French Polynesia See And Do
Many of the best beaches in French Polynesia are occupied by high-end resorts, but you shouldn't have any problem accessing them. Most of the small islets (motus) that dot the lagoons are also privately owned, but many resort concierges can arrange a "motu picnic tour," in which you'll be whisked away by boat to one of these powdery-beached jewels and treated like royalty. There are also plenty of public beaches where you can blend in with the native (as opposed to the vacationing) population. The best of the batch are listed below.
In Tahiti, take advantage of the famed black volcanic sand at Mahina Beach (PK 10.1), Point Venus Beach (PK 8.1), and Papenoo Village Beach (PK 16). Although there are no bathrooms at these beaches, for the cost of a single drink at one of the nearby hotel bars you'll have access to their facilities.
In Bora Bora, the only public strand worth seeking out is the white-sand Matira Point Beach, located near the La Moana Bora Bora Resort on the southern tip of the main island. On weekends, it's a gathering place for Tahitian families. It also has a great snack shop.
On the northeastern coast of Moorea, near the airport, Temae Beach stretches for about a mile, making it the longest uninterrupted stretch of soft, white sand on the island; it's also the best for swimming. Locals often go topless here, and so can you.
One of the best beaches in all of the Society Islands is along the southern point of Huahine: A white sandy border runs along the entire coast from the Relais Mahana Resort to Anini Beach. You can park anywhere on the side of the road (except in someone's driveway) or at the historical site of Marare Anini—an ancient stone altar where human sacrifices were once made.
Sandy beaches aren't much in evidence on Raiatea and Tahaa, but there are some dreamy little all-sand motus, including Motu Naonao and Motu Iriru off Raiatea, and Motu Tautau (home of Le Tahaa Private Island & Spa) and Motu Tuvahine on Tahaa.
Rangiroa presents beach-lovers with an embarrassment of riches: The entire island is fringed by inviting white sand. Hire a bike and ride around to choose your favorite. Gorgeous motus such as the Pink Sands Motu on the south side are also worth a peek, but be sure to pack everything you'll need for the day—food, drink, sunscreen, towels—since you won't find many vendors outside of the hotels.
Black pearls are the number one souvenir for tourists in French Polynesia. In the United States, a single gem can cost upwards of $1,200, but the highest quality black pearls in Tahiti go for half that. The Robert Wan stores you'll see throughout the country are like the Tiffany's of black pearl shops—just about any other outfit is less expensive. Your best bet is to visit a pearl farm, where you can cut out the middle man by buying directly. The Manihi atoll in the Tuamotus launched black pearl tourism and is a great place to see how they're produced and harvested.
You'll likely notice that to call these pearls "black" is sort of a misnomer. When placed under the light, a pearl's true color may be steel gray, blue, pink, green, purple, brown, gold, or any combination thereof. The most expensive black pearls, or the A grade, are perfectly round, smooth, and actually black with a rainbow cast. More affordable are the slightly pear-shaped ones with small ridges called the baroques. Their beauty is in their imperfection and their pastel colors. When selecting and purchasing pearls, be sure that you can obtain a certificate of authenticity. In addition, avoid having the gems set in Tahiti as gold and silver are astronomically expensive. Loose pearls can be taken out of the country untaxed and then set by a jeweler once you get home. If you want to wear them right away, Tahiti Pearl Market in Papeete or Bora Bora will string them for you on a thin filament wire at no extra cost.
Tel: 689 544 505
Not a cruise person? Then this is the cruise for you. This luxury yacht contains just 30 cabinsand rarely more than 50 peopleas well as two bars, a dining room with outdoor seating, a library, a lounge, several decks with sun chairs, and two hot tubs. It's the ideal way to see four islands Bora, Tahaa, Raiatea, and Huahinein just a week. You'll be swept up at the Bora airport on Monday and kept busy all week with private motu picnics, dinner shows with local musicians and dancing rae rae (Tahitian drag queens), beach volleyball, spa treatments, visits to pearl farms, shark-feeding even a visit from a traditional Polynesian tattoo artist. The cost for this extravaganza is about $8,000 per couple.
If you're certified in scuba, you already know that Rangiroa is a world-class diving destination. The main draw here are the large schools of sharks; it's said that at any given moment, some 1,500 of the toothy fish (mostly black-tip reefs and greys, but also hammerheads and tigers) lurk in and just outside of Rangi's lagoon, and you can sometimes see hundreds at once. Obviously, diving here is a hair-raising experience, so using a reputable operator is crucial. TOPdive, which also runs a hotel and restaurant on Bora Bora, is the largest operator in all of French Polynesia; if you're visiting multiple islands, they sell a 10-dive pass to use at Rangiroa, Bora, and Moorea (689-960-560; www.topdive.com).
