There are 118 islands and atolls (about 67 that are inhabited) that make up French Polynesia. These islands are divided up into five (5) groups of islands with the Society Islands being the most popular and that’s where we chose to hang. The Society Islands are dispersed over a huge geographical area the size of Europe. When many Americans refer to the 118 islands of French Polynesia, most usually just say Tahiti, which is totally and absolutely incorrect. Tahiti is just one of the islands in French Polynesia.
When I was young and just Doug, well before the days of being Big Doug, I dreamed about French Polynesia for as long as I can remember but it was so damn expensive. French Polynesia is well known to be an expensive luxury travel destination and home to some of the priciest islands on the planet. It regularly tops lists of the most expensive honeymoon destinations in the world. These lush resorts know they got these honeymooners by the balls. They are wizards at extracting every dollar, euro, pound possible from their guests lounging in their overwater bungalows mesmerized by the sheer beauty of this place all while under this unique Polynesian spell. “Another $25 for a Pina Colada, sir? I can just put it on your tab that you are sure to vomit on when you see the final bill upon check out.”
The great news is that it’s not the way it has to go down if you are a tiny bit savvy. In an effort to circumvent getting our asses handled, us Flashpackers were determined to see if we could visit a bunch of these islands on a moderate budget, far away from the package tourists. I am happy to say we accomplished our mission.
Once I realized the easiest and least expensive way to get to Tahiti is via New Zealand, I was forced to pull the trigger. I thought how can I possibly pass on this tropical paradise, just south of the equator — the sun’s most favorite residence. French Polynesia could easily be described as the center of the romantic universe and I had to see if BFD could polish up my nicest flip flops and morph into romantic Big Doug for a few weeks. For years, I had been listening to the Crosby, Stills & Nash song, “Southern Cross.” The song is about sailing around French Polynesia and I had to see what CSN was singing about. I am not even going to elaborate on the sheer beauty of these islands we visited in this blog post. Well, maybe just a little. I could go down as the shittiest iPhone photographer but just look at the pix below and see for yourself.
Even though I knew going in that French was one of the main languages spoken in Polynesia, I really had no idea that barely anyone in Tahiti would speak or understand a lick of English. In all of our travels spanning the globe and that includes the backwoods of Southeast Asia, English was more widely spoken. Tahiti was definitely one of the most difficult countries to communicate. After spending the previous 5 months in Australia & New Zealand where communication was as simple as, “I’ll take one steak and cheese meat pie, mate”, it was back to basics for us. Finger pointing, eye contact, body language, breaking out the google translate app and speaking fragments like you are speaking to an infant all needed to come back into play in order to communicate. At first glance seeing all these local islanders in board shorts, flip flops and no shirts – the last thing you would think you’d hear is French coming out of their mouths. It reminded me of my old Camp Echo Lake kitchen working days when a black Potman from London arrived for his first day to work in the kitchen to scrub pots for the summer. It’s still etched into my mind to this very day, the bewildered look on the Kingpin’s face when he heard the first words coming out of this black potman’s mouth were words with a British accent.
It just seemed so strange hearing these dark skinned tropical islanders speaking French. As for the mostly French white tourists and residents, Tahiti was like their own little French speaking enclave smack in the middle of the South Pacific. Almost like they found an oasis of their very own where they could stick their middle finger up to the entire English speaking world. Arrival into Tahiti was so bizarre and reminded me of feeling as though I was in that scene from Apocalypse Now where Martin Sheen first arrived to see Colonel Walter Kurtz in the Cambodian jungle. Simply trying to figure this place out and it’s people was part of one big puzzle.
All International travelers arriving into French Polynesia will arrive into Papeete, Tahiti. Very rarely do travelers spend more than 1 night on the island of Tahiti. Tahiti is really used just as a transit point to get out to one of the outlying islands (i.e. Bora Bora, Moorea…etc.). I assumed part of the reason many tourists elect to skip over Tahiti is because of the lack of quality sweeping white sand beaches and it’s very rough around the edges appearance. If you are a clueless traveler, and simply book an airline ticket/hotel and only visit Tahiti, you will be sorely disappointed and could go down as dunce of the year. This being said, if you do have the time and can set aside a full day to drive the entirety of the island, you will uncover the real Tahiti outside the port city of Papeete. Just make sure that day is not a Sunday as that is ‘dark day’ on the island of Tahiti.
