I jumped off our small skiff into the sapphire ocean outside of the pass into Ahe Atoll. Immediately, through my mask, I spotted a school of jacks, their bodies glistening silver and gold in the surface-filtered light, their electric-blue edges making them look more of sea than in it.
In a moment, the jacks were far behind. The current propelled me and my three fellow snorkellers towards the lagoon so fast it felt like a carnival ride. The water was glass-clear, so I could see straight to the bottom – at least 20m down – where two whitetip reef sharks cruised over canyons of coral reef that spread like octopus tentacles towards the navy depths of the atoll’s edge. We were now in the pass, with coral cliffs rearing on either side of the 90m-wide waterway. Floating on the surface, it was like looking into a deep river valley, except instead of trees, there was coral and instead of birds, there were fish.
A large Napoleon wrasse nibbled on coral while one of my snorkeller friends dived down for a closer look. I raised my head above water to see the two sides of the pass, both flat land masses covered in coconut palms and bleached-white coral beaches that sloped down steeply to meet the reef. Behind me was some 8,000km of empty ocean and in front was the safety of the lagoon. I felt small. I focused on the waterworld beneath me again, where fish of every colour swam below and sharks slunk slowly, uninterested in the humans hovering above them.
Five minutes later, after spotting a sea turtle, several barracuda and countless green parrotfish, we found ourselves inside the lagoon where the blues of the shallower water lightened to a glowing turquoise. The ride had been too fast. I wished I could do it all over again.
Just as I drifted by the left-hand beach of the inner pass, still feeling a tinge of disappointment, a manta ray glided towards me as if the strong current didn’t exist. Its graceful triangular wings must have been 5m wide and, right by its side, its baby, a perfect replica in miniature. I was face to face with two of the most spectacular creatures I’d ever seen. I kept my body motionless and let the current take me closer to the mother and child. Eventually they spotted me, slowly turned right, then sped up in unison, flying towards the middle of the lagoon. It felt like they were my welcome committee.
Mana, the sacred force that brings everything together in the islands, was in those manta rays, in the waters around me, in the flower-scented air above. I could feel it. In this moment of awe, I understood. Everything about my passage through the pass, the water and its denizens was perfect.
Duration: 14-21 days
Best for: Watersports, beaches, marine life, relaxing
Route: Moorea, Tetiaroa, Bora Bora, Fakarava, Rangiroa, Ahe, Raivavae, Gambier
Why do it: To enjoy warm, bright waters – both remote and less so – and let the ocean’s mana soothe your soul
French Polynesia is home to some of the clearest waters on earth, thanks to its isolated location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Hundreds of pristine lagoons are delineated by fringing coral reefs, creating natural swimming pools of the most intense blue imaginable.
Water babies should start in the Society Islands. Here, the jumbled geometry of Moorea’s mountainous interior rises from a halo of sky-blue seas. This lagoon holds something for everyone, from the wide white sands and calm swimming at Temae Beach (a local family favourite) to kite-surfing and surfing off the west coast, around Haapiti. Don’t miss a boat trip to Stingray World, a sandy mount off the north coast where you can swim with rays and sharks. You can also rent kayaks or SUPs here, to spend hours exploring – pack a picnic and paddle over to Coco Beach on Motu Tiahura, a near-empty islet on the fringing reef.
North of Moorea, Tetiaroa’s powdery beaches and crystalline lagoon were once reserved for Tahitian royalty. Marlon Brando bought the atoll with his Polynesian co-star (and third wife) Tarita after filming the 1962 film, Mutiny on the Bounty; it is now home to luxury resort, The Brando, as well as being a sanctuary for nesting birds.
Further west, honeymooners’ haven Bora Bora has what many consider to be the region’s most beautiful lagoon. The range of blues here is simply dazzling, while the underwater landscape ranges from white sand to vibrant coral gardens. Boat tours are available but you could spend days just kicking around with a mask and snorkel. Biking around the 32km-long ring road, through tiny villages, is the best way to experience a less touristy side of the island.
For more lagoons, head east to French Polynesia’s Tuamotu Islands, where almost 80 coral atolls each embrace their own azure waters. Fakarava stands out – its remarkable array of underwater life has garnered UNESCO Biosphere Reserve status. Activities available here include scuba diving, snorkelling and fishing.
Rangiroa is the largest atoll of the Tuamotus. Rent a bike and explore the two main villages, take a full-day lagoon tour to visit the dreamy Pink Sand Beach and Blue Lagoon (a lagoon within the lagoon), and hit Vin de Tahiti to taste unique wines made from grapes grown in coral soil.
