French Polynesia is composed of 118 islands divided into 5 archipelagos located in the middle of the South Pacific ocean. Spread over a surface larger than Europe, these 118 islands barely occupy 4,000 km? of land. Of this surface, the atoll of Rangiroa alone (including its huge lagoon that could fit the entire island of Tahiti within it's boundary), is the largest with 1,600 km?. The island of Tahiti is the largest land mass.
Papeete harbour lies on the north-west coast of Tahiti backed by rolling hills. Papeete is a rather congested town with a population of over 100,000 people. French Polynesia's busy port capital does have heavy rush-hour traffic and some ugly concrete structures, but it also has a beautiful waterfront where yachts, ferries and cargo boats come and go, and a thriving market full of South Pacific atmosphere. There are caf?s, mobile snack vans and eateries near the waterfront making it a lovely place to mill about and soak up the scene.
The market is a colourful and vibrant place, especially on Sunday morning when it's at its busiest. The market covers a whole city block just back from the waterfront. The original buildings were erected in 1847, but after a series of expansions and redevelopments the market was destroyed by shelling from German cruisers during WWI. It has since been rebuilt twice and is now an airy two-storey structure with fruit, vegetables, meat and fish downstairs, and clothes and arts and crafts upstairs.
The major concentration of resorts and large hotels is found to the south of Papeete. Here there are several beaches, but nothing resembling the outstanding beach scenes depicted in the tourist brochures. There are however excellent views overlooking Moorea Island in the distance, which is perfectly silhouetted by the setting sun, and the nightlife and restaurants of Papeete are close by.
Tahiti's major attraction is its stunning tropical rain forest and mountain ranges. The north and east coast of Tahiti-Nui has some of the most dramatic mountain scenery on the island and several good waterfalls. Tahiti's lush and rugged interior offers endless possibilities for walkers and mountain climbers, from the leisurely to the very strenuous, and reveals a landscape of soaring peaks that rise to Mt Orohena at 2241m (7350ft). There are also plateaus, waterfalls, lava tubes and Polynesian relics - including the ruined temples, tiki and petroglyphs of Marae Arahurahu. Tahiti-Iti is very rural with some attractive Polynesian style villages and a few small beaches on its south coast. Hiking trails are excellent on both the south and north coast and the coastal road passes some of the country's most outstanding scenery making this a must for those who like exploring.
Moorea lies just 20km from Papeete and getting there is very easy. Moorea is a lot more laid back than Tahiti making it the popular choice for holiday seekers. The beaches on Moorea are better than on Tahiti. Moorea also comes with stunning scenery in the form of razor sharp mountains covered with dense, inaccessible rainforest. Then there is the magnificent Cooks Bay and the adjacent (and even more spectacular Opunohu Bay) along which much of the islands accommodation is based. Scuba diving in Cook Bay is good and sailing yachts and cruises often visit. This is also the access point to the lovely Belvedere Lookout with splendid views and some lovely hiking trails into the mountains.
A really nice beach with good snorkelling is at Hauru Point, on the north west of the island. Other good beaches on Moorea include Haapiti on the west coast and Teavaro on the east coast. There's lots of activities around Moorea from cruises around the bays and coast to 4WD tours of the interior. One not to miss is the Tiki Village south of Hauru Point on the west coast which has cultural performances, a reconstructed Polynesian Village and handicraft demonstrations. Moorea has a well developed tourist infrastructure - there are plenty of car hire companies at the wharf and airport, lots of restaurants around the coast, shopping centres and gift and boutique shops for browsing.
Huahine, a little further east than Moorea, has great scuba diving and the atmosphere is truly laid back with gentle mountains and villages to explore. There are good beaches in the south and one of the finest archaeological sites in the South Pacific at Maeva in the north.
The twin islands of Tahaa and Raiatea are rich tropical islands with gentle valleys and deep bays with marinas making it an exceptional sailing destination. Scuba diving around the large fringing reef is its other major draw.
