French Polynesia consists of 118 islands and atolls, organised into five geographically dispersed island groups with exotic names like the Windward & Leeward Islands, Tuamotu Archipelago, Gambier Islands, Marquesas Islands, and Austral Islands. As a French overseas country, French Polynesia has an interesting French influence, while still retaining its South Pacific identity.
I had a full week in French Polynesia, where I went island hoping in Bora Bora, Moorea and Tahiti (Papeete being one of the cities on the island of Tahiti). All international flights to the country depart from Fa’a International Airport in Papeete. I spent my first and last day in French Polynesia in Tahiti (waiting for flight connections), while I had 3 days in Bora Bora and 2 days in Moorea.
Getting to French Polynesia
See my previous blog on how I scored an essentially free stopover in Tahiti. Air Tahiti Nui is a full service airline with large seat space, friendly flight attendants, one meal on the 5 hour flight from Auckland, and regular drinks service. Only downside was that the flight time arrived in Papeete airport at 11.10pm, late in the night when public buses have stopped running and taxis are expensive.
I took the budget option and rented a car which I drove to Papeete (8km away from the airport), and slept in the car for the night. There are many options for car rental at Papeete, also with a range of prices:
Hertz– cheap day rate but no km included so have to pay for each km travelled. Have offices in both the airport and (slightly out of) downtown Papeete with no different location surcharge
Avis– Relatively expensive day rate but all inclusive including a free shuttle from your hotel to their office (usually downtown) to pick up the car. Avis online customer support was no help in organising the shuttle but you can contact Avis Pacific/Tahiti directly on +689 40 54 10 10 or email firstname.lastname@example.org, or your guesthouse and hotel should be able to help as well.
Ecocar Tahiti– cheaper day rate than Avis but they did not reply to my email (which I wrote in English). Limited opening hours so not able to use for odd departure or arrival times.
As I was only going to need a car to sleep in and was planning to explore Central Papeete by foot, I went for the cheap Hertz option.
Tip: Join the frequent flyer program of an airline partner that will give you 5-15% off car rental with Hertz and Avis. There are lots of these and they will change over time but I used Delta Skymiles (CDP number 165385) and got 10% discount from Hertz, and Philippines Airline Mabuhay miles (AWD number K115900) to get 10% discount from Avis. It’s a matter of checking the discount amount by entering the respective numbers into the CDP/AWD field when you making your reservation. You don’t necessarily have to travel with the respective airline to get the discount
Most tourists fly into Bora Bora on Air Tahiti, which connects Bora Bora with not just Papeete but also a range of islands such as Moorea, Raiatea so you don’t always have to back track to Papeete if you are planning to island hop. The return ticket from Papeete to Bora Bora was around NZ$500.
I had planned to rough it with the locals onboard the Hawaiki Nui cargo ferry that does a loop twice a week from Papeete to Bora Bora (scheduled for Tuesdays and Thursday), as well as Huahine, Raiatea, Taha’a, and back the next day (Wednesdays and Fridays). It is an overnight cruise from Papeete to Bora Bora but there is no cabin so all passengers have to sleep on deck. For 2000 XPF one way (or about NZ$35 return), I was actually looking forward to the adventure of sleeping on the deck sailing through the warm Pacific Ocean. Reservations can be made by contacting the Hawaiki Nui office (BP 9047 Motu Uta, Papeete) by phone +689 40 54 99 54 or email email@example.com.
The office for Hawaiki Nui is actually not at the passenger ferry terminal but at the cargo port on Motu Uta (about 30 min walk from the passenger terminal). True to the warning about island time, when I arrived at the Hawaiki Nui office, they told me that the ferry had sailed the day before due to previous mechanical problems! And of course, now that the sailing schedule is out of sync, I’m not able to sail back from Bora Bora to Papeete either. Not wanting to lose out on my non-refundable Bora Bora hotel booking, and I had to see Bora Bora now that I’ve psyched up myself to go there, I had to book flights on the spot. Luckily I had purchased a local data SIM card which enabled me to book the last flight of the day (flights need to be booked at least 3 hours before departure)- I was surprised by the mobile internet speed! So if you want to take this adventurous option, make sure that you are flexible in case of changes in schedule.
After spending way more than I had budgeted for on last minute flights and additional hotel nights (the cruise was supposed to be overnight), off I went to Papeete airport and flew to Bora Bora on Air Tahiti. The first wow factor of Bora Bora- seeing the lagoon from the air. The second wow factor- the airport is actually on a motu (island) on the northern edge of the lagoon and separate from the main island. We got off the plane and onto the free public boat shuttle with magnificent sunset views across the lagoon. Of course if you paid for your 5* hotel, then are met with a welcome drink at the airport and taken aboard private boat to your hotel!
Oa Oa Lodge and the Maikai Yacht Club
I stayed at Oa Oa Lodge which is situated about 30 minutes walk from the ferry port and main town of Vaitape, and is part of a complex with a pearl shop, Top Dive, and the Maikai yacht club. They offered free shuttle to/from the ferry terminal. It is in a beautiful location, and conveniently located by the Maikai yacht club restaurant and bar, a couple of food trucks, the supermarket and walkable to Vaitape. The cost of the accommodation didn’t break the bank either, when compared to other hotels on the island.
Canons and lookout point
First up on my sight seeing list is a look out point that I found on maps.me. It turns out to be where the canons are situated. It was about 45 min walk from Oa Oa Lodge and another 30 min hike up to the canons. There are beautiful beach scenes and of course friendly locals all along the walk.
The main town is quiet with the usual tourist shops, artisan market, as well as a nice Catholic church, and harbour with spectacular sunset views.
It would be wrong to go all the way to Bora Bora and not do a tour of its famous lagoon. I booked my tour through the hotel and it was run by Rohivai tours. We started with a circuit around the main island, then stingray feeding, swim with the sharks, some snorkelling and lunch on a private motu with panoramic views of the lagoon. The guide was really accommodating and really a full day out.
- Say ia orana to any locals and you will get a greeting and warm smile back. It is great to see the local language is still widely used together with French, and some English.
- Kissing a stingray! The full day lagoon tour is a must do to circle the lagoon, stingray feeding, sharks (no feeding unless you want to be lunch), snorkelling and a great lunch by the beach.
- Get up high to fully appreciate the colours of the lagoon- either from the plane or hike up to one of the lookout points.
- Eat at a food truck restaurant! Bora Bora can be expensive but having a few simple but delicious meal at a food truck restaurant can make it more affordable.
Is Bora Bora on your bucketlist and why? Comment below