Islands of French Polynesia
Even if it’s been almost 4 years since we’ve started our blog with Melanie, I realize that I never took the time to write a general article about French Polynesia. The objective is not to copy and paste what you can find on Wikipedia, but rather to give you a general idea of the territory, my/our personal presentation. I already wrote this kind of article, on the Leeward Islands for example, trying to give you my point of view on each of the islands to help you make your choice.
In the same line, I am now working on a bigger piece since I am talking about the whole Polynesian territory. So, what will you find when reading these few pages? First of all, I will give you an overview of French Polynesia, both on the geographical and geological aspects. I will also tell you about all the terms you will find in the articles and which, if you do not live in the tropics, may seem a bit obscure sometimes. The second step will be to detail the five archipelagos that belong to French Polynesia, the objective being to give you a general but personal vision of each archipelago: the main islands, the type of islands, but above all what you will find during your trip, their main characteristics, interests, drawbacks, why going there, etc. As usual, this is only a personal opinion, and you should not take what I write too literally. You will certainly find different opinions on the subject, depending to the experiences and feelings of each one.
I will try to guide you for your trip in French Polynesia: which archipelagos to choose and for which reasons? Which islands or archipelagos to go to according to your tastes, desires, budget, etc? Let’s find all these answers! Don’t hesitate to give your opinion on my recommendations in this article; it’s always very interesting to have feedback on this.
Moreover, if you are in the midst of preparations of your trip, this article will allow you to have a better overview of the territory. In order to get yourself as ready as possible, we have summarized on one page all the accommodations we recommend in French Polynesia.
Geology of the Polynesian territory
I am not going to go into too much detail here as this is not about giving you a geology course on French Polynesia, and in all modesty, even if I have studied geology and especially geography, I could not detail all that in a precise way. Just remember the following: all the islands you will see in French Polynesia are of volcanic origin. You will find it hard to believe when seeing an atoll with only white sand and coconut trees, but it is true.
You have to remember that the current world is divided into several tectonic plates, a kind of world puzzle, limited by faults (plate boundaries), trenches or rifts. All the islands of French Polynesia are located on the Pacific Plate, the largest plate in the world, which extends from New Zealand for the southwest/Philippines for the northwest, Easter Island for the east and Alaska for the north. It is moving at a speed of about 8cm/year towards the northwest and sinking under the Australian and Philippine Plate. This is all well and good, you may say, but so what? I’m getting to that.
Remember, I told you in the introduction of this chapter that all the Polynesian islands were of volcanic origin, right? Indeed, the islands of French Polynesia have this particularity (like those of Hawaii for example, located on the same plate) of coming from a hot spot volcanism. Without going into long geological stories, hotspots are considered as regions of the earth’s surface (of limited extent) on which the surface of the earth’s mantle is hotter. In these places, the magma located at the bottom of the earth is pushed up in the form of a plume, crossing the lithosphere, i.e. the rigid envelope of the earth, as soon as it approaches the surface. To put it simply, these are the hot spots where the lava rises from the earth’s bottom, pierces the earth’s surface then the ocean, to finally form an island when the lava has reached the surface. Hot spots are mostly stationary while the tectonic plates move over them. The result (with time and volcanic eruptions) is an alignment of islands on the surface of the ocean, as is the case for French Polynesia. I am just giving you the bare bones here, but you get the idea.
Regarding French Polynesia, it is actually not a single hotspot but several ones that are at the origin of the formation of the territory. We can mention for example:
- the Society hot spot: at the origin of the Islands of the same name, located at about 85 km south-east of Tahiti (next to the Mehetia island),
- the Aragao hot spot: at the origin of the formation of the Austral Islands, located near the island of Rurutu,
- the Marquesas Islands hot spot: at the origin of the islands of the same name.
I am over simplifying because after spending a few hours reading in detail the different theories and scientific publications on the subject, things are not that simple: the origin of the Tuamotu atolls is still controversial, the alignment of the Marquesas is not in the same direction as that of the tectonic plate, the hot spots are not really “spots” strictly speaking but rather more or less large areas, Tetiaroa atoll, close to the current Polynesian hot spot, is still an “anomaly”, etc. In short, it is not simple, but I hope you still have grasped it!
