Come with us to the edge of the world. French Polynesia will captivate you with its beautiful nature, fascinating underwater world and its friendliness and culture. It will fulfill everything you could wish for in an exotic boat holiday. In our guide, we'll introduce you to this yachting destination in all its glory.
First, some facts: the location and area of French Polynesia
If we had to describe French Polynesia in one sentence, it would probably be "paradise on earth" or "the end of the world and beginning of paradise". Although many destinations would like to claim such a title, in this case it is a reality.
French Polynesia is located in the South Pacific, and its 118 islands and islets cover an area of 4,167 km², nearing the size of the European continent. Polynesian islands are of volcanic origin (atolls) and often surrounded by coral reefs. The best-known, most populous island is certainly Tahiti. Its capital, Papeete, is home to the Faa'a International Airport, French Polynesia's only multinational airport.
Expect to be in a completely different time zone from those in Europe. The difference from Central European time ranges between 11 and 12 hours. Because of this, it is very difficult to coordinate long-distance work calls here, and if you answer emails from colleagues, they get the impression that you are a maniac who works at 3am.
The local economy relies mostly on tourism, and pearl farms, along with the production of copra (the dried kernel of the coconut used to make oil), vanilla, coffee, pineapples and other fruits.
Interestingly, French Polynesia, located in Oceania, is essentially part of France. Administratively, it is what is known as an overseas commonwealth, with the territory having autonomy in many areas but falling under French sovereignty in others.
Map of Oceania
Officially, French Polynesia is divided into five smaller territories:
- The Windward Islands (French: Îles du Vent), which belong to the so-called Society Islands. These include, for example, Tahiti or the island of Mo'orea.
- The Leeward Islands (French: Îles Sous-le-Vent), also appertaining to the Society Islands. This region boasts the famous islands of Bora Bora, Maupiti and Rainatea.
- The Marquesas or Marquesas Islands (French: Îles Tuamotu Marquises).
- Tuamotu Archipelago – Gambier Islands (French: Îles Tuamotu Tuamotu-Gambier).
- Archipelago (French: Îles Australes), of which the Bass Islands (French: Îles (de) Bass) are a part.
Weather and climate in French Oceania
French Polynesia's typical meteorological conditions are tropical year-round. Consequently, you can visit during whichever season you like. Thanks to the oceanic climate, the weather is constant and the sea maintains a stable temperature. It is sunny throughout most of the year, but tropical rains can occur (and at any time of the year). The months between November and April, for instance, are considered to be its rainy season, and it is then that the aforementioned precipitation is more frequent. The rain is usually heavy, but short-lived. However, if possible, it is better to travel here during the period between April and November, when temperatures reach 30 degrees Celsius, dropping to 20 degrees at night, and the islands tend to be drier. At most, you'll get brief showers.
Tropical beach and lagoon on Mo'orea island
The local islands are akin to the exotic pavilion of an open-air botanical garden. You will find thousands of coconuts and other types of palm trees, bananas, limes and mangoes. Not to mention plenty of blooming flowers and shrubs. A true feast for the eyes.
Where does one sail from?
Most charters depart from the Apooiti Marina on Raiatea Island, home to the Moorings and Dream Yacht Charter companies, which are among the top firms in their field and very reliable.
Although French Polynesia is made up of 118 islands and covers over 4,000 square kilometres, the population sits around a mere 270,000. So crowded beaches and busy towns are not to be expected here, as the population density is very low.
Yachting infrastructure in Polynesia
Forget the marinas you know from the European coast. When sailing in French Polynesia, you'll be parking your boat all over the place. Mooring is allowed almost anywhere in the lagoon, it just depends on the conditions, wind, currents and depth. Be especially careful of the depths and check carefully for coral reefs nearby. Gradually there are also buoy fields building up, so if you see them, don't hesitate to stay the night.
It is important to fill up a keg with plenty of fresh water at the start of the charter. You won’t come across too many places to draw water from during your cruise, so it's best to have a full tank before you set sail and to conserve water. If you have the option, we definitely recommend a boat with a water maker.
