These Dreamy Remote Islands Are a Crayon-Colored Fantasy
Welcome to the black pearl of the Pacific.
After about a week in the Islands of Tahiti, I was about 60% coconut, and that was just fine with me. With impossibly white sand, clear lagoons that put the blues and greens of the Crayola-64 box to shame, and loads of sunshine, French Polynesia is a destination most of us have visited in our daydreams.
A total of 118 stunning islands teeming with rich marine life and verdant, volcanic landscapes are an outdoor lover’s playground. Swim in caves on the wild coast, eat half your weight in fresh seafood, hike through the rainforest, admire the capital’s street art, or dive or snorkel in crystal clear water. Heck, you can even see the colorful fish without getting in the water.
Whether you’re interested in island-hopping or exploring the nooks and crannies of one idyllic parcel of land, Tahiti dishes up utter tranquility. Consider this your back-pocket guide to a South Pacific daydream.
How to get to Tahiti and around its islands
Although the islands of Tahiti seem super far-flung (and feel remote when you’re there), traveling to French Polynesia is uncomplicated. Direct flights out of LAX to Fa’aa International Airport via Air Tahiti Nui will land you in the coveted turquoise haven in under eight hours. Snag yourself a window seat if you’re traveling during daylight hours, and thank me later. Vacation mode is activated upon arrival in Papeete, thanks to live Polynesian music while you wait to go through customs.
The best way to make your way around the island of Tahiti while also getting local insight, history, and cool stories, is, by far, with a driver. Tahiti VIP Tours is one reliable and comfortable service, with friendly and knowledgeable guides.
Venturing to the numerous other islands in the archipelago can be done either by boat or short flights. Terevau and Aremiti are speedy ferries that transport island-hoppers to places like nearby Moorea in about 40 minutes. To reach one of the further spots, Air Tahiti offers a wide network of flights to get you to one of the 47 islands or atolls that they service. Once you arrive at your chosen destination, taxis are typically available, or you can arrange ground transportation pick-up through your accommodation.
Slumber over the sea
If you’ve seen any photos of Tahiti, overwater bungalows with thatched roofs are probably one of the first things that come to your mind when you think of the country. Seemingly ripped straight out of a postcard, alluring bungalows poised above aquamarine waters at the bigger resorts are certainly enjoyable, but they aren’t the only option. Consider staying small at a local guesthouse and prepare to have your Tahitian socks knocked right off. You’ll be away from the crowds, completely pampered, and you’ll get to enjoy an authentic cultural experience with local recommendations at the ready, all without the hefty price tag.
On the island of Tahiti, Villa Ninamu Pearl is a hillside perch with incredible ocean views. Located less than half an hour from the heart of downtown Papeete, you’ll feel world’s away as you dip yourself in the private plunge pool with the island of Moorea in the distance, before venturing down to the beautiful restaurant and terrace for some homemade pizza and pasta.
Nestled on the beach in Moorea, Green Lodge Moorea has six gorgeous seaside bungalows, an onsite bar and open-kitchen concept restaurant, three adorable resident pups, and some of the most drool-worthy sunsets you’ll feast your eyes upon. Rent one of the lodge’s bikes and pedal down to the public beach, alternate swims between pool and the ocean, and indulge in delicious three-course meals cooked by the clearly multi-talented owners.
On the diving and snorkeling mecca of Rangiroa island, stay at pension Raira Lagon and relish a front row seat to the intriguing underwater world. Spot black-tipped reef sharks and schools of tropical fish without even dipping a toe in the sea. An onsite restaurant and private beach area with kayak and snorkel gear provide all you’ll need when you’re not sleeping in your beach bungalow. And, if the conditions are just right when you’re there, you may even experience the phenomenon where the lagoon transforms into a seemingly endless mirror with insane reflections of the sky—a true jaw-drop moment.
Sleep like a celebrity at Vahine Private Island Resort & Spa, a nine-room (six beach and three overwater bungalows) resort just across the way from the island of Taha’a. Wake up to views of Bora Bora in the distance, paddle in the onsite kayaks, snorkel til your heart’s content, or hop on a boat and adventure through the neighboring islands. Just make sure you eat as many meals here as possible; the home cooked food is nothing short of mouth watering, with views from the restaurant to match. And since vanilla is grown on the island, prepare for the yogurt at breakfast to blow you away.
Eat endless fruit, coconut, and fish
“You’re never going to want to eat a mango in the US again,” says the owner at Moorea’s Green Lodge. Indeed, each piece of the fruit is the poster child of soft, sweet, juicy, and ripe. It should come as no surprise that the pineapple here is also some of the best in the world. Tropical fruit looks good on French Polynesia.
