Planning a trip to French Polynesia can be a little overwhelming. There are over 100 islands to chose from! We spent about two weeks in this tropical paradise, and decided to spend more time on only 3 islands rather than island hop constantly. I’m glad we did it that way, and I suggest spending 3-6 days on each island to give yourself time to relax and get comfortable. That’s the best part of French Polynesia, and if you’re constantly dealing with hotels and catching flights, you’ll leave yourself less time to sit on the beach, take naps or snorkel!
This is a guide that’s specific to the three islands that we visited in French Polynesia: Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora, but I also publised a more general guide to visiting French Polynesia that gives you an idea of what to expect and how to prepare for your trip.
International flights to the islands fly through Tahiti (Aeroport International Tahiti Fa’a’a, airport code PPT), so we decided to spend 3 days/3 nights on Tahiti, the move on to her sister island of Moorea. We took a quick ferry ride (about 35 minute) to get to the less-developed island, where we spent 6.5 days/6 nights. We took another ferry back to Tahiti to catch a flight to Bora Bora for 3 days/3 nights. Our flight out of Tahiti was at 7am, so we spent one final night on the main island before returning to Tokyo. I loved our itinerary, and felt like we spent the perfect amount of time on each island. I would highly recommend something similar if you’re heading to French Polynesia for the first time.
And a quick note about addresses in French Polynesia: most of the islands have a major road that runs around the perimeter of the island. There are “PK” markers, or “poste kilometre” to signify the number of kilometers are you are from the center of town (on Tahiti, it’s Pape’ete). Addresses usually have a PK number so that you know when to start looking for the restaurant/hotel/etc. as you drive along the main road.
The island of Tahiti may by synonymous with “paradise,” but it’s definitely lost some of its luster since it earned that reputation. It’s the main island in French Polynesia, and has a grittier, slightly more urban feel than the other islands. It wasn’t our favorite stop on the trip, and I wouldn’t recommend spending more than a few days there. It does have some interesting cultural spots and a market that’s worth visiting, but it’s not necessarily the island you want to go to if you’re looking for a relaxing beach vacation.
Rent a car if you want to get around the island on your own terms! The bus system is unreliable and difficult to access from anything that isn’t on the main road that circles the island. Be prepared to drive stick shift; most of the cars in French Polynesia are manual transmission. Good news for Americans, though: Tahitians drive on the right side of the road. There’s one major road that runs around the island, and you use roundabouts to turn around or backtrack. It’s a little stressful and difficult to get used to if you’re not from a place where roundabouts are the norm.
Taxis are hard to come by unless you’re at one of the main transportation hubs, like the ferry terminal or the airport.
It may be tempting to find lodging in the main city of Pape’ete. Hotels are cheaper, it’s close to the airport and the bus terminal, and it’s near the market and restaurants. These are definitely draws, but we found downtown Pape’ete to be less than welcoming. It’s dirty, and about 30 percent of the buildings are boarded up and abandoned due to a decline in tourism. There are stray dogs and plenty of rough-looking characters. We stayed in a nice enough hotel in Pape’ete the night before we left French Polynesia, but I wouldn’t stay in that area for anything longer than a stopover. We went out after dark to get dinner (around 8:30pm) and felt incredibly unsafe, and were even harassed by some homeless men. I highly recommend that you look for hotels or AirBnbs that aren’t in Pape’ete. There are some really special AirBnbs on Tahiti, and I can’t recommend the one we stayed at enough (let me know if you’re interested in the specifics!).
The food was generally underwhelming on Tahiti, but the roulottes (food trucks) are a fun experience. There’s a large cluster of roulottes on the water in Pape’ete (in the Place Vai’ete) in the evenings, where you have options ranging from pizza to barbecue to tuna steaks.
The market in downtown Pape’ete is a good place to buy souvenirs on any day, but you’re in for a treat if you can catch the produce market (5am-9am on Sundays). Be sure to get a cup of freshly pressed sugarcane juice with a squeeze of citron (photo of the friendly vendors above), and don’t skip the smoked barbecued pork, called roti (look for the stall with the long line; it moves quickly and is worth the wait). Pick up some fresh fruit, and if you’re lucky enough to have a kitchen you can also purchase fresh fish, tuna steaks, and lots of local fruits and vegetables.