The largest marinas are located on the islands of Tahiti or Raiatea. There are even two yacht clubs on Bora Bora that have their own marinas. The island of Huahine also has buoy fields.
There is a map circulating among yachtsmen where the most important yachting spots of the area can be found. Take its contents with a grain of salt, after all, it is the work of Google users and not an official publication. You can find the map here:
Boats in French Polynesia
Because of the shallow waters in the lagoons and coral atolls scattered around the sea, we recommend you rent a catamaran. Yachting.com also offers single-hulled sailboats in French Polynesia, such as the popular Sun Odyssey, but you'll be more at ease if you have a one-metre draught, two hulls and a net for sunbathing above the water's surface.
What to watch out for when sailing in Polynesia
French Polynesia is a paradise. However, there are some pitfalls to watch out for to avoid getting into an unpleasant situation. Keep your eyes peeled and pay close attention to the water's depth, especially when anchoring or sailing in the lagoon, but also when in the open sea. Due to its volcanic origin, the seabed is very rugged, poorly mapped on nautical charts and occasionally, a coral reef just sticks out of the sea. When sailing around the lagoon, you can have really shallow depths under the keel. We recommend sending a crew member to the bow to keep an eye out for possible hazards below the surface.
The coral reefs are very irregularly distributed on the bottom
Oftentimes, there is a single canal connecting the open sea to the lagoon by the island, which you have to sail through. Occasionally, when bigger waves come in, this task becomes more challenging. Make sure to watch out for currents. In this area, currents can reach strengths of up to several knots and divert the direction of the boat’s direction.
7 must-see islands in French Polynesia
We've researched the so-called Society Islands and picked out seven that are worth paying a visit:
Map of the Society Islands
1. Raiatea Island
Most charter companies are located on this island. So if you choose to embark on boat, you will be sailing from here.
According to local legend, this island is the cradle of Polynesia. It is said to have been the original settlement of the Polynesians, who sailed from here in canoes to other islands and settled there. As a result, there is a sacred place here — the marae* Taputapuatea, which we recommend all history and spirituality enthusiasts visit.
*A marae is a sacred place.
2. Taha'a Island
The island of pearls and vanilla is surrounded by the same lagoon as Raiatea Island. Be sure to visit one of the pearl farms where they will show you how pearl-bearing mussels are raised. As a souvenir, a Tahitian pearl will bring joy to anybody!
View of the islands of Raiatea and Tahaa
You will probably first arrive on the island of Tahiti. Its capital, Papeete, is quite busy, but the town's fruit and fish market and street food stalls on the coast are worth a visit. Surfing and nice beaches are common sights along the shore. Further inland, you will find hills, mountains, rainforests and beautiful waterfalls. Don't forget to exchange your money into Pacific Francs here!
Marketplace in the capital of Tahiti
4. Bora Bora
Arguably the most commercially famous island of French Polynesia. Aerial images of it serve as the screensavers of many devices, which is why this island is the most sought after in its region. The Bora Bora lagoon is described as the most beautiful in the Pacific. Azure in color; with crystal clear water and white, sandy beaches lined with palm trees... truly, heaven on earth. The rocky massif of Mt. Otemanu looms out of the water. However, due to high tourist demand, it can get pricey.
There are several beautiful anchorages here. We recommend going south of the Teavanui pass to look at Motu Tapu and Motu To'opua, where sharks and rays feed in the morning, even swimming up to the surface sometimes!
View of Mount Otemanu on the island of Bora Bora
5. Mo'orea Island
This island is located 18 kilometers from Tahiti and is visible from its west side. Since it is a bit of a hidden gem, it is quiet and peaceful, lacking urban commotion. Its lagoon is clear-watered and 8 visible mountain peaks poke out of it. In the heartland, you can visit historical sites and pineapple plantations.
6. Huahine Island
This island is actually made up of two smaller islands, separated by a narrow channel. The larger island, Huahine-Nui, is livelier, while the smaller Huahine-Iti has a more modest population size and is more likely to be visited for its natural beauty. Lovely beaches await at the town of Fare or in the south at Avea Bay, but steer clear the eastern part of the island, where the waters are very shallow. The local shell museum is also worth mentioning and there are buoy fields where you can moor your boat.
