When you envision taking a holiday in Tahiti, what first springs to mind? Sipping on coconuts on white sand beaches? Basking in the sun on the deck of a private over-water bungalow? Diving into the crystal clear waters of coral-fringed lagoons?
Whilst there is certainly no shortage of coconuts, lagoons, beaches, and bungalows throughout French Polynesia, Tahiti and its surrounding islands come with many a pleasant surprise. After spending a week island-hopping, I quickly discovered that these South Pacific archipelagos offer a lot more than just the stereotypes of a tropical destination. Each island was brimming with adventurous activities, diverse landscapes, rich Polynesian culture, incredible local and French cuisine and SO. MUCH. MORE. I thought I would share with you a few of the things that (pleasantly) surprised me during my holiday to Tahiti.
10 Things that Surprised Me about Tahiti
1. French Polynesia is made up of A LOT of Islands
Most people are only familiar with popular holiday spots like Tahiti and Bora Bora. French Polynesia is in fact home to 118 unique and diverse islands, spread out over 2,000 square kilometers in the South Pacific Ocean. This French territory is divided into 5 groups of archipelagos – Society, Austral, Gambier, Marquesas and Tuamotu.
The Society archipelagos are the most popular with holiday-makers. They include the romantic island of Bora Bora, the magical island of Mo’orea, and of course the Queen of the Pacific- Tahiti. These were the three islands I got to explore during my time in French Polynesia. However I am desperate to go back and experience some of the less-known archipelagos on my next visit.
2. The landscapes on the islands are super diverse
White sand beaches and palm trees certainly aren’t the only things you’ll find on these paradisiacal islands. I was absolutely blown away by the beauty and diversity of the landscapes I got to see during my time in French Polynesia.
On my first day in Tahiti, one minute I was walking on white sand beaches and wading through crystal clear waters. The next thing I knew, we were driving through the urbanized city of Papeetee. A few hours later, and I was cruising through a lush valley, dramatic mountain ranges and cascading waterfalls either side of me. Finally, we were hiking through the rain forest and jumping into secret waterholes!
From Mo’orea’s jagged volcanic peaks and spires, Bora Bora’s multi-shaded lagoon and Tahiti’s black sand beaches and lush rain forests, each island has its own very unique attributes, making island-hopping a treat.
3. French is the official language spoken
In case the name didn’t give it away, French Polynesia is an overseas collective of France. These means citizens actually hold French passports. Although each island has its own native language, French is actually regarded as the only official language throughout. Of course, everyone in hotels and tourist areas also speaks very good English.
4. The list of adventurous activities on the islands is unending
One of the biggest and most pleasant surprises I had during my holiday to Tahiti, Bora Bora, and Mo’orea was just how many adventurous activities there were! Here were a few of my favorite activities:
The rain might have been pouring down when we arrived in Bora Bora, but that didn’t stop me from going on a snorkel safari! Although the boat ride (being cold and wet) was rather miserable, as soon as we dove into the crystal clear water, it all became worth it. Firstly we snorkelled in shallow waters amongst vibrant coral and colorful fish. We then went to a spot where we swam with sharks and stingrays (and even spotted a mantaray)!
Outrigger Canoeing (or Va’a, as they call it in Tahitian) has been an important part of Polynesian culture throughout the ages. What better way to explore the turquoise waters and vibrant coral reefs surrounding Tahiti than in this traditional vessel? Or if you are super competitive, like us, turn your canoe experience into a race! Just don’t try to compete with the locals. The Polynesians have always been the world champions for outrigger canoeing!
One of the highlights of my Tahiti holiday was exploring the lush, mountainous landscape of Mo’orea by ATV (or quad bike). We spent the morning driving through rivers and past pineapple farms. We even went up a mountain with the most magnificent views. I would highly recommend the experience if you want to see the island in a new, fun way!
On our second day on the island, we did a 4WD tour. I honestly felt like I had been teleported into Jurassic park. We spent the day cruising through Papenoo valley, surrounded by dramatic mountain ranges, lush rain forests, and flowing waterfalls in every direction.
