French Polynesia is one of those places that sounds exotic and far away. Let me tell you – it is FAR away! I had the chance to visit three islands in French Polynesia on a recent cruise, and the beauty of those islands was unbelievable.
But, getting there is quite the experience. Our cruise left Los Angeles, and by the time we reached our final destination in Papeete on the island of Tahiti, we had sailed a total of 5,226 nautical miles. That’s a lot of days at sea!
In fact, over the course of the cruise we had a total of almost 10 full days at sea. Flying home was no easier. We flew overnight from Papeete to Los Angeles, had a 4-hour layover in L.A., and then another long flight home to Philadelphia.
Was all the travel worth it? Keep reading to find out more about French Polynesia and the islands we visited, and then decide for yourself!
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French Polynesia is actually a collective of 118 islands and atolls. The islands are officially part of France, although it has its own local government including a President of French Polynesia and a Parliament.
The area is divided into five groups of islands: the Society Islands archipelago (made up of the Windward Islands and the Leeward Islands), the Tuamotu Archipelago, the Gambier Islands, the Marquesas Islands, and the Austral Islands. Tahiti – which is located in the Society Islands – is the most populous of the islands. Almost 70% of the entire population of French Polynesia lives on Tahiti. Papeete – which is located on Tahiti – is the capital city.
French Polynesia is located in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. Historians believe that it is one of the last places in the world to be settled by humans. They believe that the first of the French Polynesian islands to be inhabited were the Marquesas Islands in around 200 BC.
The relationship between France and French Polynesia is a bit complicated. While they have their own government, the French government controls justice, university education, security and defense. The local government controls primary and secondary education, health, town planning and environment. The official language of the islands is French, although many islands (like Tahiti) have their own language.
Our first stop in French Polynesia was Nuku Hiva. If you are a fan of the television show “Survivor”, you may recognize this island as the backdrop for Season 4 – The Marquesas Islands.
About the Island
Nuku Hiva is the largest of the Marquesas Islands. The population of the island is about 2,600 people – the majority of whom are Polynesian. A small percentage of the inhabitants – just under 6% – were born in France.
It’s believed that the first people to come to Nuku Hiva arrived about 2000 years ago from Samoa. The main town on the island is called Taiohae. It’s located on the southern coast on an ancient volcanic crater that collapsed into the sea. Taiohae has a post office, a church, a bank and a couple of shops. The remainder of the inhabitants on the island live in small villages.
How To Get Around
Getting around Nuku Hiva is not easy. There are no rental cars, and taxis are limited to private vehicles.
When our cruise ship arrived, we anchored in the Taiohae Bay and had about a 15 minute tender ride to the dock. Unlike typical excursions from a cruise ship where you board buses that take you around, we were all divided up into groups of four. Each group was assigned to a private vehicle – either an SUV or truck – who drove us around caravan-style.
The town of Taiohae was located about 1/2 mile from the pier, and is so small that it was easy to explore by foot.
What To See
Notre Dame Cathedral: Located in Taiohae, this cathedral was originally built in the 18th century. However, all that remains of the original building is a portion of the stone wall. The new cathedral was built in 1977.
Temehea Tohua: The traditional meeting platform – also known as the Paepae of Piki Vehine – was rebuilt in 1989 and features tiki sculptures and contemporary works of art. Since 1987, the Marquesas Islands have been holding a festival celebrating their culture, music, food and art. The festival was held for the first time on Nuku Hiva in 1989, which led to the rebuilding of Temehea Tohua.
Herman Melville Memorial: Nuku Hiva may be best known for its connection to American author Herman Melville. After deserting his ship, Melville hid on the island, was captured by the native people, and lived in the Taipivai Valley for three weeks. The experience was the inspiration for his novel “Typee”. The memorial was put in place in 1991 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Melville’s arrival on the island.
Vaipo Waterfall: This waterfall is the highest in French Polynesia with a drop of 1,148 feet. It’s recommended that you get a guide to visit the waterfall, as you have to take a boat to reach the village of Hakaui, followed by a pretty intense hike to get to the waterfall.
Where To Stay
You only have one option when it comes to staying on Nuku Hiva – the Keikahanui Nuku Hiva Pearl Lodge. The property contains 20 bungalows, along with a pool, restaurant, and bar. If you are looking for total relaxation in a beautiful setting, this is the place for you! Just don’t expect a lot of night life or activities.