For many, the highlight of French Polynesia is the high island of Bora Bora. Some regard it as the most beautiful island in the Pacific because of its lush-green volcanic peaks, huge lagoon, and the chain of sandy motu flanking its coast. Bora Bora is not as near as it gets to that picture-perfect tropical island. People come to dive in the fish and coral-filled lagoon, explore the interior by foot or 4WD, and climb the three impressive peaks, Hue (619m/2000ft), Pahia (661m/2165ft) and Otemanu (727m/2380ft).
The south of the main island is the tourist centre with a concentration of resorts and restaurants at Matira Point. There are a handful of resorts on the small motus, which can also be explored on one of many cruises that operate around the lagoon. Most resorts in Bora Bora offer over-lagoon thatch bungalows. Scuba diving in the deep lagoon is good and snorkelling around the outer fringes is exceptional. Maupiti, a little further out than Bora Bora, is a charming island of similar appearance to Bora Bora but with only a faction of the resorts and tourists.
The unusual Marquesas Islands to the north of Tuamotu are unique in that there is no reef. The volcanic islands just pop out from the deep ocean and the bays and cliffs make this one of the most scenic regions to visit. The islands support a number of small traditional villages which retain a rich culture. The Marquesas are renowned for its dancers, wood carvers and tattooists. The two main islands, Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa have a small variety of accommodation from luxury resorts to guesthouses.
The Marquesian island of Hiva Oa was once the administrative capital of the Marquesas, but now those duties are handled by Nuku Hiva to the north. Hiva Oa still dominates the southern group of the archipelago and is the island where both Paul Gauguin and Belgian singer/poet Jacques Brel finally settled. There are relics and monuments to both men in the main town of Atuona. The Calvaire cemetery, where both were laid to rest, is a place of pilgrimage - particularly for Brel fans. Atuona is dramatically set against the backdrop of Mt Temetiu (1213m/4000ft) and Mt Feani (1126m/3700ft) and the island has many archaeological sites, petroglyphs and giant stone tiki.
The vast expanse of the Tuamotu Islands has a collection of 76 small islands and fringing atolls. The turquoise lagoons and white sandy beaches are some of the best in the South Pacific. Several of these island groups have luxury resorts and hotels and small pension guesthouses and along with Pearl farming, is the groups major source of income. Scuba diving is exceptional and the romance of being lost amongst remote islands draws the honeymoon market. Manihi, Fakarava, Tikehau and Rangiroa are favourite atoll destinations among the Tuamotu.
Rangiroa, in the Tuamotu Archipelago, is the second-biggest atoll in the world, behind Kwajalein in Micronesia. It measures 75km by 25km (46mi by 15mi) and is the most populated island in the archipelago. Its lagoon is more like a vast inland sea and dry land exists as a narrow chain of sandy motu encircling this huge waterway. Divers come from all over the world to Rangiroa and the configuration of the lagoon is such that the rise and fall of the tide causes powerful currents that divers 'surf'. There's a great abundance and diversity of marine life within the lagoon. Pearl farming and mother-of-pearl production are important to the local economy.
This oval shaped atoll has a large pass and a series of islets (motu), the largest of which at the south west of the atoll is inhabited. The charming village of Tuherahera, swathed in flowers, is located on the south end of this large motu which also has two other villages. Tuheiava is an important center for lagoon fishing and the many fish parks that supply the markets of Tahiti thanks to frequent connections by plane. The village of Maiaia traditionally produces copra. The beauty and abundance of fauna account for the popularity of scuba diving especially in the Tuheiava pass, where the manta rays' dance alternates with the parades of shoals of barracuda, and tuna fish, not to mention the grey and the white-tipped sharks. Tikehau is definitely one of the most beautiful and secluded atolls in Polynesia; it is also home to many bird colonies that have sought refuge in the islets, including the aptly named Isle of Birds, well known for its red-footed gannets and brown noddies.