There is no need to remortgage the house to visit Tahiti and French Polynesia.
Despite a reputation for opulence and exclusivity, it is perfectly possible to visit these dreamy islands on a limited budget - if you make the right decisions.
Glossy brochures focus on ultra-swish resorts, but French Polynesia actually has a pretty wide range of accommodation options. You can keep lodging costs down by staying in small guesthouses and pensions (homestays) that are sprinkled around the islands. They are nothing glam or ostentatious, just modest operations that blend perfectly into the tropical surroundings. At the cheaper end of the scale (around $80 per room), they consist of simple, local-style bungalows with cold showers and thin walls. Upmarket versions (plan on $100 to $120) have lots of amenities and are more comfortable.
These options also generally offer good opportunities for cultural immersion. They are mostly family-run operations (which ensures your money goes straight into local pockets) and provide much more personal, idiosyncratic experiences than hotels - the perfect island experience.
Most pensions are in scenic locations, tucked away in greenery-cloaked hills or near the ocean. In the Tuamotu archipelago, they feature a fabulous lagoon frontage - at $90 per room, how does a bungalow facing the turquoise waters of the lagoon sound?
Good news, too, for those who want to spend their holiday under canvas: French Polynesia has a smattering of camping options around. Do not expect full-blown camp sites, though; generally it is a matter of guesthouses having areas where you can pitch your tent and allowing use of the facilities. The price? Around $15 per person.
Choosing the best-value islands
As much as Paris does not represent France, Bora Bora, Tahiti and Moorea (the beloved islands of tour operators), do not sum up French Polynesia. There are about 30 islands (scattered in five archipelagos) that have tourist facilities, which means that you have plenty of choice. Tip: skip the heavily-publicised islands, such as Bora Bora, which are very expensive, and consider lesser-known, off-the-radar islands, which offer greater value for money. A few suggestions: Maupiti (Bora Bora's little sister), Raiatea, Tahaa (in the Society islands), Mataiva, Tikehau (in the Tuamotus), Nuku Hiva, Ua Huka, Ua Pou (in the Marquesas), Raivavae and Rurutu (in the Australs).
How to eat cheaply
It is possible to eat reasonably by patronising snack stands and getting takeaway meals like sandwiches, salads, grilled fish and meat or fish burgers. Most pensions offer half board (bed, breakfast and one other meal) for around $20 to $30 per person (set menu) if you reserve in advance (usually the day before). This is a fantastic way to meet locals and sample the local cuisine at economical prices.
Self-catering can also save you a lot of money; many pensions have well-equipped kitchens. Fresh fish, fruits and vegetables are easily found at roadside stalls found on most major islands.
Budget-friendly ways to get around
Air Tahiti, the domestic airline, has six island-hopping air passes offerings inclusive fares to a number of islands. Thus, you will save about 30% on regular flights. If you are looking for adventure and have plenty of time on your hands, boat travel works even cheaper. Cargo vessels serve most islands on a regular basis, especially within the Society group and the Tuamotus.
Hiring a car is expensive but it is possible to get around by bike on many islands; distances are rarely great, the traffic is rarely heavy and the roads are rarely hilly. Bikes can be rented for less than $15 per day.
Picking the right season
It helps to travel off-season: prices are generally discounted and there is more chance of being able to bargain. Flights are full to bursting in July and August and prices skyrocket accordingly. The Christmas to New Year period is also particularly busy. The best deals can be found during the shoulder seasons - April to June and September to November.
Jean-Bernard Carillet has co-authored Lonely Planet's latest Tahiti & French Polynesia guide.
The article 'Tahiti and French Polynesia on a budget' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.