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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.