5. You’ll love the food in Tahiti
I was absolutely blown away by the standard of food and diverse range of experiences during my holiday in Tahiti. I would find myself sampling traditional Polynesian foods from palm leave bowls at one meal. Then the next meal would be a six-course degustation menu at a fine-dining restaurant. The French influence is evident in these establishments. Although they still manage to integrate a Polynesian flair, commonly offering Mahi-Mahi or Raw Tuna as part of a more traditionally French menu.
When eating liking a local, you’ll find the most popular Polynesian dishes are raw fish tossed in coconut milk. Despite not being a big raw fish eater, I absolutely loved this dish (and even ended up eating it for breakfast!). Root vegetables are also a common staple in the Polynesia diet, including taro, sweet potato and bread fruit. The most popular dessert is called Poe. It consists of starch mixed with mashed banana or pumpkin (again, it tastes a lot better than it sounds).
6. Bora Bora isn’t just for honeymooners
With its exclusive resorts and iconic over-water bungalows, Bora Bora is undeniably one of world’s the most desirable honeymoon locations. But if you are under the impression you need a ring on your finger before taking a holiday here, think again.
There are actually plenty of things to do in Bora Bora that don’t involve couples massages or candlelit dinners. This goes for both solo travelers and those going with friends. You’ll find a plethora of adventurous, water-based activities. This includes snorkeling or diving with sharks and stingrays, jet-skiing through turquoise lagoons, and stand-up paddle boarding (which you can do straight off the deck of your bungalow!)
You can also easily find accommodation on Bora Bora that won’t drain your entire bank account in one night. Take Oa Oa Lodge for example, which offers the cheapest over-water bungalows on the island.
7. When it rains, it POURS!
After braving winter in Europe, I boarded a flight destined for Tahiti, optimistic that I was about to spend a week lapping up sunshine and warm island weather. It turned out Tahiti had slightly different plans for me. For seven days straight, it rained almost without ceasing. Of course, I hadn’t realized we were visiting Tahiti right in the middle of the rainy season! But do you want to know the crazy part? Whilst experiencing a week of terrible weather and nothing quite going to plan, I still managed to have an amazing holiday in Tahiti.
I believe every experience we have when traveling is what we make of it. Instead of sulking in my room during the incessant rain, I made the most of my precious time in paradise and still had fun. Now, I have the perfect excuse to go back to Tahiti in the future! And I’ll have a completely fresh experience in the sunshine.
If you want to avoid this weather scenario from happening to you, plan your holiday to Tahiti during May-October. It will be peak season, but you’ll manage to avoid the rainy season and the hottest temperatures.
8. French Polynesia is NOT cheap
I knew Tahiti wasn’t the cheapest destination in the world. However I didn’t realize the extent of how expensive it was until I arrived! If you are planning to stay at resorts on any of the popular islands, particularly Bora Bora, make sure you allow for a generous budget. You’ll want to make room for food, activities, and accommodation costs. Having said this, it IS possible to visit French Polynesia on a budget. Here are a few ways you can cut costs during your stay:
- Visit the smaller, less touristy islands
- Eat local food such as the roulettes (food trucks) in Papeete
- Stay at pensions, which are like homestays run by locals
9. Staying in an over-water bungalow IS totally worth it
It’s been a DREAM of mine to stay in an over-water bungalow. It was surreal to finally live out this bucket-list moment in Bora Bora. Often, moments like this can be over-hyped and don’t quite live up to expectations. Waking up to find myself surrounded by turquoise water in every direction was an experience I won’t forget!
For my first over-water bungalow experience, I stayed at the 4-star Bora Bora Pearl Beach Resort. The service here was fantastic. Although the rooms at the resort weren’t super modern or luxurious, I was too busy staring out the window at the surrounding turquoise water to notice! If you are after the full 5-star over-water bungalow experience, Four Seasons Bora Bora is possibly the most luxurious option to go for.
