French Polynesia is a collection of volcanic islands and atolls spread over hundreds of miles in the tropical waters of the South Pacific. They are home to around 200,000 people, who are mainly indigenous Polynesian, but some Chinese or European. France declared the islands a protectorate in 1848, and they remain under French jurisdiction to this day. Some of the remote islands have been subjects of controversy, as they were evacuated by the French military and used as sites for nuclear testing.
French Polynesia can be separated roughly into three island groups. The most visited are the 'Society' islands, which include Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora. The Tuamuto archipelago is made up of 78 separate atolls surrounding lagoons. Many of these are uninhabited, but are accessible by specially chartered ferries. These lagoons are some of the most popular and exciting snorkelling destinations in the world. The final group is the Marquesas Islands, which are the northernmost group and have a more equatorial climate than the other islands.
Each of the island groups have distinct languages that belong to the Austronesian family. By far the most commonly used of these languages is Tahitian. English is spoken fairly widely among students, the middle classes shopkeepers and hoteliers. French is the official language of education, which means most locals will have at least a good basic understanding of the language.
The Pacific Franc, or Cour de Franc Pacifique, is the national currency of French Polynesia, New Caledonia and Wallis and Futuna. It is not wise to assume that USD or Euros will be accepted, as although occasionally in the big hotels and shopping centres this is the case, it is the exception rather than the rule. You will find cash machines on most of the larger islands and traveller's cheques are widely accepted.
French Polynesia in general has a pleasant tropical climate, but there is some variation between the Marquesas Islands, which are closer to the equator, and the Society Islands (of which Tahiti is one), which are further south. The summer period between December and April brings high humidity, occasional downpours in the afternoon, and the possibility of cyclones. The average temperature in this period is around 27 degrees Celsius. Winter is between May and October, and during this time the temperature and humidity is more comfortable, around 25 degrees Celsius.
Many people visiting Tahiti are somewhat disappointed with the quality of the beaches they find. The best resorts are found on the west coast of the island where there are white sandy beaches and warm lagoons. Unfortunately these lagoons often become overgrown with seaweed, making swimming rather more unpleasant. For an honest rundown of the beaches of French Polynesia visit this website.
The Lagoonarium is an aquarium in Palpeete. There are over 1000 species of fish and shellfish, including sharks, moray eels and tropical fish. The park is open between 09.00 and 17.00, and shark feeding is held everyday at midday.
DolphinQuest on Moorea island is one of the best places in the world to have an encounter with Dolphins in a semi-natural environment. The 2.5-acre lagoon is edged by beautiful coral reef, and the tropical waters and clear and teeming with friendly bottlenose dolphins. The centre runs a variety of programs depending on the type of encounter you want. Children and non-swimmers can enjoy a shallow water encounter for around 16.5 CFP, or you can snorkel with the dolphins in an hour long session for 18.7 CFP per person.
The Marché Municipale in Papeete combines the laid-back friendliness and craft of the island with a European flair and sophistication. This is the best place to pick up souvenirs of your stay in French Polynesia. You can buy handmade sarongs, handbags and jewellery made from shells. Tahiti is known for its pearls, and it is one of the only places in the world where you can buy them (relatively) inexpensively. The Centre Vaima is a shopping centre in Papeete and probably the best place to start looking for pearls. You can find the unique black pearls on Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora.
Hinano is the national beer and is popular on all the islands. There are bars and clubs, but these are not particularly popular with locals, who tend to socialise in family groups. Having said this, you can enjoy an evening stroll along the waterfront in Papeete, where there are cafes and bars open till late. You could also try your luck in one of the casinos attached to the hotels.
On many of the smaller islands paved roads are non-existent, and people get around by more traditional means. However, on Tahiti and the larger Society islands the main roads are in good condition and well lit. Within towns and cities driving can be dangerous and tricky, with pedestrians, donkeys and carts competing for the right of way. There is very little enforcement of traffic regulations, and parking, for example is often very ad hoc.
Food and Drink
Tamaaraa is a traditional Tahitan feast. Pork, fish, fruits and vegetables are wrapped in banana leaves and cooked by volcanic rocks in an underground oven called ahimaa. National specialities of the indigenous Polynesians include;
- Smoked breadfruit
- Roast suckling pig with fafa (spinach)
- Poisson cru (fish marinated in coconut, lime and fruit juices)
Polynesians pride themselves on their hospitality. Tipping is not customary, and occasionally may be considered offensive.
Tourist InfoTahiti Tourisme, Papeete, Tahiti,
- Tel: +689 505 700