficulty in finding spots on flights. Book in advance if you plan to visit during this time. Weather is hit or miss, with a mix of super sunny and super cloudy days. Traveling to the Marquesas? Lucky you! The seasons are pretty much the opposite of those in Tahiti. French Polynesia has a few incredible festivals. Check out the schedule and plan to visit either during the July Heiva Festival (see stone-lifting image below), Hawaiki Nui Race, or Marquesas Arts festival (the ‘big three’).

Traditional Polynesian stone liftiing Tahiti French Polynesia

Which Island To Visit In French Polynesia?

With 118 islands to choose from, this is the million-dollar question! You will spend some time in Tahiti whether you like to or not, as it’s the only international gateway to the country (unless you own a yacht). As for the other islands – every island in French Polynesia is different, and that’s what gives this destination extra points in my opinion over other South Pacific nations. The rule of thumb is to not try and see as many islands as possible in a short time. It’s one thing to see the island with your eyes, but a totally different thing to feel it with your heart. Take your time, enjoy paradise, and don’t be ‘greedy’. This guide to French Polynesia covers in-depth travel guides to islands in all five archipelagos. In case you’re wondering, here are my favorite islands.

The Best Islands In French Polynesia For…
Here’s a general overview of where to go based on your dreams and preferences:
Temae beach from the air Moorea French Polynesia

Video of the Top 10 Islands in French Polynesia

Here’s a video that showcases the top 10 islands in French Polynesia. You might need to disable your ad blocker for the video to load. 

How Long Do You Need In French Polynesia?

French Polynesia spans a huge distance, and If you’ve already come this far, take your time. Who knows when you’ll have the chance to visit again? A week would the absolute minimum, but I strongly recommend spending at the very least 10 days in French Polynesia. If your time is limited, do not (I repeat do not), try and see as many islands as possible. Choose a maximum of three and try to spend at least 3 nights on each island. Keep in mind that the first and last nights will probably be spent in Tahiti. I personally spent three months in French Polynesia and that wasn’t even enough. If you’re the kind of person who works a busy full-time job and has the time (and money) for one big vacation per year – do your best to spend at least 2-3 weeks in French Polynesia.

How Much Does It Cost To Travel In French Polynesia?

This really depends on the type of trip you’ll be doing. Will you be staying in luxury resorts? Family-owned pensions? Hotels? Will you be scuba diving? Traveling in French Polynesia does not have to be an expensive affair, though it will not be cheap either. Aside from the high cost of actually getting there, I found French Polynesia to be similar in cost to traveling in Europe during peak season. The only exception is the absurdly high cost of renting a vehicle. Have a look at the detailed cost breakdown of my three-month visit to French Polynesia. I strongly recommend booking your accommodation in advance (see ‘where to stay’).

Average Costs
Here are a few key items and their average prices:
  • Night in a luxury overwater bungalow: starting from 400$ (low season)
  • Night in a pension/boutique lodge: 90-300S
  • Car rental: 60-110$ per day
  • Full-day lagoon excursion: 80-130$
  • Two-tank scuba dive: -140$
  • Beer in a restaurant: -6$
  • A meal in a local restaurant: 15-25$
  • Cultural show: 70-120$

How To Get To French Polynesia?

You can fly to French Polynesia via direct flights from Auckland (Air New Zealand and Air Tahiti Nui), Tokyo (Air Tahiti Nui), Los Angeles (Air France and Air Tahiti Nui), Easter Island (LATAM), Cook Islands (Air Tahiti), San Francisco (United Airlines and French Bee), and from Fiji (Fly Coral Way). You can also fly from Paris with a quick stopover in either Los Angeles (Air France) or San Francisco (French Bee), and from, Wallis with a stopover in Samoa (Fly Coral Way). All international flights land in Tahiti, from where you’ll begin your island-hopping journey in French Polynesia. Keep in mind that the COVID pandemic may affect the future of some of these international routes. 

aerial view of motu auira - Maupiti - French Polynesia

Entry Requirements

Most visitors will receive a 3-month tourist visa upon arrival in Tahiti. In some cases, you might even be able to extend that (lucky you). Check out Visa HQ for more detail about your specific nationality. It is very important that your passport is valid for at least 6 months and that you can show an onward flight ticket when asked.

Languages

The official languages are French & Tahitian one of the most beautifully sounding languages I’ve come across. Marquesan is spoken in the remote Marquesas Islands and all other archipelagos have their own dialect as well. English is widely spoken at local pensions, dive centers, hotels, and of course resorts – though you will have a much easier time traveling in French Polynesia if you speak a bit of French.