Our second stop in French Polynesia was the island of Moorea. This island was much more populated than Nuku Hiva, but just as beautiful!
About the Island
Moorea is part of the group of islands known as the Society Islands. It’s just 9 miles northwest of Tahiti. The word “Moorea” means yellow lizard in Tahitian.
The island is about 10 miles in width and it has two bays on the north coast. The one to the west is called Opunohu Bay and the one to the east is called Cook’s Bay.
The first believed settlers on the island arrived during the 18th century. The first Europeans to arrive were Samuel Wallis and Captain James Cook.
How To Get Around
Moorea does have a small airport, and you can rent a car there. Both Avis and Europcar have rental locations at the airport. There are also taxis available at the tender piers.
Cruise ships anchor in either Opunohu Bay or Cook’s Bay. The tender ride from the ship to the pier in both cases is about 10-15 minutes.
What To See
Belvedere Lookout: About 6 miles south of Cook’s Bay, this spot gives you an amazing view of both bays, as well as the Opunohu Valley. You will also have amazing views of Mount Rotui, which is the highest point of the island.
Afareaitu Marae Site: This site contains ancient constructions made of pyramid-shaped stone and coral. Believed to date back almost 3,000 years, the structures were used for religious ceremonies which sometimes involved human sacrifices.
Tiki Village Cultural Center: The center highlights the history of the Polynesian culture. The craftspeople work and live in the cultural center and demonstrate things like painting, stone carving, basket weaving, and traditional island dancing.
Where To Stay
There are actually quite a few hotels on Moorea. You can stay in something extremely high end (but absolutely beautiful) like the Sofitel Moorea la Ora Beach Resort, or a local hotel without all the flash like the Tiare Tahiti Hotel. Either way, there is plenty to do and see on the island. Plus, Tahiti is just a short ferry trip away.
Our final stop in French Polynesia was Tahiti. We spent the last day of our trip in the city of Papeete, which was quite a contrast from the less inhabited islands we had visited.
About the Island
Tahiti is part of the Windward Islands and is the largest island in that group. As the most populous island in French Polynesia, it’s also the economic, cultural and political center.
The capital of Papeete is home to the only international airport in the region. Tahitians make up about 70% of the population. The remainder of the population is made up of Europeans as well as a mix of other nationalities.
How To Get Around
Papeete is a pretty busy town center, so it is easy to get a taxi. There are taxi stands located in several spots along the main road (along the coast). We found it easy to get a taxi from one of the stands.
The city of Papeete is also very walkable. Don’t be afraid to wander around and explore. You can always easily find your way back to the main strip.
What To See
Marche de Papeete: If you are into exploring markets in cities you visit, this place is for you. In the market, you’ll find everything from the usual souvenirs to Tahitian spices to fresh fish. The two-story complex also has some places where you can grab a coffee or something to eat.
Place Vai’ete: This park features a bunch of food trucks in the evening. You’ll find picnic tables full of both locals and tourists having dinner or a late night snack on any given night. Located right next to the port where the cruise ships dock, this is just a 5 minute walk from your ship if you are docked in Papeete.
Pa’ofa’i Gardens: Located along the shore, in addition to the landscaped greenspace, the gardens feature lots of little places to sit and just hang out. There are also a couple of ornamental fishponds and some restaurants within the gardens.
Notre Dame Cathedral: Built in 1875, this cathedral is located right in the center of town. Worth a photo opp!
There are lots of bars and restaurants in Papeete. The place we ended up our first night was called Bora Bora Lounge. It was a fun place with good drinks. Just be prepared to be a little surprised by the wait staff! For our last meal of the trip, we ate at Les 3 Brasseurs. Believe it or not, my husband ordered their version of the Philly Cheesesteak. While it wasn’t the same as what you get in Philly, it was actually pretty good!
We were only able to visit three of the many islands of French Polynesia on this trip, and we only had a few hours to explore on each island. I hope to go back some day and spend some time on my own. I hope I’ve inspired you to do the same!
Have you been to any of the islands in French Polynesia? Do you have any recommendations that I missed? Share them in the comments below or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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