Glimpses of French Polynesia

public beach on Moorea

public beach on Moorea

French Polynesia is an exciting travel destination with an inexhaustible supply of water-related activities. Positioned midway between California and New Zealand, the Society, Austral, Tuamotu, Gambier, and Marquesa island groups get under 150,000 tourists a year (compared to the millions that visit Hawaii), and many are French nationals visiting friends, so you won’t be facing a tourist glut.

The capital, Papeete, is a modern Mediterranean-style city with fast boulevards, chic boutiques, and fancy restaurants. Some of the South Pacific’s highest mountains rise directly behind the town, and strewn around Tahiti are the quaint villages and dark beaches of old Polynesia. Just a short ferry ride across the Sea of the Moon, the craggy peaks of Moorea beckon. Moorea is the quintessential South Seas island of sparkling white beaches, emerald lagoons, dolphins, stingrays, swank resorts, and superlatively beautiful scenery. Bora Bora is similar but more intense.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the French painter Paul Gauguin transformed the bold colors of Tahiti and the Marquesas into powerful visual images seen around the world. Gauguin sought to escape Western civilization and drew inspiration from local art. Traditional Polynesian woodcarvings and the islanders themselves strongly influenced his art. Today, the Tahitian life Gauguin painted and the carvings he admired are encountered in the thriving Papeete Market.

Once you’ve explored and rejuvenated, you’re likely to work up an appetite. Lavish seafood buffets or Polynesian underground-oven fare await the hopeful gourmand. In the absence of pottery, the islanders devised a means of baking pork and root vegetables wrapped in banana leaves on hot stones. After several hours the succulent food is uncovered with the original nutrients and juices intact. More recent influences, most notably French cuisine, are well represented in the sauces and delicately flavored dishes served in the island restaurants. Somehow fried fish never tastes better than it does here, and diced and marinated raw fish, or poisson cru, is a treat not to be missed.

Getting around is half the fun, be it on Tahiti’s efficient bus network, the high-speed catamaran to Moorea, a colorful copra boat to an outer island, or an Air Tahiti commuter flight. Many visitors cruise the Society or Marquesas islands in comfort, enjoying the spectacular landscapes and brilliant sunsets while learning about Polynesian culture. Back on solid ground, the accommodations range from beachside campsites to five-star island resorts, with homey little pensions, island guesthouses, and comfortable urban hotels in-between. It’s almost paradise.