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French Polynesia

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Travel Guide Oceania Polynesia French Polynesia

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Introduction

Church in Rikitea, Mangareva

Church in Rikitea, Mangareva

© All Rights Reserved Utrecht

With a generous splash of French style on this good-looking splice of the South Pacific, French Polynesia is one of the Pacific's biggest crowd drawers. This is where traditional Polynesian food takes a hit of French flavour, where French dollars are pumped into the thriving tourist industry and where the French decided to stage their nuclear testing back in 1995. Granted, the locals are itching for independence, but it is unlikely that the French influence will ever be erased. And really, it needn't be. French class makes this a superb destination for travellers; French Polynesia knows exactly how to appeal to those miraculous inner spaces known as comfort zones, while offering up an authentic South Pacific experience.

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Brief History

The first of the islands to be settled by indigenous Polynesians were the Marquesas Islands in 300 and the Society Islands in 800. European communication began in 1521 when the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan sighted Pukapuka in the Tuamotu Archipelago. Dutchman Jakob Roggeveen came across Bora Bora in the Society Islands in 1722, and the British explorer Samuel Wallis visited Tahiti in 1767. The French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville visited Tahiti in 1768, while the British explorer James Cook visited in 1769. Christian missions began with Spanish priests who stayed in Tahiti for a year from 1774.

French Catholic missionaries arrived on Tahiti in 1834. In 1842, Tahiti and Tahuata were declared a French protectorate, to allow Catholic missionaries to work undisturbed. In the 1880s, France claimed the Tuamotu Archipelago, which formerly belonged to the Pomare dynasty, without formally annexing it. Having declared a protectorate over Tahuatu in 1842, the French regarded the entire Marquesas Islands as French. The islands of Rimatara and Rurutu unsuccessfully lobbied for British protection in 1888, so in 1889 they were annexed by France.

In 1940 the administration of French Polynesia recognised the Free French Forces and many Polynesians served in World War II. In 1946, Polynesians were granted French citizenship and the islands' status was changed to an overseas territory; the islands' name was changed in 1957 to Polynésie Française (French Polynesia). In 1962, France's early nuclear testing ground of Algeria became independent and the Mururoa Atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago was selected as the new testing site; tests were conducted underground after 1974. In 1977, French Polynesia was granted partial internal autonomy; in 1984, the autonomy was extended. French Polynesia became a full overseas collectivity of France in 2004. In September 1995, France stirred up widespread protests by resuming nuclear testing at Fangataufa atoll after a three-year moratorium. The last test was on January 27, 1996. On January 29, 1996, France announced it would accede to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and no longer tests nuclear weapons.

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Geography

French Polynesia consists of about 130 islands organised into six island groups. The islands are scattered over 2.5 million km² of ocean, with a total land area of only 4,167 km². There are a combination of rugged high islands and low reef islands. The highest point in French Polynesia is Mont Orohena on Tahiti at 2,241 metres.

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Regions

There are five administrative divisions in French Polynesia.

  • Society Islands - Most-inhabited western island group, a group of high tropical islands encircled by coral reefs and lagoons (divided administratively into Windward Islands and Leeward Islands). Among the Leeward Islands Bora Bora is outstanding, Huahine, Maupiti and Raiatea are especially remarkable, in the Windward Islands Moorea is spectacular and Tahiti is a classic beauty with the capital Papeete.
  • Tuamotu Islands - Vast central archipelago of coral reefs. It is a collection of low islands or atolls. Rangiroa is outstanding.
  • Marquesas Islands - Northeastern archipelago, a group of high islands near the equator, whose steep mountains are inhabited by wild horses, goats and pigs. Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa are outstanding.
  • Gambier Islands - To the south-east, rarely visited, consisting of the high island of Mangareva and its fringe of islands which are the eroded remains of its former gigantic crater, is situated in the far eastern corner of French Polynesia.
  • Austral Islands - Small southern archipelagos (includes Tubuai Islands and Bass Islands). Last inhabited islands of the South Pacific, these ancient volcanoes with soft relief are far off the beaten track.

