Enchanting French Polynesia! 50+ ways this exotic paradise will seduce you
Searching for a sun-kissed paradise or just fantasizing about it? Pin French Polynesia, in the South Pacific Ocean, on your dream travel map. Fabled Bali Ha’i will get you high. It is here that post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin passionately lived and loved in the early 1890s, and about which he wrote: “In the silence of tropical nights, I will be able to listen to the soft music whispering the motions from my heart.” And this is also where, a hundred years even earlier, Fletcher Christian and his fellow shipmates rebelled against their harsh Captain William Bligh, whose escapades have been made famous in many poems, books, and films, most notably Mutiny on the Bounty with Marlon Brando (1962) and The Bounty with Mel Gibson (1984)—though some historians reason that it was the eye-opening freedom the men discovered in Tahiti that really motivated their revolt.
You too can fall head-over-flip-flops in love with this intoxicatingly gorgeous destination—halfway between California and Australia. Let me count the ways…
1. FEEL THE BLUES—AND THAT’S A GOOD THING! Arriving first at Fa’a'ā International Airport, on the island of Tahiti, stay a night or two at Manava Suite Resort, which harbors an infinity pool (photo above) that stretches almost to the horizon, where the Pacific Ocean continues. Adjust to island time by serenely floating for hours.
2. APPRECIATE THAT ROSY MOMENT BETWEEN DAY AND NIGHT Near twilight, shades of orange and pink (photo above) often blush the sky. Some enchanted evening, indeed.
3. EXPLORE GALORE Sparkle your first full day in Tahiti, the largest and most commercial of all French Polynesian islands, by delving into what makes this place shimmy—the Maraa Grotto, lush with ferns, and Fautaua Waterfall, cascading an astounding 985 feet. Then, noodle around the Museum of Tahiti, which offers a compelling look at Polynesia’s past, including its European colonization, and the Robert Wan Pearl Museum, a small jewel with a big collection. At Venus Point (photo above), near a black sand beach where Captain James Cook came ashore in 1769, locals now hang-out to picnic, dance, sing, string leis, sell handicrafts, frolic in the ocean, and play ball. Since you’ll likely (as most travelers do) loop back through Tahiti and its capital, Papeete, for your international flight home after going on to visit smaller French Polynesian islands, hold off shopping for jewelry, handicrafts, and pareo (like a sarong) at Papeete’s gargantuan Le Marché, the municipal marketplace, for your last day’s stay.
4. GO RAH-RAH OVER RAIATEA Consider getting even more off the beaten path by flying inter-island Air Tahiti to the island of Raiatea (photo above), which means “sky with soft light” and “faraway heaven.” Known as the Sacred Island, Raiatea’s spiritual lore radiates back a thousand years. On French Polynesia’s only navigable river, the Fa’aroa, board a motorized pirogue excursion, to visit both Raiatea’s family-owned Champon Pearl Farm, skilled at producing black pearls, and the holy site of Marae Taputapuatea, where ancient religious ceremonies took place, and stone structures, once part of a temple, serve as reminders of this island’s otherworldly pull.
5. CHEER “AHOY, MATEY!” Raiatea is also prime launching ground for sailors and those who adore them. At the picturesque marina (photo above), Tahiti Yacht Charter, among other companies, logs a wide range of boat tours.
6. BELIEVE THAT THE CANVAS CAN DO MIRACLES I climbed aboard Tahiti Yacht Charter‘s catamaran Senso (photo above), where you feel the call of Christopher Cross’ song, “Sailing“: “It’s not far to never-never land, no reason to pretend / And if the wind is right you can find the joy of innocence again.” An uplifting afternoon with sails unfurled on this vessel can also inspire you to…
7. LEAVE YOUR FOOTPRINTS ON A MINI MOTU There are scores of small islands, called motus, surrounding halcyon lagoons. The Senso anchors near this motu (photo above), which resembles Gilligan’s Island. Passengers are transported ashore via an inflatable motorized boat. Splash! Swoosh! Swoon! After which, you can…
8. STROLL SCENTED TAHA’A Called The Vanilla Island, nearby Taha’a (photo above) produces most of French Polynesia’s “pods of the gods.” The Senso‘s captain dropped me off for an hour on Taha’a near Valle de la Vanille, an organic vanilla plantation owned by Moeata Hioe and her Danish husband Brian Hansen, who narrates a free tour. Learn how they cultivate, dry, and process their crop on this rich volcanic soil. Who knew vanilla could be so interesting?