Papeete had the appearance of a third world city on par with Yangon, Myanmar. We both loved the vibrant atmosphere during the day but were kinda freaked by the eerie look to it at night. While in Papeete, we visited the local market which was real colorful and is where I inhaled a massive amount of the freshest and reddest tuna sashimi in the history of the world of sashimi. As previously mentioned, every country has their own signature food item. Anytime we did not eat Flashpacking Barbie’s home cooking, we could be seen scoffing down French Polynesia’s signature dish, POISSON CRU. This was our ‘go to’ food dish anytime we felt hungry as just about every single food shack serves up their own version of this dish. What was great, is that they never tasted the same as the locals have their own twist on the recipe. It is a raw fish salad and consists of raw tuna marinated in a lime citrus juice (which cooks the fish) and mixed with coconut milk, shredded carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers and onions. It’s similar to the poke dishes you would find in Hawaii but this dish had an edge on any Hawaiian poke due to the number of ingredients. It comes with white rice or a freshly baked French baguette that a pro Poisson Cru eater would use to sop up all the leftover coconut milk from the dish. We are talking some tasty shit here. We were addicted!
In downtown Papeete, at 6 PM about a dozen food trucks, actually more like full service restaurants on wheels, gathered at Vai’ete Square to serve up some great local food at reasonable prices. Eating out is very expensive in Tahiti, in addition to everything else geared to tourists. These food trucks were not only a more cost effective option to eating in restaurants, it was also a real festive outside eating experience hanging with the locals. The other things that were absurdly expensive were rental cars and SIM cards for our iPhones. (3 Gigs of data for a $100). This tops Israel’s SIM cards as the most expensive in our travels. I guess this is actually good, as it forced us to keep our eyes off our iPhone and onto all the beauty of the islands.
We elected to stay 3 days in Tahiti to dig in and explore this island outside of Papeete in our golf cart…..I mean the smallest rental car on planet earth. It was a real piece of shit and also the most expensive rental car I ever rented @$75 bucks a day. We drove around most of the island and really enjoyed seeing true local island life outside the city center of Papeete. While cruising around the island, you can take in many waterfalls, viewpoints and hikes into the interior of the island. What I enjoyed most was simply observing the locals going about their daily business in their villages far away from the city centre and observing how simple life could be. Island life was so casual and relaxed but as we began to explore the other Society Islands, it became evident how fast paced the Tahitian lifestyle actually was. Tahitians live in paradise and the average salary is incredibly low. However, the people who live here are also amongst the nicest and happiest I’ve met.
BORA BORA –
The flight over from Tahiti to Bora Bora was a real treat. I always prefer only nonstop flights which, in this case, should have taken 30 minutes direct. Instead, our flight had two (2) stops on two (2) other islands but with no change of planes. The routing went like this: Tahiti to Moorea (10 minutes) Moorea to Huahine (30 minutes) and Huahine to Bora Bora (30 minutes). When booking this leg, I thought to myself…..WTF, how the hell could a 30 minute flight include 2 stops? Well, after taking what could go down as the most scenic flights in the history of aviation, I actually would have had no issues with a bunch of more stops. In fact, I would fly all day onto every single island. The views from the plane over the Society Islands were beyond spectacular, almost like out of a dream. I could not wait for the next 3 legs of our trip to the other Society Islands.
When friends said they were going to Bora Bora, I had no idea it was part of French Polynesia. And, I had no idea that most were actually not going to the mainland of Bora Bora but instead were visiting one of the many atolls (smaller islands) that encircle mainland Bora Bora. These smaller atolls are home to all those fly and pimped out overwater bungalows sitting on stilts above a blue colored water that only Kool- Aid brand could duplicate to drink. These overwater bungalows are home to all those $1,000 – $15,000 per night bungalows plastered on every South Pacific honeymoon travel brochure. At that price, a Tahitian princess with colorful flowers wrapped around her head better be coming into my overwater bungalow everyday to juggle my balls, serve me Poisson Cru all while sipping Pina Coladas in a hammock.
