By Lee Czerniak.
When you think of the islands of French Polynesia, your mind is flooded with images of gentle swaying palm trees, aqua blue lagoons, white sands and a place where romance is in the air while watching the setting sun display a wonderment of colours. I have been fortunate to visit Tahiti and its islands on a couple of occasions and each time I’ve been enamoured with the beauty of this place.
Many people say to me, “It’s so expensive to go there.” My answer is that it’s no more than some of the other Asia/Pacific destinations – sometimes even less – and it has so much to offer. First off, if you choose a Five Star Plus over the water bungalows, you are paying the same as anywhere else in the world for this type of accommodation. But honestly, why do we always stay in fancy resorts that have these high price tags?
Consider looking at top accommodation known as Pensions. They can be found on all the islands and can offer you a more personal experience that you would not enjoy with the big hotels. You will not only get great accommodation but you will enjoy the opportunity of meeting the locals and experiencing the culture and way of life that is French and Polynesian all in one go. It’s an opportunity to see parts of the islands that are truly local and you will find the local restaurants’ cultures are as unique as the food they serve – all at very reasonable price.
Tahiti is the largest of the islands and is home to Papeete, the capital city. This is a bustling city and a gateway to some of the most beautiful islands. But don’t forget to explore this island. Although it’s the hub of the commercial side of Tahiti, it also offers some great beaches and aquatic activities. I spent some time diving here and was fortunate to experience amazing diving with some of the biggest moray eels I have ever encountered.
There is, of course, some great shopping, but visit the Public Market – a 155-year-old public market – called Le Marché and discover what makes Papeete’s heartbeat. You will find Tahitian handcrafts from all the islands and it’s open every day except public holidays. You can even purchase the famous Tahitian Black Pearls here.
Enjoy dining at some of the restaurants around Papeete or visit the roulette on the waterfront at Vai‘ete Square. The French influence is apparent in a lot of the cuisine, but you will find there is also that Polynesian influence, sort of a fusion between the two, as well as a wide range of international food. The atmosphere is lively and there often is entertainment to enjoy while you are eating. I found this one of the most enjoyable ways to spend an evening and have returned several times.
Some of the mountainous islands are stunningly beautiful such as Bora Bora and Mo‘orea and you feel like you are stepping onto the set of the movie South Pacific or similar. It’s easy to see why these islands have enraptured writers and painters, like the Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin. There is the Gauguin Museum on Tahiti, which is a must-visit as you will not only see some of his many paintings there, but also a lot memorabilia from the painter himself.
For the diver, these islands offer you a bonus of exploring and adding adventure to your visit. The underwater world that is unique to French Polynesia offers shark diving. This could be you witnessing the annual feeding habits of large hammerheads at the Atoll of Rangiroa. Rangiora is an hour’s flight from Papeete and is in the Tuamotus group. Around January and February, you will encounter the grey reef shark and the eagle rays mating. It is at this time the hammerhead and tiger sharks cruise in from the ocean to take advantage of this romantic activity to have a good meal.
You could try the romantic location of Bora Bora, less than an hour’s flight from Papeete where you will discover a lagoon that is said to be one of the most beautiful in the world. The blues and greens draw you in as you travel by boat to the island from the airfield. The colour of the water is unbelievable. Diving within the waters of the most beautiful lagoon in the world is on many divers’ ‘must-do’ list because of the abundance of large marine life. You are often joined by manta rays as they glide gracefully through the water, an experience every diver should enjoy at least once in their lives. It was in these waters that I ended up having a love affair with a Napolean wrasse who decided he liked me so much that he kept kissing me on the mask throughout my shark dive. Between this wonderful wrasse and the sharks that I had gone to dive with, I can say this is one of my most memorable dives.
Mo‘orea is only a ferry ride from Papeete or a ten-minute flight. Being a high mountainous island, it’s exactly the magic that we imagine a South Seas’ island to be. A wide shallow lagoon surrounds the island and frames the vertical mountains where waterfalls tumble down cliffs. Houses surrounded by hibiscus and bird of paradise paint the picture that Gauguin fell in love with. Because of the lack of strong currents and the abundant marine life, the shallow waters around Mo‘orea are ideal for year-round snorkelling. Local guides will take you to snorkel among schools of gentle rays. How about swimming alongside the ocean’s friendliest residents? This dolphin experience is something not to be missed. The Mo‘orea landscape continues below the sea with canyons and chasms that you can cruise through while surrounded by schools of marine life.
Breathtakingly beautiful, these islands are a must-visit – above and below the water.