While French Polynesia is the ultimate destination for island hopping, travelling around Tahiti and its hundred islands is like going around Europe distance wise. For a first trip to French Polynesia, I warmly recommend avoiding visiting too many islands and focus on a few areas only. I made the surprising discovery that it is possible and worthy to go on a road trip and go diving in Tahiti and Moorea thanks to the frequent ferries transporting passengers and vehicles between the two neighbour islands every day. Then, renting a car on Tahiti and putting it on the ferry to Moorea is the best way to make the most of your time and save time and money.
While I actually made the following activities in a different order, some at my arrival in Tahiti and then others the days before leaving French Polynesia, what follows is an ideal itinerary based on my experience. By doing it at the beginning of your trip, you can relax and beat the jetlag especially if you are coming from Europe like me (22 hours with Air Tahiti Nui including a 2-hour stopover in Los Angeles). After 3 weeks in French Polynesia, this is what I would do before flying to other islands if I would do it again.
Day 1 – Unwind on Tahiti west coast
I usually start with budget accommodation at the beginning of a trip and finish in more luxurious places towards the end. This is how I can balance budget, authenticity and rest. This time, with a time difference of 12 hours, I knew I had to do the contrary. Waking up in style on Tahiti west coast facing Moorea Island was just the best idea ever.
Puna’auia is the resort area of Tahiti Island, just 10 minutes driving south from Fa’aa International Airport. I recommend a minimum of 2 nights in the same hotel to recover from jetlag. In my case, coming from Europe, it took me 3 days to almost get over it.
Where to stay on Tahiti west coast?
At my arrival in Tahiti, I stayed at the Manava Suite Resort. This 4-star hotel offers full comfort suites including a cloud-like bed, a fully equipped kitchen and a large terrace facing the lagoon. Thanks to its fabulous infinity pool in front of Moorea Island, the incredible hospitality of their staff and their breakfast opening at 600 am, I warmly recommend it for beating down jetlag!
During my trip to French Polynesia, I also had the opportunity to test the Sofitel for one night when my flight to Rangiroa was cancelled. This hotel is more luxurious, but I found the atmosphere somehow colder, although it had the most beautiful garden and the most delicious breakfast.
Special note about diving in Tahiti near Puna’auia
There is a famous dive site near Puna’auia known as White Valley. If you are a responsible diver who understands why shark feeding is a bad idea ever, there is no point to go. French Polynesia is one of the rare places on the planet which made shark feeding officially illegal since 2017, so I would rather encourage than bash them.
However, the truth is, unfortunately, there isn’t much to see without the feeding which is why I guess some operators continue despite the ban (I saw from my own eyes a diving boat throwing tuna heads at the surface). I went for an hour-long deep dive, without any feeding, along a mostly bleached coral reef. My jaw dropped when I saw my first tiger shark swimming away in the blue. Unfortunately, I felt the encounter was spoilt because it was only due to frequent feeding. Now, you know, I let you decide.
Day 2 – Take the Tahiti east coast road
Driving around Tahiti can be done in only one day. However, with 3 days, I had plenty of time to explore the most beautiful spots on the east coast and spend incredible moments on a whale watching tour and scuba diving in Tahiti Peninsula.
I rented my car with Tahiti Easy Car for 46€ a day. They offer an amazing service for the best price on the island by delivering the car whenever you stay and give you a ride back wherever you need to go when you turn it back.
On my way to Taravao, I stopped at these beautiful scenic spots:
- Taharaa viewpoint: 10 minutes driving north-east from Papeete this viewpoint is the perfect picnic place to enjoy a breath-taking view of Papeete lagoon and Moorea Island in the background. It is also a great vantage point to spot whales during the season (July-November), and I indeed saw one!
- Pointe Venus Lighthouse and black sand beach: there is a lovely garden around the lighthouse with plenty of historical memorials and boards to learn about Polynesia history. The long black sand beach is a local favourite thanks to its proximity to Papeete. Many families were having a picnic on the beach.
- Faarumai waterfalls: There are 3 waterfalls but only one, the most accessible one, can be visited at the moment. You only need to walk 5 minutes from the car parking and it’s important to note that swimming is forbidden, but I enjoyed the place and spent some time for pictures.