Overall, it is necessary to remember that the oldest islands are therefore located in the west and furthest from the hot spot areas. The Society Archipelago and the Hawaiian Archipelago are “perfect examples of geology lessons” of what a hot spot is: the further west you go, the oldest the islands are. For the Society, the island of Maupiti is the oldest, aged at almost 4 million years. It will take about 5 million years to go from a high island to an atoll (like Bellingshausen, even further west). If you want to go further into the geology of French Polynesia, you should read this publication of IRD (in French, sorry). It is really very interesting.
Let’s get back to the topic in hand! Once the volcanic island is created, it drifts in a way at the same time as the Pacific plate moves, being at a rate of 8 to 11cm/year towards the west. The island is no longer alimented by the magma at depth, and over time and erosion ends up sinking and eroding, until it reaches the stage of an atoll. In any case, this is the theory that has been taught for 180 years, since Darwin proposed it back then. During the lockdown in 2020, André W. Droxler and Stephan J. Jorry, two scientists from Rice University in the USA and IFREMER in France, have shown that this theory is actually false. I am so curious that I will buy the scientific publication to make up my mind about it. It is such a new theory!
Damn, I wrote more than one page on the geology of French Polynesia. I apologize, let’s go on!
Geography of French Polynesia
Let’s start with the basics so that you know where you are going to set foot in a general way.
The territory covers about 2.5 million km2 and is located about 7500km from the west coast of Chile and about 6000km east of Australia, somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. For those who wonder, we are 17000 km from Paris by plane. Let us say straight away: Tahiti is extremely isolated.
The whole territory is composed of 188 islands divided into 5 distinct archipelagos:
- Marquesas Archipelago
- Tuamotu Archipelago
- Australes Archipelago
- Society Archipelago
- Gambier Archipelago
Each one has its specificities and, globally, you will never find the same things, the same landscapes, the same touristic possibilities in any of these archipelagos.
Traditionally (I’ll talk about it below), there are several types of islands in French Polynesia (and in the whole world in general). You thought that an island was just an island? Well, no! You will be amazed by the diversity of the Polynesian islands. Even in 2 or 3 weeks of vacations, and especially if you are going to visit at least two different archipelagos (as it is often the case with the Society Islands and the Tuamotu), you will see very different things.
To keep it simple and not to give you a geography lesson either, there are different types of islands, mainly differentiated by their topography (their height). There are:
- High islands: there are actually two types of high islands, those with a coral reef and those without. The difference is essentially due to the age of the island, its exposure to rainfall events, etc. Among the high islands without a coral reef, we find all the Marquesas islands, but also the island of Mehetia (the most recent uninhabited island of French Polynesia). On the other hand, the islands of Moorea, Raiatea, Tahaa, Bora Bora are so-called high islands, but they all have a coral reef that goes around the island. This barrier is interspersed with passes.
- The low islands or atolls: here we find the famous Tuamotu atolls (Rangiroa, Fakarava and many others). You should know that there are many atolls in the other archipelagos such as Motu One (in the Marquesas), Tupai, Maupihaa (in the Leeward Islands) or the Maria Islands (in the Australes Islands). You will also often find the term “almost-atoll”, which refers in most cases to the rest of an island or several rocky islands located in a submerged atoll. For example, the island of Fatu Huku in the Marquesas (more info here).
- Raised/filled atolls: there are many atolls in French Polynesia that have been raised by plate tectonics. The most famous are Makatea and Rimatara. Finally, you should know that some atolls have been completely filled in and do not have any lagoon anymore, like Akiaki or Nukutavake.
I am not going to talk in detail about the climate in French Polynesia, as you can simply refer to the link above. If I had to summarize it, I would say that the seasons are quite irregular, and it is not so easy to tell people “You’d better come during this season if you want to be sure to enjoy a good weather”. Overall, to avoid the rainy season, it will be between April and October. But again, we had some really bad months of June and July, so…
Many of you are asking me questions about this subject and getting confused with all the terms! Having been living here for almost 6 years at the time of writing this article, and since 2009 in the tropics, we do know all this very well! Here is a quick summary of the terms related to tropical islands and atolls.
- Atoll: let’s say it right now, an atoll is just a type of coral island found in tropical regions. It is simply an island formed by coral reefs.