Ahe is a lesser-known Tuamotu atoll, worth visiting to snorkel its marine-life-filled pass and see its old-growth forests, rich in rare birds. Pension Raita, located on its own palm-covered islet, offers a local-style experience, with ukulele music at sunset and fish barbecues on the weekends.
Further south lie the Austral Islands. Here you’ll find idyllic Raivavae, home to a blue lagoon to rival Bora Bora’s. The atoll is a prime choice for getting away from the modern world: it has no resorts and no organised activities, although all the homestays can help you find hiking guides to lead you up the lone mountain, arrange transportation to isolated white-sand islets or just lend you a bike so you can explore and make friends.
Remotest of all is the Gambier Archipelago. This cluster of small, high islands is encircled in a common lagoon where the most colourful Tahitian pearls in the country are produced. Mangareva is the biggest island; Rikitea its main town. Visit the eerie Catholic cathedral and chapels, built with coral blocks via forced labour by Pere Honoré Laval in the 19th century. Also, check out the pearl oyster carving school at the college St Raphael – it’s a great chance to meet the young people of the island and see their innovative pieces made from local oyster shells.
Duration: 12-16 days
Best for: History, adventure, art, traditional folklore, culture
Route: Tahiti, Huahine, Raiatea, Hiva Oa, Nuku Hiva
Why do it: To get in touch with the spiritual and physical past of the islands
Take a voyage through complex social hierarchies, hear local myths and legends and get a feel for French Polynesia’s ancient soul on a route via the country’s maraes (sacred sites) and museums. Start on Tahiti with a 4WD tour through Papenoo. This hard-to-access valley was once heavily populated, and is home to two beautifully restored archaeological sites: Marae Farehape and Marae Anapua. Guides will help bring the old stone foundations, archery court and irrigation systems to life. You’ll also visit the country’s only lake and take in glorious mountain scenery.
The stone platforms of Marae Maeva on Huahine, also in the Society Islands, are spread along the coast and hillside. Tours are available with expert guide Paul Atallah (Island Eco Tours) and there’s an excellent museum that’s filled with artefacts. Don’t miss the centuries-old V-shaped fish traps just beyond the marae, that are still in use today.
One of the most important temples in Polynesia is the UNESCO World Heritage-listed site of Taputapuatea, on Raiatea, the second-largest of the Society Islands. This sprawling lagoon-front complex is over 1,000 years old. An important political, ceremonial and funerary centre, it once hosted voyagers from around the Polynesian Triangle. Hike up the newly cut trail on the hillside behind the marae for a view over the whole complex.
Finish on the Marquesas. Lush, rugged Hiva Oa, the archipelago’s second-largest island, is home to arguably the most magnificent ancient sites in the country: take a 4WD tour to visit towering stone tiki (carved figures), moss- covered birthing stones and giant platforms shaded by banyan trees. If you can, book a trip that includes lunch, usually a Marquesan feast of goat and coconut milk stew, baked breadfruit and poisson cru, served in a local family’s home. Afterwards, visit the Paul Gauguin Cultural Centre and Calvaire Cemetery (where Gauguin is buried) – the artist spent his last years on Hiva Oa.
Nuku Hiva, the largest of the Marquesas, also has several archaeological gems, the best being the three connecting sites of Kamuihei, Tahakia and Teiipoka. Take a few hours to explore this mystical-feeling valley, which is dotted with numerous ua ma (stone pits where breadfruit was fermented and stored), around 500 petroglyphs and a few banyan trees that are estimated to be over 600 years old. Nuku Hiva also has some excellent hiking trails that lead across barren hills where you’ll find wild mountain goats and cool ocean breezes, and get magnificent views over steel-blue seas. For a more tropical wander, make the easy one-hour walk from Hatiheu to Anaho, which rewards with the most beautiful white-sand beach in the Marquesas.
Duration: 10-14 days
Best for: Hiking, culture, great outdoors, flora
Route: Tahiti, Moorea, Tahaa
Why do it: See the sights, shop local and then get some exercise while filling up on tropical mountain jungle mana
The 118 islands of French Polynesia cover an oceanic area larger than Western Europe but little of this is landmass. This route focuses on the Society Islands, taking in the top sights on DIY tours, but also plunging into the lush interiors that many visitors miss.
Start in Tahiti, the largest island in French Polynesia, where you can spend a day or two touring on your own. Don’t miss Papeete Market, the best one-stop shop for colourful pareu (sarongs), woven hats, Tahitian pearl jewellery and exotic flowers. Other highlights include Maison James Norman Hall, which explores the life on Tahiti of the Mutiny on the Bounty co-author, and the Botanical Gardens, where you can walk through bamboo and giant mape (chestnut) forest.
