French Polynesia is an expensive destination to visit. As a famous honeymoon destination, for many, a trip to French Polynesia is a luxurious one, only complete with the extravagance of overwater bungalows, luxurious all-inclusive resorts and a daily dose of waterfront cocktails with an excessive price tag to match. But, by opting for a slightly less lavish but no less wonderful experience, a trip to this trail of island paradise doesn’t have to break the bank.
French Polynesia, an overseas collectivity of France, comprises more than 100 islands in the South Pacific, stretching for more than 2,000km. Divided into the Austral, Gambier, Marquesas, Society and Tuamotu archipelagos, they’re known for their coral-fringed lagoons and over-the-water bungalow hotels. Island features include white- and black-sand beaches, mountains, rugged backcountry and towering waterfalls.
On a tight travel budget, we still managed to rub shoulders with curious reef sharks and swarms of marine fish, discover secret waterfalls and get lost in thick virgin forests, sample the local cuisine and a cheeky piña colada by the water, and swim through postcard-perfect lagoons and catch some rays on our own private island.
Halfway between California and Australia, French Polynesia isn’t a singular sensation but a mosaic of moods spread across 118 small islands and atolls (67 inhabited) and more than a thousand miles of ocean. It’s not a place of museums or hot spots, but rather an elemental destination of earth, water, air, fire, and something else even more elusive that I always feel but can barely explain. So I set out to find it again.
I use my hands as much as my feet to hike up into the tropical highlands of Moorea, in view of sister island Tahiti, a short ferry ride away. Pulling on smooth vines and hopping mountain brooks, I tromp upward through a rain forest of cool shadows and diaphanous orange and red flowers. To an outsider the plants are so outlandish they nearly seem fake, but my hands and nose let me know that everything is real.
My guide, Heinrich Tamatoa, knocks his fist against a gigantic furrowed tree trunk. A deep and bellowing boom echoes through the woods. “This is the mape tree—Tahitian chestnut,” he says, “carried to this island by the first Polynesians.” These ocean voyagers likely originated from Southeast Asia more than a thousand years ago, bringing with them taro and breadfruit, as well as pigs, dogs, and chickens.
Like a skeptical kid, I knock the hollow tree and another boom bellows skyward, past the high canopy of ancient wood. Tamatoa knows the name of every plant, tree, flower, and shrub, in French and Tahitian, as well as in the four other languages he speaks in his work as a guide. He knows the plants’ history and how they’re used. There are teas that promote health, leaves to make hats, and trees for building a canoe that will cross the ocean.
“For us Polynesians, nature is not separate,” Tamatoa explains. “We belong to the Earth.” The way he says it, I know that it’s not just a line that he feeds tourists, but something he believes personally. “I’m a hiking guide because I like being in the forest,” he says. “I like showing visitors our nature—how green and alive our island is.” Tamatoa is a French citizen, his passport emblazoned with the stars of the European Union, “but,” he insists, “I am a hundred percent Polynesian.”
Island riches lured Europeans and Americans to Polynesian shores. The legendary mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty took place after a layover in Tahiti. A deserter named Herman Melville jumped ship in the Marquesas and the experience inspired his first book. The long colonial struggle for control was finalized in 1880, when the king of Tahiti ceded these widely scattered islands to France. Almost 140 years later, parliamentary elections showed a span of attitudes toward France, with a strong vote of support for the independence parties. But it wasn’t enough to beat the status quo, whose campaign tagline politely proclaimed, Continuons Ensemble, or Let’s Continue Together.
It takes more than an hour hiking uphill to reach the knife’s edge of Moorea’s volcanic ridge, a steep black basalt wall. From the narrow lookout at Trois Cocotiers (Three Coconuts), I can see the whole of Moorea: the heart-shaped island, the gleaming turquoise of Opunohu Bay, and the unbroken carpet of green that sweeps from the shoreline up to the cartoonish peak of Mount Rotui.
Jagged mountains, dark volcanic soil, and steep rain forests exert their own power. Only from on high do I realize that land may be the forgotten element in the South Pacific, where neon blue lagoons dominate travelers’ Instagram feeds.
Every island in French Polynesia is unique, each with its own personality and affiliation to one of five island groups. Tahiti and the other Society Islands are the most visited, the Marquesas the most northerly, the Tuamotus the flattest, while the more southern Austral and Gambier archipelagoes remain virtually unvisited by foreigners. The biggest mistake a traveler can make is not to get past the romance of Tahiti or the honeymooner overwater bungalows of Bora Bora or even the emerald green Moorea. The Polynesian voyager spirit compels travelers to explore beyond each new horizon, and it’s that same spirit that pushes me to Huahine, a lesser known but lush garden isle bursting with jungle and giant flowers and top-heavy banana trees.