Getting Around French Polynesia

Independent travelers will find getting to and around islands in French Polynesia to be: fun, hard, breathtaking, frustrating, or all of the above. If you’ll be flying, be sure to grab a window seat on Air Tahiti domestic flights and enjoy a scenic flight you’ll never forget (no assigned seats).

Air Tahiti flight in Tikehau French Polynesia

How to island-hop in French Polynesia: basically you have four options – taking a flight, joining a cargo ship, taking a cruise or chartering a yacht. Assuming yachts and cruises are not your thing, commercial flights and cargo ships are the only options.

  • Inter-Island Flights: Air Tahiti miraculously connects most of the islands of interest in French Polynesia. For visitors, Air Tahiti offers a range of ‘air passes’. Pick and choose the one that suits your needs and be sure to read the terms & conditions and restrictions. If things work out, it’s a very cost-effective way to explore multiple islands. Keep in mind that checked bags on the lowest-class fares are restricted to 10 kg and the usual 23 kg if you purchase a Y-class ticket. 
  • Ferries: Tahiti and Moorea are linked by regular ferry lines but this isn’t the case on most archipelagoes. Some islands will have local taxi boats linking the airstrip to outer islands or small harbors around the island, but as far as ferries linking islands within the same archipelago, this is extremely rare. However, things tend to change and with progress and an influx of tourists, new ferry lines could come online. Beginning in 2021, Aremiti launched a new route that serves Huahine, Bora Bora, Raiatea, and Tahaa from Tahiti. Three times per week, a boat will depart Tahiti and reach Huahine about three and a half hours later, then continuing to the other stops (about eight hours to reach Bora Bora taking into account all the stops). Note that the return leg will take longer due to the prevailing winds. In a couple of years, Aremiti will receive the Apetahi Express, a much faster boat that will reduce travel time. Terevau is also set to compete on this route. This is great news for both locals and tourists as the trip should cost half the price of an equivalent plane ticket (albeit taking much longer). You can get to Bora Bora from Raiatea, Tahaa, and perhaps even Maupiti using the Maupiti Express. Contact them via email (ma[email protected]) or phone (+689-40676669 or +689-87740240). These might be the current schedule and ticket prices. Note that the passage might be bumpy even in fair sea conditions. 
  • Cargo Ships: definitely the off-the-beaten-track choice. If you have the time, flexibility and speak a bit of French – you might be able to find a ride. Different cargo ships serve different island groups. You’ll have to do a lot of research and will need a lot of luck. Some ships may not take any passengers on a particular voyage. Prices start as low as 1,500F for short trips to as much as over 7,000F for longer ones. You’ll usually sleep in a bunk bed and need to bring your own food.
  • Cruise Ships: several cruise ships tour the islands of French Polynesia, either commencing travel from Tahiti or arriving from another destination. The ones I came across include the Paul Gauguin, Oceana, and the Aranui. The latter is a legendary cruise ship in French Polynesia, doubling as a cargo ship on one end and a luxury liner on the other. The Aranui specializes in voyages to the Marquesas Islands, with a few stops along the way. Note that all cruise ships drop passengers off on islands for ½ day excursions before departing to the next stop – not ideal at all in my opinion if true island discovery is your goal.
Aranui Marquesas Islands cuise ship docked in Ua Pou French Polynesia

Getting around the islands: aside from Tahiti, there is no public transportation to speak of on the islands (Moorea has busses that only serve the ferry schedule). Most islands are too big to be fully explored by bicycle or foot (except for Rangiroa, Fakarava, Bora Bora & Maupiti – from the islands I visited). Renting a car is notoriously expensive in French Polynesia. Prices range from 5000 – 10,000F per day, with discounts for longer rentals. Expect only manual transmission cars to be available on the outer islands and to never drive past 70 km/h. Scooters are a great way to explore the islands and prices range from 3,500 – 5,000F per day (no need for a special driver’s license). Bicycles are available for free in some pensions but if not, expect to pay 1000 – 1,800F for 8 hours of rental.  

scooter in Huahine French Polynesia

As friendly advice: keep the moving around on Sundays to a minimum. Even though French Polynesia is a lot less religious than its South Pacific neighbors, Sundays tend to be sleepier and with fewer transportation options. That said, don’t let Sundays keep you still if you really need to switch islands – it’s totally doable. Also, if you have an international flight or a connection to an island that is not frequently flown to – it’s best to spend the night before in Papeete (or leave plenty of hours as a buffer for things to go wrong, and they will). This also includes boat connections to Moorea ( the last boat is usually around 5 pm from Papeete). Lastly, grab a window seat while you can on the plane and enjoy the aerial views!

driving in marquesas islands - aapaka cliffs nuku hiva - french polynesia

Your First Day on the Island

Unless you’re staying at a resort, I strongly recommend packing something to eat for the arrival day to a new island. This is especially true if not staying near a main village or if traveling on a Sunday. You never know how far the closest restaurant or shop will be and whether it’s open. If you’re staying at a pension, your hosts will likely not offer meals apart from breakfast and dinner. 

