I’m guilty too. Like most people who haven’t visited French Polynesia yet, I had some misconceptions about what it would be like as a tourist. From being confused about the names of the islands to the food and weather to the overall experience, I didn’t know what to expect before I boarded my Windstar Tahiti cruise around the islands and I’m willing to bet that I’m not alone. Although this is one of the most sought after travel destinations in the world, the fact is that most people know nothing about French Polynesia. Whether conscious or not, stereotypes and misconceptions are usually what prevent people from visiting a new place, so today I thought I’d address just a few of those inaccuracies and hopefully get everyone excited about planning a trip to French Polynesia.
Tahiti vs. French Polynesia
Words matter and in French Polynesia that’s especially the case. The Society Islands have a lot of names. The South Pacific, French Polynesia and here in the US we tend just to say Tahiti to encompass all of them. In truth though, Tahiti is just one of 118 different islands comprising the chain, each one with its own unique look, feel and experiences to enjoy. Tahiti though is the largest and the capital city of Papeete is also found there, which is probably how Tahiti came to represent all of French Polynesia for many of us. That is wrong though and that’s why Tahiti isn’t in the title of this blog post. So before you go, spend some time with an atlas (for Millennials, that’s a print out of Google Maps) and get to know the geography of the area. If you’re really feeling enterprising, also spend some time researching the somewhat complex history of French Polynesia as well. Not only is it interesting, but you’ll appreciate everything you see and do during your trip so much more.
Not Sure Overwater Bungalows Are Worth it?
There may be no more iconic travel image than that of luxury overwater bungalows. For millions of us, they have fueled our wanderlust and while they’ve been copied all over the world, it’s in French Polynesia where they started and where the experience is the best. To enjoy a night (or several) in one of these amazing ethereal cabins though isn’t the least expensive thing in the world, and many people have asked me whether or not it’s worth the cost. When talking about any luxury experience, I believe that it’s not only a matter of preference, but how you want to invest your money. Yes, invest; I see unique experiences like this one as a personal investment. I’m investing in myself, in creating memories that I know won’t just last a lifetime, but will have meaning to me. My all-too-brief stay at Le Meridien Bora Bora in one of those famous bungalows was one of the best 24-hours I’ve ever spent. I can’t remember a time when I was more relaxed and content. I was happy, I was calm and I didn’t want my time in paradise to come to an end. So yes, for me that’s worth almost any amount of money but, ultimately, it comes down to what you enjoy and what you want from a trip.
It’s Too Far
While distance is not what kept me from visiting French Polynesia for so long, I am guilty of not properly understanding where Tahiti and the 117 other islands are exactly. In brief, they are smack dab in the middle of the Pacific Ocean close to absolutely nothing at all. They are remote and alone, which is what makes them so attractive in the first place. In terms of base miles, Tahiti is 4,000 miles from Sydney, Australia; 4,100 miles from LA and 2,750 miles from Honolulu. Luckily, we don’t have to sail the mighty ocean to reach the islands and I found the flights to be incredibly manageable. Flying from LA to Papeete takes about 8-8.5 hours, which honestly isn’t that bad. It’s not the 13 hours it takes to reach Australia from the West Coast or the 15 hours to reach Asia from the East Coast. Yes, it’s a long-haul flight but I place it in the mid-tier of flights in terms of duration. If you live on the West Coast of the US, it takes you far longer to reach Europe than Tahiti, so the distance is fine I think. I don’t live on the West Coast though, so I had to first fly the nearly 6 hours to reach Los Angeles before hopping on the Air Tahiti Nui flight to Papeete. Admittedly, this makes it a longer trip. But, you can either split that time up by spending a day or two in LA or, do as I did, and just plan a slightly longer layover to go outside, stretch your legs, get some fresh air and grab a bite to eat before flying to Papeete. No matter how you approach it though, I don’t personally consider distance to be an impediment to visiting French Polynesia.
Nothing To Do
Although I’ve long wanted to visit French Polynesia, this was actually a fear of mine. I’m a very active traveler and spending hours sitting on a beach sounds like hell to me in all honesty. I get bored far too easily, and I was worried that French Polynesia would be all beach chairs all the time. That’s one of the many reasons why I’m glad I chose a Windstar Cruise as my first experience in the South Pacific. Every day was a new port, a new island and new experiences to enjoy. The cruise offered a wide variety of excursions from snorkeling and diving to photographic tours and 4X4 drives. There was never an opportunity to be bored no matter where we were. Plus, the onboard amenities and activities meant that even while at sea I had a lot to do; more than enough to keep someone like me entertained. Of course, if you do want to spend time on those tranquil beaches, there’s plenty of opportunity to do just that. It’s really a matter of preference, but I loved having the option to choose to be active or not, depending on my mood.
It’s Too Expensive
I hear this a lot, and it’s not entirely true. Like most destinations we visit, if you want to spend a lot of money on vacation in French Polynesia, you certainly can. Although, you can also visit as a budget traveler and while it’s not my style of travel, I know many people who have done just that. From hostels to pensions and B&Bs, there are many lodging alternatives that make the South Pacific affordable. I have to say though, that while my cruise was a boutique luxury experience it’s a reasonably priced one. I sailed with many people who normally spend a week in Mexico or travel to Europe on vacation and they shared with me that their French Polynesia cruise was either the same price or just slightly more expensive than those more common getaways. I think the key is working with a travel advisor who knows the region well and who can help you navigate any potential financial pitfalls. Personally, I had wanted to visit French Polynesia for so long that nothing was going to keep me away. One thing to keep in mind though is that everyday items on Tahiti and the other islands are more expensive than you might think. From basic toiletries to dinner at a restaurant, be prepared to spend more than what is considered an average price in other parts of the world.
Just Like Hawaii or Other Tropical Islands
Maybe it’s just me, but since I’m not a beach guy I tend to think that all islands are the same. Nice sand, palm trees and warm weather. I was proven wrong several years ago when I first visited Hawaii and was bowled over by how unique those islands are in comparison to others around the world. My education in the unique qualities of specific islands continued in French Polynesia, because those 118 islands come together to create an experience unlike any other in the world. From the laid back attitude of locals to those stunning crystal clear waters, there honestly is nothing like French Polynesia. Reflecting back on my time there, I now understand why it latches onto people and never lets go. There’s a special magic in this part of the world, one that begs you to return if only to recapture that feeling for just a few days.
These are just a few of the many questions I’ve had about my trip to French Polynesia, as well as some others I thought I’d throw in for good measure. If there’s anything else you want to know, please leave a note in the comments!