$1,500 per night? No can do for us Flashpackers. We wanted a different experience far away from these packaged tourists getting hosed. Instead, we opted to shack up at one of the alternative local pensions that dot the main island where the local Polynesians live as opposed to the fancy resorts on the nearby atolls circling the main island. We reserved our own 1 bedroom apartment with a full kitchen and huge balcony right across the street from the lagoon. Staying here enabled us to cook our own meals and experience what living on a Polynesian island is all about. Our crib was a 5-10 minute bike ride from Matira Beach, the best beach on the island. The same exact beach the guests overpaying at the Intercontinental Le Moana frolic in. The other must do activity is the Lagoon cruise where you can swim/snorkel with reef sharks and sting rays in water that had about Fifty Shades of Blue. The boat circled the lagoon where we were able to check out the big kahuna overwater bungalows at the Four Seasons, St. Regis, Intercontinental, Le Meridian….etc. Oh boy, did these bungalows look sweet if you are a ‘player’ and got the bucks. Bora Bora is a special place. It’s seriously gorgeous — like blow your mind spectacularly gorgeous where you constantly feel like you’re living in a Photoshopped world.
Our next island to hang on was Huahine. Huahine is real small in size and one of the least populated and least visited islands in the Society Island group. It’s not all that surprising, because have you even heard of Huahine? I know that I hadn’t until I started to plan this trip. I read reviews that Huahine was the most wild and beautiful hidden gems of all the islands and that was good enough for me.
Hopping on a bicycle and riding around felt like we were on our own private jungle island. I never thought I would ever see more ‘green’ than our road trip thru New Zealand. However, the 20 mile drive, which is a MUST, around the circumference of Huahine took the color green to another level and could possibly be the greenest place on planet earth with the exception of Snoop Dog’s house. We drove to the south side of the island to Chez Tara to feast on some awesome Poisson Cru (Tara knows her shit when it came to whipping up her version of Poisson Cru). We followed the downing of the Cru with a dip in the blue lagoon in front of the restaurant.
Visiting Huahine is like stepping back into time. It is definitely the place to go if you like off-the-beaten-path kind of places. When traveling, you sometimes are lucky enough to find a really unique place to stay at. We discovered Rande’s Shack on the island of Huahine and it was one of those. The shack overlooks the lagoon towards the islands of Raiatea, Taha’a and Bora Bora making for some damn impressive sunsets. It is also a 2 minute bike ride to town and one of the best stretches of beach in front of the Maitai Lapita Village.
It took time to get adjusted to the Shack as it felt like we were living on Gilligan’s Island but without the creature comforts that the millionaire and his wife probably had. No a/c in tropical weather, shit shower water pressure, no tv or internet. Rande’s dogs Blackout and Boy roamed the property along with wild chickens and roosters who never ate so good after Flashpacking Barbie finished feeding and spoiling them all week. We loved it! We couldn’t get a more rustic and authentic local tropical island living experience than this. It was as a remote feeling that we experienced in all our travels. Barbie and I lived in the lagoon waters in front of the Shack without seeing another soul in sight. This island and its setting was the exclamation point of Dropping out of Society!
There really isn’t much tourism infrastructure on Huahine, and there are no major hotels. This was an island to disconnect. My heart was flatlining after our stay in Bora Bora but this place took it to another level of comatose that I never knew existed in my body. If Tahiti = Speed, then Huahine = Valium with a Quaalude thrown in. Visiting Huahine is like stepping back into time. People who live on this island are never in much of a hurry to do anything. If you’re a high-strung American accustomed to Starbucks whipping up your chai latte in two minutes, you might find Huahine to be a bit frustrating.
Our next island stop was the island of Moorea, and it had to be something really spectacular, to be able to top our stays in Bora Bora and Huahine. Well, Moorea also delivered with its rugged beauty but on a much larger scale. As soon as we got into our rental car and began driving, Barbie and I looked at each other and just smiled. Instantly, we knew this was going to be a good place. The towering peaks that surrounded us while driving around the island can be compared to and were as impressive as the landscape driving thru Zion National Park. While Zion has massive golden colored cliffs, Moorea’s cliffs and mountains looked similar but the nature gods made them tropical lush green, similar to the Na Pali Coast in Kauai. We have been to a shitload of islands during our Round The World journey. I can say the magnitude of the sheer nature beauty of Moorea probably takes first prize of kickass islands. Note, renting a car is an absolute must, in order to properly see the entire islands of both Moorea and Huahine. Good thing that I know how to drive a stick (manual) as there are no automatic vehicles on these islands. Tahiti had just a few automatics in stock and a bicycle is really all that is needed on Bora Bora assuming you are in reasonable shape.