9. GLIMPSE LATE AFTERNOON’S FLEETING SILVERY FLASH Glimmering, glistening—when the sun starts to slide low, catch the quick quivering glow that transforms the intense indigo blue into an iridescent metallic hue (photo above). Poof!
10. GAZE AT SUMPTUOUS BORA BORA I felt tingles my first time, years ago, when Bora Bora (photo above) rose up from the horizon as I cruised on the elegant Paul Gauguin ship. Since then, I had wondered whether revisiting Bora Bora would still fill me with heightened wonder. How could I have doubted its magnetism? A recent return trip proved even more dazzling. Dramatic, jagged, emerald peaks steeple above tree-draped valleys, talcum-powder white sand beaches, and an 18-mile ring of islets. About Bora Bora, prolific author James Michener found himself tongue-tied: “So stunning, there are really no adequate words to describe it.”
11. BE ROCKED BY THIS MAGIC MOUNTAIN It’s a 45-minute flight on inter-island Air Tahiti from Tahiti to Bora Bora. Mount Otemanu (photo above), the highest point at 2,385 feet, together with Mount Pahia, form the remnants of an extinct volcano.
12. DREAM A LITTLE DREAM OF SEA The over-water bungalow was architecturally perfected in French Polynesia, with all sanitary piping and electrical work hidden. I tucked in at the Hilton Bora Bora Nui Resort & Spa (photo above and at top of article), set in what author James Michener called “the most beautiful lagoon in the world.”
13. FIND A HAVEN TO CALL YOUR OWN At the Hilton Bora Bora Nui Resort & Spa, my over-water dwelling (#208; photo above) contains a living room, bedroom with ultra-comfy mattress, luxurious bathroom, a glass floor to spy fish swimming underneath the bungalow, and a lanai with ladder to dip into the sea. There are also garden and hillside villas.
14. SHINE YOUR OWN STAR Celebs aplenty, including Eva Longoria, Nicole Kidman, Rob Lowe, and Quincy Jones, vacation in Bora Bora. For fans of E!’s Keeping Up with the Kardashians, three episodes were filmed at Hilton Bora Bora Resort & Spa, where the family filled the two-story, over-water presidential villa (from which the above photo was taken).
15. MELT INTO A SPA-TACULAR EXPERIENCE Atop the hill at Bora Bora Hilton Nui Resort, the Hina Spa tenders vanilla, coconut oil, and floral-essence treatments both indoors at its panoramic pavilion and at a secluded outdoor massage table (photo above). The wooden walkway is built over bold black lava boulders and thick vegetation. Paradise found! A portion of spa fees are earmarked for environmental projects, such as the Global Reef Alliance.
16. GEAR UP FOR SERENITY SPORTS Kayak (photo above), paddle board, and snorkel along Hilton Bora Bora Nui Resort‘s half-mile white sand beach.
17. RELISH A BOUNTY OF TASTE SENSATIONS Sip fruity libations near Hilton Bora Bora Nui Resort‘s pool (photo above). Dine at its toes-in-the-sand, open-air Tamure Grill. And watch the night sky twinkle from the fine-dining Iritani restaurant, which serves award-winning fusion cuisine in a hillside tableau crowned by a massive thatched roof, under which friendly bartenders at a generous bar mix swanky cocktails and encourage guests to mingle.
18. LISTEN TO THE STILLNESS At the Hilton Bora Bora Nui Resort & Spa (photo above), the silence of a placid sea speaks volumes. Doing nothing here is doing something.
19. GET MELLOW WITH A SEA-LIFE WHISPERER Leo (photo above)—ukulele musician, soulful singer, boat captain, maker of marine mojo, and guide with Bora Bora Safari Lagoon Tours—instills a sense of fun when you meet up with manta rays and lemon sharks. In the water, gregarious Leo shows you how to feed, and, yes, touch these wow-some creatures of the deep.
20. DIVE DOWN FOR MORE DIVINE VIEWS Coral reefs near Bora Bora (photo above) attract green sea turtles, black-tipped reef sharks, bottle-nose dolphins, and fish in kaleidoscopic colors, such as orange clownfish (popularized in Finding Nemo), vibrant black-white-yellow-striped butterflyfish, blue-with-yellow-tail damselfish, mosaic-dappled parrotfish, and brilliant blue or orange Starfish.
21. INDULGE IN YOUR FANTASY ISLAND Many French Polynesian motus are privately owned, some by hotels that are based on nearby larger islands. Accessible only to guests of the Hilton Bora Bora Nui Resort & Spa, Motu Tapu—once the Tahitian royal family’s hush-hush hideaway—is a bucolic islet, rimmed in cashmere-soft sand. Have a Robinson Crusoe hankering to really get away from it all? On Motu Tapu, you’ll encounter pristine raw nature, but you’ll still be pampered by Hilton’s attentive staff, like Ioane (photo above).
