French Polynesia: Touring Tahiti’s five Archipelagos

TAHITI

“Why work?” asked Paul Gauguin once about the beauty of Tahiti. “The gods are there to lavish upon the faithful the good gifts of nature.”

White sand beaches with shallow turquoise water stretch out before you for what seems like forever. Dramatic volcanic rock mountains. Lush green forests. Regardless of how it’s described, Tahiti always begs the word paradise. Located in the middle of the South Pacific, there is no other way to reach Tahiti, also known as French Polynesia, without flying a few miles above the earth. The vantage point from above offers perhaps the most majestic views. Here, landmasses become swirling spots below you. Tahiti is a destination for lovers, families, loners–anyone who may not be searching for but could still use a heavy dose of serenity to knock down the trivial things that too often seem important. Travellers throughout history have come to Tahiti, and the smartest of them have stayed. Even Marlon Brando owned his own private island here.

The 5 Archipelagos of Tahiti

There are 118 islands to see, dotting a South Pacific archipelago that might just be one of the most beautiful places on this planet. Tahiti is made up of 5 archipelagos or island groups. Each group of islands within French Polynesia is distinguished as much by geography and topography as it is by its distinct culture and history. Ancient island dwellers here maintained cultures that barely influenced each other until the region was unified by the French in the 1700s. Tahiti’s archipelagos are at once powerfully different from one another and united in the serene beauty of isolation.

1. Society Islands

Captain James Cook divided the Society Islands by nautical name in 1769, deeming some Windward Islands and others Leeward Islands. Cook also dubbed the archipelago as a whole after England’s Royal Society. It was at this point in the 18th century that the French influence on these islands was most intense. Made up of a collection of islands that are the most well-known amongst all of French Polynesia, the Society Islands are truly the heartbeat of the region. Nine islands make up this chain, ranging from the tiny royal retreat of Tetiaroa to the populous Tahiti (well, relatively populous; there are less than 200 thousand residents living on the island). Most of these islands are among the most popular travel destinations in French Polynesia.

Tahiti

As the largest island in French Polynesia, Tahiti is a hub of vibrant culture and life. Divided amidst three massive volcanoes, Tahiti has a variety of outdoor activities to enjoy. This destination is the perfect place to begin a trip to French Polynesia (many travellers will opt for a bit of island hopping after they’ve seen the main island). Even for those going to French Polynesia, Tahiti is worth a stop for a few days. It can ease you into the slow-paced lifestyle that’s found on all the islands, and it’s well known for the wide variety of activities that people miss when they arrive only to run to their next flight.

The capital, Papeete, is the economic centre of the archipelago. It’s a busting downtown area with busy streets and a marketplace where you’ll be able to pick up any Tahitian souvenirs that you want take home with you. Vai’ete Square is a quiet, calm waterfront by day–the perfect place to take a stroll when you arrive on the island or want to catch the sunset. By night, however, the square becomes a hot spot of light, food and sound. Locals roll out les roulottes and Papeete’s gourmet food carts, and they serve everything from crepes and pizza to fresh fish.

Thanks to the diverse landscape of this larger Polynesian island, Tahiti is the source of an array of activities, not the least of which is surfing. For some of the worlds most impressive swells, experienced surfers hit up Teahupo’o. This also happens to be the site of international surfing competitions that draw professionals from around the globe. For beginners, there are plenty of locals and transplants offering lessons at some of the more low-key beaches around the island. Other activities to fill your days on Tahiti should include a guided hike through deep, lush wilderness and taking in the many sky-scraping waterfalls.

There are only two golf courses in all of French Polynesia, and Olivier Bréaud Golf Course, located on the island of Tahiti, is one of them. As to be expected, these greens are situated with an idyllic ocean backdrop to one side and distant extinct volcanoes to the other.

Shows and celebrations abound on Tahiti, and travellers can catch weekly traditional Tahitian dance shows at the InterContinental Resort. Tahiti is an island experienced not to be missed, and it will be taken with you throughout the rest of your Polynesian vacation.

Bora Bora airport

Bora Bora has become the unofficial honeymoon capital of the world. Couples make the trip only to find themselves wrapped up in a paradise that they never want to leave. Despite its reputation for unrivalled beauty, which often leads to throngs of tourists and development following closely behind, this island seems to have escaped over-construction and still remains the most beautiful daughter amongst the chain of French Polynesia’s stunning islands. As an atoll, Bora Bora is made up of small islets that encircle a pristine lagoon and surround the central part of the island. This unique topography offers a highly photographed and stunning view from above.

Bungalows and beaches define the Bora Bora experience for most travellers, and this means plenty of seclusion. In fact, most resorts are located on small private islets and can only be reached by boat. The range of activities are as narrow or wide as you choose to make them when travelling to Bora Bora. There is, of course, plenty to do in the water. Some of the most popular activities include snorkeling, swimming with rays, kite surfing, paddle boarding and scuba diving. Just past the island’s reefs, you can dive with lemon sharks and other exotic fish.