The unique experience of drift-snorkeling—jumping off a boat and being swept at great speed through the Pass of Tiputa, the entrance to Rangi's lagoon—is almost as thrilling as sky-diving. There's clear visibility of up to 120 feet, so you can watch as sharks, dolphins, turtles, and rays swimming beneath you get sucked into the lagoon by the forceful current (you get sucked in, too, but you stay on the surface). A two-hour excursion costs about $50 per person when you book with husband-and-wife team Cosetta & Pascal Rohde (689-960-331; www.snorkeling.pf). They take safety seriously: One of their staff members always goes into the water with you, while another hovers nearby in the boat to make sure no one gets carried off in the wrong direction.
Papeete , Tahiti
Tel: 689 500 674
Owned by the same family as Bora Bora Cruises, this 18-cabin adventure cruise isn't quite as glam, but it's still by far the most deluxe way to see the undeveloped Tuamotu atolls. You can choose to do just three nights, or a full week, sailing around Rangiroa exploring pristine beaches and snorkle spots. Once you leave the village of Tiputa (known for its shark-filled pass), it's unlikely you'll see anyone other than the people onboard (with the exception of Mama and her family who live all alone on the far end of the atoll, and make gorgeous shell jewelry). The yacht is 20 years old, and occasionally emits strange odors, but the fun casual crew, mostly Tahitians, more than make it up to you with nightly serenades (maybe even an original song composed just for you), and real local flavor. One skipper, not a man big on words, catches blue coconut crabs that burrow into the sand and reach about three to four feet in length for guests to marvel over (they look like a cross between a giant lobster and the creature from Alien). And don't be shocked if someone lassos a turtle or delights in putting an octopus on their head to amuse you. There's a French gloss onboard, but on the excursions, you will definitely feel in the wild.
Held over a three-day period every October, the Hawaiki Nui Va'a is the most prestigious open-ocean canoe race in the world. It also signifies the important connection between Tahitians and their descendents who migrated to Hawaii several hundred years ago. Paddling teams from Hawaii, other Pacific Islands, and the mainland U.S. come here to steal, reclaim, or solidify titles in the 77-mile, three-leg race between Huahine and Bora Bora. The first day is typically about a four-hour crossing from Huahine to Raiatea; the second day is a 90-minute sprint inside the lagoon between Raiatea and Tahaa; and the final day is a four-hour race to reach Matira Beach in Bora Bora, where cheering crowds of spectators greet the winners.
Beginning around the last week of June, the islands rumble with traditional celebrations that include Tahitian song and dance performances, canoe races, and competitions in spear-throwing, fishing, and archery. The fact that Heiva abuts the French holiday of Bastille Day (July 14) gives locals an excuse for a full three weeks of major partying. Be warned: Resorts complain that workers don't always show up during Heiva, and Papeete, where the major festivities are held, sees a massive influx of people and prices jacked up by 200 percent.
Arue , Tahiti
Tel: 689 500 161
The home of this American adventurer and writerwho coauthored the South Pacificthemed novels Mutiny on the Bounty, Hurricane, and The Dark Riveronce stood here. Today, an exact replica of the 1920s house occupies the site and contains an intimate museum of antiques, art, family photos, and more than 3,000 books. Hall married a Tahitian woman and raised their children here in Arue, near one of the best beaches on the island and just north of Papeete. Besides a stirring glimpse into early 20th-century Tahitian life through the eyes of an enchanted expat, you can also have a home-cooked lunch, served in Hall's dining roomarrange this at least a day in advance.
PK 12, Pihaena
Pao Pao , Moorea
Tel: 689 552 000
Moorea is known as "Pineapple Island" for its profusion of the fruit, and many local farmers sell their wares to this processing plant where Rotui juices and Manutea Tahiti punches and liqueurs are produced. You can tour the factory, taste free samples, and buy some bottles to bring home (take note: the pineapple eau-de-vie took the silver at the Concours Général Agricole in Paris).
Open Monday through Friday, 8:30 4:30; the shop is also open Saturdays from 94.
Entire city block between Rue 22 Septembre and Rue Francois Cardella
Papeete , Tahiti
Prepare for sensory overload upon entering Papeete's central market: pungent, exotic smells and piles of tropical fruits of every color. The city's entire population seems to pass through on weekendsespecially after church on Sundays, when hundreds of locals squeeze, sniff, and rub the produce before choosing what to buy. (The vendors aren't bothered by this, although some get offended if you try to haggle over prices.) The ground floor is reserved for fresh flowers, produce, and fish, while the upstairs has dry goods and souvenirswoven pandanus mats and baskets, wood carvings, pareos, even ukuleles. These goods might not be the cheapest or of the best quality, but the market is a good last stop for shopping before heading to the airport.