V shaped Polynesian fish traps Huahine French Polynesia

Where To Stay In French Polynesia?

French Polynesia is famous for its luxury resorts, especially those with overwater bungalows. But if you’re looking for other accommodation types, there are plenty of options to choose from.

Word of advice: book your accommodation well in advance. Some islands have limited options, especially if you’re on a  budget. This is especially true if traveling during the high season (June – October), Christmas, and school holidays. You don’t want to be stuck with having to book an expensive resort because nothing is available! In addition, if you’re not planning to rent a vehicle for your entire stay, check if the accommodation is close to food shops, snacks, etc. There is no public transportation on the islands, and while some pension owners might drive you to grab dinner or buy some food – you don’t want to be stuck. Staying at resorts? If you’ll be resort hopping in French Polynesia, you can get good ‘deals’ by booking with the same resort chain (where possible).

Hotels: pretty much every island has at least one. Hotels differ from resorts in their accommodation types, amenities, and obviously price. Expect to pay 10,000F and up per night.

Pensions: by far my favorite choice of accommodation in French Polynesia. Pensions are family-owned guesthouses, where there are just a small handful of rooms that may even be inside the family’s house (though usually not). Some pensions are more upmarket than others (cold shower vs. hot, air conditioning vs. fan, etc.), and in the good ones – you’ll meet a real Tahitian family, interact with other guests and get the best travel advice. You’ll almost always have the option to go half board (dinner and/or breakfast) and if you chose wisely, these meals will last in your memory forever. Usually, pensions will charge an extra 1,500-2000F for half board, which is more economical than buying breakfast and dinner outside. Pension owners will usually pick you up for free (or for a small charge), offer excursions, and will have free wifi. Have a look at each island guide for the places I stayed at. Pension prices start at 4,500F per night and go all the way to over 10,000F in some cases.

Pension Pukuee - pool and view - Ua Pou - Marquesas Islands - French Polynesia

Long-term rentals: staying for a week or more on an island? Check websites that offer long-term rentals (like VRBO). You’ll usually get a good rate and might even find a few gems right on the beach or at the top of a mountain facing the ocean. I rented a bungalow in Moorea for a month and paid less than €500.

Airbnb: Airbnb has fully made it to French Polynesia. There are limited options on some islands and it’s best to book in advance. I found such places in Bora Bora and Huahine and managed to save a lot.

Camping: camping sites exist on some of the islands, but not on all. Have a look at specific island guides on this website for specific information. 

Couchsurfing: there are actually plenty of hosts in French Polynesia. If you’re traveling alone, flexible and don’t mind sleeping on someone’s couch – this could be a good option for a night or two. Keep in mind that hosts sometimes cancel at the last minute.

Bora Bora Pearl Beach Resort - beach view

Here’s a list of all available French Polynesia accommodations that can be booked online!

What To Pack For French Polynesia?

French Polynesia is a tropical destination, and as such – I recommend packing clothes that dry quickly and keep moisture (a.k.a sweat) out. Have a look at the X Days In Y Packing List for recommendations on what to pack for French Polynesia based on my experience of island hopping for three months.

If you’ll be island hopping, take note of Air Tahiti’s baggage allowance (can be as low as 10 kg for checked luggage, with an extra 5 kg if you dive or 23 kg if you booked a Y-class ticket). If you’re visiting French Polynesia in the dry season (June – October), be sure to bring with you something warm for the night. Temperatures can go down to 18-20 degrees Celsius with a fresh breeze.

How To Save On Costs?

Aside from the usual travel tips of eating local and using public transportation (where available), there is another tip that’s specific to Tahiti. Twice a year, the tourism office organizes the Salon de Tourisme, an event aimed at stimulating domestic travel from Tahiti to the outer islands. It’s geared for locals, but if you’re lucky enough to be there and flexible with your travel plans – you might be able to save as much as 50% on airfare, accommodation, diving & excursions.   