A quick plane hop northwest of Tahiti, Huahine has a gentle and unassuming air about it. Tourist formalities vanish so that, after a day, I feel a part of village life. Strangers hand me snacks of fresh pineapple and cut-open coconuts for me to drink. I am offered rides to islanders’ favorite spots: “Right here is the best place to watch the sunrise,” says an older lady who insists on driving me out of her way before bringing me back to my hotel, pointing out the flowers along the way—pink and white, bushy and fragrant, growing year-round in the living earth.
Sunrise is even more memorable underwater. Seventy feet below the ocean surface, suspended in the clear void outside Moorea’s reef, I focus my gaze on the 10-foot lemon shark just below me. Striped pilot fish hang about the timid giant, then scurry after him to darker and less conspicuous depths. I twist backward and see a parade of blacktip reef sharks following me like curious groupies.
My dive buddy, Mana, motions me forward, and we soar like slow dolphins over a coral meadow that glows with all the colors of cotton candy. Silvery fish, purple-tipped sea anemones, and giant clams fill the frame of my mask, an epic reminder that life is pulsing below the waterline.
Mana helps me back into the boat, where the captain is sitting back in his chair, singing softly and strumming a song on a Tahitian ukulele. “Mana means ‘life force’ in our language,” says Mana, explaining his name as we head back to shore. “It’s lucky to have a dive buddy that has mana—life,” he jokes.
In French Polynesia the ocean has great mana, from the gleaming black pearl inside a quivering oyster to the turtles and rays that hover in the shallows. At times it feels like nature is begging to connect, often when you’re least expecting it. My friend Helga told me about how, in Moorea’s Opunohu Bay, a magnificent juvenile humpback crashed a snorkeling party. “This huge and friendly creature stared right into my eyes,” she said. “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I could snorkel with a whale.”
The abundance, accessibility, and scale of sea life make these islands an underwater paradise. For rare and natural encounters, in-the-know divers have discovered the Tuamotu Archipelago. Its Rangiroa and Tikehau islands offer amazing biodiversity, even for casual snorkelers, while serious shark fanatics flock to Fakarava. The long and wispy atoll seems barely wide enough for my plane to land, but inside the lagoon, the dark blue world transforms into a swirl of schooling sharks: tigers, hammerheads, tawny nurse sharks, and blacktips. Indeed, Fakarava lagoon is home to the highest concentration of gray reef sharks in the world; it’s where hundreds of the sleek animals dance in a slow-moving circle, following the contours of the island and utterly ignoring me. The scene is hypnotic; only the bubbles of my own breath clue me into my outsider status—bubbles that rise up to the golden surface and measure the distance between two worlds, water and air.
The warm ocean wind smells like ice cream. That is my first impression of Tahaa, a round-shaped island blanketed by vanilla farms. I think back to the times I have read “Tahitian vanilla” on some store label or restaurant menu; but here, the scent is homegrown. Vanilla is part of the landscape and the air I breathe. Even my clothes smell of vanilla—just one of the many treasures from the islands, along with coconut oil and incomparable black pearls.
The air carries all the aromas of Polynesia. Vanilla, yes, but also jasmine and the tantalizing and unique scent of the national tiare flower—a calming, sunny, lemony perfume. A garland of flowers is draped around my neck each time I set foot anew on an island. The hei (similar to the Hawaiian lei) is a sign of welcome, along with the light French kiss on both cheeks.
Sometimes the air feels ripe and heavy with humidity, and other times it’s a mild and constant breeze that tickles my neck and rustles a row of palm trees. Rainbows often paint the sky, arriving and fading by the hour.
“I love the rainbow of history we have,” a new friend tells me. His name is Marurai Trafton. “White, black, Chinese, Polynesian—we all live together and share our different stories,” he says. “When you live on such a small island, you have to take care of your community, your family, your neighbors, and everyone you live with.”
This is the heart of Polynesian culture, he explains. “You don’t have to spend a lot or do anything special. Just say Ia Orana [hello], take off your shoes indoors, and listen to others. On our island, when you don’t have money to give, you just give your time. That is how you show your respect.”