- Lagoon: it corresponds to the more or less deep stretch of water (usually salty) inside an atoll or between the reef and the land (for a tropical island). In French Polynesia, almost all the atolls have a lagoon. It is the same for islands like Bora Bora, Huahine or Tahaa. For these islands, the lagoon is the area between the main island and the offshore reef, where the waves break!
- Motu: it is just an island of coral sand located mostly on the reef of an atoll or at the rear of a reef. It is mainly composed of white sand and coconut trees,
- Hoa: these are simply saltwater channels of very shallow depth (a few centimetres to 2/3m max) separating motus between them. These channels allow the communication between sea water (from the ocean) and the lagoon. Generally, they are not navigable and can be used locally as fish pens,
- A pass: it is an opening in the barrier reef. It ensures the main communication between the ocean and the lagoon. Unlike the hoas, a pass is navigable,
- Reef flat: the term does not only apply to tropical islands since reef flat (known as “wave-cut platform, shore platform, coastal bench, or wave-cut cliff”) can be found all around the world. It is simply the shallow area that you can find on the edge of the beach up to the fringing reef and/or on the edge of the barrier reef,
- Barrier reef: it is the coral reef that you see offshore before the ocean. Not to be confused with the fringing reef,
- Fringing reef: it is the first type of coral that you will find at the edge of the beach. Note that not all islands have a fringing reef (and for those that have one, it’s not found everywhere),
Here is what you need to know!
The 5 archipelagos of French Polynesia
Let’s go now to the heart of the matter, which will be of particular interest for you if you are preparing your itinerary in French Polynesia. As I said in the introduction, the purpose is not to recite everything you need to know about the 5 archipelagos of the Polynesian territory, but to give you my point of view and our opinion. Everyone will more or less relate…
Talking about archipelagos, I invite you to read our article detailing how to move between the islands and archipelagos in French Polynesia.
This is the most visited and best-known archipelago of French Polynesia. It is home to the famous island of Tahiti, but also the Pearl of the Pacific everyone knows: the island of Bora Bora. This archipelago is divided into two distinct parts.
The Windward Islands
To put it simply, the Windward Islands are composed of 3 known islands: Tahiti, Moorea and the atoll of Tetiaroa. There is also the island of Mehetia, the most recent island of French Polynesia, but to which you do not have access anyway, as well as the atoll of Maiao belonging to the municipality of Moorea, but which is not easy to access (no airport and almost closed to tourism).
The island of Tahiti
A few words about the island on which you will land. Most people arrive by plane, either from France or elsewhere, so this is the first island you will see. It is difficult to summarize Tahiti in a few sentences. I would say that the island is not quite representative of French Polynesia. It is the most developed island of French Polynesia, the most populated, the most urbanized, and the least authentic, as I would call it.
As far as you are concerned and based on what I have known and seen for 6 years now, very few tourists decide to spend time in Tahiti. Rightly or wrongly, this is a matter of taste, but it is reality. A majority of tourists only see Tahiti as a starting and a return point during their stay in French Polynesia.
Yet, Tahiti could attract travellers. Sure, it’s clearly not the postcard that people are looking for when they come to French Polynesia, but there are still some great things to do and see on this island. I would say that if you have the motivation, spending 3 days in Tahiti before going to the other islands could be a good idea (it’s better in that way). On the agenda: a tour of the island to discover the local life, a day in a 4×4 (or quad) in the interior of the island, a stroll to the market of Papeete, a quick dive (why not, even if it’s not that magical). I wrote a full article on the things not to miss in Papeete. To be honest, I understand that tourists don’t really stop there. In my opinion, it’s not the most beautiful island, the one that will give you a change of scenery, and not really a postcard either, at least not in the sense that most people understand it.
The island of Moorea
Located only 17 km from Tahiti, it is the closest and most accessible postcard that everyone visits. I don’t think any tourist has been to French Polynesia without visiting the island of Moorea, which has the merit of being very easily accessible, in less than an hour by boat from Papeete. As soon as you arrive, you feel a bit like you’re in the country, even at home if I may say so. I can’t say that I go there often, but clearly, many Tahitians spend their w-e in Moorea to break their daily routine.