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You can also look for volunteering opportunities in French Polynesia. Some pensions, resorts, pearl farms, and even yacht owners – might be looking for people like you. Here’s one useful website for volunteering opportunities in the South Pacific Islands. I’ve also read that it’s now possible to WWOOF in French Polynesia (volunteer on organic farms). 

How To Save On Costs?
Here are a few basic tips on how to reduce the cost of a trip to Tahiti:
  • Low/shoulder season: though more humid and with a higher chance of rain, traveling off-season in Tahiti is less expensive by about 15-20%.
  • Resorts: reduce the number of nights spent at a luxury resort and/or in an overwater bungalow, book well ahead of time to enjoy reduced rates, stay in the same resort chain on multiple islands to unlock possible discounts.
  • Accommodation: stay in family-owned pensions that range from simple stays to boutique-style accommodations. Rates are often based on a half-board stay, including both breakfast and dinner.
  • Car rental: rates are lower on manual cars (vs automatic gear) and for multi-day rentals.
  • Interisland flights: purchase air passes that include the islands you wish to visit.
  • Scuba diving: if you’re planning to dive on multiple occasions and in multiple islands, a dive pass is recommended.
  • Excursions: some land-based excursions and most lagoon-based excursions offer a cheaper half-day itinerary. The half-day tour will usually not include a picnic lunch and perhaps (but not always) less sightseeing.
  • Food: eat in local snacks (simple local restaurants) during the day and in roulottes (food trucks) in the evening. You can also stay in self-catering accommodations and cook your own meals.
Hatiheu beach - nuku hiva - marquesas islands - french polynesia

Money

French Polynesia uses the South Pacific Franc (abbreviated as XPF, CFP, or simply F). The currency is fixed against the Euro (currently €1 = 119F). Unlike other South Pacific destinations, credit cards are widely used in French Polynesia and do not incur an additional surcharge. ATMs are readily available but note that some may have daily/weekly withdrawal limits, so the best advice is to check with your accommodation if they accept credit cards ahead of time (should not be an issue with hotels/resorts). Note that some islands do not have an ATM and are cash only.

It’s always a good idea to carry some Euros or US Dollars for an emergency. Local businesses will usually exchange USD at 10F per $1 (better exchange rate at banks).

Before visiting, inquire with your bank/credit card company how much fees you will pay on cash withdrawals and point-of-sale use. Since the local currency is not in global demand, these fees can be high and can add up.

Exchanging Money In Tahiti

The easiest way is to withdraw cash when you land at the airport (check with your local bank what the withdrawal fees will be). However, if you need to exchange money, you have a few options (without mentioning currency exchange agents):

  • At the airport: there is a currency exchange and an ATM at the Tahiti airport.
  • At your hotel: if you’re staying at a proper hotel or resort, you should be able to exchange USD and Eur at the going exchange rate which is a pretty comfortable deal. The only catch is that you’re limited to about 200€ per person per day. 
  • At a local bank in Papeete: if you visit during opening hours, you can exchange major currencies such as USD, AUD, NZD, Euro, Yen, Pound, and Swiss Francs. However, there might be a limit of $460 per person per day (plus a fee of about $10). So it doesn’t make sense if you need to exchange a lot of cash. If you are not traveling on your own, you can bypass the limit by coming with your travel party, since the daily limit is per person. Be sure to have your passport with you and be prepared to wait in line for a good 20 minutes or longer.
  • At an automatic machine: Banque de Tahiti operates an automatic foreign exchange machine at their branch just across the street from the tourist information center (just after the Vaima shopping center). The advantages of using it are that it’s in operation all the time (like an ATM), fees are low (about 460F per transaction), and there appears to be a much higher limit (I exchanged $750 in one go). No ID required but keep in mind that the machine might be out of order and in no hurry to be fixed.
  • At a travel agent: travel agents in Papeete will even exchange large sums of cash. They do charge a fee but if the banks won’t exchange for some reason (and this does happen), this is the best option. 
Tahiti foreign currency money exchange automatic machine in Papeete French Polynesia

Tipping In French Polynesia

Unless you’re staying at a luxury resort, tipping in French Polynesia is not customary. You can tip your tour guide for a memorable day of hiking or cruising the lagoon, but it’s not something that is expected.

