Emerald waters await those looking for a tropical island escape on the French Polynesian islands of Bora Bora, Tahiti and Moorea. Each island boasts the kind of views seen on laptop screensavers the world over. The islands were an endless source of inspiration for French artist Paul Gauguin. Nowadays, they fuel a sense of wanderlust within anyone looking for blissful beaches and breathtaking scenery.
These three islands offer something unique to every type of traveler. From romantic getaways to an adrenaline junkie’s playground or a family-friendly vacation, the Society Islands deliver on unforgettable moments waiting to be had.
Touring the islands can be an expensive endeavor though, so this guide is here to help you decide which island is best for you!
Facts about French Polynesia
- As the name suggests, the island group is a French collectivity, consisting of five archipelagos, 118 islands and is situated in the South Pacific
- The overwater bungalow was invented on the island of Moorea in the 1960s
- A considerable proportion of the 283,000 population of French Polynesia live on Tahiti, but several of the islands are uninhabited
- The terrain is vastly different across the islands, from pristine beaches to volcanic peaks
- Scared of poisonous snakes? No problem! There are no deadly animals on French Polynesia despite its tropical climate
- The main official languages are French and Tahitian, but 12% of the population is Chinese, and English is also widely spoken on Bora Bora, Tahiti and Moorea
Accommodation to suit all budgets
Often underrated, Tahiti is seen as the gateway or launchpad to the rest of the islands. Meanwhile, as the inventor of the overwater bungalow, Moorea attracts couples looking for a romantic escape and honeymooners. Then there is Bora Bora, which is well renowned for its tropical allure and luxury hotels.
Budget travelers will find their options are a little limited. Still, Tahiti does offer some backpacker guesthouses with cheaper dorm rooms. You will also find similar accommodation on Moorea and Bora Bora, and some guesthouses also offer breakfast which will save you spending more on food.
Outside of Tahiti, fares are small guesthouses which often include meals, bicycles to sightsee, a tour with the owners and they offer a safe and friendly environment for solo and budget travelers.
For travelers looking to splurge on a luxury vacation, each island offers hotel resorts and overwater bungalows. Honeymooners and couples enjoy the solitude that Bora Bora and Moorea offer, meanwhile families are catered for across all three islands. Still, in Moorea, it’s easier to get off resort and explore or do activities.
For families in Bora Bora, more resorts provide kids clubs, so depending on which activities you want to do this might be the more suitable choice.
Discover French Polynesia’s fascinating history
Visiting French Polynesia affords visitors a unique opportunity to delve into the lives of early settlers and learn more about the European arrival. From the famous story of the ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ to the oral history shown through dance and song, you can learn a lot through the cultural experiences on offer in French Polynesia.
Tahiti is awash with museums which include the Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands, which focuses on the island’s Polynesian history from fascinating artifacts to social and religious life.
Meanwhile, Musee Gauguin is a tribute to the French artist; the Black Pearl Museum contains Tahiti’s rare precious gems.
Finally, the James Norman Hall House, the house of the island’s most famous author who co-wrote Mutiny on the Bounty, has a 1920’s garden tea-room and library. For a glimpse of the oldest Catholic church in Tahiti, visit the Notre-Dame Cathedral in its capital Papeete which is an example of the old colonial-style architecture that came with the Europeans.
Aside from museums and architecture, you can also take the opportunity to meet the ancestors of ancient civilizations or watch stories told through traditional dance. Tour companies such as Moorea Maori Tours, give an insight into the daily lives of Polynesians.
Try your hand at spearfishing and learn the incredible meanings behind traditional Maori tattoos. On islands like Bora Bora and Tahiti, you will also find dance performances of the ‘Ori Tahiti’, and there are also places to take lessons with locals.
Adventure seekers paradise
The three islands have an abundance of activities that will suit everyone from thrill-seekers to families.
Trek through coffee plantations and go waterfall chasing in Moorea which has three popular trails for hikers:
- Three Coconut Trees Pass (moderate climb – 2 hours): Pass through bamboo forests and tackle the switchbacks at the top for spectacular views over the island.
- Mouapata (hard climb – 2 hours): This involves hiking with steep cliff drops, and you’ll have to climb using ropes, so this is not a trail for the faint-hearted!
- Les Trois Sapins (easy and family-friendly – 1 hour): A forest walk which is relatively easy and offers impressive views
Tahiti is most well-known for Teahupoo Lagoon, where the world’s most prolific surfers come to test their skills on the islands famous sharp reef breaks. Meanwhile, those who like to keep their feet on dry land can scale Aorai Mountain, which is recommended for experienced hikers. If you are looking for something unconventional, there are also places to swim or dive with sharks! (Recommended: Walking and hiking in Tahiti).