Maeva , Huahine
A jungle walk not far from the airport takes you to this magnificent, once-sacred hilltop ruin. Before Europeans arrived in the Society Islands, the village of Maeva was Huahine's seat of royal powera hub of culture and religion, and home to the island's most prominent families. More than 200 stone maraes (temples built to honor Polynesian gods) have since been excavated here, and the site, which overlooks Lake Fauna Nui Pass, has been beautifully restored.
Papeari , Tahiti
Tel: 689 571 058
The French post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin infamously spent 10 of the last 12 years of his life residing in Tahiti, specifically in Mataiea Village and Punaauia. His taste for young Polynesian beauties inspired several of his most significant artworks, including Fatata te Miti, Ia Orana Maria, and Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Sadly, the museum that bears his name has but a handful of original sketches and block prints, and is pretty tawdry. You're better off visiting the adjacent botanical gardens established by American physics professor Harrison Smith in 1919; they'll at least give you an appreciation for the lush native landscape of palm, hibiscus, bamboo, and banana trees that Gauguin found so inspiring. Open daily 95.
It may sound iffy, but it's one of the most popular activities in the islands: donning a snorkel, jumping into head-high water, and holding onto a secure rope while three- to four-foot reef sharks thrash around eating chum just a few feet away. The tour operators who orchestrate this swear that as long as you keep all your body parts behind the rope, you'll be safe—the sharks apparently think the rope is a net and will avoid coming close to it. Of course, you're only as safe as the professionals who take you out. Bora Bora's Raanui Tours, run by the Tepeva family, is among the best. Their not-too-slick but soulful tours include shark feeding, stingray "petting," and a motu picnic. Leo will even put an octopus on his head on occasion to gross you out, and if he's in the mood, play a few tunes on the ukulele while you lunch (689-794-314).
While there are fabulous surf spots all over French Polynesia (Teahupoo on Tahiti is one of the world's most awesome breaks), Huahine's reliable year-round waves make it especially popular with riders. There are three main spots in the Fare area on the west side, Fiiti, Fare, and Vahine (a beginner break, though only strong swimmers can paddle out to it). There's also Parea on the south side. Increasing crowds at these spots have made some locals a bit resentfulso be respectful and friendly when you arrive, don't surf alone, and don't expect to get advice on how to avoid the reef or where to find secret spots. Surf gear is expensive and hard to find here; bringing extra wax, rash guards, leashes, and such and giving them away to locals (a.k.a. bribes) may give you access to local knowledge. You can also check out www.surf.pf for detailed information about surfing breaks, seasons, and conditions throughout French Polynesia.
Matira Beach , Bora Bora
Tel: 689 723 099
American expat Captain Richard Postma is such a character (one clue: taravana means "crazy" in Tahitian) that his stories are about as entertaining as the views from his 50-foot catamaran. But while he's regaling you about his experiences hosting celebs (Tommy Lee, Pierce Brosnan, John Travolta) on the high seas, make sure you take time to fully appreciate Bora's motu-dotted lagoon. Postma does a two-hour sunset cruise that drops you off at local watering hole Bloody Mary's; a cruise of the leeward islands; or some big-game fishing for marlin, mahimahi, and swordfish.
Teahupoo , Tahiti
At the sleepy end of South Road on Tahiti Iti—just about the farthest you can go from chaotic, congested Papeete—life continues as it has for generations (if you are driving, go slow to avoid stray dogs that dash into the road). With one major exception, that is. Between April and October an influx of surfers comes to gawk at one of the most hyped surf breaks in the world: Teahupoo (pronounced "cho-poo," or if you want to be completely correct about it, "tay-ah-hoo-poo"). When the waves here are big, they're cartoonishly big—25 feet high and thick, with only dry reef below. Surfing here is a spectator spot for most; only experts should even attempt this Mt. Everest of swells. But many do, much to the delight of locals and surf enthusiasts. Each May surf company Billabong sponsors a contest for top-ranked wave riders like Kelly Slater and Andy Irons. (Mere mortals can take a skiff out to less dangerous breaks nearby such as Te Ava Ino, Te Ava Iti, and Vairo.) In the village of Teahupoo you'll find a handful of modest family-run pensions (including Vanira Lodge).
Haapiti , Moorea
Tel: 689 550 250
There is something questionable about this faux "Tiki Village" run by flamboyant French expat Olivier Briac—but if you don't mind kitsch and you're looking for nightlife on Moorea, it's worth a visit. You can shop, get a tattoo, have a mediocre buffet dinner, even renew your marriage vows with a Tahitian-style ceremony (Briac brags that Dustin Hoffman and Lorenzo Lamas have been among the romantics who indulged in this). The real reason to come, though, is the open-air show of traditional Tahitian dances, performed by a large, accomplished group of glistening, coconut-oiled nubiles and musicians who keep time with percussion and chanting. At the point where fire torches are spun around and horses come galloping into the stage area, it may occur to you that you've fallen into a pretty serious tourist trap—but at least it's an entertaining one.