Taking a vacation to the islands of French Polynesia has long been on my travel bucket list. Recently I spent my two week honeymoon there and was surprised by what I found.
Pro #1: South Pacific Beauty
The islands of the South Pacific are well known for their beauty and mystery. Ever since the explorer days of Captain Cook, the allure of islands has captivated westerners. Because the islands are atolls formed from volcanoes, they typically have mountainous centers jutting dramatically into the sky. The mountains are covered in the lush landscape of the tropics, and surrounded by those fantastic lagoons. The view of the night sky is outstanding and for the first time in my life I saw the Milky Way, as well as thousands of stars. There are few places on Earth that rival French Polynesia in natural beauty.
Pro #2: Lagoon blues
The blue waters of the lagoons in French Polynesia are simply amazing. When you see photos of the water you automatically think that the photos have been edited and overly saturated with color. However, the water actually looks like that! The water is very clear and because white sandy bottoms are underneath the shallow water of the lagoons, the properties of physics applied to light waves through water results in those incredible blues. The darker areas of the lagoons are regions of coral reefs. In the Tahaa lagoon I drifted through the reefs along with the current while snorkeling. I floated past hundreds of brightly colored fish and saw unreal looking blue, green, and purple clams.
Pro #3: Over Water Bungalows (OWBs)
If you go to French Polynesia, if at all possible you must stay in an OWB. They’re more expensive than staying in a beach bungalow or a garden bungalow, but they’re worth it. Staying in an OWB is a pleasure perhaps best reserved for a special occasion like a honeymoon or a big anniversary. It can be a magical experience. The bungalows are spacious and have high end amenities, including decks, sitting areas, and offer spectacular views. Many OWBs have coffee tables with glass top surfaces so that you can see the fish swimming below you. At night you can turn on the under-bungalow lights to attract the fish and feed them.
Con #1: Expense!
The islands of French Polynesia are very expensive to visit. The islands are in one of the most remote areas of the world. There is little competition among airlines so the airfares are typically high. Almost everything on the islands have to be shipped in or flown in. Accordingly, prices for food and drinks are high. For example, I shopped at a small market on Bora Bora and bought a medium sized bag of Doritos for $7 and a 1 ½ liter bottle of Coca-Cola for $6. Of course, the prices at any of the four star and five star resorts are very high also, such as $26 cocktails, $24 burgers, $45 breakfast buffets, and $5 cans of soft drinks. An average meal for two at an island restaurant easily goes over $100.
Con #2: Infrastructure
In driving around the islands of Tahiti, Tahaa, Bora Bora, and Moorea, I was struck by the extreme disparity between the five star resorts and the poverty of the local population. It’s true that the big resorts provide the main source of employment for the locals, but it seemed that the rest of the local economy is in shambles. There didn’t seem to be any middle class, and the islands have very few shops, restaurants, and businesses. Locals typically live in rundown houses and shacks, some with corrugated tin roofs. Dogs run at large all over the island, with some unkempt dogs sleeping on the sides of the roads. It didn’t seem unsafe, just decrepit. Since the business infrastructure is so lacking, when it rains (as it did for four days when I was on Bora Bora) there isn’t much to do.
Con #3: Inaccessibility
Because French Polynesia is thousands of miles from anywhere else on Earth, it is hard to get to, and traveling to one of the resorts can be an ordeal. A North American or a European traveler must first get to Los Angeles. Flights to Papeete on Tahiti, the capital and main city of French Polynesia, leave late at night and take about 7 ½ hours. Since Papeete is east of the international date line, you don’t lose a day, but do gain three hours. With the overnight flight and time change, flights arrive in the early morning, such as 5:30am. If you are traveling the same day to a resort on Bora Bora or another smaller island, which is what most travelers do, you’ll have to wait around the miniscule Papeete airport for a few hours, since flights to the other islands leave mid-morning. After an approximately 30 minute flight to the smaller island, you’ll take a boat to the resort. Depending on water conditions and the resort being visited, the boat ride can take 30 to 45 minutes. By the time you are checked into the resort and finally collapse on your bed, you will be tired.
Despite the disadvantages, I think traveling to French Polynesia was worth the expense and effort. It was a trip of a lifetime that was uniquely rewarding.