French Polynesia: Six Weeks in Paradise

French Polynesia: Six Weeks in Paradise

If you’re anything like we were before we started planning this trip, the words “French Polynesia” might not mean much to you. But perhaps the words “Tahiti” or “Bora Bora” will ring some bells and conjure up images of white sand beaches, turquoise water, palm trees and those famous over-the-water bungalows. In fact, these are two of the numerous islands that make up French Polynesia, but there are also lots of other lesser-known islands. And each island has its own allure, its own unique “personality,” which made it very tempting to try and explore them all.

We first planned to go to Moorea with Bryan’s parents, sister, and brother-in-law for a week-long family trip to swim with humpback whales. After we started planning our extended vacation/year-long sabbatical, we decided we might as well spend a few extra weeks checking out some of the other islands while we were there. After all, who knew if we would ever have another chance to visit French Polynesia?

Now, even if you aren’t staying in those fancy over-water bungalows, French Polynesia still isn’t cheap. Although we wanted to allow sufficient time to enjoy all the islands have to offer, we also didn’t want to blow our whole year’s budget, so we decided on a total of 6 weeks. To allow us this much time, we stuck to cheap accommodations such as AirBnBs, pensions, hostels, and budget hotels.

We tried to choose islands to visit that would give our trip an overall good variety of water- and land-based activities, hitting major tourist attractions as well as enjoying some more remote and off-the-beaten-path experiences. Fortunately, we found this extensive French Polynesia travel guide written by a blogger which covers 11 (!) islands in all the detail you could hope for when planning a trip.

Our itinerary is shown on the map below, and then we break things down by island.

Moorea

Length of stay: 10 days

Where we stayed: As part of our humpback tour, we stayed at Hotel Kaveka. We had a big room with a patio, air conditioning, and a big bed. Since this was our first island, we didn’t really appreciate this at the time, but looking back it was quite nice to have a sealed room where we didn’t have to sleep under a mosquito net.

What we did: We snorkeled with humpbacks for 5 days, along with Bryan’s parents, sister and brother-in-law. We booked the tour with Bluewater Photo-Travel and had the whole 6-person boat to ourselves. It was the best thing we’ve ever done (and we will be writing a more detailed blog post about this soon). Aside from the tour, we spent an afternoon with the sharks and rays, which is a sandbar where operators feed large congregations of them. It was stuffed full of tourists but easy to get close to blacktip sharks and stingrays (we saved money by renting kayaks and a boat instead of paying for a tour). We also visited the Lagoonarium, which was a really lovely setup of private huts on a motu, along with a course of underwater ropes through a vibrant reef area full of stingrays, sharks and all kinds of fish, and two daily feedings. It was like the sharks and rays, except way less crowded, with better encounters. And on our last day on the island, Lisa did a refresher scuba course (she had not gone diving since getting certified in 2011).

What we ate: Lots of baguettes/bread with jam for breakfast (which cost about $10USD per person). Eggs and fruit as well, if we decided to splurge and pay $25 per person. We were very mad that Kaveka was charging so much for breakfast, but we found out afterwards that this is in fact normal for hotels in French Polynesia, and some were quite a bit worse! We got lunch on the boat as part of our tour, and for dinners we checked out local restaurants. We ate a lot of seafood, as well as some pizza and Asian food. Our favourite places were the Holy Steak House, Rudy’s and Le Mahogany.

What we loved about it: Swimming with humpbacks was ridiculously good. The Lagoonarium was a hidden gem. The island was lovely and nice to drive around. There were land crabs everywhere, and lots of great marine life close to the shore.

What we didn’t love about it: The food was expensive – pretty much the only cheap locations we could find were only open for lunch. Overall the island was quite touristy. The sharks and rays area was crawling with tourists, and there were a ton of larger day boats going out to try to snorkel with humpbacks. Six people in the water with a whale seems reasonable, but at times we saw closer to 40 or 50. It was frustrating finding a whale, getting into the water, treating the whale respectfully, and then having a horde of free-diving selfie-takers show up behind us and crowd around the animal. (Of course, this led to the animal leaving the area).

