In addition to Bora Bora, My island hopping in French Polynesia also included a road trip around Tahiti (including Papeete) and the neighbouring island of Moorea. A great way to see the sites around Tahiti is to rent a car and drive around by yourself. The ring road around Tahiti is easy to drive, although there may be some pot holes and impatient drivers. All the sites that I visited were free to enter (with the exception of a small fee for the Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands).
Magnificent mountains in Moorea
Mo’o’rea means the yellow (rea) lizard (mo’o) in the island language. A look towards the mountains on the drive from the airport, the reason for the name was very clear – the long irregular ridges of the magnificent mountain range on the island looks like the scales on the back of a lizard.
Due to the Hawaiki Nui ferry fiasco, I had to fly from Bora Bora to Moorea instead of an overnight cruise so I had an extra afternoon on Moorea. Unfortunately at the airport, none of the transport company’s counter were open so I had to take an expensive taxi to the nearest town (Maharepa) and take the very irregular public bus. Lesson here is always prebook your airport transfers in Moorea.
I stayed at the Pension Motu Iti which has an awesome beach side bungalow. It was great to be able to walk around the area and check out the amazing mountains on the way. Unfortunately most of the food places and supermarkets were closed, even on St Patrick’s day! My mission to find a Guinness was a fail.
The next day, I went on an inland 4×4 safari with Albert tours. The tour started out well with a visit to a lookout point, pineapple plantation inside the crater of an extinct volcano, and the Agricultural School to taste jams and marmalades. That’s when the storm clouds reached the island and the torrential downpour started. It was an interesting wet ride up to the belvedere where we were supposed to see the two bays of Moorea. Unfortunately we weren’t able to get much of a view, and was also unable to walk amongst the ruins of the Marae (ancient altar and gathering site). We drowned our sorrows with juice and liquors at the Juice Factory to conclude the tour!
Walk to the Botanical Gardens and Waterfall
The sky cleared up just as the tour guide dropped us off at the guesthouse. After a quick rest, I ventured out for a walk again- this time towards the Botanical gardens and a waterfall beyond. The walk was pleasant along the beaches, followed by a steep incline towards the Botanical Gardens (free entrance). There’s a cafe at the top, where I met some very friendly locals singing along to ukelele music.
The path to the waterfall was quite obscure (I had found out about it from MAPS.ME). After a 10 min walk through the forest (with some backtracking because the trail is not well marked) I reach the waterfall for a quick photo.
Cultural and Fire Dance at the Hilton
Every Saturday night, the Hilton on Moorea hosts a cultural and fire dance during their buffet dinner (dinner starting at 7pm and show from 8pm). The cost of the buffet dinner was around $100, which was too much for my budget so I went at 8pm for the show only. The staff were really friendly and let me sit at the table to watch the show. I ordered a glass of wine just so I wasn’t a freeloader! There were fire dances on the beach, and more traditional dances with lots of audience participation inside the dining hall.
Moorea Lagoon tour
The lagoon tour in Moorea is a less personal experience with about 30 people on the tour. It was great to see the mountains from afar on the boat, then it’s off to swim with the sharks and sting ray. The tour also included lunch with demonstrations on how to make cerviche, and opening a coconut.
At the end of the lagoon tour, it was time to head to the ferry terminal to catch the ferry back to Tahiti (transfer included in lagoon tour).
Road tripping around the island of Tahiti
The capital of French Polynesia, Papeete, was worth a visit for about half a day. It can feel like a bustling city along its major roads, while being a quiet village along some blocks. My first impression of the city was the number of cars on the street at 1 am as I was trying to find a spot to park my rental suitable for sleeping in. It went quiet for a few hours in the middle of the night but pedestrian activity and traffic noises resumed early at around 5 am!
It was nice to walk along the parks and squares that are scattered along the seafront. The Tourist Information Office was also really helpful. Moving away from the seafront, street art and graffiti start to dominate the walls of buildings. There are all kinds of shops, restaurants, cafes and bars, including a pedestrianised street. The Municipal Markets is a great place to pick up supplies to a road trip or picnic.
Around Tahiti Nui and Tahiti Iti
Situtated in Puna’auia (about 15km from Papeete), the Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands was a great introduction to the island groups that make up French Polynesia. The museum presented information ranging from the geological events leading to the formation of the islands, to the islands’ cultures, and the historical events that led to it becoming a French Overseas Territory.
Marae are scattered all through out the island. One of the largest and best restored is the Marae Arahurahu.
There are a series of cave networks at Mara’a Caves.
The Vaipahi water garden is a great place to walk around and enjoy the botany and water features in the garden. There is an option to go for a hike up to the viewpoints.
A couple of km down the road is the Paul Gauguin Museum, which unfortunately has been closed for renovations for a few years.
On the opposite side of the island from Papeete is the village of Taravao, where Tahiti Nui (large Tahiti) joins up with Tahiti Iti (small Tahiti). On Tahiti Iti is Teahupo’o Beach, famous for the surfing competition and the large mythical wave.
Coming around Tahiti Nui, there is a gravel road that leads to the entrance to the Three waterfalls of Fa’auruma’i. Returning to the main ring road, there is also a stop for the Araaoaho Blowhole nearby.
One of the most popular spot on the island is Point Venus, which has a lighthouse and various monuments, including one dedicated to Captain Cook observing the Transit of Venus on the spot, as well as the point where HMS Bounty dropped anchor.
As the sun was setting, I set off to the Belvedere at Mt Aora’i (6778 feet). I had no idea what I was getting myself into until I came to the turnoff that leads up to the Belvedere. The road is very narrow (theoretically 2 lanes but only wide enough for 1 car at a time), and was full of pot holes. And it was long! I didn’t expect that it would take me about 1 hour to drive up to the Belvedere, on first or second gear the whole time, while dodging runners and other vehicles coming the other way. After all that driving, the bar at the Belvedere turned out to be closed on the day, but luckily the worker doing some tidying up at the bar gave me 10 minutes to take a couple of quick snaps of the view. It was already dark at this point so the view was just of the bright lights coming from Papeete.
Back in Papeete, I had my last meal at one of the food trucks that show up in Place Vaiete every night. A fitting end to my adventures in French Polynesia and it was time to head to the airport and take the flight to Easter Island!
Budget for French Polynesia
French Polynesia is a relatively expensive country to visit, costing about the same as New Zealand. There are few budget options for accommodation. However, food can be done quite cheaply from supermarkets and food trucks. Due to the lack of regular public transport, it was often necessary to join tours or get a rental car to visit sites around the island. Be prepared to pay for expensive flights if you are planning to do some island hopping across great distances. If you have time and flexibility in your schedule, you may be able to significantly save on travel costs by taking cargo ships or hitching a ride on yachts zigzagging across the islands.
For my 7-day trip in French Polynesia, I spent about NZ$250 per day. The biggest cost was Transport (especially flights and rental car) at $111 per day, followed by food and drinks ($46 per day). By spending nights sleeping in my rental car and dorm at a hostel in Moorea, I was also to bring down the cost of accommodation to $53 per day. See my budget worksheet to find out more about what I paid for activities, transport etc.
French Polynesia islands offer a mix of both mountain and water activities. Are you more of a mountain or water person, or both? Comment below.