On the agenda and to discover: a beautiful lagoon, two huge magnificent bays, breathtaking mountains in the background, hiking, snorkeling with rays, sharks and other local fauna. In short, I advise you to spend 3 or 4 days there, you won’t be disappointed!
I won’t go into detail here: it is the only atoll of the Windward Islands. It is owned by French Polynesia but there is still a long lease with Marlon Brando. There is only one luxury accommodation on the atoll called “The Brando Resort”.
Unless you can afford to sleep in this superb hotel (…), the only option, which is also very nice, is to spend a day on the atoll from Papeete. Several service providers offer this trip. Personally, I often recommend Poe Charter with whom I spent a full day!
The Leeward Islands
We’re coming into what I consider as the classic for tourists coming to French Polynesia. Everybody visits the Leeward Islands, and you will find in the link above my complete opinions on the interest to visit these different islands. So, I will not repeat everything, but I summarize it!
The island of Bora Bora
It is the most visited and famous island in French Polynesia, even one of the most known in the world. People come here to see and enjoy its magnificent lagoon with its crazy colours (and I can confirm, it’s true). All the luxury lovers will find their groove here with very beautiful overwater hotels. However, I reassure you, you can of course visit the island of Bora Bora in a simpler way. Everyone will be able to have fun here between scuba diving, swimming, hiking in the interior of the island… In my opinion, this is undoubtedly a must-do for a first trip.
The island of Raiatea
I had to go back there several times to start appreciating this island. It is a very large island with a lot of things to do, both on the land and on the sea. I know that travellers don’t stop there as much, but it’s quite a classic combination with Tahaa Island, and I advise everyone to spend a few days there. No luxury hotel here for those wondering, but we had the chance to spend some time at the magnificent Raiatea Lodge, recently renovated. Not many beaches around the island, but you will still find some on the motus, and they are superb! Some interesting hikes too! See our complete article on Raiatea.
The island of Tahaa
Neighbouring island of Raiatea, and sharing the same lagoon, it is also an island I appreciate for its calm, authenticity and beauty. It’s hard to explain, but it’s a place where you feel good for a few days. In addition, there are many things to do. Two beautiful luxury accommodations are worth noting if you are looking for an alternative to the luxury bungalows of Bora Bora (the Taha’a by Pearl Resort and the Vahine Island). In my opinion, the island of Tahaa remains a must-see during your trip.
The island of Maupiti
I’ll say it again, but this is my favourite island in the Leeward Islands. Our blog was even born on this island after a beautiful encounter. This human-scale island is in my opinion everything you could look for in a Polynesian island: authentic, splendid, a beautiful white sand beach without concrete on the horizon, small guesthouses around. For me, this is the island not to be missed. The only problem is that planes are rare and full months in advance (so be careful if you plan to go there, prepare yourself in advance). Travel to Maupiti, it’s here!
The island of Huahine
Last island of the Leeward Islands, this one is also a very beautiful island to discover, quiet and authentic. You will find beautiful beaches all around the island, but also some walks to do! If you have time to include it in your planning, you can’t be disappointed either! On the program: beach, pearl farm, marae, diving. In short, you can easily spend 3 full days here without being bored. I talk about all this on our article about Huahine.
Thanks to the well-known Air Tahiti Pass, most tourists coming for 2 to 3 weeks enjoy visiting the famous Tuamotu archipelago, renowned worldwide for scuba diving. What’s on the agenda in all these atolls? Scuba diving of course, day trip on the lagoon, stroll in the small villages of the area, lazing around and sunbathing! Many people ask us by email if it is worth going to Tuam’ even if we don’t dive. Personally, I would say yes. You will find there a great sweetness of life, but above all, you will discover what it is to live on a sandbank of 200/300m wide and a few kilometres long. You’ll feel small, nothing on the horizon except other motu and coconut trees that can be seen in the distance. It is also the opportunity to experience the most beautiful dives of your stay/life and to find the best snorkeling spots, all in clear water leaving you speechless.
These islands are very easy to reach from Tahiti, with daily or almost daily flights to the three atolls of Rangiroa, Fakarava and Tikehau. The other atolls (not part of the pass) are much more complicated to access. For those who think about it, there is no official boat serving the Tuamotu from Tahiti (only cargo ships that sometimes accept passengers).