- Arohoho blowhole and black sand beach: The blowhole itself is not that impressive. There is a lovely promenade along the coast next to it, but my favourite part was the black sand beach at its side. There was nobody on the beach, the sand was so soft and the background only lush nature. It was my last stop before driving down the Tahiti Peninsula.
Once you arrive in Taravao, the main town of the area and the small strip of land separating Tahiti Island from Tahiti Peninsula, you can choose between two roads which stop at Tautiraa or Teahupoo. Tautiraa is the home of prairies where cows peacefully chew on grass. On the opposite side, Teahupoo is a mythical surfing place for its impressive wave. The best surfers in the world gather there every year around August at the Billabong Pro.
From Teahupoo, you can book a taxi boat to explore the wildest part of the Tahiti Peninsula which is not accessible from the road. You’ll see a crystal-clear lagoon, blowholes and waterfalls falling into the sea between palm trees. The lagoon is the first volunteer marine reserve of Tahiti, called Rahui in Tahitian. It was created in 2014 upon the request of local fishermen who understood the importance of no-take zones to guarantee fish stock renewal for future generations. I had the opportunity to free dive in a few spots of the Rahui; I think they will need to wait for an extra 5 to 10 years to see significant results.
Where to stay to go diving in Tahiti Peninsula?
Being away from most of the touristic activity, you won’t find any big resort there, which is perfect! It’s the perfect opportunity to rent a bungalow for a more local experience while saving for the rest of the trip. I booked 2 nights at Fare Uru-Cythere on the road to Tautiraa (Get 34€ off your booking when you register on Airbnb by clicking here). It’s a house with 2 bedrooms that are rented separately and a shared kitchen, terrace and garden. It was so relaxing to wake up with a cup of coffee on the private beach in the morning. During my stay, I had the whole house to myself so for 59€ a night, this is the best deal of my entire trip to French Polynesia.
Day 3 – Go diving in Tahiti Peninsula
With its lush nature, it’s hard to believe most people visiting French Polynesia skip Tahiti Peninsula. Quiet and preserved, this is without a doubt where I recommend to go scuba diving when in Tahiti before flying to the other islands of French Polynesia. It might rain a bit more than on the west coast, but who cares to be wet when you go diving?
If you visit Tahiti from July to November, after a couple of dives, I recommend you to go whale watching. As Tahiti Iti is the only operator of the area, this is the guarantee of a peaceful encounter the entire whale family: female whales with their calf but also lone males looking for a new partner. Their highly-trained guides always put the well-being of these gentle marine mammals first. The tour lasts half a day during which I learnt tons of amazing facts about whales. Bonus: They have a pleasant dive centre surrounded by palm trees on the marine of Phaeton with solar hot showers.
The Tables of Taravao
Away from the crowd, I enjoyed in crystal clear water, a beautiful reef of Acropora Cytherea which look like coral tables. This site is accessible to all level of divers, there was a mild tidal current, and we didn’t go deeper than 20 m.
The most common fish I met on this dive were all sorts of butterflyfish, arc-eyed hawkfish and soldierfish hiding in the crack of the coral reef. By looking into the blue, I could spot a few black-tip sharks, jackfish and barracudas.
Dive parameters: max depth 24 m, total dive time 52 minutes, water temperature 28°C
Gorgonians are a rare sight in Polynesia, so when I discovered there a dive site with beautiful (but small) yellow gorgonians covering a deep wall, I knew I had to check it out. While shooting these beauties, I got the surprise to come face to face with a huge moray eel!
This is a deep dive at 40 m so it will only be organised for a group of advanced divers. I strongly advise you to contact the dive centre in advance if you want to go there.
Dive parameters: max depth 40 m, total dive time 58 minutes, water temperature 27°C
PK 58. Phaeton Bay PK 58, Taravao 98719
Phone: +689 87 71 80 77
Day 4 – On the way to Moorea
You can take a fast ferry (35 minutes) or a slow ferry (45 minutes) from Tahiti to Moorea. Both can take vehicles on board but space is more limited on the fast ferries. When boarding with a car, I recommend you to book your ticket in advance on the Aremiti website. Be careful, you need 2 tickets for the car and 2 tickets per person for a return trip Papeete/Vaiare.
