As I look across the indigo waves jostling our little boat, I spot a strip of black sand on shore. In the distance, pyramid-shaped mountains keep watch over the lush landscape. A light breeze wafts by as our captain pulls the throttle, jetting us along the reef towards Te Pari, a remote corner of Tahiti reachable only by water.
After being away for nearly a decade, I’m back in this island paradise, aboard a boat helmed by my friend and professional tour leader, Cindy Otcenasek Drollet. She’s brought me to Te Pari, knowing it’s my all-time favourite place on Earth. The crystal-clear water and flower-filled jungle bring a jolt of happiness to my soul. Dolphins surface and descend so close to our craft that we hear the air escaping their blowholes. We pull up to a small beach where a waterfall tumbles from a nest of dense plants into the ocean.
“Jump in, if you want,” Cindy says with a giggle. Dipping under the bathtub-warm water, I wonder why I ever left this place.
Tahiti, Bora Bora, Moorea. These exotic-sounding destinations seem so far away from Alberta—both geographically and financially—but they’re surprisingly accessible. When I tell people I lived here for 15 years (my husband grew up in the region), they often ask, with a tinge of embarrassment, “Where and what is French Polynesia exactly?”
The islands form an overseas collectivity of France—a mostly autonomous territory with its own government. Situated about halfway between the B.C. coast and Australia, the region comprises five distinct archipelagos: the Society Islands (including Tahiti); the Marquesas to the north; the flat Tuamotus; the Austral Islands in the south; and the more isolated Gambier Islands.
Getting here is easier than you might think. There are more and cheaper flights than ever: Both WestJet and Air Canada offer flights with direct connections via San Francisco, Los Angeles and Honolulu. But with 118 islands and atolls spread over the five strikingly different archipelagos, the bigger challenge nowadays is choosing which islands to visit and how to see them.
Since all international flights arrive in the capital of Papeete on Tahiti, it’s the jumping-off point to other islands. With postcard-perfect beaches and abundant bungalow resorts, it’s tempting to spend your entire holiday here. But to really experience French Polynesia, island hopping is the way to go. I start by picking up my rental car.
“Renting a car is the best way to explore most of the islands,” says Sandra Olson. The AMA member toured the region with her husband in 2018 and knows all too well that public transportation isn’t as reliable or convenient as it is back home in Sherwood Park. “Traffic is busy in Papeete, but many of the other islands have just one main road with no traffic lights.”
After meandering through Papeete’s traffic, I drive onto a ferry to cross the Sea of the Moon en route to Moorea. After Tahiti, it’s the next most populous Society Island, and one of the few accessible by a short ferry trip. In about 30 minutes, the island comes into view; its chiselled peaks rise up and plunge down like a volatile line graph.
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Leaving the ferry dock, I promptly roll down my window and inhale the sea salt-infused air. Though I’m driving at a leisurely 40 kilometres per hour, it almost feels too fast to take in the surroundings: roads lined with coconut palms; steep hills blanketed by pineapple plantations; cerulean lagoons. I pass by overwater bungalows that, in spite of their luxe appearance, give off decidedly laid-back vibes. I wave to locals with flowers tucked behind their ears. My shoulders drop as the stress melts away.
To step even further away from civilization, consider visiting other Society Islands like Bora Bora, Huahine or Taha’a. Getting to them involves a bit more planning, but it’s well worth it. “The islands had been on our bucket list for years, so we decided to go for our 35th wedding anniversary,” says AMA member Terri Spotowski of Edmonton. Wanting to make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime trip, she and her husband, Michael, opted for a cruise: “It’s the best way to experience all the islands.” The couple’s 14-day journey with Paul Gauguin Cruises didn’t disappoint. “The views from our balcony were always spectacular—especially at sunset. And we will never forget the amazing turquoise water!”
Paul Gauguin specifically built its flagship vessel for these shallow waters. The 332-passenger m/s Paul Gauguin swiftly docks at smaller ports that are inaccessible to bigger vessels. “The small ship has other advantages too,” Spotowski adds, “like the crew knowing our names within a day or two.” Gauguin’s top draw may be its ensemble of Gauguines and Gauguins, local Tahitians who work onboard as chefs, entertainers and storytellers. It guarantees a truly local experience, from island to island.