For me, this is an unmissable archipelago for a trip in French Polynesia. If you can go and visit at least one atoll during your 15 days or 3 weeks there, you can’t be disappointed with this one, and you will have a vision of “paradise” right in front of you.
This is an atoll that I know quite well for having been spent there a very long week. You will find the easy-going way of life of the islands on the main motu. Diving enthusiasts will obviously enjoy the two main passes of the atoll: lots of big fish, but I find the diversity of corals disappointing. However, the places are great, and do not hesitate to go around the motu by bike to discover the villages. Also, on the program: a trip to the pink sands and the reef island, two very nice trips to do, as well as a visit to the vineyards of the atoll! This latter is often recommended in the Tuamotu, and sometimes even preferred to Fakarava for non-divers! A small detail: you will find some very nice luxury hotels such as the Kia Ora or the Maitai. See in detail the story of our trip to Rangiroa.
Often preferred by divers over Rangiroa, people come here mainly to dive in the South pass of the atoll, which hosts the famous “wall of sharks”. There are more than 200 to 300 sharks in the same place! I already went to the southern pass during my catamaran cruise in the Tuamotu, but unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to dive. I have to go back there! Also worth doing is the famous trip to the pink sands! Note that there is no luxury hotel or overwater hotel in Fakarava. If you are a diver and/or attracted by water, this is a must during your trip!
This is an atoll where I had the opportunity to spend 5 days. Personally, I loved this place, quieter, smaller, more human size than Rangiroa and Fakarava. I wasn’t lucky enough to dive there, but I think it’s clearly worth it too. Those who like big fish will prefer Fakarava, for sure. However, if you are looking for a dream atoll, not far from Tahiti, to relax and rest for a few days in a heavenly setting, then this is the place to come. On the agenda for a few days on the atoll: bike rides in the village, a splendid lagoon outing, big game fishing for those interested, diving, snorkeling, etc. Lovers of beautiful hotels will also find their groove, especially with the Pearl Beach Resort & Spa (there are others too). Here is our detailed article on Tikehau.
There are many other atolls you can visit. To put it simply, almost all tourists will go to at least one or more of the 3 atolls mentioned above (because of the Air Tahiti Pass). If you want to go somewhere else, you will have to pay a return ticket with Air Tahiti. Local people often go on vacation to Mataiva, Ahé, Manihi, Anaa or Apataki. Be aware that for all these atolls, there are sometimes only one or two flights per week, so you’ll have to stay for a while! I would particularly recommend Mataiva (very calm and relaxing) or Kauehi (also very nice, 1 flight per week).
We’re now getting into what I like the most about this territory, what I consider as “authentic Polynesia”. The Marquesas Islands are particularly known for having hosted Jacques Brel or Paul Gauguin, two personalities buried on the island of Hiva Oa. I don’t really have the statistics in mind, but travellers adventuring to the Marquesas are not that numerous. Why? Prices to go there are still very high, even if there is a Marquesas Pass or a Marquesas Extension to combine the archipelago with the other islands of your trip. Another thing, that only committed me, is that the archipelago is less “postcard” in the eyes of people anyway. Personally, I find this archipelago just as beautiful as the others, and I appreciate its true value. On the program: black sand beaches, breathtaking cliffs, mountainous landscapes, sharp ridges, rocky peaks, lush vegetation, free-roaming horses and oxen, very good food, magical hikes, waterfalls everywhere, very present culture, etc. For me, it is just as beautiful, and I am really in love with the Marquesas.
The archipelago is part of what I consider the remote archipelagos, along with the Gambier and the Australes. Clearly, these three are much less visited by tourists, except for the Marquesas to a lesser extent with tourists visiting it on a cruise on the Aranui. I have not had the opportunity to do so, but I have heard great things about it (even if people criticize the fact that they “fly over the islands” and do not spend enough time there). I know 5 of the 6 inhabited islands of the archipelago. While knowing that the two easiest islands to reach are Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa. The other islands with an airport (Ua Pou, Ua Huka) are much more complicated to access as you can only get there by a small 12-seater plane. Tahuta and Fatu Hiva (South Marquesas) do not have an airport at all, and you have no other choice than to go there by boat from Hiva Oa (there is a local shuttle).
