Island hopping French Polynesia, without breaking the bank
The Aranui is that romantic breed of working ship that takes a small contingent of passengers in almost-cruise-ship style. If you book in the shared cabins, you can make the 14 day cruise from Papeete to the Marquesas and back (about 1,600 nautical miles) stopping in the Tuamotus and the larger of the Marquesas Islands, for just 25,000 francs a day, full board, including all guided shore excursions.
Of course, if you can manage to become crew on a yacht, all the remotest anchorages and untouched motus (low, palm covered islands) of French Polynesia come into reach. Most cruising yachts sail northeast to southwest on the tradewinds – so you are most likely to get a berth in the Marquesas Islands to sail back towards Tahiti.
On Tahiti and Moorea particularly, which receive the most international tourists, taxi travel is notoriously pricey. On Tahiti, take “le truck” -- open trucks converted to a buses with wooden seats, or on Moorea hop on the round-island bus from the ferry terminal (which costs 600 francs to travel around the island, compared to some 9, 000 francs in a taxi). On the larger islands, especially in the Society Island group, instead of paying 10,000 francs per day car hire, stay somewhere that has free bikes and use pedal power to get around. Although the islands are mountainous, most roads that circumnavigate them are close to the shore and therefore surprisingly easy to navigate on two wheels. On the smaller and remoter islands, like many of the Tuamotus, Gambiers and Australs, there is not much road at all: make sure you bring walking shoes. On the Marquesas with their precipitous mountains plunging to the sea and not many vehicles to speak of, horse riding is both transport and pleasure.
Stay small, stay local
The key to an affordable Polynesian holiday is to eschew the big resorts and opt for family-run pensions or fares, the Polynesian versions of bed and breakfasts. Most pensions and fares are bungalows crafted out of local materials: coral gravel floors, palm thatch roofs, driftwood railings; usually surrounded by tropical greenery. Many do not have hot showers or glass in the windows -- though do provide romantically draped mosquito nets over the beds. Best of all, most are located on the shores of an azure lagoon so you can wake up, pad over the sand and plunge in. The cheapest cost 8,000 francs a night, usually including half board, compared to resort rooms that start at 40,000 francs and reach stratospherically upwards. Try the low-key, family-run Poynesian hideaway Pension Vaiama Village on Fakarava in the Tuamotu Islands, where you will meet and talk with locals, and learn what it really means to live on a coral atoll so far from the rest of the world.
Eat independently – and catch your own
In the larger towns and villages, the best-value place to eat is at a roulette. These little vans pull up in squares at sundown, fold out tables and chairs and cook up a storm. The Place Vaiete roulottes in Papeete are the cheapest place to sample the traditional Tahitian dish poisson cru (raw fish marinated in coconut milk). If you stay in self-catering accommodation like the peaceful pension Linareva on Moorea you can also trim expenses considerably. Wander to the nearby shop for fresh baguettes and pain au chocolat, and pick up a tropical bounty of pineapple, papaya and tiny, tasty bananas at a roadside stall on the way. You could even venture out on the water to catch dinner for the night (though take local advice on the presence of the ciguatera toxin in reef fish). Get a local to show you how to make tasty patties from the ubiquitous breadfruit, and learn how to crack open a coconut.
When to go
Tourism in French Polynesia is strongly seasonal. Because the great majority of visitors here come from France, this has more to do with French summer holidays than with the best weather. Avoid visiting in July and August and around Christmas and New Year which is high season, when prices are highest. Accommodation and some domestic flight costs can be up to 30% lower from April to June and September to November.