We were going to skip Moorea as I had the impression it would be a more touristy honeymoon island. So glad we added it to our itinerary as it was visually spectacular. We basically beach hopped around the entire island in our rental car stopping at various kick back beach shacks to get our daily dosage of some juicy Poisson Cru. The biggest challenge while driving around, was staying on the road and not crashing into the ubiquitous roadside papaya/pomelo salesman, as we were constantly in awe staring at the overpowering, “Holy Shit, Goddamn” surroundings. Barbie and I have spent a great deal of time living on the Hawaiian islands. During our time in French Polynesia, we really appreciated these islands as they were ‘rougher around the edges’. We both loved seeing all the Polynesian traditions, the housing structures, the island smells and the everyday life of locals still in tact. We kept imagining that this is what Hawaii must have looked liked 50 years ago prior to the arrival of all the ugly Americans from mainland USA.
THRU THE BINOCS –
During our time in French Polynesia, we overlapped with Barak Obama’s stay at the nearby island of Tetiaroa. The former President was holed up on this island looking for complete isolation while writing his memoirs. Marlon Brando built this resort called The Brando. Passionate about preserving the islands natural beauty, Vito Corleone developed the island and its surrounding atolls in to the worlds first eco-hotel. Following Obama’s stay on Tetiaroa he was joined by Springsteen, Tom Hanks and Oprah on separate yacht’s owned by music guru, David Geffen and Oracle chief, Larry Ellison. They all have been hopping between various French Polynesian islands just like us Flashpackers. Oprah was in the same town as us in New Zealand filming a movie and has apparently followed us to the South Pacific. Now, let’s see if Oprah’s travel path leads her to Asia. That is where Flashpacking Barbie and I are headed after a week pitsop in Sydney, Australia.
Tip of the day……When visiting French Polynesia, it’s best not to cram in as many islands as possible. Travel time can actually take a lot longer than expected. It’s so much better to just take it slow and enjoy each island at a more leisurely pace. Each island has its own personality, activities and experiences to offer and in many cases they differ greatly from one another. In order to get into the rhythm of each island and get into super chill mode, we elected to stay six nights per island. Remember what I previously said about having to morph into Romantic Big Doug during our stays on these beautiful islands. I am happy to report that zero effort is needed to be romantic as the scenery and setting takes care of it all. What made these French Polynesian islands really cool is they have not sold out like parts of Hawaii. They are not overbuilt nor do the locals seem to have any interest in changing this philosophy for the sake of money. It appeared as though they simply want to preserve their Polynesian traditions and land.
We really enjoyed the relaxed pace of French Polynesia. We were sad to leave but hope to return someday to visit some other islands that we missed out on during our three weeks here. To us, it was paradise that lived up to all the hype. I was warned to be aware of the Polynesian virus after you leave and it has seemingly already infected us. The virus makes you dream of the islands when you depart and wish you could book the next flight back to float in the turquoise lagoon and smell that unique French Polynesian air.
Doug – As always I enjoyed your refreshing commentary and laudable insights! I thought that Bora Bora was the only place in the area bereft with exorbitantly priced “huts” at $1,000+ per night. How nice that you did your research and found a way to enjoy the areas without spending your entire fortune — or even a small portion of it. I’m not sure I would like being on some stilts hovering over an unpredictable ocean! The last time I stayed in a “shack” in the middle of nowhere was in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, in 1969 in a wooden cabin infested with spiders and loaded with flying insects all night long! I didn’t know we had experienced on land what many stupid people now experience on the ocean for 5,000 times the price! Why would anyone want to live on top of the ocean for those prices? It’s probably just a buggy, too! I enjoyed your description of “Polynesian traditions, the housing structures, the island smells and the everyday life of locals”. I loved your descriptions of the costs of rental cars, hotels, and wifi connections along with your incredibly beautiful description of the surroundings and life in that area. I had no idea that French Polynesia consisted of 118 islands and atolls! I’ve heard of Tahiti and know that Marlon Brando married a beautiful native woman while filming “Mutiny on the Bounty”. I didn’t know he invested in anything there — and how would I know that without your narrative and historical perspectives. Your descriptions are so refreshing and honest! Wish I had the “cajones” to write like you do! Keep the blogs coming that not only enrich my life, fill me with a longing to visit those places, and educate me in a way that enhances the feeble historical education that we are afforded as idiot students in the good ole USA. By keeping us ignorant of the ways of the world at large, Americans are able to be calloused and dismissive of the human community. No wonder we are referred to as “ugly Americans” — a fitting tribute to an ignoble populace of this country! Thanks, Doug! Safe travels until we meet again!! — Tina