Think French Polynesia and you will likely envisage picture-perfect tropical islands with acres of blonde sand, palm trees, azure waters and coral gardens populated by kaleidoscopic swirls of fish. Unfortunately, you may also think dollar signs: these isolated and far-flung islands have a reputation of being one of the most expensive holiday spots on earth. Stay in a resort – which is what most visitors do – and in just one night you may blow the equivalent of a week’s moderately-priced accommodation in Europe.
Hotels, restaurant food and private transport are the most budget-blowing aspects of traveling these islands – but it is possible to reduce these expenses and island-hop French Polynesia independently and affordably, while having an authentic Polynesian experience.
First… know your islands
French Polynesia is made up of some 200 islands — the Society, Tuamotu, Gambier, Austral and Marquesas groups — spread over 4.1 million square kilometres of Pacific Ocean: an area roughly eight times the size of France. The islands are a mix of low coral atolls rising little more than 3m above the ocean and soaring volcanic islands with jagged peaks reaching up to 2,241m out of the sea.
The Society Islands, which include the island of Tahiti and French Polynesia’s capital, Papetee, are the most populated and most visited group. These are mostly high, volcanic islands, known for spectacularly perpendicular geography, crystal lagoons – as well as pricey resorts with spas and overwater bungalows.
To the east lie the Tuamotu Islands, 78 low coral atolls, where locals rely mainly on copra (dried coconut) and black pearls for income. Tourism is mostly small-scale with family run guesthouses rather than international resorts. The diving and snorkelling around the Tuamotus is legendary.
Southeast of the Tuamotus is the Gambier group. These lush high islands, surrounded by crystal lagoons are almost as far off the beaten tourist track as you can get. You will find great hiking, and an exceptionally friendly welcome from locals.
Farthest east, the 15 lofty Marquesas Islands are ruggedly mountainous. No protective circling lagoons here: waves crash in across the Pacific. Smiling, tattooed Marquesans riding bareback on horses will guide you to caves and mountain tops, where you can marvel at sheer cliffs plunging to the sea.
Most isolated of all are the Austral Islands, to Tahiti’s south. These are cool tropical islands where humpback whales calve in the winter…
Read more: BBC