22. DINE AND WINE ALFRESCO Lunch on Motu Tapu, set up by Hilton’s staff, can be served in the water (photo above) or center island under a tree canopy. Decisions, decisions.
23. SEE SEAFOOD EVERYWHERE Scrumptious lobster, sashimi, ceviche (photo above)—this is a seafood lover’s oasis.
24. PARTY THE SUN DOWN Raise your glass—saying “Manuia!” (cheers in Tahitian), as the sunset (photo above) signals the start of evening diversions. Head to Bora Bora’s Bloody Mary Restaurant & Bar for feet-in-the-sand dancing and romancing. At wooden slab tables with coconut tree stumps for stools, eat platters of same-day-caught fish. This lively scene—packed with tourists and locals—also attracts a who’s-who list of notable actors, personalities, and musicians, some of whom might surprise you with impromptu jam fests.
26. PICK YOUR PLACE IN THE SUN—OR SHADE Over-water bungalows, garden dwellings (with private pool), and beach suites (with private Jacuzzi) deliver something for every liking at Bora Bora Pearl Beach Resort & Spa (photo above). Bring a bit of real-time Polynesia into your home right now with its webcam.
27. EMBRACE MOOREA’S PASSION On inter-island Air Tahiti, fly from Bora Bora to Moorea (photo above)—or take the easy ferry ride from Tahiti. Known as The Island of Love, Moorea impressed Captain Cook, who anchored here, with its misty waterfalls, magnificent mountains, and a fragrant profusion of flowers that still entice today. Hop a Circle Island Tour to Belvédère Point, a lookout spot with jaw-dropping view of the valley, and be wowed by picturesque Cook’s Bay. Yep, more tingles!
28. TRY BREADFRUIT COOKED THE ANCIENT WAY Breadfruit (photo above), a Polynesian staple, is often roasted whole, sometimes in a fire pit, until it softens, after which the fibrous white inside, still hot, is cut into chunks and doused with coconut milk. A simple recipe that is simply delicious.
29. SAVOR JUST-PLUCKED SNACKS Pineapple, enormous green-skin grapefruit (photo above), bananas (including some varieties that must be cooked), papayas, passionfruit, carambola (star fruit), and guava are abundant.
30. DINE UNDER THE FLICKER OF A TIKI TORCH It’s a shore thing at the Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa (photo above).
31. STRUM FOR FUN Almost everyone on Moorea (photo above) plays the ukulele at least a little. Try your hand, too!
32. BE STIRRED TO DRAW On this heart-shaped island, the Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa (photo above) is tucked into two arresting bays, vivid with color. While staying there, I met three people who didn’t know each other, but all had sketch pads with colored pencils or watercolor paints. Sitting on the terrace’s Eimeo Bar, Tom, from Canada, told me: “I’ve not drawn since fifth grade, but my fiancée suggested doing this. How can you not feel creative with all this beauty?”
33. NOTICE HOW THE INVITING LIGHT KEEPS CHANGING Watch the sunrise and the sunset from the over-water bungalows of Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa (photo above); the garden villas have private plunge pools. Its unique over-water Toatea Bar attracts a vast array of marine-life, which is wild to watch in the early evening when the sea is lit up. Then head to the hotel’s Arii Vahine Restaurant, overlooking the ocean, with its delectable Polynesian and French fare.
34. FEEL AT HOME NO MATTER YOUR VACATION GOAL Destination weddings and honeymoons are popular at the Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa, yet the property is large enough to welcome families with children’s activities, babysitting, and menus. Little ones get excited spotting koi fish in the pond (photo above).
35. EYEBALL A CORAL WONDERLAND The boutique-style Moorea Pearl Resort & Spa (photo above) is built on the original grounds of the infamous Bali Ha’i hotel. Its extraordinary coral nursery, called To’a Nui, is an underwater park, tended to by marine biologists who encourage coral colonies to regenerate in top ecological conditions, where guests can freely snorkel.
36. APPRECIATE NATIVE ART Moorea is besotted with fertility sculptures, such as this impressive stonework (photo above) at the Moorea Pearl Resort & Spa.
37. LAZE AWAY DAYS NEXT TO VELVET-GREEN MOUNTAINS At Moorea Pearl Resort & Spa (photo above), delight in bird- and gecko-spying. Take pleasure, too, in its gourmet Le Matiehani restaurant and its convivial terrace of the bar Autera’a, stocked with board games.
