Tahiti: What to Know before You Go

While the word “Tahiti” is often used to describe the whole region, Tahiti itself is just one island in French Polynesia. Most visitors don’t stay in Tahiti long, preferring instead to jump off to the paradise isles of Bora Bora, Moorea, Manihi and more. There you’ll find unique combinations of relaxation and luxury.

Each island has its own allures, character and geography. In some places, you can dangle your toes into the warm South Pacific from your luxe over-water bungalow. In others you can spend a day climbing a jungle-clad mountain rising straight out of the sea. There is bright sun, tranquil waters and spectacular diving nearly everywhere. Come to French Polynesia if you want to slow down, get pampered and enjoy a world painted in pastels and gentle breezes.

Getting Here
French Polynesia is a remote island paradise and as such it takes a trans-pacific flight to get here. There are multiple flights per day leaving from LA (8.5 hours). As Tahiti is on our side of the International Date Line, most travelers take off in the afternoon and arrive in Papeete the same evening. You can get here on Air Tahiti, Air France and Air New Zealand (from Auckland).
Getting Around
Getting from island to island mostly means flying on small prop planes (12-20 passengers). Flight times vary greatly depending on the destination. Routes generally run on a hub and spoke system through Papeete. Also a quick ferry runs from Tahiti to Moorea (30 minutes). Another option is the world-famous luxury cruise line, Paul Gauguin cruises. Travelers unpack just once, living aboard in opulent accommodations as they sail from one paradise isle to the next. On the islands themselves, you can rent motor scooters for a day out or hire a local guide to take you into the jungle in a 4×4.

Useful Geography
There are five types of islands in French Polynesia all formed from the same geologic activity. The first is a volcanic island– formed when an undersea volcano rises from the water (the Marquesas are good examples of this). The second type is a fringing reef island– created when a volcanic island begins to subside (sink back into the sea). A coral reef forms around the island often creating a lagoon between the reef and the shore (think of Moorea here). The third is a barrier reef island — formed when a fringing reef grows larger as the mountain at the center sinks lower, leaving a large lagoon (Bora Bora is a good example). Fourth is an atoll — formed when the volcano finally sinks all the way beneath the water, leaving only a reef circling a large lagoon (such is the case for the Tuamotu Archipelago). Lastly, a motu is a tiny islet, generally found within a lagoon, where the reef has risen above the water. These often feature lonely beaches perfect for romantic picnics.

Popular Activities
In general, French Polynesia is a place for escape and relaxation. It is not a destination for those who need packed itineraries and lots to do at every moment. There is still, however, much to do.

  • Diving and snorkeling:
    With so many reef islands, there is no shortage of calm seas and stunning coral. You can swim with sharks and rays, and even feed them in some places.
  • Water activities:
    You can swim with dolphins, head out on dolphin or whale watching cruises or propel yourself on a jet ski then try a windsurf board.
  • Spa:
    There is an endless array of rubs and treatments to help you unwind. We recommend the in-water massage tables.
  • Rainforest tours:
    Let a local guide take you into the jungle for a dip in a hidden waterfall or just a bit of 4×4 adventure.

French Polynesia is a land of luxury resorts and few budget accommodations. It’s the world’s number one destination for over-water bungalows. These tranquil lodgings are every bit as lovely as you’ve imagined. You can also find garden bungalows, beach villas and more traditional luxury lodging. The top end chains like the Four Seasons and St. Regis are nearly all here. Traditional Polynesian resorts feature local weavings and batik painting in their designs. Small ship cruising includes cabins with balconies to make the most of your view at any time of day.
Most of the island resorts will offer dining for Breakfast/Lunch/Dinner. On the busier islands of Bora Bora and Moorea, you can easily venture abroad for a local shack meal and discover great island pizzas from our friend Jacques, a gentleman who’s relocated from Paris 30 years ago. Romantic picnics on a deserted Motu are possible, as is breakfast delivered to your over-water bungalow by outrigger canoe. Themed buffet dinners are often held at larger hotels. Upscale resorts like the St. Regis Bora Bora Resort offers connoisseurs a gourmet cooking class in the Lagoon Restaurant’s kitchen (upon request). Grab a snack poolside or ask for a picnic backpack with lots of fresh fruit and fish. Vanilla doesn’t get any fresher, so the creme brulée will knock your socks off.

What to wear
Island casual is fine for moderate resorts while the upscale resorts require smarter attire. You can leave your tie or jacket at home, but nice shoes and linen or cotton pants are the norm. Sarongs and swimwear is fine for breakfast and lunch anywhere. Many beaches are topless, in true French style.