The spinning torches are a blur, blinding my eyes to the dancers in the dark. From my seat on the beach, I can feel the heat of the fire as the flames streak through the blackness, scrawling strange letters of light that vanish in the night. Like tattooed ghosts, the dancers’ faces flash in the orange blaze of the fire, their chants repeating a story that I have never heard but that tingles my spine all the same.
Every dance, every motion carries meaning. Despite centuries of Christian missionary influence and a population collapse brought on by diseases introduced by Europeans, the dances have survived in the Marquesas. Remote even by South Pacific standards, these islands maintain traditions that have disappeared elsewhere.
“The early missionaries outlawed all this—the tattoos, the dancing. They made the people cover their bodies and hide their culture,” says a Tahitian friend, Jack Lord. “If not for the Marquesas, all of this would be lost.” Marquesans proudly held onto their traditional beliefs long enough to fuel a cultural revolution that still burns across French Polynesia today.
Fire made these islands, one by one—millions of years of explosions erupting from the deepest part of the Earth. High islands like the Marquesas reflect younger volcanoes, while the low, flat atolls of the Tuamotus are all that remain from older, sunken volcanoes, ringed by coral reefs that now lie flat, as if floating on the ocean surface.
On July 2, 2019, a solar eclipse will pass directly over the Tuamotu Archipelago, completely darkening the sky for about three and a half minutes. When the moment of darkness passes, the ultimate fire—the sun—will return, moving through the sky, just like the spinning torches of fire dancers at night.
I am a foreigner and may never understand the true meaning of mana. But already I know that it alludes to an invisible element of these extraordinary islands. “It is all around us,” says Marurai, “in all the things we cannot see. It is my energy, your energy, how we feel toward one another.” Another friend, Gina Bunton, says, “I feel mana at sunrise or sunset, or every time I arrive on one of our islands. Mana is all around me. It’s what links me to my fenua—my country.” Even the Postimpressionist artist Paul Gauguin sought out mana when he arrived in 1891, seeking an escape from “everything artificial and conventional.”
The traditional Marquesan patutiki inspires contemporary tattoos, and travelers can receive a permanent souvenir, custom-designed by artists who know how to tap the secret language of symbols into the skin to carry mana from the artist to the recipient. Traditional tattoos become an outward symbol of a person’s mana.
Mana is also power, something real that you sense on the Society Island of Raiatea, a spiritual home for Polynesians, less than an hour’s flight from Tahiti. I walk around the weathered stones of the ancient Taputapuatea marae, an outdoor temple of sorts where Polynesian chiefs and priests and navigators met and learned and worshiped. Some historians believe that from this island the early Polynesians set off in migrations that led across the Pacific, from Hawaii to New Zealand and as far as Easter Island.
I may not be sure what mana is, but I can feel it here, where the white waves spray onto the hand-carved stones. I feel mana in the bright Milky Way that lights the sky at night in the Tuamotus. I see mana in the flying fish that bounce over the sea swell, in the cautious eel hiding in the red-orange coral, and in the billowy white dresses of women on their way to church. I hear mana in the stories told around the fire, in birdsong, and in the all-night strains of a beachside ukulele jam. All the mana I have felt stays with me, even now, after I have left—calling me back to an island where I need nothing else.
If you’re looking to visit this stunning part of the Pacific without paying a small fortune, these are our best tips for visiting Tahiti and the islands of French Polynesia on a budget.
1. Choose The Right Accommodation
Overwater bungalows may be an iconic part of the French Polynesian experience, but with prices starting at around $400 per night in low season, they’re hardly a wallet-friendly option.
During our month in French Polynesia, we camped for two weeks and rented an Airbnb for the rest. While this may not be the most luxurious option, with one night costing between $15 and $35 per person, this is one of the best ways to keep your costs down in French Polynesia.
Camping Nelson on Moorea was fairly basic and the kitchen area was under construction at the time of our visit, but it was beautifully located right on the water, easy to reach by bus from the ferry terminal and acted as a good base for exploring the Moorea further.
On Raiatea, Sunset Beach Motel is a wonderful camping option located in a coconut grove right on the water. The property offers a well-equipped kitchen, free airport transfers and snorkel and kayaking equipment is available for use. Affordable waterfront bungalows are also available onsite.
Camping is also available on Huahine, Maupiti and Bora Bora as well as some of the further off islands.
In both Papeete and Teahupo’o, we used Airbnb which has some great budget-friendly options where you can interact with the locals and sink a little deeper into the slow-paced feel of life on the islands.