As I went on a whale watching tour fon the same day I had booked my ferry to Moorea, I ran out of time and I couldn’t explore all the interesting sights of the west coast I wanted. We were back from the tour at 12.30 pm, so the time to pack everything and have a quick lunch, I left at 1.30 pm, leaving me only 2 hours to be at the ferry terminal in Papeete 30 minutes before departure as recommended.
I just had the time for a few pictures at the Mara Caves including an interesting Tahitian guy who insisted I would take a picture of his tattoos and his bicycle so he could travel the world through my picture (checked!).
The ferry was perfectly on time, and it was nice to spend the 45 minutes to look at each island from a distance either from the top deck or from the lounge which had reasonable prices on coffee and snacks, and free Wi-Fi!
From the moment I started driving on Moorea’s roads, I understood why people from Papeete love to spend their weekend there. The island is like a garden. At the same time, it is the most touristic island with a larger density of resorts and black pearl jewellery shops than all the other islands I visited.
Knowing accommodation is much cheaper in Papeete than on Moorea, I should have stayed one more night on Tahiti and take the first ferry the next morning. If you still want to hop on the ferry the same day, like me, with the last one at 4.00 pm, at least you’ll be on time to catch a fabulous sunset on Moorea Island!
Where to stay to go diving in Moorea?
I booked my hotel in 5 months in advance, and it was almost already too late to secure the best deals on the island online. The hotel Kaveka is in the gorgeous location of Cook Bay but I can’t recommend it either. My room had a really strong chemical odour so when I complained they gave me one of the houses they rent on Airbnb because the hotel was full. It was much bigger but outside the nice hotel grounds and without access to the beach, not what I had paid for. On another hand, the house came with a kitchen so I made huge savings on food while staying on the island as there are supermarkets nearby.
I wish I had stayed in the Intercontinental resort area instead. I went there twice for scuba diving and whale watching. Each morning I had to drive for about 20/25 minutes. I did research again and found this lovely bungalow nearby. By the way, if you want to treat yourself, the Intercontinental was stunning with its overwater bungalows.
Travellers on a budget can give a try to the Painapaopao Backpackers hostels which has private bungalows and a dormitory with semi-private single rooms. The hostel is conveniently located between Opuhonu Bay and Cook Bay.
Day 5 – Go diving in Moorea
Each morning Top Dive, located inside the Intercontinental Resort, offers a 2-tank dive trip from 8 am to 12 pm. It’s not so common in Polynesia. I appreciated to make the most of my morning, then plan something else in the afternoon to explore more of Moorea Island. Bonus: They give free nitrox to certified divers!
We went diving in Rotui and Mamaro sites, between Opuhonu Bay and Cook Bay. From a coral point of view, unfortunately, I knew before going, Moorea suffered a lot from several coral bleaching events. Why more than anywhere else? I can’t be sure but a combined effect of global warming with crown-of-thorns starfish invasion could be a reason. At least the island is the home of CRIOBE (Island Research Centre & Environment Observatory) which is carefully looking after the reefs.
On a positive side, on each dive and even while snorkelling, I saw many turtles in Moorea, which wasn’t the case in any of the other islands I visited. Moorea reefs are the home of hawksbill and green turtles. If you wonder how to recognise them, the green turtle has a clean, shiny shell while the hawksbill has a less appealing look (but we still love them!). While the hawksbills are friendly and let you approach, the green turtles are shy and became scared at divers chasing them so please, respect the instruction of keeping your distance from them.
