Traveling in French Polynesia
VACATION MEETS ADVENTURE
by Robert F. Kay
Choosing where to go in French Polynesia is akin to perusing the menu at a five-star restaurant. There are so many places to visit, it’s really a tough call. Each of the five major island groups has its own distinctive attractions. The main thing is to get out of Papeete and either spend time in one of Tahiti’s outer districts or visit one of the outer islands.
Only in Tahiti’s countryside or on an outer island are you likely to experience the pace and hospitality of genuine French Polynesia. My personal favorites in the Society Group (which includes the Windward and Leeward Islands) are Moorea, Huahine and Maupiti. If you can, you should also make a point of visiting at least one island in the Tuamotu Group so that you can experience an atoll, which is entirely different from a high island. Among these islands you might consider one of the lesser visited atolls such as Tikehau, Takaroa, Mataiva or Fakarava. If you have the time and the budget, at least one of the Marquesas Islands should also be on your itinerary. Remote and seldom visited by tourists, their precipitous terrain is absolutely spectacular. I like Nuku Hiva, but any island in the Marquesas Group is worth seeing.
Society Group Tahiti, French Polynesia’s largest and most populous island, is home to the international airport and the capital, Papeete. Papeete has a charming waterfront, fine restaurants and the marché (public market), but the capital is only one part of the equation. To really get a handle on Tahiti it’s best to get out of town. I would suggest renting a car and spending at least one day exploring the countryside, or district, as the locals call it. Outside Papeete’s urban jungle, people are friendlier, and chances are you’ll see a glimpse of old Tahiti. My favorite corner of Tahiti is Tahiti Iti or (Little Tahiti), the smaller appendage of the island connected to the main body by the Isthmus of Taravao. There are some restaurants in the tiny hamlet of Taravao and a multitude of stunning vistas. The Tautira Village area in particular has a spooky edge-of-the world feeling about it that stays with you. Here the coastal road traces the steep terrain. The mountains are thick with foliage and rise precipitously into the mist. On Tahiti Iti one senses that progress has yet to encroach on this corner of French Polynesia.
Because of its proximity to Tahiti, Moorea has become a “suburb” of Papeete. The island is dramatically beautiful, with sharp serrated peaks that command deep cleft valleys. The pace is slower than Tahiti, it’s less congested with cars, and it has an abundance of good beaches—many more than Tahiti. Tourism development on the island has increased considerably over the past few years —more than I’d like to see—but the island still retains its charm and friendliness. It’s very easy to get to Moorea from Tahiti (I suggest that you take a ferry, the way the locals do it). I’d consider staying at one of the smaller pensions rather than a large hotel. You’ll find the service more personal and the feeling more intimate. Once there, rent a car and take the time to drive around the island. Be sure to visit the interior for the vistas and the archaeological sites. The jeep tours are a terrific way to see hidden Moorea.
When James Michener called Bora Bora the most beautiful island in the world, he may have been right. Once a sleepy outpost, the island is dominated by two towering volcanic peaks that overlook a stunning translucent blue lagoon. There are terrific white-sand beaches and wonderful places to eat. The luxury hotels along the Matira Beach are world class. The island also offers scuba divers some once-in-a-lifetime opportunities such as swimming with giant manta rays. My personal feelings about the island are, however, ambivalent. Though the name Bora Bora evokes magic, its fame has brought in multitudes of visitors. It has become too popular, too crowded and out of the range of mid-range and budget visitors. That’s the bad news. The good news is, a fair number of reasonably priced restaurants and lodgings have sprung up like mushrooms in the past few months. If you do plan to visit and don’t have a king’s ransom to pay, there is hope!
Huahine is a diamond in the rough, and a stronghold of Polynesian culture. One of the most picturesque and geographically diverse islands in the Society Group, the tourism market has not yet discovered this verdant isle. There are numerous white-sand beaches, the best and most consistent surfing in all of French Polynesia, and a variety of lodging for every budget. Restaurants in Fare, the main community, are diverse and reasonably priced. Those who come to Huahine for cultural tourism will not be disappointed. Huahine’s resilient people prefer to speak Tahitian rather than French and regard their traditions as sacred. There are also more ancient temples (many of which have been reconstructed) per square foot than anywhere else in the South Pacific. The only thing it doesn’t have are swarms of visitors—one of the best reasons to come here.
The sister islands of Raiatea and Tahaa are unreservedly off the beaten track. Uturoa, the main community of Raiatea, is a government administrative center, while Tahaa is still an undeveloped backwater. Both islands have recommended budget and mid-range accommodations. There is also one superb motu resort, Vahine Island, located off Tahaa, that ranks as one of the best in French Polynesia. There are a number of good restaurants in the Uturoa area. Those with an interest in archaeology will want to visit Raiatea, which has the largest and most important Polynesian temple in the South Pacific˜Marae Taputapuatea. There are no beach resorts on either island, but you can find them on the offshore motu. Diving is first rate in the lagoon shared by Raiatea and Tahaa. Like Huahine, few visitors find their way to Raiatea and fewer yet to Tahaa.