2. Prepare Your Own Meals
Eating out in French Polynesia, especially for every meal, is going to dig a big hole in your travel budget.
While it would be a crime to leave French Polynesia without sipping on a sunset cocktail with your toes in the sand or sampling the ubiquitous poisson cru, taking a picnic lunch or cooking a simple pasta once in a while will definitely help stretch your budget further.
Stock up on tropical fruit from the market and make a fruit salad for breakfast or carry them around as a snack during the day. Bananas, papayas or passionfruit (best for any outing as they won’t get squashed in your bag) or whatever is in season during your trip. Coconut palms are scattered absolutely everywhere and if you can find one that’s just fallen, it’s generally yours for the taking – filling, refreshing and delicious, if you can get it open.
Baguettes are a key ingredient of island life and at around 50c each, they’re a great item for those eating on the cheap and perfect to take as a packed lunch.
If you’re visiting French Polynesia on a budget and hoping to prepare your own meals, be sure to choose accommodation with access to a kitchen. Many camping grounds, guesthouses and Airbnbs have kitchens available onsite so be sure to ask about their facilities before making a reservation.
3. Travel Off Season
With a strongly seasonal tourism industry, visiting French Polynesia outside of the peak season will save you plenty.
In the low season, not only are you more likely to get sale airfares to the islands, domestic flights with Air Tahiti are also sold at a lower off-peak rate. Accommodation prices also tend to drop out of season and you may be able to negotiate better deals for tours or guesthouses, especially if you’re travelling in a group or are visiting for a longer period.
With most visitors pouring in from France, peak seasons are largely based on their holiday periods. Avoid July and August which are the busiest and most expensive months, as well as the Christmas and New Years period when prices are inflated.
4. Save Big With An Air Tahiti Multi-Island Pass
Unless you have oodles of time, air travel will likely be your main means of transport between the islands.
Considering the domestic flights are often less than an hour long, they come at a considerable expense, but, with a little research, you can get a lot more bang for your buck. Plus, if the weather is clear, you’ll also be rewarded with spectacular aerial views of the islands and their lagoons – a scenic flight and a new island paradise for the price of one. Just be sure to get a window seat at the front to avoid your view being obstructed by the wings and propellers.
Air Tahiti is the domestic air carrier (not to be confused with Air Tahiti Nui which runs on international routes), which offers several options for multi-island passes which can save you hundreds of dollars compared with booking single leg flights.
The Air Tahiti Multi-Island Discovery Pass which stops at Tahiti, Moorea, Huahine and Raiatea is excellent value at €309 in low season. In comparison, the equivalent route booked as single tickets comes to €450, while simple return flights between Tahiti and Raiatea cost €291. At €407, the Bora Bora Pass also allows you to add stops at Bora Bora and Maupiti.
If diving will be the focus of your trip, the underwater paradises of Rangiroa and Fakarava can also be incorporated into your itinerary, as can the far-flung Tuamotos, Marquesas and Austral archipelagos.
Check the terms for each pass carefully as conditions do apply and prices vary based on the season. There are also higher rates for extra baggage so be sure to pack light.
5. Or Travel By Boat Between The Islands
If you have a lot of time and love an adventure, you can save on the costly airfares and travel by cargo ship between the islands.
We had planned to use the cargo ship Hawaiki Nui to get around the Society Islands, but on arriving in Papeete found it was booked solid for months. With prices hovering around $18 for deck class and $46 for a cabin, if you can reserve a spot, this is one of the best ways to travel French Polynesia on a budget.
The Hawaiki Nui leaves from Papeete on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 4 pm. The Tuesday departure travels to Huahine, Raiatea and Bora Bora, returning via Tahaa and Raiatea, while the Thursday trip calls in at Raiatea and Bora Bora, returning via Tahaa, Raiatea and Huahine. Boat schedules are notoriously unreliable though so some flexibility is essential.
Cargo ships also ply the routes between the outer archipelagos if you’re looking to get a little further off the beaten track. Be sure to book well in advance as places are often limited and can book up fast, particularly in the high season. Calling is best as emails tend to go unanswered.
A more comfortable option for a sea crossing is the 45-minute passenger and vehicle ferry that runs between Moorea and Tahiti. Setting off from Papeete’s main harbour, this approach offers stunning views of the hulking green mass with its vertical peaks shrouded in cloud. If you arrive during summer, you may be lucky enough to see a whale breaching beside the boat.