My biggest suggestions is to simply try different food as you come across it (my favorite thing to do when traveling to ANY country!). Some of the best things we ate on Tahiti came from someone approaching us randomly, selling homemade goods. We had a delicious guayava merinque pie from a woman selling them off a tray at the beach. We pulled over on the side of the road to buy freshly roasted mape (a chestnut-like fruit), refreshing iced coconuts and sweet mangoes from grandmas and children manning folding tables in their front yards.
Drive around the island. Rent a car and drive the main road all the way around the island. You can’t get lost because there’s really only one major road, and you’ll hit all of the major sites, see some beautiful views, and stop for lots of icy cold coconuts.
Snorkel at Maui Beach. It was our favorite beach on Tahiti, with great coral just steps from the sand.
Stop at the Maraa Grottos. They’re worth a quick trip.
Have a sunset drink at one of the nice hotels. The nearby island of Moorea creates a picturesque backdrop for the sunset, so grab a fancy tropical cocktail and relax at the Intercontinental or the Hilton.
Things we didn’t get to do: It rained while we there, so a lot of the outdoor sights were closed. We would have liked to take a jungle tour inland, but it was cancelled due to rain. The Fautaua waterfalls were also closed, but we walked around the bamboo forest near the parking lot and tried to see as much as we could! They looked beautiful, and I’d recommend taking a hike if you can access the paths.
We really loved the island of Moorea. We spent 6 days there, and were so pleased that we did. It’s much quieter than Tahiti, the people are friendlier, and the food is better. However, it’s much less developed. This means it’s harder to get to shops, the grocery stores are few and far between, and if you’re looking for a snack between 2 and 5 pm, you may be out of luck.
There’s a ferry that runs several times a day from Tahiti to Moorea, and the ride is around 30-45 minutes. It’s a very comfortable trip with beautiful views. Tickets cost around $10 USD each way, and residents can buy them cheaper. If you know someone who lives there, it’s worth having them purchase the tickets for you.
You can also take a short plane ride (15 minutes) from Tahiti to Moorea. The views promise to be spectacular. AirTahiti (not to be confused with Air Tahiti Nui, the international carrier) flies in and out of Moorea and connects the island with Tahiti, Bora Bora, Raiatea and Huahine. You have many more flight options flying out of Tahiti than the smaller islands, so sometimes it’s worth it to take the ferry from Mo’orea to Tahiti just to catch a flight from the bigger airport.
Again, the public transportation is incredibly unreliable, and taxis are non-existent. I suggest renting a car or scooter. Cars are much more affordable on Moorea than on Tahiti, and manual transmission vehicles are significantly cheaper than automatic.
The accommodations are quite affordable on Moorea. There are certainly expensive hotels, but you can find really great options regardless of the size of your budget. It’s a small island with plenty of beaches, so you’ll probably have great access to the water no matter where you are.
Allo Pizza in Cook’s Bay (near the police station, right on the main road) is an open-air restaurant with a beautiful wood-burning oven. Have you ever had pizza with crème fraiche on it? It’s a revelation. This was some of the best pizza I’ve ever eaten. Get the Sophia, skip the garlic bread, and load up on veggies with a mixed salad (it’s hard to find good greens in French Polynesia!). Don’t forget the decadent, luscious homemade mousse au chocolat. They have lovely wines by the glass, too, so grab a seat at the counter and watch the art of pizza making at its finest.
Coco d’Isle in Haapiti is a charming bamboo hut with sand floors and beach chairs. It’s casual but perfectly appropriate for Moorea. They have a decent burger, but their fish specials are the real attraction. The beer is cold, the pina coladas are strong, and the staff is friendly.
La Paillote is a roulotte in Haapiti with a small garden seating area and plenty of American pop music. Don’t miss the roasted chicken, served with crispy, thin fries that soak up the juices. The ham and cheese crepe is exceptional.
Lilikoi Garden Café is a unique roulotte near the Hilton in Papetoai. The owner draws on her family’s interesting cultural heritage to create unique culinary fusion using local ingredients, including many that are grown in her own garden. She effortlessly combines French, Japanese, American and Polynesian into colorful, wholesome dishes. Order the specials! See more about Laurence’s story here, and get her poisson cru recipe here.
One of the most beautiful settings for any of our meals in French Polynesia was at the Toatea Creperie Bar at the Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort and Spa in Papetoai. The restaurant and seats are situated over the illuminated lagoon. Watch sharks, remora, stingrays and other fish glide though the waters while you sip a cocktail and have one of the inventive crepes from the extensive menu.
Snorkel, snorkel, snorkel. Bring your own equipment and just explore the different beaches.