Our second dive was much shorter because than the first one. Another diving boat had spotted a tiger shark underwater, so we decided to try our luck. We couldn’t find it but we saw a couple of other sharks included black-tip sharks and a lemon shark. We soon understood why as we found the remaining of the poor turtle which was the breakfast of that tiger shark.
max depth 24 m, total dive time 57 minutes, water temperature 28°C
max depth 24 m, total dive time 46 minutes, water temperature 28°C
InterContinental Moorea Resort and Spa, 98729 Tiahura
Phone: +689 40 83 50 60
Day 6 – Explore Moorea
Before leaving Moorea, make sure to visit the lush heart of this garden island. On a clear morning, climb to the belvedere at 240 m of altitude where you get this perfect view of Mount Rotui with on each side Opuhonu Bay (on the left) and Cook Bay (on the right). It’s interesting to note that when Captain Cook explored Moorea in 1777, he anchored in Opuhonu Bay, not Cook Bay! Being a popular sightseeing spot of the island, I had to be patient to take a picture with my tripod. But the view is well worth it!
The belvedere is the starting point of many hiking trails. The most popular one leads you to the Afareaitu waterfalls. I was a bit short on time so I decided to visit the archaeological areas on my way down. The marae are Polynesian open temples. They look minimalistic with their stone wall and trees all around, but it represents more than it looks today. Plenty of boards tell everything you need to know to understand how they were used for the Polynesian rituals.
The inland slopes are covered in pineapple fields and are worth a visit. Moorea has a big fruit culture activity and is the home of the Rotui factory, the local brand of fruit juice. You can also visit the factory and buy their product at their outlet shops which also sells jams and rums.
During the whale season, you can also try your luck another time with a whale watching tour instead of going on a long hike. Moorea is the most popular area in French Polynesia for whale watching so expect more people. It also means that operators tend to be booked well in advance. On friends’ recommendation, I initially contacted Moorea Ocean Adventures 2 weeks in advance; Unfortunately, they were fully booked and recommended me to contact Pacifik Attitude.
Plan for half a day from 7.30 am to 12.30 pm. We were 6 passengers with a captain and a guide. We were the first on the observation spot, but we were quickly joined by 4 other boats. We saw at least 6 different whales in the channel between Moorea and Tahiti that day. In the beginning, we managed to get in the water and I saw a whale with her calf for only a microsecond. Note getting in the water to see the whales underwater is never guaranteed in French Polynesia. It might sound frustrating but, in the end, I appreciated the professionalism and respectful behaviour towards whales of the crew.
For the last stop before boarding on the ferry again, I recommend a stop on Temae beach which has white sand and a stunning view of Tahiti Island. This is where I took the cover picture of this article.
Day 7 – A stopover in Papeete
Considering the weather risk, which is low but exists, the ferry can be cancelled; I recommend to book your domestic flight on the next day after you return from Moorea. Spend another night in Papeete and take the opportunity to visit its central market before the next step of your Polynesian adventure.
Under the elegant white and red metal structure, on a surface of more than 7,000 m², the market has a food section, a flower section and an art craft section. At the top floor, you will find souvenir shops and a café. With all the tropical fruits and bakeries, take the opportunity to enjoy a delicious tropical breakfast with a French touch.
Take the time to check all the souvenirs, take notes about you would like to bring back but wait before buying anything. You will be back to Papeete anyway to take your international flight. There is no point of carrying additional weight as you will be limited on your domestic flights.
Where to stay in Papeete?
When you only need a place to sleep between two adventures, it’s better to keep your money for more diving later on. I tested a guesthouse and a hostel in the heart of the Polynesian capital city.
Fare d’hôtes Tutehau is the perfect illustration of a homey guesthouse with a comfortable bed, a beautiful garden and a good breakfast with local products. The guests can use the kitchen and there is space to park your rental car. Although it is only 15 minutes walking from the centre, I don’t necessarily recommend walking back at night after dinner.
I tested the Mahana Lodge on my last night before my flight to Japan. In the heart of the centre, you are just a minute walking from the central market and the night food trucks on Vaiete Square. The place was clean and well-organised but lacked a cosy social area which usually makes backpackers places cool. I was still able to meet a lovely couple on their round-the-world trip flying like me to Japan with Air Tahiti Nui the next morning. Perfect: we shared the taxi to the airport at 6 am (2000 CFP, about 17€/£14)!
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This article was written in partnership with the tourism board of Tahiti and Air Tahiti Nui. As always, all my views and opinions are my own and reflect my experience honestly.
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