Another classic Tahitian ship is the Wind Spirit, Windstar Cruises’ four-masted sailing vessel. As the sails billow in the wind, the ship deftly navigates through the shallow lagoons off Bora Bora, Raiatea and Huahine, plus smaller motu—coral reef islets. Windstar docks at a private motu during most sailings, where passengers enjoy a barbecue lunch, sip tropical drinks, play games and watch traditional dancers. It makes for a truly unforgettable Polynesian experience.
Nikola Berube agrees that cruising is a special way to visit the region: “The iconic sail away gives you the most spectacular views of the islands,” says AMA Travel’s director of sales. “There’s music playing, and warm air blows through your hair while you sip a cool beverage. It really is paradise.”
You can also island hop by air. French Polynesia’s domestic carrier, Air Tahiti, flies to 46 islands in the region and offers discounted multi-island passes to visit up to nine islands. Flights may not be cheap (expect to pay from $226 USD for a one-way ticket from Tahiti to Bora Bora), but they’re quick and are your best bet to really get off the beaten path. Resorts are only available on a handful of the better-known islands, but all feature at least one charming pension (guesthouse). These small, family-run hotels often sit on their own private motu surrounded by water teeming with colourful sea life.
Jumping into a lagoon in the Tuamotus is like a baptism, cleansing the stress of everyday life. I don’t feel like I’ve truly arrived in the archipelago until I’ve done it. The water, slightly cooler than the outside air, washes over me. Through my snorkel mask, I instantly see streaks of colour—Moorish idols and electric-blue damselfish dart all around.
A blacktip reef shark approaches 10 metres to my left. Even though I know they aren’t dangerous, my heart races. When I finally surface, there’s nothing but blue water and a narrow strip of land dotted with palm trees.
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Many cruise ships and Air Tahiti flights travel from Bora Bora and the Society Islands to the remote Tuamotus. This wide-ranging group is made up of nearly flat rings of land known as coral atolls: reefs that encircle clear blue lagoons. Most cruise lines and independent vacationers stick to the main atolls of Rangiroa, Fakarava and Tikehau. Each offers fauna-filled water and tranquil resorts catering to casual snorkellers and rest-seekers.
“The aquamarine lagoons are as pretty as a postcard,” says Sandra Olson. “We snorkeled every day; there’s just so much to see in the water—from clownfish and giant clams to lemon sharks, manta rays and octopi.”
Whether you go by ferry, cruise ship or air, there’s one thing every visitor can agree on: French Polynesia is hard to leave. Back on Tahiti, I stretch out on a black-sand beach. Children jump through the late-afternoon waves; their giddy amusement permeates the air. This is the soundtrack of the islands—lapping water, swaying palms and carefree laughter.
Like the culture, the cuisine of these islands blends Polynesian with French to spectacular result.
La Plage de Maui, Tahiti: With sand in your toes, order a fresh-caught seafood platter, loaded with prawns and poisson cru, an island specialty of marinated raw tuna.
A L’Heure du Sud, Moorea: Give your wallet a break at this roulotte (food truck) that slings fresh baguette sandwiches.
Lagoon Restaurant by Jean-Georges, Bora Bora: Nosh on inventive Asian-fusion fare at the posh St. Regis Bora Bora resort. The overwater views are nearly as fantastique as the menu.
MOVERS & SHAKERS
Earn that next umbrella cocktail with some adrenaline-pumping adventures.
Belvedere Lookout, Moorea: Hike up Mount Tohivea, passing pineapple fields and coffee plantations, to reach this spectacular viewpoint overlooking Opunohu and Cook’s bays.
Blue Lagoon, Rangiroa: Take a day trip to explore the world’s second-largest atoll lagoon. Most boat tours include snorkelling, swimming with black-tip reef sharks and a barbecue lunch.
Bora Bora: Travel by boat to a secluded motu to watch the sunset, sip a freshly shaken cocktail and enjoy a traditional Polynesian dance show.
SEE IT WITH AMA
Cook Islands & Society Islands
11 nights roundtrip Papeete aboard m/s Paul Gauguin, with port visits including Huahine, Aitutaki, Rarotonga, Bora Bora, Taha’a, Moorea and Papeete.
All-inclusive from $6,695 USD + $235 tax (includes air from San Francisco or Los Angeles)
Tahiti & Tuamotu Islands
10 nights roundtrip Papeete aboard Wind Spirit, with port visits to Fakarava, Rangiroa, Motu Mahaea, Bora Bora, Huahine, Moorea and Papeete.
From $5,899 USD + $124 tax (includes air from Los Angeles or San Francisco, hotel)
Call an AMA Travel cruise specialist at 1-866-989-6594 or visit AMATravel.ca.