French Polynesia is the less commercial, more authentic, and unspoiled alternative to Hawaii.
Commonly miscalled Tahiti by those not-in-the-know, French Polynesia is a country encompassing more than 100 islands and atolls (including Tahiti, the most populous), and it's surprisingly easy to get to from the Bay Area, reachable via a direct eight-hour flight from San Francisco. The time difference is a mere three hours, just like Hawaii.
Even during French Polynesia’s high season (May through October), the 100 islands that make up this underrated South Pacific destination don’t feel crowded. To further put this in perspective, the Hawaiian Islands can actually get the same number of tourists in one day that French Polynesia sees in a year. That alone should be reason enough to plan a trip, but here are a few more: French Polynesia has some of the clearest, bluest waters you’ve ever seen; incredible snorkeling, diving, and the chance to swim with harmless rays and sharks; French culture without having to fly to Paris; and overwater bungalows that you definitely won’t find in Hawaii.
Read on for a seven-day itinerary in French Polynesia, including visits to three very different islands: Moorea, Bora Bora, and Rangiroa.
But first, some Tahiti travel tips.
(Courtesy of Tahiti Tourisme)
It’s OK to skip the main island.
Your flight will land in Papeete, the capital of Tahiti, which is French Polynesia’s largest island. Travelers are often tempted to carve out a few days of their vacation to spend here, but this is not where you’re going to find the remote and intimate escape you envisioned. You will likely have to spend your first and/or last night of the trip in this bustling commercial hub, depending on the timing of your arrival and departure. Take the budget-friendly French Bee airline direct from San Francisco and it’ll get you into Papeete around 5am. This means you can hop right on an early flight out to your first island and maximize the day.
Island hopping throughout French Polynesia is quick and easy but requires careful planning that can seem overwhelming on paper. It can also get expensive, which may inspire you to limit your visit to one or two islands.
It’s not always possible to simply hop from one island to another; oftentimes, you will need to return to Papeete before departing for your next destination. In this case, you’ll need to strategically line up two different flights on the same day (Air Tahiti’s forecast schedule is incredibly helpful when planning). The good news: For each island, there are multiple daily flight options and you don’t necessarily need to allot much time before flights. The airports are all tiny and efficient and, outside of Papeete, you won’t even need to pass through security.
Moorea is the one island from which you can take a ferry from Tahiti. There are at least five options a day and the trip only takes 30 to 45 minutes. For all the other islands, flight time to and from Papeete rarely exceeds an hour.
A car rental isn’t necessary during your French Polynesian vacation. Taxis are readily available to take you between the airport and your hotel, and your resort may arrange transportation for you. Bike, e-bike, or scooter rentals are easy to come by for exploring. The one island for which you may consider a car rental is Moorea; it’s quite large, totaling 37 miles around its heart-shaped perimeter. Depending on where you’re staying, a taxi ride could take about 45 minutes from the ferry.
Days 1-2: Adventures by Land + Sea in Moorea
The view from Magic Mountain.
Once you land, take a quick taxi from the airport and jump on the next ferry to Moorea. (Alternatively, hop a flight.) Moorea is one of the larger islands in French Polynesia, which means it has the best range of beachfront accommodations that include budget, family-friendly, and luxury options. If you’re splurging, you’ll likely choose from three ritzy resorts: the Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort and Spa, Sofitel Moorea Kia Ora Beach Resort, and Manava Beach Resort and Spa.
Work off the jet lag and explore this incredibly lush island via e-bike. You can pre-arrange bike drop-off for a self-guided tour through E-bike Moorea. Ride past the Cook and Opunohu Bays—pulling over for beach naps and ocean dips at your leisure—and save the juice from your helpful bike assist for a climb to the panoramic Belvedere lookout. Rehydrate with a free tasting of delicious rums and refreshing fruit juices from the Rotui Juice Factory, located at the foot of Mount Rotui. Te Fare Natura is a fascinating eco-museum that offers an educational dive into Polynesian culture, biology, geology, and more. Park your bike and brave the quick, steep hike up Magic Mountain for the island’s best views. If you save this for just before sunset, you’re likely to have it all to yourself. When hungry, pull over at one of the many roadside stands.
Your sore legs will appreciate some time on the water the next day. You can swim the crystal-clear lagoon with friendly black tip sharks and large rays that get so close you can touch them. This area is also incredibly shallow and you should be able to stand. (It’s definitely a GoPro-worthy moment.) Nearby, there are some great reefs for seeing all kinds of colorful fish, more rays, and maybe even some turtles. While there are a myriad of tours to book for this experience, seeking out a private boat charter will give you more flexibility. Plus, these guides often know the best times to visit the sharks and rays.