Local buses meet all incoming ferries and travel north and south along the island’s single road. At just $10.50 for the ferry and around $2.75 for the bus, this is by far your the cheapest option for visiting Moorea.
6. Avoid Taking Expensive Tours
Tours are offered for absolutely everything in French Polynesia, from boat excursions across the lagoon to sightseeing in the interior.
While the tours are often great experiences, at upward of $100 per person, they can be a huge money suck.
With a bit of extra effort and planning, exploring the islands independently is perfectly manageable and will cost a small fraction of a tour.
7. But Also Splurge On The Important Things
With that being said, some experiences in French Polynesia are too unique to miss and absolutely worth splurging on, even if they do cost the equivalent of three days of your travel budget.
We’d recommend considering this thoughtfully before your trip, rather than just throwing money at every experience that sounds a tiny bit special once you arrive.
Whether you are an avid diver, voracious foodie or intent on a sunset cruise, choose an experience that will be meaningful to your trip and worth the added expense.
Balance this out in your budget with a few simple days of bumming at the beach, hiking or cooking your own meals.
8. Bring Your Own Gear
On any trip to French Polynesia, exploring the underwater world is an absolute highlight.
Save on costs by bringing your own snorkelling equipment with you. On many islands, you can snorkel right off the beach or within swimming or kayaking distance. Having your own gear gives you complete freedom to snorkel when and wherever you want, without spending an extra cent.
For those determined to visit the more spectacular outer reefs, dive boats often give discounted rates for snorkelers. Ask around and you may be able to jump on board.
9. Go Hiking In The Interior
As beautiful as it is, French Polynesia isn’t only about exploring below the surface.
Blanketed in dense jungle and a tangle of vines, the rugged interior is an excellent place to go hiking, chase waterfalls and uncover some truly magnificent views. Plus, it’s free.
Admittedly, we struggled a little on our hiking expeditions as trails were often not signposted and we inevitably ended up taking the wrong ones, but from what we’ve heard, trail maintenance is improving all the time.
In some instances, guides can be hired at an extra cost if you don’t want to chance getting lost.
10. Choose The Right Way To Explore The Islands
Each island has a unique terrain and by choosing the right mode of transport for each, you’ll be able to experience the islands at a different pace and save a lot of money in the process.
Though many recommend renting a car on Moorea, we found island’s ring road to be relatively flat making it a great place to explore by bike. At a service station on Hauru Point, we were able to rent bikes for just $15 per day. If you are looking to go a little further afield, the local bus runs at irregular intervals, while the steady stream of traffic makes hitchhiking is an easy alternative. We found the people to be extremely friendly and happy to share their local tips.
On other larger, hillier islands, hiring a car or scooter makes much more sense, even for just a day, and will allow you to reach those stunning belvederes and explore the more remote corners of the island.
While this is not always the cheapest option, by choosing a small local operator instead of the large international agencies, you can sometimes get a car for around half the price. If shared between a few people this can be a very economical way to explore.
We used Moana Rent a Car on Raiatea with rates starting at $50 per day, and they will pick you up from your accommodation and drop you off afterwards if you are staying nearby. On Tahiti, EcoCar which is just across the road from the airport is even more affordable starting from $42 a day. Always check the insurance policy as some local agencies do not cover the vehicles for damages.
Many islands have public buses which run on a loop around the island. These are also a good option if you are wanting to go a long distance but, as with many things in French Polynesia, they run in their own good time. As we were told when asking about the bus schedule, it will come when it comes.
11. Embrace The Freebies
In a place where few things come cheap, you may as well embrace the things that come completely free.
It may seem obvious, but there are a number of great experiences in French Polynesia that don’t cost a cent and can keep you entertained for days.
When we were staying at the Sunset Beach Motel on Raiatea, they had a huge range of free equipment available. Instead of forking out for an expensive lagoon tour, we borrowed a kayak, packed a picnic lunch and our snorkel gear and paddled over the reef to a nearby motu, a tiny mound of silver sand dotted with palms. From there we wiled away the afternoon snorkelling in the clear waters, lazing on the beach and munching on fresh coconuts without another soul in sight.
Many islands also offer free, albeit simple tours that anyone can join. Whether it be sampling fruit juices or liquor at Jus de Fruits on Moorea or soaking up the aromas of the world’s best vanilla and marvelling at giant black pearls on Taha’a, these little pit stops give a great insight into the local customs on the islands, without the hefty price tag attached.