Tahiti? Moorea? Bora Bora? Rangiroa? Each island of French Polynesia has a unique personality and different attractions . Here’s a profile of the 8 most popular isles and a bunch of reasons why it should be on your bucket-list of family trips.
By Terrie Murray Wahlstedt
We are in love with French Polynesia.
Even after two extended trips tripping around the islands with our kids, we cannot get enough of the drop-dead gorgeous scenery, snorkeling, and Polynesian people. A trip to the islands is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that your family will actually be able to do again and again.
We spent a year world schooling our sons when our oldest was 12. Coming from life in New York City, nowhere sounded like a better place to start decompressing from the day-to-day than French Polynesia (FP). The islands were a great opportunity to study the history of the people, French colonization, Captain Cook, Paul Gauguin, marine life, and the geological formations of atolls along – oh, and French language, too.
My husband and I love traveling and have been lucky to visit many tropical areas around the globe. We think FP has some of the best snorkeling in the world. You can wade into the warm sea from shore and start snorkeling. The pristine clarity feels like swimming in an aquarium, with large schools of fist, a wide variety of coral, and a lot of very large, friendly rays. The different hues of water around the isles is incredible on its own. The place is beyond picture-perfect.
Another selling point? No big crowds. Fewer people visit FP in a year than visit Hawaii in a week.
The good news is that a family vacation in French Polynesia is less expensive and easier than ever for Americans. Here’s why.
- Easy Flights – The entry of discount airline French Bee to the SFO-Papeete route attracted United to the market as well. Now you can fly nonstop on a red-eye from California to Tahiti in just 7 hours for not much more than it would cost to fly everyone to Hawaii.
- Lots of Lodging – Once on the ground in Tahiti, you don’t have to pay thousands a night for an overwater bungalow; just book an Airbnb, guesthouse or smaller hotel.
- Same Time Difference as Hawaii – Only three hours behind California, making Zoom work/school doable if needed and leaving no serious jetlag upon return.
- French Medicine – The medical system in the islands is very well regarded – in fact, many French medical students do their residency on the islands. Whether you cut your hand on coral (like my husband) or come down with Covid, you will be treated with first-world care.
- French Polynesia is one of the countries that is currently allowing Americans to visit. Proof of a negative Covid test is required before flying, and another test must be taken after a few days on the isles. Click here for the latest rules.
Five years after our first trip, we returned to spend another month in FP. Now? We’re planning our third trip 😉
Which Islands are Part of French Polynesia?
Covering 1,600 square miles of the South Pacific, French Polynesia (FP) is a republic of France that consists of 118 islands divided into five major archipelagos. Each archipelago has dozens of islands and each island has countless motus – tiny islets near the main island.
Tahiti, Bora Bora, Huahine and Maupiti are part of the Society Islands. Rangiroa, Tikehau, and Fakarava are in the Tuamotus. Other atolls – the Marquesas, Gambiers, and Australs – are far less touristed.
While there are still passenger ferries that connect many of the islands, flights are the typical way for families to reach anywhere but Tahiti (served by the international airport) and Moorea (served by a quick ferry from Tahiti), unless you’ve got unlimited time in the islands.
Just about all of FP’s islands began life above sea level as a volcano, and after millenia, now have just chunks of the rim of their volcanic cones sticking out above the water – or a coral atoll where the rim used to be. Hence, many of FP’s isles are semicircular in shape, with the remainder of the circle forming an atoll. Inside the protection of atoll, reefs and sandy beaches form. You’ll hear the deeper spots of the submerged cones called “passes” because these serve as passageways to the protected waters for not only boats but larger sea life as well. Drift diving and snorkeling trips aim for these spots in hopes of seeing mantas, dolphins, larger sharks and even whales.
The Best Island for Families in Tahiti & French Polynesia
Just kidding. There is no “one size fits all” island for families. The “best” part is that FP has many islands to choose from, each with different attractions, pros and cons.
We’re fortunate to have traveled to many of the islands with our kids. And we know that if you’ve only got a week or two, you really don’t want to spend 2-3 nights here and there or you’ll miss out on the peaceful side of the island experience. So its best to place a bet and pick one, or maybe two spots to settle in for as long as you can. Here’s our perspective on what each island can offer parents looking to take their kids to a tropical paradise.
Many visitors think of Tahiti as a gateway more than a destination. Hawaii experts will immediately think of Tahiti as “the Oahu of French Polynesia.” Like Honolulu, Papeete is a busy city, with government, industry and tourism all packed on its shores. Every traveler starts their trip here so you’ll see people from all over the world, including French package tourists, Chinese honeymooners, Russian vacationers, Australian backpackers, and lots of other fortunate souls.
There’s good reason: Tahiti is a picturesque isle, with large, lush mountains serving as a backdrop for its towns that sit mainly on the coast. There are fabulous cultural centers and museums, countless bars and restaurants, and numerous resorts and beaches that’ll meet the needs of whoever turns up.