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Cities

  • Papeete - The capital
  • Faaa
  • Punaauia
  • Pirae
  • Mahina
  • Paea
  • Papara
  • Arue

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Sights and Activities

Most of the sights and activities in French Polynesia include relaxing and diving in and around one of the many islands, although there are some cultural things to explore as well. Here is just a small collection of islands.

Marquesas Islands

Sunrise on Ua Pou, Marquesas

Sunrise on Ua Pou, Marquesas

© All Rights Reserved dadmin

The Marquesas Islands are located in the north of French Polynesia and from a group of volcanic islands. These islands are one of the best places in the world to get a way from it all and are among the most beautiful islands anywhere in the world. Their waters are great for snorkelling and diving as well, but there are many more attractions including the rainforests and mountains. Hiva Oa and Nuku Hiva are the largest islands where most people live, but with only about 9,000 inhabitants you have the place almost to yourself.

Tuamotu Islands

The Tuamotu Islands are an archipelago of several island groups in French Polynesia and are great of diving and snorkelling because of its fine coral reefs with abudant aquatic animals to explore. Manihi is an atoll that forms a lagoon and is perfect for diving and black pearl farming. Many of the locals work in the black pearl industry. Rangiroa is another top scuba diving destination and is one of the largest atolls in the world.

Bora Bora

Bora Bora

Bora Bora

© All Rights Reserved deannajuli

Say Bora Bora and most travellers think of paradise immediately. Unfortunately, although still beautiful, many travellers go here, including top end package tourists. The island has never lost its beauty though and with its steep mountains rising straight from the blue waters you will find yourself in one of the most magnificent islands of French Polynesia. Relaxing, walking and diving are your main activities here, like in most places in French Polynesia.

Other sights and activities

  • Society Islands, including Moorea Tahiti - the main island, where Papeete, the only real city is located and most travellers arrive.
  • Austral Islands
  • Gambier Islands - least visited in the southeast of French Polynesia.

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Events and Festivals

  • Bastille Day, the French national holiday, is celebrated here on July 14th. People flock to the streets of Papeete to watch the military parade.
  • Heiva i Tahiti' is a large cultural festival held during the month of July. Cultural groups travel from around the islands to Tahiti for traditional performances of singing, dancing and drumming. The focal point of the action is at To'ata Square in the capital Papeete. There is also a Mr & Miss Tahiti competition, which is not just about looks, but also has challenges like climbing a coconut tree, lifting stones and chopping coconuts.
  • Hawaiki Nui Va'a is a canoe race takes place over three days in early November. Over 100 traditional canoes race from Huahine to stunning Bora Bora island, covering more than 50 kilometres in a bit over 4 hours. There are several other canoe races at other times of the year as well, but this is the big one.

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Weather

Full moon at Mangareva, Gambier Archipel

Full moon at Mangareva, Gambier Archipel

© All Rights Reserved Utrecht

Located almost entirely within the tropics, the climate of the French Polynesian islands is tropical. The average temperatures are around 28 °C to 32 °C during the day and still well above 20 °C at night. This especially applies to the central and northern parts of French Polynesia, like Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora, the Tuamuto Islands and the Marquesas Islands. Still, the southern islands, like the Gambier Archipelago are close to the outer areas of the tropics, meaning that temperatures during the cooler months of May to October can be somewhat cooler and a sweater might be nice in the evenings. The hotter months are between November and April and this is also the wet season with much more rain compared to June to September. Occasionally tropical storms hit some of the islands during this time, though certainly not every year.

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Getting there

By Plane

Faa'a International Airport (PPT), 5 kilometres southwest of Papeete, handles all international flights to and from French Polynesia. The national carrier, Air Tahiti Nui, flies to Auckland, New York, Los Angeles, Osaka, Paris, Sydney and Tokyo.

Other airlines flying into PPT include Air France (from Los Angles and Paris), Air New Zealand (Aukland), Hawaiianair (Honolulu), Air Tahiti (Rarotonga), Aircalin (Nouméa) and Lan Chile (Hanga Roa, Santiago de Chile).

By Boat

There are no regular passenger services to French Polynesia. You will have to find yourself a berth on a yacht, cruiseship or cargoship.

Little Bay on Moorea

Little Bay on Moorea

© All Rights Reserved Utrecht

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Getting Around

By Plane

There are two airlines operating scheduled domestic air services.