10. The islands have retained their rich Polynesian culture
One of the most enlightening aspects of visiting Tahiti and its surrounding islands is having the opportunity to experience the local Polynesian culture. During my visit to Mo’orea, I discovered more about the history, culture, and traditions of the Polynesian people. I spent an afternoon learning about the significance of tribal tattoos and massage therapy. I also was taught traditional dance moves, and even found out how to weave a basket out of palm fronds and make a flower crown.
Although I often find “cultural” experiences to feel quite staged and unauthentic, I did find this experience really valuable in deepening my understanding for the Polynesian culture. Of course, you don’t have to partake in a “cultural” experience to do this. The best way of getting to know a culture is simply be meeting and interacting with locals.
How to Get to Tahiti
To get to Tahiti, Air Tahiti Nui flies to Papeete from Auckland, LA, Tokyo and Paris. It also codeshares with other airlines for connecting flights. On my way to Tahiti, I flew from Paris to Papeete, which took 22 hours altogether, including a stop over in LA. On my way back, I flew back to Brisbane via Auckland. The flight to Auckland only took 6 hours (which felt very quick when comparing it to the Paris flight)!
Air Tahiti Nui
Whilst Air Tahiti Nui has just brought out a fleet of new aircrafts, unfortunately I was on one of the old planes for my flight from Paris. At first sight, I was pleasantly surprised by the appearance of the aircraft. The interior looked fresh, with bright, ocean-themed seats, colorful pillows and even a little amenities bag on each seat, which is always nice touch in economy.
However, the dead giveaway to the age of the aircraft was its entertainment systems. Unfortunately, these are what thoroughly let the flight experience down. The entertainment systems in this aircraft had clearly not been updated in decades. The tiny screens play about six movies on loop. You can’t pause, rewind or fast forward what you are watching. For the first few hours the sound on the systems weren’t even working. Then when they finally started working, the sound was so dodgy I resorted to watching a French movie with English subtitles.
If this was a short haul international flight, I could easily overlook this. But for a 22-hour flight, not having a functional entertainment system was simply painful. On my flight home from Papeete to Auckland, the entertainment systems were far more modern and actually had a decent range of movies and TV shows that you could choose from.
On my flight from Paris to Papeete, I found the on-board service to be of a good standard. The air stewardesses were lovely, and I received my special vegetarian meal very promptly. The food was of a reasonable standard for economy. They gave us bounty ice cream bars for a mid-flight snack which definitely sweetened the deal.
On my flight to Auckland, however, I unfortunately received some of the worst airline service I’ve ever experienced. I was confirmed to receive a vegetarian meal, and even had this verified whilst checking in. After my special meal did not arrive, the air stewardess came around with the cart and presented me with a non-vegetarian meal. I politely told her that I had order a vegetarian, and she abruptly told me there was none left. When I asked if there was anything I could eat, she grabbed the salad and pasta off my plate and left me with only a bread roll and an eclair on the tray.
Literally an hour later, just as I was drifting off to sleep, the same stewardess came around and slammed down a vegetarian meal on my tray, saying she had found my meal up the back. I wasn’t disappointed about the meal. I understand mistakes like this can happen. But unfortunately, it was the rude attitude of the stewardess that let this particular flight down.
Make sure you check out my Tahiti highlights video below, and subscribe to my YouTube channel if you want to see the full Vlogs when they are released!
My General Travel & Photo Tips
I highly recommend getting travel insurance before ANY international trip. World Nomad’s offer the most flexible worldwide cover that I have come across, and you can purchase a policy online, even if your trip has already commenced. If their prices are too high for you, you can also check out SafetyWings, though SW doesn’t cover tech.
To book flights, I always use flight search engine, Skyscanner. I find it the easiest way to compare flight prices across airlines and get the best deals. Skyscanner also have a free App (available on iOS or Android) which is great for booking flights on the go.
Here is a list of the photography gear that I always travel with:
- Canon 6D Mark II
- Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 ii
- GoPro Hero Black 7
- DJI Mavic Pro
- ONA Camps Bay Backpack
- ONA Bowery Bag
For more island travel, read these next:
- A Beginner’s Guide to Island Hopping in Croatia
- What it’s like to Sail the Saronic Islands in Greece
- What to Pack for a Week in the Greek Islands