Tahiti Islands Destinations
French Polynesia Destinations
Maeva (welcome) will be the first Tahitian phrase you hear since almost all Tahiti travel itineraries begin here on the main island, which is part of the popular Society Islands group. While Bora Bora, Taha’a or even the Marquesas may beckon, French Polynesia’s gateway – where a fragrant lei greeting awaits at Faa’a International Airport after a comfortable eight-hour nonstop from Los Angeles – is a Tahiti destination that should not be overlooked. Most visitors spend a night or two, enough time to experience the sights, and perhaps even a taste, of Tahiti’s surprisingly lively and modern capital, Papeete, and for a circle-island tour showcasing lush volcanic landscape and stunning beaches.
A must-see is Le Marche, Papeete’s colorful 150-year-old market, where local life and tourism intersect as Tahitians shop for fresh fish, vegetables and flowers while visitors peruse aisles of souvenir pareus, frangipani-scented soaps, shell jewelry and beautiful black pearls. Another popular spot at sunset is Vai`ete Square adjacent to the port, where several dozen roulottes (food trucks) roll into place and sell fresh vanilla crepes, grilled mahi-mahi and an international menu of aromatic snacks – again, an opportunity to observe and share in local Tahitian life.
Driving a short distance from Papeete changes everything, so the best way to appreciate Tahiti’s natural beauty is a half-day circle-island tour (included in many Islands in the Sun itineraries). Highlights of the 71-mile drive include Point Venus, the black-sand beach where Captain James Cook and his crew observed the transit of Venus in 1769; the historic home (now a museum) of James Norman Hall, who co-authored “Mutiny on the Bounty”; the Three Waterfalls of Fa’arumai, one of which is easily viewed after a short walk while the other two require a bit of hiking; and the Arahoho Blow Hole, where plumes of sea water billow up against volcanic cliffs.
Other indulgences include relaxing poolside or at the spa and trying water sports such as stand-up paddle boarding or outrigger canoeing. And when night falls, the stirring rhythms of Tahitian drums (and Tahitian hips) will be inspiration for the romance that lies ahead on other islands.
It doesn’t matter if it’s your first visit or your fiftieth – Moorea’s beauty is mind-blowing. You’ll steal your first glimpse from the main island of Tahiti (only 10 miles separate the two) and then as you arrive and Moorea’s towering green peaks and slender white beaches come into focus, you’ll be in awe over what nature has created for relaxation-starved visitors to enjoy. Best of all, Moorea travel couldn’t be easier: a 10-minute flight or 30-minute fast catamaran ride is all it takes to get from Tahiti’s bustling gateway, Papeete, to this laid-back Polynesian paradise.
Of course, your first thought is likely to be, I can’t wait to check in to my Moorea overwater bungalow. With an Islands in the Sun itinerary, that’s always an option as Moorea resorts are known for them, as well as for spacious beachfront suites and garden bungalows and villas with their own private pools. And as you sip a refreshing welcome cocktail and gaze from your private deck to the multi-hued lagoon, your state of mind will mimic Moorea’s – mellow, meditative and endlessly serene.
But Moorea isn’t just about navel gazing. There are serious land- and sea-based adventures to be enjoyed in this Polynesian playground known as The Magical Island. Exploring Moorea’s mountains and valleys is both fun and easy with a 4X4 excursion that bounces up steep slopes to panoramic Magic Mountain and Belvedere Overlook and back down into verdant valleys filled with pineapple fields, vibrant orchids, exotic birds of paradise, and tropical plant leaves the size of dinner platters.
Moorea is also about testing your sea legs on aquatic adventures such as shark and stingray feeding, dolphin and whale watching, snorkeling and scuba diving, and parasailing and Jet Skiing. Plus the island’s small villages are home to shops selling local crafts and even made-on-Moorea flavored rums, and its resorts offer activities that range from swimming with dolphins to Polynesian dance lessons. Moorea also has Tahiti’s best golf course. What it doesn’t have is traffic jams, so it’s naturally stress-free.
Bora Bora Destinations
The prized jewel in Tahiti’s glittering necklace of islands, Bora Bora has been seducing travelers for centuries and creating romantic memories for honeymooners (and lots of other couples, too) since the first overwater bungalow resort was built some 50 years ago. You’ll fall in love with Bora Bora the moment your Air Tahiti plane banks for its landing and you catch sight of Mount Otemanu, the island’s mesmerizing volcanic peak, surrounded by a lagoon shimmering with so many shades of blue they’re impossible to count. Bora Bora travel is, at its best, breathtaking and at its worst, well it’s just plain breathtaking, too.
