Island hopping French Polynesia, without breaking the bank
The islands of French Polynesia have a reputation of being one of the most expensive holiday spots on earth. (Jean-Bernard Carillet/LPI/Getty)
Think French Polynesia and you will likely envisage picture-perfect tropical islands with acres of blonde sand, palm trees, azure waters and coral gardens populated by kaleidoscopic swirls of fish. Unfortunately, you may also think dollar signs: these isolated and far-flung islands have a reputation of being one of the most expensive holiday spots on earth. Stay in a resort – which is what most visitors do – and in just one night you may blow the equivalent of a week’s moderately-priced accommodation in Europe.
Hotels, restaurant food and private transport are the most budget-blowing aspects of travelling these islands – but it is possible to reduce these expenses and island-hop French Polynesia independently and affordably, while having an authentic Polynesian experience.
First… know your islands
French Polynesia is made up of some 200 islands -- the Society, Tuamotu, Gambier, Austral and Marquesas groups -- spread over 4.1 million square kilometres of Pacific Ocean: an area roughly eight times the size of France. The islands are a mix of low coral atolls rising little more than 3m above the ocean and soaring volcanic islands with jagged peaks reaching up to 2,241m out of the sea.
The Society Islands, which include the island of Tahiti and French Polynesia’s capital, Papetee, are the most populated and most visited group. These are mostly high, volcanic islands, known for spectacularly perpendicular geography, crystal lagoons – as well as pricey resorts with spas and overwater bungalows.
To the east lie the Tuamotu Islands, 78 low coral atolls, where locals rely mainly on copra (dried coconut) and black pearls for income. Tourism is mostly small-scale with family run guesthouses rather than international resorts. The diving and snorkelling around the Tuamotus is legendary.
Southeast of the Tuamotus is the Gambier group. These lush high islands, surrounded by crystal lagoons are almost as far off the beaten tourist track as you can get. You will find great hiking, and an exceptionally friendly welcome from locals.
Farthest east, the 15 lofty Marquesas Islands are ruggedly mountainous. No protective circling lagoons here: waves crash in across the Pacific. Smiling, tattooed Marquesans riding bareback on horses will guide you to caves and mountain tops, where you can marvel at sheer cliffs plunging to the sea.
Most isolated of all are the Austral Islands, to Tahiti’s south. These are cool tropical islands where humpback whales calve in the winter, and where, in some places, one can feel like the only visitor that ever ventured this far.
Island hop by air
Given the vast distance over which French Polynesia’s islands are spread, the most practical and time-efficient way to island hop is by air. Air Tahiti offers mix-and-match island hopper flight services between 38 of the French Polynesian islands one or more times a week, and if you choose several destinations in one island group the cost is not much greater than just flying to one. A ticket allowing five stops from Tahiti, for example, on some of the more popular islands of the Society Islands Group (such as Moorea, Huahine, Raiatea, Bora Bora and Maupiti) costs around 46,700 francs in high season. There are flights to the Tuamotus from Tahiti every day, and to the Gambiers, Marquesas and Australs several days a week. Many flights from Tahiti to the Marquesas, for example, stop first in the Tuamotus, allowing access to more than one island group on the same ticket.
...and by sea
If you have time, travelling by sea can be a cheaper option. There are regular passenger ferries between the Society Islands group; foot passengers can climb onto the blustery top deck of the Aremiti 5 between Tahiti and Moorea for a half-hour journey for just 1,500 francs, around the cost of a watermelon in these islands. Supply ships also ply the waters between Papeete and most of the inhabited islands, and some take passengers. Many locals travel rough and ready “deck class” for shorter trips, but some ships also have basic cabins. Schedules are not publicised, so you will need to ask at the port in Papeete. Freight ships like the Mareva Nui can take you to the paradisiacal coral atolls of the Tuamotus cheaply (12,000 francs for the 20 hour crossing) if you do not mind roughing it – this is no cruise ship: bring your own food and bedding -- or you can tour the towering Marquesas Islands in the salubrious surrounds of the Aranui 3, the passenger and supply ship that services this most easterly archipelago of French Polynesia.