Food In French Polynesia

Food in French Polynesia is the best in the South Pacific! Though imports are expensive (chicken, beef, wine, cheese, certain fruits & vegetables), there’s plenty of local food to enjoy. With white or red tuna as common as the local baguette and plenty of tropical fruit in season to choose from – eating local is the best way to experience French Polynesia! Here are a few tips:

  • Snacks: think of these as local fast food joints, though many are quite ‘high end’. They usually serve lunch and dinner, and some also breakfast. Snack menus usually include traditional Tahitian dishes (fish mostly) and maybe a few Chinese dishes. Some snacks will also sell sandwiches (called casse croute), perfect for a picnic lunch. Expect to pay 400F for a sandwich and 1200-2000F for a main dish.
  • Roulottes: French Polynesians love to eat out at night. Roulottes are essentially food trucks that open up when the sun goes down in a designated spot in every town (usually around 6 pm). The most famous roulottes are to be found in Place Vaiete in Papeete. Each roulotte has its own specialty: Tahitian food, Chinese, crepes, etc. – and the food is plentiful, delicious, and always accompanied with a side of baguette slices. The best way to know if a roulotte is ‘clean’ is if locals are eating there. Expect to pay 1200F and up for a main. Note that roulottes cannot sell alcohol (and you may not bring your own).
  • Pensions: you’ll almost always have the option to stay half board at pensions (breakfast + dinner). If you chose your pension well (that is, if you’ve read my island guides), you’ll be treated to amazing food cooked fresh every night. Some of the pension owners are amazing chefs, offering guests delicious local dishes night after night. Feel more than free to share with your host what you prefer (western vs local dishes) and what you don’t like (dietary requirements etc.). They are always very accommodating if given a ‘heads up’.
Lunch in Rangiroa French Polynesia

Note that the food you’ll find at some snacks, roulottes, and pensions – is better than the food you’ll find at the restaurants of fancy resorts. Just ask around and follow your nose.

evening food market Tahiti French Polynesia

If you come to French Polynesia just to go lazy on one of its picture-postcard beaches – I can’t blame you! However, there are lots more you can do to fully experience this slice of heaven on earth. Here’s a general breakdown of activities to be found in every archipelago I visited. I would recommend doing at least one excursion per island. An excursion means joining a lagoon tour, hiring a hiking guide, etc. Most full-day excursions include lunch and have you back between 2-4 pm. Famous are the lagoon tours, which almost always included an amazing Tahitian picnic lunch on a motu (small islet) on the fringes of the lagoon. Expect to pay 6,000 – 12,000F for full-day excursions (discounts for children).

  • Society Islands: lagoon tours, hiking, cultural shows, diving, water sports, road tripping, shark & stingray feeding, whale watching (in season), snorkeling 
  • Tuamotus: diving, lagoon tours, snorkeling, dolphin watching, beaches, birdwatching, rock climbing (Makatea Atoll)
  • Marquesas Islands: hiking, horseback riding, road tripping, hunting, 4X4 tours
  • Austral Islands: whale watching, hiking, culture, beaches, caving
  • Gambier Islands: pearl farms, beaches, picturesque churches, lagoon tours
pink sand beach 7 - tikehau lagoon tour - french polynesia

Scuba Diving In French Polynesia

French Polynesia is one of the best destinations in the world for scuba diving. You’ll find here everything from easy lagoon dives all the way to challenging drift dives and even open ocean diving in the Marquesas Islands. The best diving in French Polynesia is in the Tuamotu Archipelago (Rangiroa, Fakarava, and Tikehau). In the Society Islands, you can expect to see sharks and the usual reef fish – but not exceptional coral, which will mostly be hard and uniform in color. Costs will range from 5,000 – 10,000F per dive. The more you dive, the more you save. Note that Air Tahiti offers divers an extra 5 kg of checked luggage. You must show your dive card and in some cases, actually, have to prove you packed more than just a snorkel.

How to save on Diving? There are basically two ‘dive passes’ which you can purchase. Depending on where and how many dives you wish to do – purchasing a dive pass may or may not be worth it.

  • Te Moana Pass: this is a collection of local diving centers that combine to offer excellent coverage & value. Depending on the islands you’ll be diving in, have a look at individual dive center reviews to ensure you choose the best one.
  • Top Dive Gold Pass: Top Dive is the biggest outfit in French Polynesia, with branches on several islands. They offer free nitrox diving but are known to be very expensive and impersonal at times, carrying large groups around the clock.

Keep in mind that many families head to the outer islands from Tahiti during the local school holidays. Some dive centers get fully booked, very fast. Book your dives in advance.

צלילה בפאקאראבה כרישים - טהיטי - פולינזיה הצרפתית - wall of sharks

Safety

French Polynesia is one of the safest destinations you can travel to on our planet. That said, there are always things to look out for.