The island has a virtually untouched interior, ripe for exploring on foot. One of the most beautiful routes is the Fautaua Valley Trail, which includes a 300m-high waterfall and lovely swimming hole. For a two-day challenge, hire a guide for the walk along the uninhabited coastline of Te Pari, between the villages of Teahupoo and Tautira, to bathe in waterfalls that tumble into the sea and sleep in a cave.
Next, hop over to Moorea. Highlights include Te Mana O Te Moana, the sea turtle rehabilitation centre at the Intercontinental Hotel, where baby and injured turtles are cared for, and the Manutea Fruit Juice Factory, where you can taste and buy locally made juices and liquors. Moorea has nearly as many hiking trails as Tahiti and most are better maintained. Head to the areas around Cook’s Bay and Opunohu Bay where you’ll find plenty of trailheads, with maps at the entrances. One of the most popular hikes is Three Coconuts Pass, which leads along a ridge affording views over Moorea’s outrageously blue lagoon.
Tahitian pearls and vanilla are two of Tahiti’s biggest exports and there’s no better place to learn about both of them than on the tiny hibiscus-shaped island of Tahaa. It doesn’t have an airport, but it shares a common lagoon with Raiatea, from where you can hop on a water taxi. Rent a car to drive around Tahaa and stop at one of the handful of small pearl farms – the owners will be happy to show you the production process and their beautiful jewellery. In between are vanilla farms that offer free tours; see how the flowers are pollinated by hand and how the pods are grown and dried. Get off the road and hike to Haamene, in the island’s verdant interior, or take the shuttle-boat to the Le Taha’a Resort to swim in coral gardens with views of Bora Bora’s square-topped silhouette in the distance.
A hybrid cargo and cruise ship that’s brought thousands of adventurous travellers to the Marquesas Islands over the past 30-plus years, the Aranui, now offers trips to other far-flung destinations including French Polynesia’s Austral, Gambier and Tuamotu Archipelagos as well as the Cook Islands and Pitcairn Island.
The newest in a long line of vessels, the Aranui V has a maximum occupancy of 230 passengers and is managed by an entirely Polynesian crew. There’s usually a guest lecturer and tour guide on board such as an archaeologist or cultural specialist who will help you delve deeper into the local cultures. Expect to sway your hips to a live Polynesian band in the evenings and swim in the pool during days at sea. You’ll visit at least one remote island that can only be reached by boat – such as Rapa in the Australs, Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas and Pitcairn Island, famed for its population of mutineers. Wherever the ship comes to port, it’s met with festive islanders happy to receive their supplies and welcome new faces to their shores.
The smaller, southern loop of Tahiti’s figure eight shape is called Tahiti Iti, meaning ‘Little Tahiti’. This is one of the most alluring parts of the island, half of which can only be accessed by boat or on foot.
Drive to Teahupoo, a traditional village on the south-west coast known for its world-class surfing. Here you can charter a boat, some owned by local fishermen, to take you out to watch surfers tackle the giant wave, or for a full day trip to the wild Fenua Aihere (bush country) and Te Pari, a remote cliff area. On this day trip expect to explore caves, duck into waterfalls tumbling into the sea, visit remote archaeological sites and swim in natural swimming pools.
For a second day outing you can drive to the top of the bucolic Taravao plateau to a viewpoint overlooking Tahiti Nui, then take the lesser traveled road to the village of Tautira on Tahiti Iti’s east side. In Tautira, visit the 1775 grave of Domingo de Bonechea, the first missionary to land in Tahiti, at the Catholic church in the centre of the village. There’s also a wide black-sand beach and rustic Snack du Bout de Monde, one of the best local eateries on Tahiti Iti, where you can dine on steamed lobster with a view of the sea.
When to go: May to October is less humid and rain is less frequent. The rainy season runs from November to April.
Health & safety: For the latest advice on entry requirements, including information regarding COVID-19, visit the FCDO site. You may need remedies for seasickness if you are prone and plan on island-hopping. Wear plenty of sun cream. Drink lots of purified water. For information on boosters needed, check in with fitfortravel.nhs.uk for latest updates.
Getting there & around: Faa’a International Airport, on Tahiti (5km west of Papeete), is the only international airport in French Polynesia. It is served by flights from cities such as Tokyo (flight time 11 hours), Los Angeles (eight hours) and San Francisco (nine hours, but most likely with connections). Flights from here are the quickest – if more expensive – way to connect to the archipelagos’ other islands. The inter-island airline, Air Tahiti offers money saving air-passes that can make complex itineraries more affordable. Some cruise ship itineraries explore French Polynesia. The Aranui offers the most authentic cruise/cargo experience.
Learn more about visiting the islands of Tahiti at tahititourisme.uk