You do not come to the Marquesas to “do things”, but just to enjoy the local life, landscapes, culture, and people.
The island of Nuku Hiva
This is the main island and the capital of the Marquesas. I have already been there twice, and this is one of the islands, if not the island the most beautiful of the Marquesas. There is an exceptional diversity of landscapes, a lot of beautiful things to see and do. Take advantage of your stay to go hiking, horseback riding, discovering the villages around the island, etc. I recommend 4 to 5 days on the island to fully enjoy your trip.
The island of Hiva Oa
Second very famous island, thanks to Jacques Brel who lived there the last years of his life. Many tourists come to visit his grave. I do know this island very well since I have been there many times. Landscapes are also beautiful, and there are numerous nice things to do/see. Like Nuku Hiva, if you can spend 4/5 days there, it’s great.
The island of Ua Pou
I’ve been back there twice since I’ve been living here, and I’m finishing this article when coming back from there one more time. It’s a very quiet island, as authentic as you could wish, and you will enjoy walking around. There are many walks to do, especially to discover the famous phonolite pinnacles of the island, these well-known peaks that stand out in the middle of the island. Also on the program, the discovery of all the isolated villages at the bottom of the valleys!
The islands of Tahuata and Fatu Hiva
I only went there once for a few days, so I cannot say that I truly know these two islands. You won’t find a dedicated article on our blog about them either. Both islands are accessible by boat from Hiva Oa. Tahuata has beautiful white sand beaches! Fatu Hiva, located at about 4 hours by boat from Hiva Oa, must be earned. It’s a bit like the end of the world, surely the most isolated island of the whole archipelago. It is particularly known by sailors who sail past it during the Pacific crossing. Everyone in the area knows the famous “Bay of Virgins” in the village of Hanavave. If you are looking for solitude, calm, beautiful landscapes and an endearing population, you can’t find a better place!
The Australes Archipelago
The Australes Islands, located south of the island of Tahiti at about 500km, are even less visited than the Marquesas. The names of Rurutu, Raivavae, Rimatara, Rapa or Tubuai (the 5 islands) surely do not ring a bell for most people. I will not detail each island here. It is also an archipelago I appreciate, especially the island of Rurutu that I do know very well for having been there many times.
The archipelago is much cooler than the rest of French Polynesia. In fact, in the middle of the local winter (between June and August), it can be really cool. I remember having felt 10°C in Rurutu in August. It even hailed in Rapa! We often come there to do magnificent whale watching during the good season (between May and September). You will discover very beautiful landscapes, but less spectacular than the Marquesas in my opinion. The islands of Rurutu and Rimatara have the particularity to be elevated, and therefore offer a beautiful landscape with limestone cliffs (of coral). You will also find a small lagoon where you can enjoy very beautiful white sand beaches (like on Raivavae with its famous “Motu piscine”). I am less of a fan of Tubuai, which I think is not as interesting, but I also know it much less to be honest. Finally, Rapa is also one of these very isolated islands, as it is the only one without an airport in the archipelago.
Clearly, it is not an archipelago that you would visit during your first stay in French Polynesia. But if you have the chance or the opportunity to come there several times, you should honestly go there, if only for the beautiful whale-watching.
I end this very long article with my “favourite” archipelago in Polynesia. Composed of only one really inhabited island (Mangareva), it is an archipelago that has a special place in my heart. It is, according to me, the perfect mix of everything you can find in Polynesia: a beautiful nature, great landscapes, beautiful hikes, white sand beaches without any tourist, small hotels scattered around, a beautiful lagoon, good food, lovely people, etc.
So yes, the Gambier Islands must be earned since you will have no other choice than to take a flight from Papeete to Mangareva with Air Tahiti, for the modest sum of 650€ (2 flights per week maximum). Clearly, this has a significant cost, but it is worth it! I brought my parents there in January 2021 when they came back to visit us in Polynesia, and they loved it.
I stop here. I hope this article has enlightened you about Polynesia and all its specificities. There are many different things to see and do on the territory, and I’m sure you can’t be disappointed in your trip.
Feel free to tell me what you thought of this long article (congratulations to those who made it to the end!) and to tell me what you liked best in Polynesia, and why! If you are looking for all our articles on French Polynesia, follow the link!
See you soon,