What we almost killed each other about: Bryan not keeping up with Lisa on our first whale swim, causing her to feel alone in the big blue ocean. The swells were at least 3-4 ft and we could not see the bottom, so on the first time in it was a bit nerve-wracking.

Maupiti

Length of stay: 7 days

Where we stayed: We stayed at a pension (which is similar to a bed & breakfast) with a local family. We had private bedrooms with our own bathrooms, and our breakfast and dinner were provided. The place was really cute, and our host family was lovely. However, this was our first real introduction to the mosquitoes in French Polynesia, as the buildings were open, the common area was outside, and there were lots of mosquitoes around at all times of the day. Each bed had a mosquito net, so we were fine at night, but during the day we had to apply lots of bug spray, sit right in front of a fan, or get bitten.

What we did: We took a boat tour in the lagoon, snorkeling with manta rays and checking out a coral garden. We planned to do some diving, but the guy running the dive company was sick while we were there, and was not running any dives. Mostly we enjoyed an idyllic lifestyle that involved walking to the beach multiple times a day, snorkelling, reading, catching up on sorting photos, and whatever else we felt like. We also spent a decent amount of time trying to treat our mosquito bites.

What we ate: Breakfast was baguette with jam, accompanied by fresh pomelo and bananas, at our pension. For lunch, we mostly went to the “Snack Chez Mimi,” which was located right on the beach and had pretty much the best deals for food we found in all of French Polynesia. It also had the best view – think picnic tables under palm trees, looking out over a picture-perfect turquoise lagoon. Our host Sandra was an amazing cook, and dinner was always several varieties of fish prepared in traditional ways (usually the fish were caught by her husband as well).

What we loved about it: Laidback island vibes without many tourists. The scenery was also gorgeous, including the beach about 5 minutes away from our pension. Chez Mimi was the bomb.

What we didn’t love about it: Staying at any of the pensions was quite expensive, and there were very few options for food other than fish (we are both pescatarian but try and limit our consumption of fish). Although it seems to be a normal part of life there, getting bitten a lot is still not particularly fun, and sleeping under a small mosquito net in a hot room is also a bit different from the North American lifestyle we’re used to.

What we almost killed each other about: We can’t really remember the specific topic, actually, but it must have been bad because Lisa ended up running away from Bryan at one point while we were out on a walk having a “discussion.”

Raiatea

Length of stay: 3 days (this was a bit of an awkward amount of time – it would probably have been better to stay longer to allow us to explore the island, or just skip it altogether)

Where we stayed: We stayed at a hostel-style pension. It was really affordable, and the facilities were good. It was also fully open, but with no sealed bedroom and no mosquito nets over the bed. The bugs were bad, and we had to wear mosquito spray when out in the common area. We had to burn coils at night to keep the bugs out, but the coils led to Lisa coughing. So we really had to depend on the large fan keeping them off. Thankfully, it worked quite well. The eating area was open, and two separate times, while Bryan was working on his computer, gecko poop fell from the ceiling and landed on his keyboard. Twice!

What we did: We went diving, and rented perhaps the worst-tasting regulators ever. They were so bad that it took a couple of hours after the dive to get the taste out of our mouths. Other than that, we hitchhiked into the main part of town once, but it wasn’t actually that easy to get rides, so mostly we stuck around our hostel.

What we ate: We ordered some pizza from a Roulotte (food truck) and did a bunch of our own cooking. Pasta + tomato sauce + frozen veggies for the win!

What we loved about it: There were lots of land crabs about. There was also lots of cheap food available in town. And there is a big hospital in case you need that (for example if your fiancee stabs you in the neck with a fork, probably because you were being too annoying). (Note: this did not actually happen and we did not actually need the hospital for any reason, but it was nice to know it was there).

What we didn’t love about it: We stayed at a very affordable place, but it was expensive to travel around from there, other than hitchhiking (which was surprisingly difficult but did end up working out for us one time). This is not the island for beaches. Getting in the water is not as accessible as on other islands – you can go out on a boat to dive, but it’s not as easy to just put on your snorkel and fins and see a bunch of cool stuff like you can in other places. Apparently nearby Tahaa is more of a beach destination, popular for honeymoons.