38. WEAR FLOWERS IN YOUR HAIR Many locals—men, women, and children—daily tuck a blossom behind their ear or self-fashion a wreath (photo above). No special occasion needed.
39. ENJOY THE MOST NATURAL CANDY Unadulterated, sliced coconut—fresh as can be—is the purest sweet stuff (photo above).
40. MEET THE PEOPLE When I travel, it means so much to connect with locals and their culture. On Moorea, the University of California at Berkeley runs the Richard B. Gump South Pacific Research Station. In addition to the station’s scientific studies focusing on Moorea’s exemplary ecosystem, it showcases the Atitia Cultural Center, where visitors are invited to an ethnobotanic garden, a fare pote’e (Tahitian meeting place), and a marine reserve. Vaea (photo above) both cooks key Polynesian dishes and performs meaningful, graceful dances.
41. UNDERSTAND THE CENTURIES-CELEBRATED CULTURE Hinano Teavai-Murphy (photo above), the associate director of outreach, welcomes guests—to “talk story” about Moorea at the Atitia Cultural Center. Verbal story-telling is a rich source of Moorea’s cultural history.
42. RELISH TRADITIONAL DISHES At Atitia Cultural Center, share a lunch of plantain banana, taro, fafa chicken, and, most important, poisson cru—fresh fish ceviche, sprinkled with lime juice and coconut milk (photo above). Some chefs add cucumber, avocado, or other light veggies. It’s a South Seas signature dish and, yes, it is extraordinarily good. Order it again and again in restaurants.
43. MOVE TO THE POLYNESIAN BEAT Musicians Punitai and Purotu (photo above) form a kind of garage band—playing Polynesian songs with spoons, empty cans, bongos, and the ever-present ukulele—at the Atitia Cultural Center.
44. RETHINK RINGS AND BRACELETS Bozo (photo above), at the Atitia Cultural Center, creates jewelry from plants.
45. FEED YOUR LITERARY SOUL Polynesia has inspired many books and short stories by European and American writers, such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Herman Melville, Jack London, W. Somerset Maugham, and Zane Grey. Visit the engrossing home museum of James Norman Hall (photo above), in Tahiti, who wrote, with co-author Charles Nordhoff, the novels Mutiny on the Bounty, Pitcairn’s Island, Men Against the Sea, and armloads more. His typewriter, many original manuscripts with editing marks, and other possessions remain as he left them.
46. TAKE A RECIPE BACK HOME My tastiest no-fuss Polynesian find? Baked papaya, lightly sprinkled with brown sugar, and filled with coconut milk (photo above).
47. BITE INTO FRENCH DESSERTS, TOO This is French Polynesia, after all—so baguettes, tarts, soufflés, Napoleans, eclairs, and macarons (photo above) are expertly made at bakeries.
48. APPLAUD A FESTIVE POLYNESIAN SHOW At Moorea’s large and lively Tiki Village (photo above), artisans and craftspeople present their wares and at night a riveting performance features fire twirlers, acrobats, singers, actors, and…
…dancers (photo above), who shake their hips in a sensuous whoosh-whoosh-whoosh, as their shoulders remain still and arms mimic the movement of gentle waves. At the extravaganza’s finish, audience-members are encouraged to join the dancers on stage!
49. SMILE AT THE POWER OF FLOWERS French Polynesia impresses with a plethora of flora, like this unusually shaped, cabbage-like torch ginger (photo above)…
…and the bright red ginger (photo above).
…and perfumed plumeria (photo above).
…and the delicate hibiscus (photo above).
50. FIND JOY GETTING THERE AND GETTING AROUND Air Tahiti Nui is the international airline that connects the U.S. to Tahiti’s main airport, from which you can travel further to smaller French Polynesian islands via the airline Air Tahiti or by boat/ferry. For an excellent outfitter and tour guide, contact Frank Murphy’s Tahiti Expeditions. For more information, go to Tahiti Tourism. Finally, there is an endearing Tahitian saying: “If you act like old friends when you first meet, you will soon feel that you are.” Lovely, Polynesians!
Do you like a favorite island hideaway? Where have you most enjoyed traveling? Please tell us in the comments below—we’d love to know!
Frequent globetrotter Laura Manske has visited most U.S. states, explored 70+ countries, and cruised 60+ ships. She loves to wander the world, unearthing travel joy, beauty, adventure, and humor through her camera lens and articles. Now, she’s sharing pictures and memories of her favorite spots on Parade.com.