A Bora Bora honeymoon is considered the ultimate post-wedding escape – holding a destination wedding here is becoming popular as well – so while families are welcome, the island’s focus in on 24/7 romance and grown-up fun. Bora Bora resorts are known for pulling out all the stops: seductive beds and baths strewn with tropical flowers, couples massages with tiare-blossom-scented oil, private moonlit dinners on the beach, and castaway motu picnics where you’re left blissfully alone to sun and swim. But Bora Bora’s sexy overwater bungalows also mean this is a destination where your only distractions can be neon-hued fish swimming below the glass porthole in the floor and a room-service tray being delivered to your private deck.
When you venture into the lagoon, always do so wearing a mask and snorkel because the water’s incredible clarity and schools of tropical fish are addictively hypnotic. More adventurous couples can try their hand at shark and stingray feeding or Jet Skiing, while souvenir hunters can shop for vibrant pareus and beautiful Tahitian black pearls in the boutiques of Bora Bora’s main town, Vaitape. Dining, too, is a treat, from the local favorite poisson cru (raw tuna marinated in coconut milk and lime) to gourmet menus at resort restaurants helmed by name chefs.
When darkness descends, Tahitian fire dancers toss flaming torches with passionate precision and couples slowly parade back to romantically lit bungalows. And after a few nights like this, Bora Bora becomes your own exclusive little world and you have a new definition of the word civilized.
Revered by Tahitians as The Sacred Island, Raiatea is an undeveloped tropical playground that’s home to both a rare mountain flower and French Polynesia’s only navigable river. Raiatea travel is ideal for those who love under-the-radar adventure steeped in ancient history and overflowing with panoramic mountain and lagoon vistas. Its accommodations are not as upscale as on other islands, nor are its lagoons as laden with tourists, but its old-school Tahitian vibe and haunting legends make it a memorable island to discover at your own preferred pace.
Raiatea’s heart is Mount Temehani, the only place in the world where the delicate Tiare Apetahi blossom grows, and its sacred soul is the Taputapuatea Marae, where Polynesian ancestors offered sacrifices seeking safe overwater journeys more than 1,000 years ago. You can ascend the mountain’s slopes by either 4X4 or horseback and explore the archaeological ruins of the marae, considered French Polynesia’s most sacred site, on foot. Another popular excursion is to venture up the Faaroa River by kayak or motorized outrigger canoe to discover the wealth of tropical vegetation, including massive green ferns and ruby-red flowering ginger stalks, that grow along its shores.
The island’s main town, Uturoa, has a newly renovated waterfront with small shops and a handicrafts market. Raiatea, Tahiti’s second largest island, is also a good place to visit a family-owned vanilla plantation or pearl farm, with opportunities afterward to purchase fragrant vanilla beans or luminous black pearls fashioned into rings, bracelets, pendants and more.
Divers are in luck, too, as the wide lagoon shared by Raiatea and neighboring Taha’a is rich with both coral formations and sea life – large schools of triggerfish, silver jacks, red snapper and reef sharks – as well as dramatic drop-offs an even a few famous shipwrecks. And when you depart Raiatea you will take with you the legend of the Tiare Apetahi, whose delicate petals open each dawn with a gentle crackling sound that Tahitians say represents the breaking heart of a young maiden who was forbidden to marry her true love, the Tahitian king.
Taha’a Tahiti – try saying that five times fast! Known as “The Vanilla Island,” Taha’a earned its nickname by producing some of the world’s finest vanilla and you’ll enjoy that deliciously comforting scent practically everywhere you go: from small, family owned farms where you can see first-hand how these fragrant beans are painstakingly grown and dried to the dining room of a five-star resort where perfectly grilled mahi-mahi with vanilla sauce is just one of the vanilla-infused items on the menu. And aside from its heavenly natural air freshener, Taha’a is also blessed with one of Tahiti’s most magnificent lagoons, so pale and translucent that you can walk several hundred yards from your overwater bungalow in warm tranquil water that’s never more than waist-deep.
Taha’a’s transcendental lagoon also washes upon pristine white-sand beaches and shelters a kaleidoscope of neon-hued reef fish in snorkeling coves that rank as Tahiti’s finest. It’s not unusual for couples to spend hours immersed in this magical realm spotting parrotfish, triggerfish, starfish, sea cucumbers and even small reef sharks. Divers, too, will be delighted by the seamounts and drop-offs ready to be explored in the lagoon that stretches between Taha’a and neighboring Raiatea.
Taha’a travel is decidedly upscale and yet refreshingly unpretentious. The ring of idyllic motus that surround the flower-shaped main island are home to two private-island resorts where you’ll be pampered in spacious thatched-roof overwater bungalows and beach suites, be massaged into a beyond blissful state with vanilla-scented monoi oil, and stare at the silhouette of Bora Bora’s Mount Otemanu in the distance as the blazing Tahitian sun sets on yet another perfect Taha’a day. And because Taha’a’s dozens of tiny deserted motus are the ideal spot to steal away for some alone time, you can ask to be dropped off on one with not much more than a well-stocked picnic basket and plenty of sunscreen – to protect those usually covered up places that you may unexpectedly feel free to expose.