Several other companies offer charter flights only.

By Train

There are no train services on any of the islands.

By Land

You can rent cars on the largest and more developed islands, like Tahiti. A 4wd is recommended when visiting some inland tracks. Fares are high, but as you don't need a car for more than a few days, it is not that bad, especially if you are with 3 or 4 people to share costs.

Tahiti and several of the more developed islands offer buses and minibuses on fixed routes, and are relatively cheap.

Other options include renting scooters and bicycles on most islands, or horses on for example the Marquesas islands.

By Boat

Tahiti - Moorea vv
There are ferries and catamarans travelling between Tahiti and Moorea several times daily. It takes between half an hour and an hour to travel between Tahiti and Moorea, depending on which company you go with. The car ferries, such as those run by Moorea Ferry, are slower than the high-speed ferries, which take only passengers, motorcycles and bicycles. The Ono-Ono has at least four crossings daily. The Aremiti 5 and the Moorea Express travel between Tahiti and Moorea six or more times daily between 6:00am and 4:30pm and this takes only 30 minutes.

Lush and green Moorea

Lush and green Moorea

© All Rights Reserved Utrecht

Outer Islands
There are also services, often combined with cargo, to more outlying islands, but on an less frequent basis, sometimes even only once a month. Boats usually leave from Papeete. Destinations include the Marquesas Islands, Austral Islands, Tuamota Archipelago, Bora Bora and even as far as the Gambier islands (Mangareva). An brief overview of the boats travelling to island further afield include:

  • The Maupiti Express runs a high-speed service between Bora Bora, Taha'a, Raiatea and Maupiti.
  • The small cargo ship Maupiti Tou Ai'a goes to Maupiti from Papeete once a week, leaving on Wednesday evening, arrives at Maupiti the following morning, and returns to Pape'ete on Friday.
  • Vaeanu operates the Papeete-Huahine-Raiatea-Taha'a-Bora Bora return trip, leaving Pape'ete on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 5:00pm and from Bora Bora on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.
  • Hawaiki Nui also travels the Society Islands circuit, and has two departures a week (Tuesday and Thursday at 4:00pm).
  • The Aremiti 3 travels from Papeete on Monday and Friday for Huahine and Ra'iatea.
  • About 10 ships operate through the Tuamotus. Rroutes and fares vary, so it's best to check with the offices for the individual ships. They include the Dory, Cobia I, Rairoa Nui, Saint-Xavier Maris-Stella, Nuku Hau, Mareva Nui, Vai-Aito and the Kura Ora. All these ships, except for the Dory, go to the Gambier Archipelago. The Nuku Hau sails to the Gambier Archipelago via the Tuamotus. The Taporo V sails through the eastern Tuamotus and the Gambier Archipelago once or twice a month.
  • The Aranui and the Taporo IV go to the Marquesas, stopping in the Tuamotus en route. together, they go about 2-3 times a month.
  • Services to the Austral islands are limited. The Tuhaa Pae II (snathp@mail.pf) goes three times a month, stopping at Rurutu and Tubuai on every trip and other islands less regularly.

Check the ferry link about all possibilities.

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Red Tape

Nationals of the European Union, Andorra, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Monaco and Norway only need a valid passport for entry - in no case will they need a visa for a stay of any length. Unlike metropolitan France, Swiss nationals are only visa-exempt in French Polynesia for a stay of up to 90 days and do require a visa for a stay exceeding 90 days.

Nationals of all other countries will need a valid passport for entry to French Polynesia and most will need a visa. Citizens of the following countries do not require a visa for a stay of up to 90 days: Albania*, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Australia, Bahamas, Barbados, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina*, Brazil, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Israel, Japan, Kiribati, Macedonia*, Malaysia, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Mexico, Micronesia, Montenegro*, Nauru, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Palau, Panama, Paraguay, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Samoa, San Marino, Serbia*/**, Seychelles, Singapore, Solomon Islands, South Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan***, Tonga, Tuvalu, United States, Uruguay, Vatican City, Venezuela, as well as persons holding British National (Overseas), Hong Kong SAR or Macau SAR passports. In addition, holders of a valid residence permit issued by the Préfet of a French overseas département, the High Commissioner of a French territorial collectivity or a Schengen state and holders of a special card issued by the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs to the staff of diplomatic and consular missions can stay in French Polynesia visa-free for up to 90 days.

