Learn all about Tahiti and her isles.

The Basics   |  History   |  Geography   |  Weather   |  Flora & Fauna   |  Highlights   |  Activities & Excursions   |  Practicalities   |  Getting There & Getting Around

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The Basics:

French Polynesia and its main island Tahiti lie in the southeastern Pacific, 4,000 kms southeast of Hawaii and 6,500 kms southwest of Los Angeles.  Tahiti shares Hawaii’s time zone (two hours behind California).

Attractions include the stunning landscapes of Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora Bora, the archaeological wonders of Huahine, the unspoiled Polynesian life of Raiatea and Taha’a, the drift diving of Rangiroa, and the mystery of the Marquesas.

Many people think of Tahiti as somewhere far away on the other side of the globe, but it’s only 7.5 hours from Los Angeles; since it takes about five hours to fly from Los Angeles to Hawaii, the flight to Tahiti is only 2.5 hours longer. Seven airlines fly to Papeete.

Around 68% of the 225,000 French Polynesia’s people are Polynesian. The rest are a blend of European, Chinese, and various combinations of the three.

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History

Legendary Tahiti, isle of love, has long been the earthly paradise.  Explorers Wallis, Bougainville, and Cook all told of a land where the climate was delightful, hazardous insects and diseases unknown, and the islanders among the handsomest ever seen.  A few years later, Fletcher Christian and Captain Bligh added their remarkable tale to Tahiti’s legends.

The list of famous authors who traveled to Tahiti include Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Pierre Loti, Rupert Brooke, Jack London, W. Somerset Maugham, Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall (the Americans who wrote Mutiny on the Bounty), among others.

The once obscure French painter, Paul Gauguin, transformed the primitive color of Tahiti and the Marquesas into powerful visual images seen around the world.  When WW II shook the Pacific from Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal, French Polynesia got a U.S. serviceman named James A. Michener, who added Bora Bora to the legend.  Marlon Brando arrived in 1961 on one of the first jets to land on Tahiti and ultimately acquired his own “private” atoll, Tetiaroa.

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Geography

French Polynesia consists of five great archipelagos, the Society, Austral, Tuamotu, Gambier, and Marquesas islands, arrayed in chains running from northwest to southeast.  The Society Islands are subdivided into the Windwards, or Îles du Vent (Tahiti, Moorea, Maiao, Tetiaroa, and Mehetia), and the Leewards, or Îles Sous-le-Vent (Huahine, Raiatea, Taha’a, Bora Bora, Maupiti, Tupai, Maupihaa/Mopelia, Manuae/Scilly, and Motu One/Bellingshausen).

Together the 35 islands and 83 atolls of French Polynesia total only 3,543 square km in land area, yet they’re scattered over a vast area of the southeastern Pacific Ocean.  At 5,030,000 square km the territory’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone is by far the largest in the Pacific islands.

There’s a wonderful geological diversity to these islands, from the dramatic, jagged volcanic outlines of the Society and Marquesas islands, to the 400-meter-high hills of the Australs and Gambiers, to the low coral atolls of the Tuamotus.

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Weather

French Polynesia enjoys a year ‘round temperate climate with highs averaging 85° and cool evenings around 70°.  The summer, or rainy season runs from November to April, the rest of the year the climate is drier, punctuated with the occasional brief tropical cloudburst. The refreshing southeast trade winds blow consistently from May to August, varying to easterlies from September to December.

Rainfall is greatest in the mountains and along the windward shores of the high islands.  There can be long periods of fine, sunny weather anytime of year and seasonal variations should not be a principal factor in deciding when to travel.

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Flora & Fauna

In Tahiti and French Polynesia the air is sweet with the bouquet of tropical blossoms such as bougainvillea, camellia, frangipani, ginger, orchids, poinsettia, and pitate jasmine.  The signature flowers of the Polynesian hibiscus (purau) are yellow, not red or pink as on the Chinese hibiscus.

The national flower, the delicate, heavy scented tiare Tahiti (Gardenia tahitiensis), can have anywhere from six to nine white petals.  It blooms year-round, but especially from September to April.  Follow local custom by wearing this blossom or a hibiscus behind your left ear if you’re happily taken, behind your right ear if you’re still available.

French Polynesia boasts over 90 species of birds, including the white tern and the hopping Indian mynah bird, numerous varieties of finches, blue tinged doves and countless chickens and their roosters, the latter of which are known as the island alarm clock.

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Highlights

Tahiti and French Polynesia abound in things to see and do, including many in the “not to be missed” category.

Papeete’s colorful morning market and captivating waterfront welcome you to Tahiti, the territory’s largest island by far.  The 117-km road around Tahiti passes historic monuments, museums, temple ruins, beaches, waterfalls, cliffs, gardens and countless scenic views.

Travelers should not pass up the opportunity to take the ferry ride to Moorea and see the island’s stunning Opunohu Valley, it’s splendid scenery, lush vegetation, and fascinating archaeological sites.  Moorea has the long white beach and brilliant reefs Tahiti lacks, and accommodations are abundant in all price ranges.