Huahine island has a sparkling blue lagoon, beautiful white-sand beaches and lush green peaks – just like French Polynesia’s more-well-known Society Islands (Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora) of which it is part. But Huahine, which is actually two islands linked by a bridge over a pair of deep and dramatic bays, also has a river full of rare blue-eyed eels. These and other natural assets have earned it the nickname Tahiti’s “Garden of Eden.”
Huahine travel is all about discovering the languid pace of old Polynesia. While Captain James Cook called it Hermosa (Spanish for “beautiful”) when he first saw the island in 1769, the Tahitian name, a variation of “woman,” is said to have been inspired by the silhouette of a mountain that resembles a pregnant woman. It’s no secret this island is fertile as any drive around its lush perimeter reveals. Huahine’s massive lagoon is also a great place from which to admire its rugged green landscape, either by motorboat or Jet Ski. Another great vista point for the adventurous is Mount Turi, with its lookout point accessible via a moderate hike from Fare Village, the island’s largest town and port.
Expert surfers will also find a number of passes where they can ride massive curls while divers can explore unheralded dive sites with yellow coral gardens – and even giant coral roses – and a proliferation of eagle rays. The island is also home to the largest concentration of pre-European marae in French Polynesia, so if your interests include legends and lore, you can hire a guide and learn about Huahine’s mythology. Among those mysteries are the sacred blue-eyed eels of Faie, massive three-to-six-foot black freshwater dwellers with voracious appetites for fish handed out by guides and other locals. But of course – what would the Garden of Eden be without serpents?
When divers head to French Polynesia in search of stellar coral and adrenaline-rush dives, Rangiroa is often the destination of choice. The water’s 150-foot visibility and abundant schools of sharks and tuna add to the allure. But the ultimate thrill is “shooting the pass,” a fast-paced drift dive from the ocean through Tiputa Pass into Rangiroa’s protected lagoon – alongside what seems like a million fish.
Rangiroa is a necklace-shaped coral atoll comprised of 415 tiny motus, making it the largest in Tahiti’s Tuamotu island group. No motu is higher than three feet above sea level, meaning Rangiroa travel is most definitely about the water – being on it, in it, above it and under it – while waterskiing, parasailing, kayaking, glass-bottom boating and more. Unless you like sand and there’s plenty of that, too. Rangiroa’s beaches, such as the ones on Blue Lagoon Motu and L’Ile aux Recifs, feature fine white sand and access to superb snorkel spots. Lagoon excursions are also popular and vary according to interests: Options include fishing expeditions or visits to a bird sanctuary or to spy on playful dolphins at Tiputa Pass.
The clear waters of Rangiroa lagoon also produce some of Tahiti’s finest black pearls. To see how these beautiful baubles are cultivated and harvested, visit one of French Polynesia’s largest pearl farms. And while Tahiti is not known for wine production, the French are. One Rangiroa, one French expat named Dominique Auroy created a vineyard in the middle of the South Pacific and you can visit to sample his “Vin de Tahiti.”
Accommodations range from a newly renovated superior-class resort to a rustic castaway property without TVs or telephones. You’ll also find two small villages on Rangiroa: Avatoru, home to the airport and most resorts and shops, and Tiputa, located across the lagoon. And everywhere you go, there’s an open invitation to dive right in.
Tikehau travel is the equivalent of a detox: You land in a tiny airport on a slender atoll, are whisked off via motorboat to an intimate resort set amid soft pink sand, and spend your Tikehau vacation suspended in a swaying hammock and snorkeling a serene aquamarine lagoon. Yes, this idyllic atoll, considered one of the most beautiful in French Polynesia, is an instant cure for an overscheduled lifestyle. It’s also a low-key romantic alternative (or add-on) to Bora Bora and a terrific dive locale. What Tikehau doesn’t have is crowds – unless you count the fish.
Home to just 400 residents, whose primary source of income is fishing, Tikehau is a place where life is centered on the lagoon. As a guest here, you’ll enjoy this vivid blue expanse circled by tiny white-sand motus not only while snorkeling and diving (there’s a tremendous concentration of brightly colored parrotfish, triggerfish and lionfish – so many species that Jacques Cousteau once declared it the richest atoll on earth), but also while Jet Skiing or taking a lagoon excursion to Bird Island or to a remote motu. You’ll feel as if you’ve stepped back a few centuries as you relax on a castaway picnic by helping your guide catch fish and dehusk coconuts to make your delicious poisson cru (raw fish marinated in coconut milk and lime) lunch.
Other activities on Tikehau are equally down to earth: a sunset massage beside the lagoon with vanilla-scented monoi oil, a stroll or bicycle ride through the friendly village of Tuherahera, dining on fresh fish prepared in a French-Polynesian fusion style and served beneath blazing tiki torches, and feeling utterly stress-free as a gentle breeze shimmies the thatched roof of your bungalow and you’re totally content to be entertained by fish splashing in the lagoon. This, too, is real life.