More Than a Pretty Place: Getting to Know French Polynesia

You’ve seen the pictures – that much is certain. We all have. When we need to conjure paradise in a single frame, French Polynesia is the image of choice. But what is French Polynesia, really – beyond the palms and blue lagoons? As it turns out, there’s a lot to know about this slice of tropical heaven on earth – and the more you know, the easier it is to go.

French Polynesia is a series of island chains in the South Pacific Ocean with governmental ties to France, hence the name. Some of those islands have instant name recognition, like Tahiti and Bora Bora, but most are quietly obscure. However, behind those low profiles are beautiful landscapes, natural wonders and relaxed cultures that are what everyone dreams about when they want to get away from it all.

These are the island groups that make up French Polynesia:

Bora Bora [French Polynesia]

The Society Islands | These islands have the biggest population overall, but that’s not saying too much. The capital city, Papeete, located on the island of Tahiti, has a population of only about 130,000, and Bora Bora has fewer than 10,000 residents. In other words, you won’t feel crowded. Other islands like Moorea and Huahine are also draws for travelers on all kinds of budgets.

Tuamotu Islands

Tuamotu Islands | The Tuamotus are actually a chain of atolls, ring-shaped islands around a central lagoon. Forty-five of the 77 atolls are populated, and pearl cultivation is a huge part of the local economy. So too is diving tourism – if you’re eager to snorkel or scuba dive, the abundant underwater life here might just be the deciding factor that sets it apart from other chains. Rangiroa is a top choice for settling in for a stay.

Marquesas Islands

Marquesas Islands | These islands have had their share of famous – and infamous – long-term visitors, from Robert Louis Stevenson and Herman Melville to Paul Gaugin and Jacques Brel. Rugged landscapes include green-clad spiky mountains, fjords and plunging waterfalls. If you love to hike and want to get in touch with local culture, the Marquesas are a top choice.

If truly going off the map is your goal, heading to the Gambiers is about as far away as you can get. Only one of the islands, Mangareva, is developed for tourism, and a larger portion of the others are undeveloped or uninhabited. But that doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy yourself here. In fact, you’ll find everything from lush green mountains to hike and luminously clear lagoons to swim in to coral reefs and even a few monuments to visit.

Austral Islands | The southernmost islands of French Polynesia have all the beauty of their siblings, but it’s good to be aware that the islands’ temperatures can be a bit more variable. So bring a sweater if you’re traveling during the cooler times of year and settle into the gorgeous setting – there’s still plenty of tropical paradise to enjoy here. The island of Raivavae is considered by some to be among the most beautiful in the world, and Rurutu boasts fascinating caves, mountain hikes and diving with whales and sharks.

Throughout French Polynesia, you’ll find countless “motus,” which are small islands, which might not be inhabited, but could very well look like a pint-sized paradise island. Some resorts offer excursions out for picnics or even a full a motu sightseeing day.

No matter whether you end up on one of the famous islands or a nameless motu in a turquoise lagoon, you’ll be sure of one thing: French Polynesia is everything it’s cracked up to be.

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Gina Czupka

Gina’s first solo trip abroad, at age 16, changed her life. Since then, travel has been her passion and it’s her mission to convince others that they really can make travel a part of their lives. These days, she seeks out destinations where she can indulge her taste for adventure and shop for additions to her textile collection. Some of her favorite experiences from recent trips have included eating bun cha in Hanoi and feeding hyenas in Ethiopia.

Gina’s Favorite Travel Tip: When traveling abroad, learn enough of the language to be polite (hello, thank you, goodbye) and to shop and haggle (numbers and colors).

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