Citizens of Albania*, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Bahamas, Barbados, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina*, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Israel, Kiribati, Macedonia*, Malaysia, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Micronesia, Montenegro*, Nauru, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Palau, Panama, Paraguay, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Samoa, San Marino, Serbia*/**, Seychelles, Solomon Islands, Switzerland, Taiwan***, Tonga, Tuvalu, Uruguay, Vatican City, as well as British Nationals (Overseas), are permitted to work in French Polynesia without the need to obtain a visa or any further authorisation for the period of their 90 day visa-free stay. Holders of a valid residence permit issued by the Préfet of a French overseas département, the High Commissioner of a French territorial collectivity or a Schengen state and holders of a special card issued by the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs to the staff of diplomatic and consular missions are also permitted to work during their 90 day visa-free stay.

If you are required to obtain a visa for French Polynesia, you can apply for one at a French embassy or consulate in your country of residence. A visa costs €9.

For more information on entry requirements, visit this webpage of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

(*) nationals of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia need a biometric passport to enjoy visa-free travel,
(**) Serbian nationals with passports issued by the Serbian Coordination Directorate (residents of Kosovo with Serbian passports) do need a visa and
(***) Taiwan nationals need their ID number to be stipulated in their passport to enjoy visa-free travel.

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Money

See also Money Matters

The CFP franc is the currency used in French Polynesia. The initials CFP originally stood for Colonies Françaises du Pacifique but now means Change Franc Pacifique. New Caledonia and Wallis and Futuna Islands also use the CFP franc and they can be used in all three states.
It is subdivided into 100 centimes. There are coins of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 franc. Banknotes include the 500, 1000, 5000 and 10,000 ones.
All banknotes are identical in all three states. The coins on the other hand, have one side which is identical and one side where the inscription of the respective country (New Caledonia also applies to Wallis and Futuna by the way) can be found.

Rikitea church entrance

Rikitea church entrance

© All Rights Reserved Utrecht

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Language

French is the official language in French Polynesia and the most widely spoken. Tahitian and local Polynesian languages are also widely spoken. In the latest census in 2007, over 74% of the population reported that they could speak one of the Polynesian languages. Over 94% of the population could speak French and over 68% of the population speaks French at home.

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Eat

Fine food in Tahiti and nearby islands is typically a natural style of cooking based on fresh products exotically blended. There is a presence of European cuisine within a tropical setting. Asian cooking has also added its own tastes and textures.

Fish of all kinds, whether tuna, bonito, mahimahi or the many varieties of lagoon fish are prepared in many different ways: roasted, boiled and raw.

The top rated dishes are raw fish a la tahitienne which is marinated in lemon juice and coconut milk and the very popular Chinese ma'a tinito (which is a mixture of pork, kidney beans, Chinese cabbage and macaroni.)

Family occasions and celebrations are the time for a huge tamara'a Tahiti (Tahitian-style feasts) where a meal consisting of suckling pig, fish, breadfruit, yams and fe'i bananas is wrapped in banana leaves and steamed in an earth-dug oven over layers of hot rocks.

The larger hotels organize big buffet evenings that offer a vast panorama of local culinary delights accompanied by traditional dance performances.

Do note that tipping is not a custom in Tahiti or the nearby islands.

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Sleep

Around fifty international class hotels can be found on twelve islands covering three different archipelagoes - Society, Tuamotu and Marquesas. Although the islands of Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora provide over 80% of hotel capacity, the lesser known islands are also opening top-of-the-range establishments. Several international groups are established: InterContinental, Sofitel, Novotel, Meridien, Starwood-Sheraton, Orient Express, Club Med and Radisson. Two local chains, Maitai and South Pacific Management, complete the hotel scene. Although complying with international standards, Polynesian style has been respected in the overwater bungalows with the use of pandanus, bamboo and shell light fixtures. Some bungalows are fitted with glass-bottomed tables for watching the fishes without ever getting your feet wet.