What we almost killed each other about: On our first evening, we needed to figure out what to do for dinner. Our hostel had a big communal kitchen, but we had no groceries. Unfortunately, the grocery store was pretty far away. We did not have a rental car, and we were told that we could easily hitchhike, but we decided we could just walk to a nearby grocery store. Soon we realized this was easier said than done, because there were no actual sidewalks, traffic was racing by, and we had to walk on the narrow strip of grass right beside the road. Unfortunately, there were holes made by land crabs, threatening to twist an ankle with every step, and we also encountered a few mice along the way. Finally, Lisa had enough and wanted to just go back to the pension and order dinner (the staff there would place orders and pick up food for you from local restaurants). Bryan tried to persist, however, and this is when we almost killed each other. In the end, Lisa won, and we had some yummy pizza for dinner.

Huahine

Length of stay: 6 days

Where we stayed: We rented a great AirBnB with Bryan’s parents, which was a private bungalow with 2 bedrooms, a bathroom and kitchen. It was super affordable (best deal of the trip), had a nice mosquito net over each bed, and was decorated in lovely bright colours. Our ubiquitous friends the geckos were here as well, and our dining table was outdoors on the patio, right under a spot they apparently frequented. Thus, every morning we had to wipe off gecko poop. But it was really nice.

What we did: We went diving twice – this was a great spot for Lisa to get in some more practice, as she was still nervous about diving after recently getting back into it. We went with Mahana Dive, who were phenomenal. The instructor/owner Annie was very patient and calm, and the dive sites were nice and easy, so it helped Lisa relax a bit more. Along with Bryan’s parents, we went on a tour with Huahine Nautique, where we took a boat ride out into the lagoon, where we got to snorkel with tons of blacktip reef sharks and then explore a dazzling coral reef with lots of fish and other marine life!

We rented a car on this island, and so we also spent some time driving around and exploring at our own pace. We visited a vanilla plantation, a pearl farm, and – the highlight for Bryan – the sacred blue eyed eels of Faie. We visited these freshwater eels three times, bringing along various canned fish (they didn’t seem too keen on the sardines, so we decided to try mackerel the next time, but overall they were fairly lazy when we were there). Bryan brought along his underwater camera set up and got some shots of the eels hanging out in the river. It took over 200 before he was really happy with what he had.

What we ate: We cooked a lot at our AirBnB, as well as visiting some roulottes and a yacht club restaurant in town. The roulotte chow mein was fantastic.

What we loved about it: The island was beautiful, and we enjoyed driving around and checking out the scenery. Huahine was bigger than Maupiti, but it had a similar laidback mood, and wasn’t over-run with tourists.

What we didn’t love about it: Nothing. This was one of our favourite islands.

What we almost killed each other about: We had a large fight (or perhaps more accurately described as several small but intense battles) near and around Bryan’s parents. It spanned a couple of days and happened at the AirBnB, in the car, at the grocery store, and at the beach. The topics of these fights ranged from the drone to groceries/cooking to hair conditioner, but as always, boiled down to the same root issues: Bryan dismissing Lisa’s ideas and Lisa assuming the worst about Bryan’s intentions. This was probably our worst and most prolonged fight ever, involving lots of yelling and swear words, and culminating in tears from both parties and a protracted reconciliation period (all done semi-secretly). Given our living arrangements, Bryan’s parents may or may not have heard us say things to each other that might have been a bit of a shock. But in case they did hear any of them, we did not mean those things (e.g., things that rhyme with “rock hucker”) and we are doing very well :-).

Bora Bora

Length of stay: 4 days

Where we stayed: We rented a fantastic AirBnB here as well – this was a private bungalow, which was very spacious for the two of us (it actually had a second bedroom). We had a kitchen again, which was great. By this point, we were kind of used to the whole open bungalow with bugs and geckos, and sleeping under a mosquito net, so it wasn’t really a shock. We could walk into the main part of town in about 15 or 20 minutes (there were also bikes available for us to use for free, but we are both nervous about biking in traffic).