7. Maupiti Island
A lesser-known tourist destination, affectionately dubbed "little Bora Bora", for its similarities to Bora Bora, before tourists took a liking to it. Boats here are left at anchor, as there are no marinas.
The atoll is not far from the other islands, the trip can be sailed within a day, but the journey can be challenging due to the very narrow entrance. During periods when seas are rough, it becomes impossible to get out. There are many stories of "stranded" sailors who had to wait weeks for an opportunity to safely leave Maupiti.
Maupiti Atoll bears similarity to Bora Bora
Do you see yourself on any of the islands yet? Check out our offer of boats in French Polynesia.
Who is French Polynesia suitable for?
We recommend a cruise in French Polynesia to all sailors who are looking for a relaxing holiday. Those who appreciate empty bays, deserted beaches, pristine nature and tranquility. If, on the other hand, you are looking for dynamic nightlife, big-city whirlwinds, modern buildings, nightclubs, upscale restaurants and attractions, French Polynesia is probably not your cup of tea.
The sea in the lagoons around the islands is often very calm, with clear water, so families with children can keep entertained for months, snorkelling or otherwise. Travel between islands can be more challenging, but the water around the inner-most islands is like a mirror, so sailing with children is no worry.
YACHTING.COM TIP: Wondering how to have a safe family cruise? Read our article.
Gorgeous sea life
Whether you choose to snorkel or scuba dive, the flora and fauna in French Polynesian are perhaps even richer underwater than on land. Just about everything that swims, can be found here.
The sea here is diverse, like an enormous aquarium. Fishing is not intense, trawling is not used here and the wildlife is perfectly preserved, even giant corals. Here's a list of animals you will be likely to see:
- Blacktip Sharks (schools often reaching staggering sizes)
- Silvertip Sharks
- Tiger Sharks
- Manta Rays
- Dogtooth Tuna
- Yellowfin Tuna
- Humphead Wrasses
- Moray Eels
YACHTING.COM TIP: The lagoon appears to "fill" and "drain". There is a current that brings in a lot of food, causing fish to stay in it. If you want to see the best of the lagoons' sea life, go to the edge of the reef or the mouth of the lagoon.
Diving with Manta Rays is an unforgettable experience
Useful sailing tips even for exotic destinations:
Additional activities to sailing
In French Polynesia you can relax, swim and sail peacefully in the bays. But if you are one of the more active types, we have found a few activities for you to try. For example, we recommend kayaking or paddleboarding in the lagoon. The surface here is calm, so it will be pleasantly easy.
To discover the natural beauty and life underwater, we recommend snorkelling near coral reefs, with manta rays or with sharks. Ask your local guide where to sail to find such places. Those who dive with scuba gear will, of course, gain access to whole new dimension of the subaqueous world. There are plenty of diving bases and schools.
Fishermen are of course advised to cast a rod. Fishing is another an activity to enjoy in this area and the catches can be gigantic! You can enjoy a view of the island right from the lagoon if you rent a jet ski or a jetsurf. It's an adrenaline rush and well worth it.
When you come across an island you like, don't hesitate to explore it from the seat of your bike or scooter — you will find bike, scooter, buggy, quad bike and all sorts of other motorized equipment rentals here. Then you can head inland, where you'll often find waterfalls, rainforests and banana fields, to name a few.
4 myths about French Polynesia
Sometimes people are afraid of travelling far, or of remote areas of the globe. Let's take a look at some of the most common fears travellers have when visiting French Polynesia and let's alleviate any concerns.
1. Dangerous sharks
Sharks are common in this area and if you have never come face to face with a shark, you will find it unusual, perhaps even shocking. It's good to be respectful towards them, but there's no point in shying away every time you see a shark. If you don't provoke them, they won't do anything to you, they'll just swim along on their way. Beware, though, at night even the cutest creatures become predators, hunting their prey. On most islands, night diving, for example, is forbidden because of this.