Tahiti is large, so it is possible to get out of Papeete and into the countryside pretty quickly and easily. And to be clear, when I say Papeete is busy like Honolulu, it is only a fraction of its Hawaiian cousin’s size – both physically and in terms of population. Though it is the busiest place in FP, it is nowhere near as big as Waikiki.
In Tahiti, we rented a traditional Polynesian home with a beautiful garden on Punaauia Beach. Our digs were minutes away from the beach where you could snorkel or just swim in the warm waters. It’s easy to find an Airbnb or small guesthouse at a nice family-friendly beach somewhere on the island. We have also enjoyed staying at the Intercontinental. Though it’s in Papeete near the airport, the property’s pools, rooms, and views of Moorea in the distance make you feel a world away.
Though taxis are easy to find, it’s possible to rent a car. Tahiti’s roads are good and the driving is pretty easy. There isn’t really any traffic unless you’re in downtown Papeete during rush hour. We drove around the entire island and saw black sandy beaches, Arahurahu Marae which is an ancient temple that has been fully restored, Teahupoo, the famous big-wave surf spot, a local muncipal market Le Marche located in Papeete, and ate at food trucks called Roulottes that are all over the island serving different types of cuisine at reasonable prices.
In terms of cultural attractions, we enjoyed the Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands (closed for remodeling until late 2021) the Paul Gauguin Museum, and Point Venus, the spot where Captain Cook made landfall in 1769.
As snorkeling fans, we soon realized that our options were not as good on Tahiti as they would be elsewhere in FP. It is a young island compared to some of its neighbors and so the coral has not formed an atoll around it yet. Though its beauty is much like that of Hawaii, most FP travelers think of Tahiti more as a gateway than a destination.
Okay, when I said there wasn’t ONE perfect island for families, I might have been fibbing. Because after visiting a variety of islands on our first trip, Moorea is the one we returned to spend a month on. Scenically, it is stunning, with its jagged, lush mountains serving as a backdrop for any view. You can get the family here with a quick ferry ride from Papeete (no need to fly again) and the variety of activities will keep everyone busy.
There are many snorkeling spots and white sand beaches on Moorea. We loved the snorkeling off Temae Beach near the Sofitel. We also did an intro scuba dive and went jet skiing. We stayed in a private home Airbnb on Robinson Cove, which was really fun. We just waded out and started to snorkel the reef! We later stayed at a killer resort called Legends in our own detached house.
We loved the Lagoonarium. We’d heard this was touristy – and it is but nothing like something in Hawaii. You just park in a dirt lot on the side of the road and catch a tiny boat out to the reef near a motu. The driver drops bits of baguette into the sea and the fish go into a frenzy, even white and black tip sharks show up! If you’ve got nervous snorkelers, there’s a line to hang onto.
You can hike to many incredible viewpoints on Moorea. The Belvedere vista is reachable by car, overlooking Cooks Bay and Opunoho Bay. (Fun fact: Captain Cook did not land in Cook’s Bay but in Opunoho.) We did an ATV ride up into the hills, took whale and dolphin watching trips, rode horses at a pineapple farm.
Bora Bora is the most famous of all the FP islands. Its overwater bungalows on a broad lagoon with the spire of Mt. Otemanu dominating every view, has made it a hotspot for honeymooners.
And it really lives up to the hype: Flying in, you see the tip of an ancient volcano that hasn’t yet completely submerged surrounded by an atoll. The views are incredible.
Here’s the island where we felt the old rap of FP coming through: It was crazy expensive, tourists were everywhere and the people were not as friendly. That said, it was stunning and if you’ve always wanted to go, you gotta go! And if you can afford an overwater bungalow in a place that welcomes kids, this is the place to splurge on it.
We couldn’t fit all five of us in a bungalow so rented a home near Matahira. Bora Bora is all about the water and we were a bit farther away from the water than we like to be. We took a tiny boat to the famous aquarium snorkeling site. We also booked a speedboat tour with Reef Discovery, which made stops for amazing snorkeling experiences and fascinating information told by the French guide. The was the second chance that we had to snorkel with manta rays – what incredible creatures!
If you’re looking for a small island with a more authentic lifestyle, Huahine may be for you. A short flight from Tahiti drops you and your kids on a charming, scenic isle that’s easy to drive around. In terms of comparing FP islands to those of Hawaii, this might be your Kauai.
Our biggest challenge was finding accommodation We ended up renting a house that came with a car and a small “tinnie” boat. The tinnie was perfect for popping out to snorkel spots.
There was a small vanilla field next to our rental and the owner explained how vanilla is grown – every bean is hand pollinated. No wonder it’s expensive.
We would drive over to the Huahine-Iti for lunch at a fun restaurant Chez Tara and snorkeled nearby at an abandoned hotel. My son and I went horseback riding through a lake! It was a very cool experience.
This tiny island is next on my go-to list. Fans say Maupiti is like Bora Bora was decades ago – in fact, it is often visited on a day trip from its more famous neighbor – but is much more pleasant as a full-stop destination. Again, this is a sleepy isle – think villages and guesthouses, not nightlife and resorts – but its beaches and scenery are anything but boring.