What we did: Pretty much all we did here was dive. Now that Lisa was getting more comfortable again, we signed up for a couple of 2-tank dives, as well as an extra afternoon dive on what we had originally planned to be a day off. The highlight was an awesome encounter with a manta ray, who came super close as we clung to the rocks to avoid scaring it off. We also went searching for eagle rays one day, but couldn’t make it to where they were due to a strong current. This was Lisa’s first time diving in significant current, and our dive guide helped her along. At one point, we had to crawl along the sandy bottom while kicking against the current, but maybe halfway across it became apparent to the instructor that: 1. Lisa was not kicking to her full ability and 2. Bryan with his full camera rig and nothing to hold onto other than sand could not keep up. So much to the relief of Bryan’s lungs, we turned back. The manta dives in the lagoon were great, but the diving on the ocean side was nothing special.

What we ate: We made lots of our own food at the bungalow, and also visited a roulotte in town for some chow mein, which was delicious.

What we loved about it: Easy access to diving with lots of big manta rays! Although the conditions were highly variable and visibility sometimes terrible, there were lots of mantas around, and the potential for great encounters. We had been warned that Bora Bora was super touristy and that the locals weren’t very friendly, but we actually really enjoyed it. Of course, it was busier than several of the other islands, but staying in the main town instead of a resort, we still felt like we got a decent authentic experience. Everyone we met was also really friendly – people would wave and say hello (“Ia Orana”) as we walked down the street.

What we didn’t love about it: All of the people in their fancy over-water bungalows, making us feel poor. And there was one point where Lisa found some sludge at the bottom of her coffee mug, which suspiciously resembled gecko poop. Fortunately, we discovered that it was actually just some of the instant coffee and powdered milk mixed up in a weird clump. However, that did not stop Lisa from worrying about it for at least 24 hours and asking Bryan incessant questions about whether he thought she was going to die.

What we almost killed each other about: Things were so harmonious in Bora Bora that there was no point where either of us almost killed the other. Yay!

Fakarava

Length of stay: 7 days

Where we stayed: We spent 5 nights in the north, at a pension called Relais Marama. It was in a beautiful spot by the ocean, which thankfully provided a nice cool breeze (we didn’t have a fan in our room). We had a private bungalow with two twin beds and mosquito nets, and communal bathroom/shower facilities and kitchen.

For our last 2 nights, we transferred over to the south pass (which involved about a 30 minute truck ride and then 90 minutes by boat). We stayed at Tetamanu Village, where our bungalow was right on the water! We could basically hop right in and snorkel with reef sharks and lots of brightly coloured tropical fish. We could also walk right over to the dining area and the dive shop. So, yes, it was pretty idyllic. But it wasn’t all luxury – our shower was basically just a pipe coming out of the wall that poured out cold water only.

What we did: Mostly, a lot of diving. Bryan crammed in as much diving as he possibly could, but Lisa skipped out on a few of the mornings. Some of the dive sites can be quite difficult and at this point she had still only done about 15 dives ever (aka she was a total newbie). We tried our best to sign Lisa up for dives that would be more suitable for her level, but conditions (in particular the currents) turned out to be rather unpredictable at times, so she ended up getting thrown into the deep end, so to speak. However, it was definitely worth it, as the diving on Fakarava was absolutely amazing. We will cover it in more detail in a separate post.

What we ate: There were a few restaurants near our pension in the north, but usually only one would be open at any given time. It took a while to figure out the schedule, but all of the places were really good. We ate lots of fish and chow mein, prices were extremely reasonable compared to the other islands, and all of the restaurants had gorgeous views of the lagoon.

What we loved about it: The laid back, undeveloped atmosphere. This place was how French Polynesia must have looked 30 years ago, before the tourism boom. We used bikes from the pension and pedaled around town, with barely any traffic or anything else to worry about. Every place had a great view of the water, or a nice sea breeze. Oh and the diving. The diving! Pristine reefs covered with an abundance of colourful fish. Huge schools of reef sharks – sometimes up to 100 or more on a dive. Random tuna and other big fish. Mantas, a turtle, a jellyfish, and lots of strangely charismatic giant humphead Napoleon wrasse. It was one of the best islands of the trip.