Though there is a long history in Bora Bora, this is not a popular destination for culture-seekers even though there are traditional dances performed at the InterContinental and other resorts. With endless spa treatments, tropical drinks served up fresh and a delicate cuisine that fuses local with luxury, Bora Bora is a resort paradise.

Moorea

Moorea is easy to access from Tahiti, where all international flights arrive, by a short plane or ferry ride. It is a welcoming and heartwarming island full of culture and life, different in many ways from the secluded paradise of Bora Bora. Locals provide a small island mentality that pervades the lifestyle, and this is true even for visitors. It’s an ideal vacation destination for groups, couples, families and even independent travellers, as there is more than enough to see and do. Although vibrant in culture and life, Moorea’s landscapes and beaches are also among the most stunning of the entire archipelago.

Eight peaks adorn this striking island that formed as a volcano millions of years ago. The rugged terrain of Moorea makes it one of the most popular destinations in Polynesia for adventure travel and active vacations. Taking a day to hike,drive, bike or ride an ATV through the lush green mountainsides is a must-do. Don’t miss Belvedere Lookout, the highest point accessible by vehicle on the island. It offers sweeping views as well as the reminder that we are small compared to the vast world in which we live. Beaches, as well as cute villages and ancient Polynesian temples, called marae, dot this island. With gorgeous hotel rooms in Moorea, it’s not a wonder that it’s the second most popular honeymoon destination in Tahiti after Bora Bora. Moorea is a gem that has more to give every single day.

Raiatea, Polynesia

Raiatea is a historical stop on a journey through the archipelago since it’s home to an archaeological marvel unparallelled anywhere else in French Polynesia. Along the southeastern coast, Taputapuatea is an ancient marae complex that is historically considered to be the spiritual centre of the territory. Made up of religious stone structures, it’s likely that sacrifices to Oro, the god of war and of fertility, were performed here. Archaeologists have even found ancient human remains at these sites.

This island’s historical relevance doesn’t stop at religion. Explorers left from Raiatea a thousand years ago and in the process discovered both Hawaii and New Zealand. Raiatea was the hub of a bustling ancient Polynesia–the centre of commerce, culture and religion–and it is a great destination for history buffs or travellers passing through who want to experience the profound ancient cultures of these secluded South Pacific landmasses.

2. Tuamotu Atolls

This archipelago is marked by series of atolls, most notably the islands of Rangiroa, Manihi, Tikehau and Fakarava. Each of these islands are raised sand bars that rest on top of coral reefs, which means they have none of the dramatic peaks of their French Polynesian neighbours. They instead enjoy a more subdued landscape. Not well known for their beaches and resorts, the Tuamotu Atolls are ideal for daily snorkeling trips and diving experiences. In fact, these islands–especially Rangiroa andFakarava, which has been designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve–are a diver’s dream since they have immense varieties of marine life.

Rangiroa, Tuamotu Archipelago

These coral islands are known for their diverse ecosystems, the cultivation of the famous Polynesian black pearl and hidden and serene alcoves. Pearl farms can be found throughout the island chain, and this, along with some coconut harvesting, makes up the majority of industry on this stretch of islands. Black pearls are rare and valuable, and this has been one of the main economic draws for these regions

Though not a preferred home base for most travellers to French Polynesia, the Tuamotu Atolls are a natural wonder worth a boat ride. Low in the water and lacking tall mountain-scapes, these islands offer a stranded-on-a-desert-island kind of feel for those who are looking for it.

3. Marquesas Islands

This Island group is located more than 800 miles north of Tahiti and is the most remote of all the French Polynesian Island chains. Volcanic in origin, these islands experience drought-like conditions year round rather than the lush rain forests of the other Tahitian islands. The Marquesas Islands, locally known as Hanua Enata or Land of Men, are so incredibly remote that the pride and unity among the culture is palpable.

Marquesa Islands, Polynesie Francais

Famously, it was among these islands, on Hiva Oa, where French painter Paul Gauguin retreated to finish out his days in the early 1900s. It was the women of the Marquesas, though, who were featured so prominently, often carrying fruit and resting among mountainous backdrops, in the paintings of Gauguin’s later years.

With towering ancient volcanoes, hidden beaches and heaven-high waterfalls, no traveller who appreciates the value of taking it easy will be disappointed. Safari rides, sailing excursions and even horseback adventures are available to visitors on the Marquesas. You can even take in the magic of archaeological sites to include ancient temples, tiki statues and petroglyphs–all of which paint a picture of a land that was even more remote and disconnected from the rest of the world at one point. If you can even imagine that.

And yes, there is shopping. In fact, the Enata people are widely known for the beautiful wood carved bowls and statues they produce. Shopping and other tourist necessities are available in the Marquesas, but these activities are limited for the most part to local art and trinkets. Diving is also a popular activity, and visitors can swim into the depths of the surrounding waters, catching glimpses of the occasional whale and manta ray. This island chain is best experienced by someone who has no expectations, no burning need for souvenirs and no desire to keep up the fast pace of mainland life. The best way to experience this collection of islands is to truly let go.