Rangiroa is a bucket-list destination for scuba divers who come to see sharks arriving through the passes into the atoll – the world’s second largest. It is a much smaller isle than Moorea – with only 2,500 people and the ability to drive top to bottom in 15 minutes. That said, there are still little villages, shops, beaches and restaurants to find as you roam around the island.
We stayed at Kia Ora Resort in a small villa close to the beach. It is by far the most deluxe place on the island, with a seaside infinity pool and restaurant. But there are smaller camping and pension-type options around, as well. You can rent bikes and cars here for little excursions.
We loved Y Aka Plongee, a small dive shop just down from the Kia Ora. The casual, friendly feel was perfect for us, and it was a walk down the beach from the Kia Ora. My husband and eldest son also went on a drift snorkel that was rough but worth it due to the fact that you were swimming with lemon sharks and reef sharks.
Simply idyllic. Fakarava is a small, minimally-developed island in the Tuamotus where you can bike ride along gravel roads through the palms, snorkel in empty coves, and – for divers – see ridiculous numbers of sharks in the north and south passes. It is also a place that you can book a room and sit for a week, absorbing the sun, making a few sand castles, snorkeling, eating yummy meals, and watching ridiculous sunsets. If that sounds good, The Havaiki Pearl is the place to do it.
Tikehau is a one-hour flight from Tahiti to the Tuamotu Atoll. Here, we went straight to the Ninamu Resort which is out of this world. There are only seven bungalows and it is a ten-minute boat ride away from Tikehau. One can walk around this private island in 25 minutes. There are pink beaches and water in different shades of blue – beyond postcard material.
Our boys enjoyed the fishing, snorkeling with mantas and the excursions to Bird Island and Ile d’ Eden. The owner Chris and his wife, Greta have turned this remote destination into a truly unforgettable travel experience. Because we stayed at this all-inclusive resort, we didn’t explore too much of the main isle but only 500 people live there, making it a much smaller and more intimate destination than something like Moorea.
Someday, we will hop on a freighter and head out to this remote archipelago, more than 900 miles from Tahiti. Sure, you could fly to the Marquesas but an old-fashioned boat ride would be half the fun! The culture, the history, the landscape, the diving – it is all unique and incredible. These isles are not typically a family’s first stop in French Polynesia but if you are looking for something really different, this is your archipelago.
Tips for Family Trips to Tahiti & French Polynesia
Bring Snorkel Gear
We snorkeled almost every day – we basically became a snorkeling family! It is one of those places that you don’t feel like you are missing much if you don’t dive. It’s possible to rent gear in places but much more convenient to have your own.
Hat, sunglasses, rash guards, reef shoes, flip flops, reef-friendly sunscreen, collapsible cooler, mosquito repellent.
Travelers don’t really need to know French or Tahitian to get around, though it might allow you to get to know the Polynesians better if you can. As with any travel experience, the locals like it when you try and speak the native language.
If you plan to move around the islands and don’t have a yacht, flying is the easiest way to get around. Keep an eye on the schedule when booking your trip because flights between islands might only go on selected days of the week – especially during the pandemic.
Transit Nights in Papeete
Flights from California typically require an overnight on Tahiti before and/or after visiting an outer island. We’ve stayed a few places but these two are the closest:
- Tahiti Airport Hotel – A budget option right across the street from the terminal but a steep walk up the hill if you’re toting bags or little ones.
- Intercontinental – The closest hotel to the airport. Expensive but feels worth it with seaside pools, bars and restaurants. A pleasant first or last stay in paradise.
The French doctors speak enough English to help you out and all of them are trained in France. And prices are a fraction of what you’d pay in the U.S.
Ask for AirCon
We non-tropical residents sometimes need a spot with air conditioning to take the edge off – especially if you’re thinking of working from the islands or doing anything inside for any chunk of time. Be aware that most Airbnbs are wide-open with only fans to cool the indoor spaces.
It’s easy to get local currency from ATMs around the larger islands. Walk past the money-changers at airport and find the ATM for the best rates.
Dream Trip Alert
You can fly from Tahiti to Easter Island on the way to Chile, if you’ve always wanted to see the mo’ai and you’ve got the time.
Yes, cruises call for day trips, even on these small islands. You can actually check this site to see whether any ships are due during your stay.
French Polynesia is not a cheap destination – hence the fact that most people travel there on their honeymoons. But today’s reality is that Hawaii has become extremely expensive for families, too. It’s possible to do Tahiti and Moorea on a “budget” by renting an Airbnb or pension and cooking for yourself, but you’re probably not going to get costs down as low as you could get them in Hawaii. But after two visits and lots of other trips around the world, we feel like it is one of the best places we’ve ever traveled as a family. It is expensive but it is money well spent.
Terrie Murray Wahlstedt – January 2021
After living and traveling in dozens of countries around the world, Terrie and her Swedish husband returned to her native California to raise her three sons just a bike ride from the Pacific Ocean.
© ROAM Family Travel 2021 – All rights reserved
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