What we didn’t love about it: At some times it was a bit hard to arrange for meals. But it was worth it for the untouched vibe of the island. And the places we did go to when they were open were really friendly and endearing.  

What we almost killed each other about: We are going to write about a couple of these occurrences in our Fakarava post. Suffice to say there were a few things. One involved us eating the worst meal of the trip, while another involved a pink sand beach (or rather, the lack of a pink sand beach).

Tahiti

Length of stay: 3 days

Where we stayed: At the best AirBnB ever! We booked the place a while back, and it was new at the time and had no reviews, but it was cheap, so we decided to go for it. We had a private room and big bathroom in a lovely house. It had A/C, was super clean, and our host Richard and his wife were so friendly and generous. We were getting up early (before 6am!) every morning to catch the ferry to Moorea, and they prepared elaborate breakfasts for us. We were also sent off for our days with a big insulated flask of ice cold lemon water and homemade coconut bread for snacks! They even picked us up and dropped us off at the airport (Richard, being a very Tahitian Tahitian, did not wear shoes into the airport when he came to get us).

What we did: We really didn’t do much of anything on Tahiti, other than go to Les Roulottes (the food trucks). After our flight to Fakarava got delayed by a day, we bumped back our flight to Tahiti by a day, so instead of our original plan of 4 days we ended up only spending 3. When we were on Moorea for the humpbacks and Lisa did her scuba diving refresher, we talked to the shop and they told us that they ran morning 2-tank dives with resident lemon sharks and tons of turtles. They also said that they could pick us up from the Tahiti-Moorea ferry in the morning, and then drop us off after we were done. Lemon sharks and turtles, you say? At this point we had not had good encounters with either, so we decided to take them up on this.

What we ate: As we mentioned, our hosts made breakfast for us every morning. Now, we were expecting your typical French Polynesia breakfast of baguette with jam, which we had grown quite accustomed to and was actually pretty good when getting ready to head out for a morning on the boat and diving. But here, breakfasts included fish, foie gras, coconut buns, and cake. The foie gras and cake were for Lisa’s birthday, which meant that Richard and his wife outdid Bryan. Of course, although it was a really lovely gesture, Lisa can’t eat foie gras, and Bryan does not like it, so we had to turn it down. We also couldn’t finish our breakfast most days, as the fish proved to be a bit much for our stomachs at 5:45am. We felt so bad though, because they had been so nice to make it for us. Other than that, we mostly ate dinners at the roulottes (with a good variety of Asian and French-inspired food), and went out for a nice Italian dinner on Lisa’s birthday.  

What we loved about it: The ferry over to Moorea was very easy and quick. The diving on Moorea was fantastic and we absolutely loved hanging out with the personality-rich lemon sharks.

And on one of the turtle dives we saw at least 7, which is pretty crazy no matter how you cut it.

Oh and on the way back from the food trucks one night, we saw some really cute jumping rats, which were grabbing things out of a garbage can and then hopping across a deserted parking lot. We watched them for at least 15 minutes, with the highlight being one rat who grabbed a McDonald’s burger wrapper and tried to hop it up onto a tall garden rock wall. Too cute!

What we didn’t love about it: Nothing really comes to mind, other than a giant cockroach that we found crawling on Lisa at 2 in the morning. It’s funny because the cleanest place we stayed on the whole trip was the only place we saw a cockroach indoors. We saw plenty outdoors.

What we almost killed each other about: Strangely enough, nothing.

Overall

French Polynesia really was paradise.The diving, beaches and humpbacks were unparalleled. But by the time we got to the end of our 6 weeks, we were ready to move on to New Zealand. Part of this was the marked lack of A/C at many of our accommodations, part of this was the near-constant onslaught of mosquitoes and threat of gecko poop, and part of this was that we did a whole heck of a lot during our time there. Overall we were very happy with our plans, and if we had to change anything, it would probably be skipping Raiatea. We could have just added some time on one of the other islands, which had more than enough for us to do and enjoy.

Here are a couple of videos we put together from the various islands:

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