Why you must visit French Polynesia
Sailing the waters of French Polynesia and seeing the lights of the island of Tahiti retreat into the verdant volcanic distance or the mystically beautiful lagoon of Bora Bora surrounding you is the stuff of pure fantasy. But some can find the cost, the language and the remoteness off-putting. However, there are endless reasons why it is worth making exploring French Polynesia a priority.
As the name French Polynesia would suggest the language is French but as the islands have long survived on tourism you are unlikely to meet anyone who doesn’t understand at least some English. Plus, Polynesian friendliness easily overcomes any language difficulties.
Indeed, the ‘French-ness’ of these islands adds a lot to their appeal. It’s not just the Renaults and Peugeots on the streets but the manner of dressing - even simply wearing a pareo (a colourful wrap-around skirt or sarong) shows French élan or style. Stunning looking Polynesians of both sexes speaking with a French accent certainly adds to the holiday charm.
There are two forms of French Polynesian landform. Firstly, there’s the volcanic island with rich forests rising to craggy basaltic peaks, surrounded by a coral reef that harbour myriad tropical fish. This is the shape of Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora and lesser-known islands like Huahine and Taha’a.
Secondly there’s the coral atoll surrounded by a reef. Here the highest point is likely to be only a few metres. Rangiroa in the Tuamotu Islands is a series of islands around a huge lagoon 78 km long and 225 km around. This is the Pacific island of fantasies.
Not surprisingly, the wildlife action is in the water. Here you may encounter manta rays and turtles that welcome visitors or you can snorkel with stingrays and reef sharks. In the deeper water you may see even spinner dolphins doing their synchronised aerobatic displays in the waves.
Overall, there are the fish. Fish of every shape and colour seem to decorate every coral bommie and all of the natural coral structures on display, so each metre is a voyage of discovery.
October and November are good months to consider a holiday as it is the low season, yet the weather is also generally pleasant. In January and February the weather is often hot and rainy. Whilst in July and August you can expect it to be hot and windy. Be aware that the mountains can create their own ‘weather systems’ so you can travel from sunshine to rain to sunshine within a few hundred metres!
The real specialities of Tahiti to take home are Monoi body oils and various forms of locally produced vanilla. Monoi comes in various fragrances and expect to pay about $5 for 100ml. They make a wonderful gift for others and using the fragrance at home is a delightful way to instantly ‘transport’ you back to your holiday.
Most of the world’s vanilla comes from Madagascar but about 25 tons is produced in French Polynesia – particularly Taha’a. The hardest form to come by is dried vanilla pods and you might pay $40 for about 100g or around 20 pods. There’s a lot of vanilla essence (vanilla infused dark rum) around but local chefs mainly use vanilla powder because it’s the easiest pure form.
The Tahitian black pearl is renowned all over the world. Size, symmetry and lustre are the criteria that set their price but the choices available means there is a spectacular black, green, purple or gold pearl in most price ranges - from just $10 and well into the tens of thousands of dollars.
Polynesian charm comes through in every encounter with the locals. Time is flexible but a smile and genuine communication is all important. The climate encourages people to wear little and you’ll be amazed at the tattoos on display.
While the Pacific is not noted for its cuisine, the French touch adds greatly to the dining choices. Poisson cru – fish “cooked” in lime juice before coconut milk and vegetables are added – is a delight. The local fish, particularly tuna and moonfish are excellent. Of course, local vanilla also shines in crème brulees.
Shades of Blue
The purest joy of French Polynesia is visual. The colours of the lagoon waters must be seen to be believed. While Bora Bora is the most spectacular island in the archipelago (if not the world) every island offers iridescent shades of blue that will bring a smile to even the most weary traveller.
French Polynesia was the birthplace of the overwater bungalow. The concept of a glass coffee table – or floor – that looks directly down on the fish swimming below was an appealing one. There are now tendrils of walkways linking bungalows along much of the shoreline, especially in Bora Bora and Moorea.
An alternative is to cruise the islands. The Paul Gauguin is the resident luxury vessel and offers a range of island-hopping itineraries upwards from seven days.
Only nine hours after flying with Qantas to Auckland to join an Air Tahiti Nui flight to Papeete we were standing outside the airport waiting for a lift to our nearby hotel. It is a close – and it can be a relatively affordable destination for Australians – or a great stopover on the way back from the USA.
For more information visit Tahiti Tourism.
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