People playing the ukulele as you walk by in the street…
Women wearing colourful sarongs and flowers in their hair…
Locals calling out “bonjour” as you pass…
Delicious French pastries and baguettes in every shop (and in the basket of everyone’s bicycles)…
The most amazing water you have ever seen…
Where is this place I hear you ask?
It is French Polynesia and it really is the picture perfect paradise you dream of and so much more.
We had sky high expectations for the country and it was one of the places we were most looking forward to visiting but our two weeks exceeded even our wildest dreams. We loved every minute of it and didn’t want to leave.
However, the country impressed us in ways we did not expect. It was as beautiful (as we hoped) but what was a real surprise was how underdeveloped and rustic it was. Sure, there are expensive (c.£1,000 per night) over-water bungalows (mainly in Bora Bora) in hotels such as Four Seasons and St Regis, but there are also loads of family owned guesthouses, restaurants and it was really well set-up for independent travel.
Some other things we noticed in our first few days:
- Women of all ages casually dressed in their bras or bikinis (it was bloody hot) clearly not concerned about their body image. We even saw a naked man washing himself (and his clothes) in the sea right next to a busy beach
- Friendly locals would wave to you from cars, bikes and mopeds as you passed
- Tables of delicious tropical fruits are lined up on the roads for sale (four mangoes for £1!). Also gateaux and fresh tuna
- Really good tarmac roads are almost everywhere (strangely Bora Bora had the most potholes) and even the small islands have an airport and regular flights to the capital
- There was no traffic lights but police were out in force to direct the ‘rush hour’ traffic on a weekday morning
- Most people get around on bicycles as the islands are so small
The French influence (they still run key parts of the country [e.g. defence, education, justice]) was everywhere:
- French is still the main language
- Foie gras, brie and steak in supermarket
- Menus with crepes, chow mein and prawn curry
- People kissing policemen/gendarme hello
All of these aspects seemed quite surreal on a tropical island in the middle of the Pacific.
In our 14 days we visited four islands, hopping by plane between them, but we only saw a fraction of a country which stretches across Europe, but only covers the land mass of Somerset and has roughly the same population as Newcastle (c.300,000).
After an overnight flight from the USA and a short hop we were in Huahine, the island named after a pregnant woman with a population of 6,000. Of the four islands we visited, this was the least touristy with no chain hotels and a very local feel wherever you went.
We had four nights here and explored by bicycle, moped and on foot. There was the gorgeous green jungly hilly interior, deserted roads along the coasts, ancient ruins, a quiet main town and two beautiful beaches.
Next up was the most famous island in the country, associated with honeymooners and world class hotels, however we found a nice bungalow just steps from the main beach for only £70 per night.
Like Huahine, the island was beautiful but the real draw was the surrounding lagoon. All the islands we visited in French Polynesia were surrounded by calm, deep blue lagoons created from the coral that rings the islands and keeps the waves at bay.
We explored the Bora Bora lagoon on a boat cruise which included snorkelling with manta rays, sting rays and white-tipped sharks; as well as a delicious Tahitian lunch on a deserted motu (sand island in the lagoon).
Even the boat journey back to the airport (which is on a motu as there isn’t enough flat land on the main island) was stunning:
Our third island was the triangle-shaped Moorea which was bigger than Huahine and Bora Bora with a 60km coastal road. We rented a scooter for a couple of days and drove all over the island (visiting amazing beaches, bays, churches and food stalls) and up to an amazing viewpoint.
One day we visited the Intercontinental hotel as they have dolphins and turtles onsite. We watched a dolphin interaction (not sure how humane this is as they made it kiss the participants and do tricks) and learnt about the rehabilitation of injured turtles before they are able to be released back into the wild.
Overall, the food we ate was not that special, with lots of low quality Chinese and a surprising lack of seafood (apart from very dry tuna) but we did have a few nice meals and enjoyed the baked goods.
Our last destination was the capital Papeete, on the main island of Tahiti. Despite the associations that Tahiti inspires, the island is less of a holiday destination, partly as there are no white sand beaches. Half of the population live here and it was massive compared to towns on the islands but still very small for a capital city (26,000).
We visited the market and drunk from a delicious fresh coconut, saw a church and had dinner in a square with loads of roulottes (food trucks).
Probably the best two weeks of the trip so far, we absolutely loved it and it wasn’t as expensive as you imagine (we spent roughly the same per day in the USA where we had worse accommodation). Just a shame it’s so far from home, otherwise I can see us returning on holiday.
Sad as we were to leave, luckily we had another week booked in the Cook Islands, so the tropical island holiday is not over yet.