Request that your guide takes you to one of Moorea’s best lunch spots: Cocobeach. This casual bar is set right on the water and only accessible by boat, but they do operate a shuttle by reservation. The food is some of the freshest you’ll find in Tahiti. (Don’t sleep on the tuna carpaccio.) Skip the whale watching tours In Moorea. The word from the locals is that they aren’t often very fruitful, and you can do that back in the Bay Area anyway.
Days 3-5: R&R + Romance in Bora Bora
(Courtesy of Four Seasons Bora Bora)
Bora Bora offers a relaxing and romantic respite after an adventurous few days on Moorea, albeit for a price. There are activities you can do there, but it’s also the best place to do absolutely nothing. Bora Bora is accessible by direct flight from both Moorea and Papeete.
This is the place to splurge on an overwater bungalow, and the Four Seasons is the premier resort for this type of accommodation. You'll have an incredible view of the majestic Mount Otemanu, Bora Bora’s signature peak, and they’ll even pick you up from the airport White Lotus–style on a fancy boat (minus the murders) to bring you to the resort’s private islet. The bungalows here are quite spacious with private decks, bathtubs with views to the water and, in some cases, private plunge pools. There’s truly nothing like jumping off your deck for an afternoon float—you won’t regret squeezing a few inner tubes into your luggage for this purpose. If you don’t want to bring them back, gift them to a honeymooning couple when you leave.
Tip: Try to ensure you’re booking a bungalow on the West Pontoon, which is closest to the main resort. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself walking 30-plus minutes to every meal or desperately seeking golf cart transportation.
Once you’re at the Four Seasons, you won’t find much incentive to leave. For food, there are several rotating dinner concepts (Vaimiti, a buzzy Asian restaurant, is a clear favorite of guests), an incredible daily breakfast buffet, and a great beach bar for lunch, which you can also enjoy poolside. Guests get complimentary use of snorkel gear, paddle boards, and kayaks to take right from the resort’s private beach. There’s a spa and courts for tennis, badminton and volleyball and while you can book excursions through the concierge, it’s almost a shame to spend any time away from this paradise.
However, a multi-course dinner at the Michelin-worthy La Villa Mahana would be worth the effort. It has just eight tables, so you’ll want to book well in advance. You’ll also need to reserve and pay for transportation through the resort.
Days 5-7: Wine, Pearls + Diving in Rangiroa
(Courtesy of Tahiti Tourisme)
Fly back to Papeete and then out to Rangiroa. The island is an atoll, meaning it’s a ring-shaped island that encircles one of the largest lagoons in the world. This rustic, off-the-beaten-path destination receives far fewer tourists than Moorea and Bora Bora, but that’s what makes it so special. It’s also a bucket list destination for divers, if that’s your thing. Check into the Hotel Kia Ora Resort & Spa. In addition to overwater bungalows, the resort’s garden bungalows with private pools and beach bungalows with hot tubs and hammocks have their own kind of magic.
Rent a scooter to explore the short, narrow island by land. It won’t take you long. Enjoy a lunch of delicious prawns on the water at the rustic, yet charming French bistro Chez Lili. Be aware, your English will only get you so far here. Take a free, educational tour (10am and 2pm weekdays) of a local pearl farm, Gauguin's Pearl, where you’ll learn some seriously interesting facts and can shop for a beautiful, pricey souvenir. Pick up some cheese and charcuterie for a snack or light dinner back at your room from a tiny fromagerie (just look for the signs; it’s hard to miss).
There isn’t much for nightlife on Rangiroa, but you can book a tour and taste at Vin de Tahiti (4pm and 7pm Monday through Saturday), the only winery in the world to be growing grapes on the unique coral soils of a motu (reef islet) in the middle of the ocean. It’s not Napa cabernet, but the wines are surprisingly drinkable and made for warm Tahitian nights. At sunset, head to Tiputa Pass to catch the dolphins jumping in the waves.
The real reason people visit Rangiroa is for the lagoon, so end your trip with either a snorkeling or scuba diving lagoon tour. (You can easily book this through Hotel Kia Ora.) Swim with more black tip sharks and other marine life, and visit the pink sand beach, Le Sable Roses.
Catch the last flight out back to Papeete and find a hotel or vacation rental close to the airport before your early French Bee flight home the next morning. This adorable Airbnb has the most incredible and accommodating hosts.