YACHTING.COM TIP: Join us in exploration of the fascinating world of sharks — creatures that have lived on the planet for more than 450 million years. In Overcome your fear of sharks: learn to love them instead, we'll tell you how sharks behave in the sea, which senses they use to find food and how they hunt. We've also added information regarding where you can encounter a shark, how to prevent a shark incident, and rules for how best to behave if one becomes a threat to you in the sea.
Circling silvertip sharks
2. Poor healthcare
Should you experience any health issues, keep in mind that clinics and hospitals in Papeete are of a standard comparable to those in Europe. Don't expect to find yourself in a backward civilization where basic surgical procedures can't be performed or medication can't be administered when necessary. However, it is recommended to bring a small first aid kit with basic medicines on board. After all, depending on your location, it may take you a while to get to hospital.
3. Risk of contracting malaria
Although there are plenty of mosquitoes on some of the islands, you needn't fret about malaria; it's not common in Polynesia, so the only thing you have to worry about is itchy mosquito bites.
4. High crime rate
French Polynesia is a very safe area. The crime rate here is minimal and so you don't have to worry too much about theft or assault. However, petty theft can occur in the capital Papeete, so keep an eye on your documents, money... We recommend that you register with your local authorities before your trip. In the event that you get into trouble, someone will be aware of you, which is the first step to rescue.
What to take to French Polynesia:
- Snorkels and flippers to aid in viewing the underwater ecosystem, which is absolutely perfect here. Flippers can be rented locally if needed.
- High factor sunscreen as the sun here is very strong and nobody wants to get sunburned and look like a tomato on holiday. You can get a tan even when standing under a cloud!
- You can use a knife to for practical tasks like gutting fish (if you catch any), cutting coconuts down from palm trees, etc.
- A mosquito net, because sometimes mosquitoes can be troublesome here at night.
- Insect repellent, for sitting outside in the evening or exploring nature on the islands.
- A fishing rod, in case you feel like catching your own dinner every now and then.
- An underwater pouch, waterproof camera or GoPro to capture the aquatic wildlife in all its glory.
A waterproof camera is essential here!
What are the inhabitants of French Polynesia like?
The locals are very hospitable, kind, friendly and, to us, may come off as suspiciously generous. If you ask them for something politely, they will try to accommodate you, asking for nothing in return and smiling as they do so. On the other hand, French Polynesia is very laid-back, nobody is stressed or in a hurry, and people's efforts are not always entirely logical. If you are one of those people who wants everything right away, perfect, and don't understand inefficiency, you will be annoyed.
The islands are home to both indigenous people and immigrants. You can recognize the immigrants (mostly French or Italian) because they look like Europeans. The locals, and by that we mean the indigenous people, are very similar in appearance to Hawaiians.
Polynesians perform a traditional dance
What language is spoken here?
The name "French Polynesia" already implies that French is spoken here. It is also the official language. Despite this, the locals communicate in Tahitian. If you speak Tahitian, we admire and congratulate you, if you speak French, you will surprise the locals and they will be happy to talk to you. If you don't understand either of the languages, you can somewhat get by with English.
YACHTING.COM TIP: Learn a few phrases in Tahitian before your trip. "La ora na!" means hello. "Māuruuru" is how you say thank you, but if you want to express great gratitude, you can say "Māuruuru roa". "Nānā" means goodbye. Everything is pronounced phonetically and the Tahitians practically sing their words.
7 things to bring home
Taking a trip to the edge of the world isn't something most people do very often, so you should take advantage of your voyage and bring a souvenir back home for friends, family or yourself. Fridge magnet and postcards are the obvious choices, but in case those are too mundane for you, we've got some tips. Here are some original, unconventional things to take home from French Polynesia:
- Tahitian pearls, either in the form of jewellery or on its own
- A shell necklace
- Monoi de Tahiti oil with various ingredients,
- A pareo or a scarf
- Carved wooden statuettes
- A henna tattoo (or a real one!)
Black pearls, cultivated and freshly harvested at the pearl farm on Fakarava Atoll
What must you try from the local cuisine?