The original settlement of this archipelago is highly debated among researchers. Though contact with the French colonial government and culture pervaded island life intensely by the end of the 18th century, Europeans had been hanging around since 1595. Before that, some believe that settlers came over to the Marquesas as early as 200 BC and branched out from there to other Polynesian islands. Others say that settlements occurred much later and at the same time as the Society Islands. As with most places on earth, the landscape helped determine the historical cultural organisation, and the people banded into semi-isolated clans that were occasionally at war. Contact with other islands was infrequent before French influence took hold.

While archaeologists work to uncover the origins of Marquesan culture, visitors can begin to grasp the Marquesas by simply understanding that it’s a complex and ancient culture that has been highly influenced by European colonisation. Cuisine, for example, is as much French as it is Polynesian.

Local, traditional cuisine can be found by those who journey into one of the few towns on Nuku Hiva or Hiva Oa. Coconut and starchy breadfruit are two staples in classic Marquesas cuisine. French-inspired cuisine, however, can be found all over the islands–though more frequently than not, you’ll find a menu described as “French cuisine infused with a taste of the Marquesas!”

4. Gambier Islands

With a location that’s close to the atolls of Tuamuto and a culture that is close to that of the Marquesas, the Gambier Islands are a unique destination that, like every other French Polynesian archipelago, has a distinct identity and a fascinating history. This island chain is made up of lands that are of volcanic origin as well as coral origin, and some of the most distant islands are largely uninhabited. With a long and tumultuous history, the people of the Gambier Islands were thought to have used up the land’s natural resources to build housing amidst a booming trading economy. After the devastation of the land, the economy tanked and locals turned to cannibalism. Yes, cannibalism.

Atoll Fruit-dove

A couple centuries later, Christian missionaries landed on the shores of Rikitea. Once there, they established churches, convents, schools and a strong Catholic presence. A few of the old Catholic buildings were built from sturdy coral stone and are still standing today. A trip to this island will reveal the strong and deep religious ties, showcasing the Gambier Island archipelago as a distinct destination in French Polynesia.

The Gambier Islands offer dramatic South Pacific mountainous landscapes as a backdrop to an intriguing history and a thriving modern day culture. Oh, and you no longer need to worry about being eaten. Unless a zombie outbreak occurs.

5. Austral Islands

The southernmost archipelago in French Polynesia, the Austral Islands are 500 kilometers below Tahiti. This gives them a distinctly cooler climate. The temperature, a contrast to the heat of French Polynesia’s northern beaches, keeps many tourists away from this series of islands. Additionally, the distance is often too far for short-term travellers who don’t have time to make the trip. But for those who can, the Austral Islands have an appeal that is unrivalled throughout French Polynesia, and they are definitely worth the trip.

Tahiti sunset

Super remote and a plane ride away from the main islands of Tahiti, Raivavae is a volcanic island and has the most beautiful topography amongst the entirety of the Austral Islands. There are seven islands in total, and they all share a common culture that’s alive with traditional handcrafts and a laid back Polynesian lifestyle. Simplicity is the word to describe the way of life here. There’s not much to offer in terms of resorts, and since the weather is slightly cooler, beachgoers and honeymooners opt for the warmth of the more northern archipelagos. There are ancient fortresses, caves and coastal inlets, though, as well as a thriving artistic undercurrent, throughout these islands.

There is something, though, that brings visitors to one island in particular. Rurutu, also referred to as the Island of Whales, is a popular tourist destination for some the earth’s largest animals. Rurutu is a destination on the migration journey of humpback whales. Whales come to the warmer waters of this island to mate, nurse and give birth, and as a result, this is a diver’s paradise. With crystal clear waters off white sand beaches, the conditions of Ruturu are perfect to catch a glimpse of nature’s giants.

Reflecting back on Gauguin’s words, why work is an amazing question. There is a peace about Tahiti and all of French Polynesia that can calm even the most stressed amongst us. Many have said that no matter how hard they have tried, they have not been able to feel stress while lying out on a Tahitian beach with the sun shimmering on the clear blue water in front of them, and it’s hard to blame them.

Despite our efforts, it isn’t easy to find a destination that can really help you vacate your life–a place that truly allows you to leave it all behind. Maybe it’s in the South Pacific laid back way of life. Maybe it’s in the overwhelming beauty of it all. Or maybe, it’s simply the knowledge that the nearest large land mass is more than three thousand miles away. It seems impossible to ignore the calm and relaxation that overtake everyone that steps onto a Tahitian island, and to fight it seems futile. That’s likely why you never hear about anyone coming back from their trip to Tahiti complaining of stress.

It’s possible that Tahiti is a paradise on earth. Literally secluded from the rest of the world, this place offers you moments of peace where you can simply exist inside of that very moment. If that isn’t paradise, I don’t know what is.