For travellers who prefer the simplicity and authenticity of the local experience, family hotels are the ideal type of accommodation. The welcome is warm and friendly. They include guesthouses and B&B's.

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Drink

Bottles of water are readily available. Being a French territory, wine is common and easy to find. As this is a tropical island, a multitude of fruit juices from pineapple juice to coconut milk are to be found everywhere. Pineapple juice from Moorea is not to be missed! It is sometimes better to crack open your own coconut yourself and drain it for lunch. Orange juice is the states favorite drink and oranges are grown all along the coastlines.

If you're a fan of beer, the Hinano Beer will definitely be one you will like to taste and bring a few cans home.

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Health

See also Travel Health

There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to French Polynesia. There is one exception though. You need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering French Polynesia) where that disease is widely prevalent.

It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to French Polynesia. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and when travelling longer than 2 weeks also typhoid. Vaccination against hepatitis B is also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.

Dengue sometimes occurs as well. There is no vaccinations, so buy mosquito repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net. Also wear long sleeves if possible.

Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.

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Safety

See also Travel Safety

Tahiti has one of the lowest crime rates within France and its territories. However, petty crime, such as pickpocketing and purse snatching occurs. Be sure to bring jelly-type sandals for walking amidst coral in the water and along the beaches or either old sneakers so you don't cut your feet on the coral or don't step on a stonefish. Encounters with sharks in the lagoon will be most likely when scuba diving or even snorkeling but they are harmless. So are stingrays. However, be aware of moray eels which hide deep in the corals and are generally curious. Be sure to keep your fingers to yourself or risk a painful bite.

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Keep Connected

Internet

Internet access in Polynesia is provided by MANA, a subsidiary of the Post and Telecommunications Office, either by modem or by ADSL. For a short stay, a subscription-free connection is best. You can make the connection with the following information: Telephone # of the server: 36-88-88 - Log-in: anonymous - Password: anonymous. This type of modem connection is available in all archipelagos.

There are cyber-spaces on Tahiti, Moorea, Huahine, Bora Bora, Raiatea and Rangiroa (about 250 Fcfp for a 15 minute connection.) Most of the hotels and some small hotels and pensions provide Internet access to their guests. On some islands, access is possible from post offices.

Phone

See also International Telephone Calls

French Polynesia's country code is 689

The least expensive way to make international calls from French Polynesia may be to use a Top Phone prepaid card, available at many shops and at the Business Center in Tahiti-Faaa International Airport terminal. The cards come in denominations beginning at 1,000CFP, which includes 45 minutes of talk time to the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand. That's about 22CFP (US30¢/15p) per minute.

Public pay phones are located at all post offices and are fairly numerous elsewhere on Tahiti, less so on the other islands. You must have a télécarte to call from public pay phones (coins won't work). The cards are sold at all post offices and by most hotel front desks and many shops in 1,500CFP, 2,000CFP, and 5,000CFP

Prepaid SIM cards are available at stores displaying the VINI sign. The least expensive costs about 4,500CFP (US$56/£28) and includes 30 minutes of outgoing calls. Incoming calls are free, but outgoing calls using the least expensive card cost 183CFP.

Post

Postal services to overseas destinations can take anything from several days to weeks. Use international courier companies if you want to send packages overseas.

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Quick Facts

French Polynesia flag

Map of French Polynesia

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Local name
French: Polynésie française, Tahitian: Pōrīnetia Farāni
Capital
Papeete
Government
French Overseas Territory
Nationality
French Polynesian
Population
254,000
Languages
French, Tahitian
Religions
Christianity (Protestant, Catholic)
Currency
CFP Franc (XPF)
Calling Code
+689
Time Zone
UTC-10

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French Polynesia Travel Helpers

  • tropicalC

    Relax and experience paradise! French Polynesia has something for everyone. My entire family, ranging in age from 15 years to 84 years just returned (July 2006) from a magnificent Princess Cruise. I have been visiting there since 1986! It is one of my favorite places on the planet. I can provide tips so you have the experience of a lifetime, rather than being eaten by mosquitos, without electricity, or wondering where the sandy beaches are.

    Ask tropicalC a question about French Polynesia

Accommodation in French Polynesia

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