The smallest of the Society Islands, Maupiti is a hidden gem. Mountainous and verdant, it’s so small you can walk around it in several hours. There is also a superb white-sand beach and lovely beaches on the motu, as well. Locals have spurned the advances of major hoteliers so there are no major resorts or hotels here. To prevent exploitation of its natural resources, Maupiti forbids the export of food, fish, timber and other products. In terms of tourism it is perhaps the least developed of any in the Society Group, but has a fine selection of pension-style accommodations in the main village and on the offshore motu. Despite Maupiti’s location (it’s the most far-flung of the Society Islands), there is daily air service. Visitors who want a taste of traditional Polynesia would do well to visit this stunning island.
Tuamotu Group The Tuamotus (also known as the Paumotu Islands) differ from the Society Islands both geographically and culturally. Unlike the high islands that characterize most of French Polynesia, the Tuamotus are each a flat ring of coral surrounding a lagoon. Culturally and linguistically, they are also distinct from the rest of French Polynesia. If you believe, as I do, that geography influences human behavior, you will agree that the Tuamotu experience is unique. It is my belief that anyone who takes the time and effort to explore French Polynesia should spend several days on an atoll. Why? Unlike a high island, there is no place to hide (physically or psychologically) on an atoll. You naturally turn inward on a flat island surrounded by only a few square yards of soil and an endless ocean. You are laid bare before the elements—the hot sun, the pounding surf and unceasing trade winds that whistle through the palm fronds. Don’t expect the lap of luxury in the Tuamotus. With the exception of Rangiroa or Manihi, the accommodations are modest. Lodging is pension-style and there are no restaurants, no stores, no amenities. However, you will be cared for. Tuamotu hospitality is unforgettable. The Tuamotus generally have excellent beaches and diving. And the traditional Paumotu music is hauntingly beautiful.
Marquesas Islands Physically, the Marquesas Islands are nothing short of phenomenal. Volcanic in origin, they have few reefs and rise like jagged spires from the sea. Rocky and precipitous, these isolated outposts have deep, lush trench-like valleys and remote beaches. Of the six that are inhabited—Nuku Hiva, Ua Huka, Ua Pou, Hiva Oa, Tahuata and Fatu Hiva—three are accessible by air, the others by sea. All the Marquesas Islands have pension-style or mid-range accommodations—none have luxurious lodging. Marquesan culture (quite distinct in language and custom from Tahiti) and breathtaking scenery are the draws here. There are numerous archaeological sites, and an otherworldly ambience straight out of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Unlike the Society Group, you can still find traditional woodcarvers and craftspeople plying their trades. Visitors to the Marquesas Group need to be independent travelers, patient and be able to rough it. Overland travel is nearly always by four-wheel-drive vehicle (or via horseback) as the roads are horrendous. If you have the time and money, I would strongly recommend a sojourn to these isolated rocks.
The Austral Islands The Australs seldom get outside visitors. Perhaps that is the best reason to go there. You can be virtually guaranteed there will be few, if any, guests from outside of French Polynesia. Like the Marquesas, they are quite remote and very expensive to get to. The latitude here offers a milder climate than you’ll find in the other Polynesian island groups. There are few beaches in the Australs. Tubuai, the largest of the Austral Group, is best known for the way its people sing—their purposefully atonal sound is perhaps one of the last vestiges of pre-contact religion and culture left in French Polynesia.
The Gambier Group The Gambier Islands are another remote and seldom-visited island group. Like the Australs, their southerly latitude makes them slightly cooler than the Society Group. The largest and most accessible of the inhabited islands is Mangareva. Rikitea, the main community in Mangareva, has a number of ruins from its days as a missionary center. The mostly tumble-down ruins have an eerie, dark feel about them. The main industry in the island group is black pearl cultivation. There are few beaches here, but there are several excellent pensions on Mangareva—but no other amenities.
WHEN TO GO
November through May are the warm and humid months, while June through October brings a cooler and drier climate. It may rain any time of the year, and tropical downpours can be quite heavy. In June, July and sometimes August a gusty trade wind called the mara‚amu bears down on the islands, bringing wind, rain and sometimes nasty weather from the south. If your resort is located on a southern coast of the Society Islands, chances are you will experience the mara‚amu. Nothing to worry about, just don’t forget to bring an extra windbreaker. If you are a diver, for visibility you’re better off going in the drier months.
If you are interested in dance and music, the best time to visit is during July when the country is in the midst of Tiurai, the month-long Tahitian holiday that melds into traditional French Bastille Day celebrations. Unfortunately, that is the time most other visitors come to French Polynesia as well. If you choose to go at this time of year, book early.