Farther afield, an even greater concentration of old Polynesian marae (temples) awaits visitors on the enchanting island of Huahine.  Visible to the west are the large islands of Raiatea and Taha’a (the vanilla island) which share a single lagoon.  Raiatea boasts the most sacred Polynesian temple in the Society Islands.

The soaring peaks and blue-green lagoon at Bora Bora and neighboring Maupiti have been prime destinations for those serious about their serenity.  French Polynesia’s most spectacular atoll may be Rangiroa in the Tuamotu Islands, where the Avatoru and Tiputa passes offer exciting snorkel rides on the tide flows.  The shark feeding and manta ray viewing on Rangiroa, Bora Bora, and other islands, and dolphin encounters on Moorea, are all memorable experiences.

Far to the northeast are the remote Marquesas Islands where the ocean crashes onto unprotected shores.  Paul Gauguin sought to escape civilization of the island of Hiva Oa in the Marquesas and the filming of the TV series Survivor on Nuku Hiva in 2002 again brought the group to the attention of the world.

All of these islands are easily accessible from Tahiti by boat or plane, a traveler’s paradise.

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Activities & Excursions

As elsewhere in the South Pacific, scuba diving is the most popular sport among visitors.  The best coral and marine life viewing by far is available in the Tuamotus and serious divers won’t go wrong by choosing Rangiroa, the shark- viewing capital of Polynesia.  In the warm waters of Polynesia wetsuits are not required.

There’s good surfing around Tahiti, Moorea, Huahine, and Raiatea.  The summer swells are the same ones that hit Hawaii three or four days earlier and the reef breaks off the north shore of Moorea work better than Tahiti’s beach breaks. The most powerful, hollow waves are in winter.

Excellent, easily accessible hiking areas exist on Tahiti, Moorea, and Nuku Hiva.  Horseback riding is readily available on Moorea, Huahine, Raiatea, and in the Marquesas with the Huahine and Raiatea operations especially recommended.  The Society Islands are a sailor’s paradise with numerous protected anchorage and excellent sailing weather.

Activities for children:
Dolphins encounter in Moorea @ the Intercontinental Moorea Resort
Turtles sanctuary in Bora Bora @ the Meridien Bora Bora Hotel

The big event of the year is the two-week-long Heiva i Tahiti, which runs from the end of June to Bastille Day (14 July).  Formerly known as La Fête du Juillet or the Tiurai Festival, the Heiva originated in 1882.  Today contestants and participants from all over the territory travel to Tahiti to take part in elaborate processions, competitive dancing and singing, feasting, and partying.  There are bicycle, car, horse, and outrigger canoe races, petanque, archery, and javelin throwing contests, fire walking, sidewalk bazaars, arts and crafts exhibitions, tattooing, games, and joyous carnivals.

Bastille Day itself, which marks the fall of the Bastille in Paris on 14 July 1789 at the height of the French Revolution, features a military parade in the capital.  You’ll see historical reenactments at Marae Arahurahu, a canoe race along the Papeete waterfront, horse racing at the Pirae track, and traditional dance competitions.

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Practicalities

Everyone other than French citizens needs a passport to travel to French Polynesia.  Citizens of the European Union countries, Norway, Switzerland and Australia get three months without a visa. Citizens of the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and 13 other countries are granted a one month stay free upon arrival on Tahiti.

The French Pacific franc or Cour de Franc Pacifique (CFP) is legal tender in Tahiti.  The value of the CFP is linked to the Euro, so it’s a stable currency.  U.S. banks levy a stiff commission on foreign currency transactions but traveler’s checks attract a rate of exchange only about 1.5% higher than cash.  Using your credit card proves to be the most expedient and affordable choice.

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Getting There & Getting Around

Air Tahiti Nui, the “official” airline of French Polynesia and several other airlines all have regular flights to Tahiti. Flight time from Los Angeles is approximately 8 hours non-stop to Papeete.

The domestic air carriers, Air Tahiti and Moorea Air, fly to 37 airstrips in every corner of French Polynesia, with important hubs at Papeete, Bora Bora, Rangiroa, Hao, and Nuku Hiva.

Also, many travelers tour French Polynesia by boat.  Ships leave Papeete regularly for the different island groups.  The Moorea ferries operate five or six times a day.  The cruise to the Marquesas on the passenger carrying freighter Aranui is highly recommended.

French Polynesia’s bus service “le truck” provides an entertaining circle island passenger service on Tahiti, Moorea, Huahine, and Raiatea.  Taxis, van and bus services are also available throughout French Polynesia, but if you take one, always verify the fare before getting in. Compact automobiles, motor cycles, scooters and bicycles are available for rent… by the hour, the day or the week.  And, believe it or not, hitchhiking is still a safe and popular means of getting around in French Polynesia.

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