The turquoise lagoons of Bora Bora are perfect for kayaking; you can even take time to observe the colorful marine life below. Although best known as a romantic destination, it also provides the ideal conditions for snorkeling, diving, kite-surfing and other water sports. Hikers will also revel in trying to attempt climbing Mt Otemanu. This old volcano is best scaled with a local guide. (Recommended: Hiking in Bora Bora).
If you’re traveling to Bora Bora from June to November then it’s also peak whale-watching season! Humpback whales migrate here to breed during this time, and can even be spotted while snorkeling around the island. Having a great underwater camera – such as this one – is a must.
Explore spectacular natural wonders
The spell-binding beauty of French Polynesia attracts so many curious travelers seeking a slice of real-life paradise.
While Bora Bora seems the most obvious choice, it is undeniably the most beautiful when it comes to sparkling blue lagoons, and picturesque palm trees languidly lining its sandy beaches. You could easily while away your time in an overwater bungalow, sipping cocktails on the beach, but you could also opt to trek through the island’s jungles! For a proper beach paradise head to Matira Beach for white sands surrounded by greenery.
Mo’orea is a comparatively small island but is laden with waterfall trails including the beautiful Afareaitu Waterfall (Vaioro Falls) which is tucked behind lush mango trees and tree ferns. Go dolphin spotting in Opunohu Bay and marvel the island’s highest peak Mt Tohivea. Finally, head to Temae Beach for clear waters that are perfect for a dip!
Back on Tahiti is an unusual black sandy beach made famous by Captain James Cook called Venus Point. Here he observed the planet’s transit in 1769. Or visit the mysterious Mara’a Grotto, a cave with a rock pool. The cave seems like it rains on the inside, which is the water seeping through from the mountain above.
Another popular activity on all three islands is stargazing at night. The position of the islands and lack of light pollution make this the perfect place to see the stars.
Being a tropical island paradise, you will certainly have an image of an abundance of fresh fruit, coconuts and fresh fish which isn’t wrong. Still, there are some local dishes which might surprise you!
Raw fish with coconut milk
Usually, this is made from tuna or bonito fish. It is sliced into cubes and marinated in coconut milk, lemon juice, onion, cucumber, tomatoes, garlic and spring onion.
Traditional hot stone oven
The ahima’a is a traditional underground hot stone oven. Everything from suckling pig, fish, shrimps, sweet potato and crab or chicken are wrapped in banana leaves and placed inside the oven. It’s then covered in sand, and after four hours everything is ready!
Parrotfish or tuna soaked in seawater with the crushed heads of shrimp. Perhaps this is one dish for the more adventurous!
Chinese influenced food
With such a big Chinese-Polynesian population, there is a wonderful fusion of cuisines on French Polynesia. Chao men (fried noodles with vegetables, meat and shrimps), chicken with lemon sauce, chao chap (roasted duck), and mapo tofu are popular dishes on the islands. Raw fish is also very prominent in Chinese cooking on French Polynesia.
New Zealand beef and lamb
The proximity to New Zealand means that beef and lamb are popular with the locals who enjoy these meats on skewers often with barbecue sauce or mustard.
This relative of the Jackfruit is so-called because of its bread-like texture and can be prepared in different ways. A local specialty is to prepare the breadfruit with corned beef and sliced onion.
The French influence shines through in sweet treats such as firi firi (Tahitian doughnuts) and banana crepes. A favorite breakfast food is coconut bread!
Papeete Market and street food
For those on Tahiti, don’t miss the opportunity to visit this bustling market in the capital of Papeete. It’s also perfect for picking up souvenirs! For those traveling on a budget, food trucks on the islands are also a great alternative to dining out in restaurants.
Which island is better – Bora Bora, Tahiti or Moorea?
One thing is guaranteed on each island. There will be a stunning tropical paradise waiting to tantalise the senses. Bora Bora has the famous blue lagoons and sandy beaches. Moorea is quieter with an abundance of natural wonders, and Tahiti is a cultural hub and a surfer’s dream. While a car might be necessary on the biggest island of Tahiti, bicycles or going on foot is more do-able on Bora Bora and Moorea.
There are no wrong decisions when visiting French Polynesia, just enjoy those gorgeous views and the laissez-faire pace of island life!
Recommended reading for your trip to Bora Bora, Tahiti or Moorea
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