Another seasonal wild card that affects the visitor, especially the budget traveler who needs low-cost pensions or hotel rooms, is the timing of local school holidays. It may be a good idea to orchestrate your vacation around school holidays so that you don’t end up fighting for a bed with a Tahitian student. If you think this may be an issue, check with the Tahiti Tourist Board.
CALENDAR OF EVENTS
January 1 New Year’s Day is a time for friends and families to gather for merrymaking. The long-standing tradition is to spend New Year’s Day driving around visiting friends and relatives. Children‚s games are held in town halls on most islands.
Late January to early February Chinese New Year is celebrated on Tahiti during a four-day fête that includes dances, martial arts demonstrations, calligraphy, painting and fireworks.
Mid-February The International Marathon is held on Moorea. This is a 26-mile (42 kilometer) marathon starting in Maatea on the island’s south coast and finishing in Paopao on the northern coast. A traditional feast is held that evening in Tiki Village.
Late February to early March The Polynesian Cultural Fair is held at the Place Vaiete, a public square adjacent to the Port of Papeete on Tahiti. The fair showcases ancient cultural traditions such as tattooing, basket weaving and Ra’au Tahiti—traditional medicine.
March 5 Protestant parishes throughout the islands celebrate the Arrival of the First Missionaries (Arrivée de l’Evangile) in 1797. The celebrations feature re-enactments of the missionaries’ arrival. Many of the activities are held at the Willy Bambridge Stadium complex in Papeete, Tahiti, and on Afareaitu in Moorea.
Early March The International Billfish Tournament, a deep-sea fishing contest (held every other year) takes place in Tahiti.
March 26 International Day of the Woman is celebrated in Tahiti. Visitors are welcome to join the many discussion groups that examine the role of women in French Polynesia.
Mid-April The Miss Bora Bora Beauty Contest is held in one of the hotels followed by a Tahitian feast and dance on Bora Bora.
Late April On Tahiti, the Polynesian Sports Festival features traditional activities such as javelin throwing, outrigger canoe racing and fruit carrying races.
Mid-May Miss Tahiti is selected to represent the country in international beauty pageants at a Tahiti venue. Miss Heiva i Tahiti is also chosen to reign over the Bastille Day celebrations or Heiva. A contest for Miss Moorea is held on Moorea also. Not forgetting the other half of the human race, contests for Mr. Muscles, Mr. Heiva i Tahiti and Mr. Tahiti are held on Tahiti.
Late June In Papeete, the Day of the Tahitian Fern (Maire) is held at a local hotel. The festival includes an exhibition of the many varieties of ferns found in Tahiti and demonstrations of crowns made from them. The celebration ends with a feast and ball decorated, naturally, with ferns.
July 1-21 Centered around France’s Bastille Day (July 14), La Fête, known as Tiurai or Heiva in Tahitian, is French Polynesia’s biggest celebration. The festivities last around three weeks and begin at the tail end of June or the start of July. They are celebrated with dance competitions, singing, pirogue races and other sporting events.
Late July The annual pro-am surfing competition held in Tahiti features some of the best amateurs and pros from around the world. The Tahiti International Golf Open, held in Papeete, is a pro-am event that attracts some of the less than stellar pros from the South Pacific, Hawaii and Australia. The Te Aito Marathon Outrigger Canoe Races held in Tahiti are one of the more important competitions for both men and women in the islands.
Late August Local musicians compete in Papeete’s Night of the Guitar and Ute performing ute, which are satirical improvisational songs as old as the Tahitian culture.
Late September World Tourism Day is celebrated by employees of travel-related industries donning festive clothing. The Public Market in Papeete is the venue for singing and dancing.
Early October In Papeete, the Tipanier Ball, organized by the Women’s Liberation Council of Tahiti, is a traditional dinner dance where prizes are awarded for the loveliest woven floral crowns.
Late October The stone-fishing ceremony held on the island of Tahaa in late October or early November features traditional activities include copra-cutting contests, canoe racing, and a firewalking ceremony. The stone-fishing ceremony is held on the last day and is followed by a Tahitian feast.
November 1 On All Saints Day families throughout the islands visit cemeteries and illuminate the graves with candles. In the evening hymns are sung in memory of the dead.
Mid-November The annual Hawaiki Nui Canoe Race between Huahine, Raiatea, Tahaa and Bora Bora is held over a three-day period.
Early December Tahitians pay homage to the Tiare Tahiti by celebrating National Flower Day. Post office bureaus, banks and other businesses compete for the best floral decorations and Tiare Tahiti blossoms are handed out throughout the town.
December 25 Christmas Day in Tahiti is a time for families and friends to congregate.
From Hidden Tahiti & French Polynesia by Robert F. Kay. Copyright © 2001 by Robert F. Kay. Excerpted by arrangement with Ulysses Press. $17.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-377-2542 or click here.