On larger islands (like Bora Bora) you can eat everything you can think of — lamb, chicken, seafood, salads, pizza... Thanks to the influence of France and the many French communities in the area, you can buy French baguettes, salted butter, champagne or French wines, as well as other European food and drinks.
Those who do not like fish, rice or coconut will not enjoy eating on some of the islands. In fact, the inhabitants of smaller islands eat these foods almost exclusively. Sometimes, raw fish is served as a side dish with grilled fish. A dish that you will definitely encounter is ceviche, pieces of raw fish marinated in lemon juice and, in this part of the world, coconut milk. This specialty is often served with rice or vegetables (cucumbers, tomatoes). You will also find slices of raw fish on top of salad, a kind of Polynesian sashimi. If you're lucky, you'll come across a place where they have mussel salad. The mussel in question is a very tasty one and you may find it heart-warming, knowing that this mussel has formed a pearl in its shell. You should definitely try the local grilled or baked fish. From tuna, to a large selection of white fish, to exotic species such as parrot fish. In short, fish a hundred ways.
The Tahitian national dish is a raw fish salad called Poisson Cru — fish in coconut milk with rice
On the smaller islands, the selection of fresh vegetables and fruit is quite limited. The salty atolls do not produce as many plants, so they are completely dependent on ferry imports. For the greatest variety of options, go to the supermarket on the day the supply ship arrives.
To drink, we recommend trying the coconut water, which is served straight from the coconut. For the adventurous, there is also the option of plucking your own coconut directly from the palm tree. If you want to try something typical of Tahiti, have a Hinano beer. But we definitely don't recommend drinking the tap water. It is often just desalinated sea water and could cause you stomach or intestinal problems.
Transportation to French Polynesia
As these are islands, you can get to French Polynesia by plane from Europe. The most common flights are via San Francisco, Las Vegas, Los Angeles or Auckland. It all depends on how convenient the airline connection you get is. But be prepared, there is no way to travel from Europe to French Polynesia in less than 24 hours, it really is the other side of the world.
YACHTING.COM TIP: We recommend that you plan your trip so that you have an extra day (layover) at the transfer point. This will save you the hassle of possible delays and connecting flights, and you'll get to know a foreign city.
Air ticket prices are in the thousands of Euros, but of course it depends on the class of the ticket. Business and First class will cost you over four thousand Euros.
Domestic flights around the islands are provided by Air Tahiti, which operates a network of smaller aircrafts. The air hostesses of this company wear colorful uniforms, flowers in their hair and pearls. Upon arrival at your destination, you'll be greeted with a flower or shell necklace and sometimes live bands play traditional music at the airports. The airports here are quite humble, on the islands they are usually just houses with wooden structures and roofs made of palm leaves.
The airport hall on atolls are often really small
In French Polynesia, payment is made in Pacific Francs, sometimes called the French Polynesian Franc (CFP). This currency is very difficult to obtain in Europe. We recommend exchanging your local currency for Dollars and then converting to Francs when you arrive in Papeete. There are no currency exchange offices on the smaller islands, you can rarely pay by card and the locals aren't too fond of Dollars and Euros. Sometimes they wont accept them, even if you offer a good rate. Every so often, they'll accept Euros, but you have to persuade them and you definitely shouldn't pay with a large note. So get plenty of Pacific Francs.
In terms of price levels, French Polynesia is not exactly a cheap destination. Due to the fact that many things have to be imported to the islands by ferry or plane, basic groceries will be roughly twice as expensive as they are in Europe.
On the other hand, you save considerably on port charges. Most of the time the boats are at anchor, which is free. If you go to the famous Bora Bora, expect to be asked to pay 2,000 Francs for each day spent in the lagoon.
Haggling over price is not as traditional as it is in the Middle East, for example, where it is automatically expected. What does happen is that the merchant will inflate the price above the average and you can then negotiate downwards. Don't be afraid to at least try. Of course, this applies mainly to markets, stalls or street vendors. In supermarkets, prices are fixed, marked with a price tag like in western countries.