Take a boat onto the water. You’ll see a different view of the island, and your guide will be able to show you things you couldn’t see on your own. We almost skipped this because the snorkeling is so good everywhere, but we were definitely happy we took the tour. We swam with and petted Manta rays, swam face to face with sharks, saw Moray eels, and snorkeled over sunken Polynesian statues. Some of the tours will take you to see dolphins, and you can catch whales if you go during the right season. You can also sign up for tours that include a Polynesian meal.
See a culture show. There’s a culture show at one of the major hotels almost every night of the week. Grab a drink at the bar and watch the dancing, drumming and fire without paying the exorbitant amount for the mediocre buffets.
Visit the Rotui Juice factory near PK12. You can take a tour, but it’s worth a visit even if the tour doesn’t interest. Sample some of their different juices and the delicious juice/alcohol combinations that they sell in cardboard cartons. The gift shop has some really lovely souvenirs, such as vanilla liqueur, pineapple wine and mango green tea. Stock up on the ingredients to make your own sunset cocktails and save a small fortune. May I recommend the with Tahiti Drink l’Original (in the red box) with a generous splash of some of the Tahitian vanilla rum that you can buy in the airports. Add a squeeze of lime, some ice, and a tiare flower garnish!
Relax. Watch the sunrise and sunset. Read. Nap.
We had to check out Bora Bora once, just to see what it was about, but I doubt we’ll return. If you don’t spend the money to do it right, it’s not an amazing island experience. There are islands in French Polynesia that are much more welcoming and accessible where I would have preferred to spend my time and money. We weren’t willing to shell out the $1,000 USD per night to stay at one of the fancy private island resorts, and as a result we had a pretty disappointing hotel experience. We spent a few nights in an overwater bungalow, which was absolutely magical, but the island outside of our hotel room was not what we hoped for. The service at our (still NOT cheap, just not AS expensive) hotel was laughably bad, and we must have caught the island at the wrong time because the waters were choppy and not nearly as clear as they were near Moorea or even Tahiti.
Roads on the island of Bora Bora are not very well-kept, poorly lit and fairly treacherous. We rented a scooter and had a blast, but it probably wasn’t the safest thing we’ve ever done, in all honesty! Taxis are ridiculously expensive, and we were able to rent a scooter for 24 hours for less than the price of an evening round-trip taxi ride that would have lasted 30 minutes.
The airport is on one of the motu surrounding the island, so you will take a boat to the island or your private resort’s island. The nicer resorts will pick you up from the airport, but you you may have to take the AirTahiti ferry to get to the island of Bora Bora if you’re staying there. It’s a quick, comfortable trip. Arrange pickup from the quay or take a taxi to your hotel. Don’t worry about being at the airport an hour before your flight on the way out; there’s no security and there are rarely more than a few flights being processed at the same time!
Do it right or don’t do it at all. If you’re looking for a less-expensive overwater bungalow, look to one of the other islands. I can only imagine that the treatment is amazing at one of the private island resorts, but I can’t speak to it first hand.
Rent a scooter or one of the glorified go carts and drive around the island. The views are stunning, with turquoise water on one side and Mount Otemanu on the other.
The artisanal craft market in Vaitape (near the quay) is worth a visit. There are dozens of little stalls selling local handmade crafts. From wood carved tikis to pearl earrings, you’ll find something for everyone, including yourself. Watch the elderly women weave jewelry from pandanus leaves and embellished with shells.
Pick up a bottle of duty free booze at the Tahiti airport on your way there, mix yourself a strong drink, and just relax on the beach. It’s not a place where you “do” things. You’re there to swim, read, drink, and be seen lounging in Bora Bora.
Bloody Mary’s is a Bora Bora institution, and it actually lived up to the hype. The setting is perfect, with sand floors (leave your high heels at home) and coconut tree stools. The cocktails were delicious, the food was really well done, and the presentation of the menu is a fun experience. They also get major bonus points for providing shuttle bus service to and from the restaurant. Must visit. Don’t forget to scope out the bathroom!
St James in Vaitape is a great place to treat yourself a little bit. The back patio is over the lagoon, and you can see tropical fish swimming below you while the breeze cools you off. It’s a bit expensive but is a nice change from the rest of Vaitape, which can be a little dirty and grimy. The food is very high-quality and the service is professional.I’m happy to answer any questions that I can if you want to leave a comment! I would love to do whatever I can to make sure you have a great trip to French Polynesia. We learned so much, and while it wasn’t a perfect trip, it was still absolutely spectacular. I can’t wait to go back and explore some of the other islands!