  • Water quality: tap water is usually safe to drink in Tahiti & Moorea but it’s always worth double-checking. On the outer islands, rainwater is usually collected in tanks and pumped to the taps. Some places will treat or filter the rainwater but it’s not always the case, and you may need to buy bottled water. The rule of thumb, always ask.
  • Dengue fever & Chikungunya: there are cases reported each year. There’s not much you can do once ill so it’s best to always use mosquito repellent as a preventative measure.  
  • Cyclones: can happen between November to April and obviously not pleasant to be around. Weather forecasts in French Polynesia are notoriously unreliable except for cyclones. Check Meteo France or Windguru for updates.
  • Sandflies: known locally as nono, sand flies are common on the beaches of the Tuamotus and Marquesas Islands. They’re hard to spot and leave tiny bites that itch for days. If you’re traveling there, it’s best to purchase special repellent. However, the best solution is to equip yourself with citron-scented monoi oil. Apply a thick layer if hanging out at the beach and the nono will not be able to bite.
  • Ciguatera: can be caused by eating infected lagoon fish. Always ask the locals if it’s safe to eat a specific fish. Fish found outside the lagoon (tuna, mahi-mahi, etc.) are almost always safe to eat.
  • Stonefish: these well-camouflaged fish can leave a painful mark. Except in absolute sandy beaches, I always entered the water with waterproof sandals.
  • Coral: if you’re cut by coral, be sure to clean with alcohol and apply anti-inflammatory cream. Coral infections can be nasty and spread to the bones.
  • Leptospirosis: usually caused by eating food that’s been contaminated by pig or rat urine. Always wash fruits & vegetables – even if you just picked them off the tree.
  • Alcohol-related violence: Tahitians enjoy drinking alcohol in large crowds, especially on weekends. If you see a group drinking by the beach, just keep a straight face, smile and walk away. ‘Friendly’ violence might break out after too many beers, and you don’t want to be around for that.
  • Papeete: the big city is relatively safe give or take a few areas at night that you don’t want to venture into. Inquire with your hotel and avoid it.
  • Driving at night: most island roads are not (well) lit at night and there might be a lot of potholes that you cannot see in real-time. Add to that the danger of drunk driving (especially on weekends) – so nighttime is not when you want to do any heavy driving.
  • Dogs: nearly every Tahitian household has at least one dog whose job it is to protect the property. Be very careful when entering driveways to ask for directions. If you see a pack of dogs coming to check you out, just walk away quickly and with confidence. Threatening with a rock or a coconut branch can help to solve the issue quickly.
  • Theft: rarely happens but I have heard of such cases on the beach and even inside accommodations. Never leave your things unguarded or unlocked at the beach, and lock your door at night. Read through the ‘what to pack’ section in the how to island-hop in the South Pacific islands guide, for specific tips and simple (and cheap) gear you must pack to avoid this mishap. 

Required Vaccinations for French Polynesia

There are no general mandatory travel vaccinations for French Polynesia. However, the government of French Polynesia has recently instituted a mandatory yellow fever vaccination for travelers coming from South America or those who have traveled to Africa in recent months. Check the CDC website for up-to-date information.

Travel Insurance

Especially on a visit like this, make sure you have sufficient travel insurance. World Nomads offer excellent coverage and value for money. Aside from the usual lost luggage and medical coverage, I would recommend the following areas to consider:

  • Diving: if you’ll be diving, you must have special insurance coverage in case of an accident. Most diving centers will have some insurance included in the cost of diving. However, you never know what it does or does not include – so it’s best to have your own.
  • Flights: though Air Tahiti flights are pretty reliable, many things can go wrong with inter-island flights – especially delays due to bad weather, which Air Tahiti will not take responsibility for. Special travel insurance may cover the costs of missing that international flight connection, boat transfer or even a booked hotel room.
  • Lost or Stolen electronics: if you’re carrying a laptop, camera, GoPro, etc. – consider purchasing insurance in case those are lost or stolen. There are cases of stolen items from the beach and even from within your room (see ‘theft’ in the previous section for additional tips). 

Internet

Unlike other South Pacific destinations, French Polynesia has adequate internet coverage considering just how remote some of its islands are. Free WiFi is almost always available in hotels, resorts, and even the family-owned pensions – though speed varies from the surprisingly decent to the excruciatingly slow. In some hotels and high-end resorts, payment is required if you want to access the Internet directly from your room (common areas are free). If no WiFi access is provided where you’re staying, you can purchase a Vini Spot card (also called Mana Spot). This credit may be used in hotspots found at cafes, resorts and local post offices (which will almost always offer paid internet access).