With a melting pot of Tahitian, French, and Chinese culinary influences, eating street food in French Polynesia is an adventure in and of itself. Almost anywhere you go, the national dish of poisson cru will be on the menu: fresh raw fish (typically tuna) marinated in citrus juice and coconut milk. Another must is the unique chow mein sandwich. Noodles in a sandwich? Oh yes.
Food trucks are a big part of the culture in the islands. Affordable and authentic, the food trucks parked in Puna’auia just outside of Papeete dish up some of the best. Sunset Roulette and Roulette Chez Nina in particular are ones to head for, especially for the steak frites.
For a well-rounded taste of Tahiti, sign up for Tahiti Food Tours and eat your way around Moorea. Spend the afternoon hopping around to local food haunts, trying items like prune dusted mango, grilled fish skewers, gardenia ice cream, freshly-baked traditional Tahitian coconut bread, or dumplings at Snack Rotui, the oldest snack bar on the island. Top it all off with po’e, the starchy-sweet dessert dish made from taro, pumpkin, or other fruity variations mixed with coconut milk. This iconic dish makes an appearance in French Polynesian homes for every Sunday brunch. Wash it all down with fresh-as-it-gets coconut water, or rum punch, of course.
Explore Moorea’s mountains via ATV
ATV Moorea Tours run small-group ventures into the heart of the vedant island of Moorea. Guides take visitors on ATV rides through the mountains, all while sharing tips, history, and local legends (ask about the one surrounding a kiss with the freshwater eels).
You can drive a quad on off-road dirt tracks through swaths of pineapples, absorb the vista from Belvedere viewpoint, get splashed on river-crossings, taste local jam at a roadside agricultural shop, and go uphill to the summit of Magic Mountain where the coastal views are nothing short of…well, magic.
Swim with sharks in Rangiroa
An hour-long flight from Tahiti will land you on the unbelievable atoll of Rangiroa, an island composed of 240 tiny islets that form a circle around a lagoon. This destination in the Tuamotu Islands is world renowned for diving and snorkeling, so grab your gear and head into the pristine water to see what you can find. Some of the best spots include Avatoru Pass and Tiputa Canyons. Marine life such as whitetip sharks, lemon sharks, manta rays, and even dolphins dazzle divers on the regular. Lessons, certifications, and tours are available with TopDive Rangiroa.
If diving isn’t your jam, you’re still in luck. Hop aboard a tour with Orava Excursions out to the notoriously vibrant Blue Lagoon, where you’ll have the opportunity to swim and snorkel with sharks—and you’ll get a beach picnic after, to boot. Jump in the warm, impossibly blue water where black-tipped reef sharks and the larger but more elusive lemon sharks frequent the shallow areas. Between endless schools of tropical fish, sharks, and colorful coral, it’ll feel like you’ve plopped into a real-life aquarium.
Hike to the tallest waterfall in Tahiti
The Island of Tahiti is positively rife with cascades, and one of the best hikes will land you at the tallest of them all. Fautaua Falls (Cascade de Fachoda) has an impressive 443 foot drop and is situated in the lush Fautaua Valley, just 15 minutes outside of Papeete. Embark on your own, or enhance the outdoor experience with a knowledgeable guide from Mato-Nui Excursions.
The trek through the rainforest begins with an easy, flat trail and then, depending which route you take, becomes increasingly more challenging. The upper trail is like a sour patch kid; it will test your endurance with a steady climb, but gives a sweet reward of a breathtaking (pun-intended) viewpoint of Fautaua Falls. The scene is every bit worth the effort made in the humid climate; torn straight out of storybook pages, your camera will practically take the photos without you.
The adventure doesn’t end there either. Another 15 minutes of sweat, rope-gripping, and navigating rung ladders will gift you the ultimate place to cool off (and rinse the dirt off): the pools at the top of the waterfall. Take a refreshing dip in one of two pools by either cliff-jump or natural rock slide; measure your bravery level with either a 10-foot or 30-foot drop. Just don’t venture too close to the edge of the falls, as the current is very dangerous.
Visit a black pearl farm in Taha’a
If there’s one thing to buy in French Polynesia, it’s probably authentic Tahitian black pearls. Sure, they make a fantastic souvenir or gift, but seeing how they are produced is a wonder to watch. The family-run Iaorana Pearl Farm on the gorgeous island of Taha’a offers free tours and a glimpse into life as a master pearl grafter. If you happen to stop in when the resident pearl grafter, Win Sang, is working, you’re in for a real treat.
“Every day is a good day,” says Sang. He does a whopping 300 per day DNA planting procedures in the oyster’s nucleus, and decides the pear color out of 180 shade options. The onsite shop has a beautiful selection of black pearl jewelry in all forms, so you get your lesson and your shopping done in one place.