French Polynesia encompasses five different archipelagos and a total of 118 islands; these are spread across a patch of ocean roughly the same size as Western Europe. The Society Islands are the most-traveled group, and comprise bustling Tahiti, cozier and homier Moorea (a favorite weekend getaway for residents of Tahiti's capital, Papeete), the surfer's paradise of Huahine, the much-hyped honeymoon island of Bora Bora, and sparsely developed Raiatea and Tahaa. The Tuamotu group is a quieter collection of 76 low-lying islands (only about half of which are inhabited) with world-class diving. The other three groupsthe Marquesas, the Astrals, and the Gambiersare relatively pristine and undeveloped.
Many businesses in French Polynesia don't have street addresses, but can be located using the coastal road's distance markers: Every kilometer is marked with a PK sign, for "Pas Kilometre."
WHEN TO GO
French Polynesia has a mild tropical climate with two seasons: a slightly more humidand intermittently rainyperiod between November and April, and the drier season between May and October. July, the festival month, is the driest. The average annual temperature is 77°F, with little variation throughout the year. The weather is similar to Hawaii's, but because French Polynesia is south of the equator, the seasons are reversed.
HOW TO GET THERE
French Polynesia is just below the equator, halfway between South America and Australia. Air Tahiti Nui is the main carrier servicing Tahiti and offers nonstop flights to Papeete from New York, Los Angeles, Sydney, Auckland, Tokyo, and Osaka. Air France offers flights from Papeete to Los Angeles and New York that continue on to Paris. The Chilean airline LAN flies from Santiago to Papeete via Easter Island. And a popular option is to fly to Hawaii and then on to Papeete via Hawaiian Airlines.
For more information, contact Air Tahiti Nui, (877-824-4846, www.airtahitinui-usa.com ), Air France (800-237-274, www.airfrance.us), LAN (866-435-9526, www.lan.com), Hawaiian Airlines (800-367-5320, www.hawaiianairlines.com), Air Tahiti (689-864-242, www.airtahiti.com), or the Tahiti-Moorea ferry (689-505-757, www.aremiti.pf).
Air Tahiti (different from Air Tahiti Nui) offers several daily flights to Bora Bora, Huahine, Rangiroa, and Moorea, as well as less-frequent flights to the Tuamotu islands of Fakarava and Manihi, and the Marquesas islands of Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa. These flights range from seven minutes (from Papeete to Moorea) to almost four hours (Papeete to Nuku Hiva). Ferries are the budget option, but aside from the pleasant 25- to 45-minute trip between Papeete and Moorea, rough waters can make boat travel between the islands a harrowing and time-consuming choice. On island, you'll find that the highways are well paved, and local buses (operated by Le Truck) run regularly. If you decide to rent a car (rental agencies such as Avis and Budget are at the major airports), you'll just need a valid U.S. driver's license. Keep in mind that many of the rental cars here have standard transmissions; if you need an automatic, make sure you ask for one.
Tahiti's main tourism and information center is located at Papeete's waterfront, right next to the cruise ship docks (689-505-700, www.tahititourism.com). You'll find an English-speaking staff as well as maps and information on most of the islands.
There are also tourist offices on Moorea (689-562-909, www.gomoorea.com) and at Huahine's airport (689-606-006) and ferry landing (689-687-881), although these are operated by private business organizations and are not officially associated with the French Polynesian tourism board.
NEED TO KNOW
Language: Tahitian, French
Capital City: Papeete
Area: 1,600 square miles
Telephone Calling Code(s): 689
Electricity: 220V, 60 Hz
Currency: As of Dec 30, 2008:
1 Comptoirs Franšais du Pacifique Francs = $0.01 US Calculate Other Amounts
French Polynesia does not require visas for citizens of the United States. A valid passport is sufficient for a one-month stay.
GOOD TO KNOW
Books and Movies
James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific explores the local color (hint: it's mostly blue and green) against the backdrop of World War II. Some of the bestand priciestviews of French Polynesia come alive in the later work of painter Paul Gauguin, who spent his last decade on the islands.
Fine dining of any stripe can be had throughout French Polynesia. However, the Tahitian Feast, or "tamaaraa," is a beloved tradition among villagers and visitors alike. The islands' bounty, wrapped in banana leaves, is slowly cooked in underground ovens called "ahimaa"holes in the ground lined with glowing volcanic rocks. The Polynesian delicacies are presented on palm fronds, and guests are invited to eat with their fingers, dipping juicy morsels of roast pork, fish, breadfruit, and taro into rich coconut cream sauce. Poe (a sweet pudding) and fresh fruit are served for dessert, before tribal dancing heats things up.
Shopping in French Polynesia, unlike so many tropical paradises, isn't limited to duty-free, though that's offered as well. French Polynesia is one of the few places in the world where black pearls are cultured. These make exquisite souvenirs, with colors ranging from the darkest black to deep greens with iridescent accents of pink, gold, and blueat prices far lower than you would pay elsewhere. Shopping for a cook back home? Just bring home some Tahitian vanilla beans; these aren't just any vanilla beans, they're the finest in the world.
French Polynesia is truly paradise. The islanders' notion of hospitality banishes such concerns as sales tax and tipping to lesser destinations, so money matters won't interfere with your pleasure.
January: 1, New Year's Day
March: 5, Missionary Day
May: 1, Labor Day
July: 14, Bastille Day
August: 15, Assumption
September: 8, Internal Autonomy Day
November: 1, All Saints' Day; 11, Armistice Day
December: 12, Independence Day; 25, Christmas Day
Spring: Friday before Easter, Good Friday; Easter; day after Easter, Easter Monday; sixth Thursday after Easter, Ascension; ninth Monday after Easter, Pentecost Monday