Mobile Phones In French Polynesia

If your mobile carrier does not offer roaming services in French Polynesia, you’ll need to purchase a local SIM card if you absolutely need to stay connected. There are currently two mobile phone operators in French Polynesia: the veteran Vini Telecom and up-and-comer Vodafone. So which SIM card should you buy in French Polynesia? There are pros and cons to each provider when it comes to prepaid SIM cards.

Vini:

  • Almost all locals use Vini and it is very easy to purchase top-up credit on any island in French Polynesia, no matter how remote it may be.
  • Phone & 3G coverage on every island you’ll likely visit.
  • Calls between Vini subscribers are at a reduced cost and may even be free at some hours of the day.
  • Since it’s the largest and the ‘traditional’ telecom provider, customer service is extremely poor and you can expect very long waiting times just to buy the SIM card. This was the primary reason why I gave up after 2 hours of waiting and just headed to the Vodafone shop.
  • Vini recently started to offer the Vini Travel Card, a prepaid SIM card that comes preloaded with 2GB of 3G data and 30 minutes-worth of local calls. The card is valid for 15 days after activation so it’s not suitable for travelers on extended stays. You can top up the card with credit purchased at any Vini merchant, however, do note that data is not supported on all feature phones at present (such as Google Pixel). 

Vodafone:

  • More difficult to purchase top-up credit outside of Tahiti & Moorea and simply impossible on some of the outer islands in the Tuamotus and Marquesas (so if you do go with Vodafone make sure you have plenty of credit before visiting the outer islands).
  • Phone coverage in the Society Islands only (at the time of writing this guide).
  • Fast customer service in-store and over the phone.
  • Expect to pay 750-1,500F for a SIM card (includes a bit of credit) and 2,000F for data SIM (includes 500MB)
  • Note that if you require 3G, you will likely need to purchase two separate SIM cards (not very practical).

Making Phone Calls

This is a bit tricky. You need to know if you’re calling a landline, a Vini or Vodafone subscriber. For landlines – add (40) before the number, for Vini (87) and Vodafone (89). The country code is +689 but there is no need to enter that if calling locally.

What To Buy In French Polynesia?

Make sure there’s enough room in your luggage because there will be lots of exotic things you want to bring back home from Tahiti and her islands. Women are easy to shop for (as always) but options for men and children are more limited. Note that bargaining is not customary in any South Pacific island nation. Prices will always be marked on every item. You may ‘ask for a special price’ if buying large quantities.

  • Wood, bone & stone carvings: masks, ancient weapons, tiki statues, bowls and lots more – the Marquesas Islands are the best place to buy these, as they’re usually made there (watch out for Asian imports). If you’re not visiting the distant Marquesas, Papeete has lots of options, though 20% more expensive than the source.
  • Black pearls: one of French Polynesia’s absolute specialties. Most pearl farms can be found in the Society and Tuamotu islands (you’ll likely visit one of them). Unless you’re buying loose pearls, Papeete is the best place to buy black pearls (avoid resort shops obviously). You don’t have to spend a fortune on pearls (but you can). Prices start very low and rise quickly. Have a look at this guide to buying black pearls to understand what to look out for. After a lot of shopping around with a local who knows, here are my favorite stores in Papeete for buying black pearls: Vaima Pearls, L’Atelier de la Perle, O Te Vai Creation & Mihiarii Pearls. Don’t forget, as a tourist, you’re entitled to a tax refund of 16% on black pearls. If you purchase pearls in a participating shop and with a credit card, the discount will be applied on the spot, and you’ll simply have to visit a customs booth at the airport before departure (the shop will explain everything, super easy).
  • Monoi: another local specialty. Monoi oil is made from gardenia petals and coconut oils. You can use it as after-sun lotion, mosquito repellant and even on hair. Expect to pay 450F for a small bottle. Note that the oil solidifies below 20 degrees Celsius and a quick reheat will bring it back to liquid form.
  • Tiki Tahiti soap: vanilla, tiare (gardenia) and coconut – those are just some of the heavenly scents of the local soap. Expect to pay 150F per bar (so you can bring a lot).
  • Jam: there are many local producers. My favorite is the Manutea brand, produced in Moorea (you can visit the factory). Exotic flavors like mango, banana vanilla, and guava – are just a few examples. A small pot should cost no more than 500F.  
  • Vanilla: some of the world’s best vanilla is made in French Polynesia. The best vanilla will be found on the island of Tahaa, and you can buy some on every vanilla farm tour. If you won’t be visiting Tahaa, the Papeete Market is your best option. As small as it is, it ain’t cheap. Expect to pay 1,500F for a small tube with 5 sticks. You will not have a problem bringing it through customs (US, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia).
  • Clothes: for men, visit the Boutique Hinano for nice clothes from the most popular brand in the country – Hinano Beer (with the prettiest logo you’ll ever see). Women, of course, have a wider selection. The colorful local Tahitian dresses are a beautiful souvenir – that you’ll actually use. You can find those on all islands but like everything, Papeete is the best place for that. Expect to pay 1,500F for a simple dress and more for better quality.
  • Sarong: known locally as pareo, every island offers bright and cheerful patterns and colors that will make your friends jealous at the beach. Note that most pareos are imported from Asia and only some (with less exciting designs) are produced locally. Prices start at 1,000F for a locally made pareo and 2,000F will get you a beautiful one with exotic patterns. Anything over that price is a ripoff. The best place to buy a sarong is just outside the Papeete Market.  
  • Music: Tahitian is one of the most beautiful languages you’ll come across. Purchase some Tahiti Belle Epoque CDs and drift off to paradise the next time you’ll be stuck in a traffic jam back home. Here’s my personal favorite song
  • Clave prints: though I’ve heard he’s never been to Tahiti (yet), Reunion Island-based Clave makes beautiful prints of various scenes from the islands. Head to Galerie Winkler to see what they have left. Large poster-size prints sell for around $60. 
Shopping French Polynesia
clave print tahiti

Getting a Tattoo in Tahiti & French Polynesia

Did you know that the word tattoo originates from the Tahitian word tatau, which means to tap? Polynesians did not invent tattooing but they have certainly mastered the art. Tattoos are a part of everyday life. Getting a tattoo in French Polynesia is a great idea but you’ll need to plan ahead. Here are a few tips:

  • As with every tattoo, be 100% certain and have a general idea of what you’re looking for.
  • Marquesan islanders are considered the best tattoo artists and Marquesan motifs are very popular. 
  • The best place to get a tattoo is in Tahiti as you’ll find a wide selection of top-notch artists and generally good prices. 
  • The price of a tattoo is determined by the amount of time it takes to complete. Payment is on an hourly basis (usually in cash) and tourists should expect to pay between $100-150 per hour. A medium-sized tattoo should take about 4 hours to complete. 
  • Plan to get your tattoo on the last day(s) of your visit. This might mean staying a couple of nights in Tahiti at the end of your trip. 
  • It’s highly recommended to book your tattoo session in advance. The best artists might be fully booked on the exact day that you want to get yours.
  • Purchase tamanu oil from the supermarket or pharmacy and apply a very thin layer to your tattoo for a week. 
  • Ask the artist about exposure to sun and saltwater. 
  • It’s possible to get a traditional tattoo, like in the old days. In fact, it doesn’t really hurt that much. I got one tattoo in the traditional way (see below) and one with a machine.
  • With a recommendation from a good local friend, I did my tattoos in Moorea with Purotu, a renowned tattoo artist who specializes in traditional Polynesian tattoos. Get in touch with him via his Facebook Page or call +689-89722857 (he speaks English). I came to him with a list of themes I wanted, life stories, etc. 
Purotu

Flying a Drone in French Polynesia

French Polynesia’s islands are drone pilot’s fantasy. At the time of writing this guide, it is generally not a problem to fly drones in French Polynesia. Here are a few key tips:

  • Assuming you have a DJI drone, check their website and see how restricted the airspace is on the islands you’ll be visited. Restrictions are due to the local airports.
  • Some resorts restrict the use of drones but I’ve found that to be connected to their proximity to airports. 
  • Since you might not have a mobile internet connection, it could be challenging to “accept” your drone’s on-screen flight restrictions. Personally, I applied for DJI’s Flysafe limited-altitude waivers before I left for the islands.
  • Do be aware that strong winds are almost always present during the dry season and may restrict your flying. 
  • You might face calibration challenges due to volcanic rocks but I’ve found that repeating the process three or more times resolves the issue. 
motu piscine - raivavae - austral islands - french polynesia

What’s Next?

I hope you’ve found the introduction to the French Polynesia Travel Guide useful! Tons of other information about French Polynesia await you, including detailed travel guides to the main islands, sample itineraries, and lists of the top things to do. 

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