Welcome to French Polynesia, the luxurious tropical archipelago of the South Pacific, which is also an overseas territory of France. Once you land in Tahiti, it’s impossible not to find fun things to do during your holidays. From the lagoons of the Tuamotu Islands to the summits of the Marquesas Islands, the hardest is to choose what to do! Considered one of the safest diving destinations in the world, the Polynesian islands from Moorea to Rangiroa is one of the favourite places to go for ocean lovers who are into surfing or scuba diving. At world-class dives sites such as Tumakohua Pass in Fakarava or Kui Point in Hiva Oa, you will be able to see grey reef sharks, turtles, and manta rays or experience power drift diving.
However, there are so many other things to do besides diving in French Polynesia like trying some local food at Papeete food market, going on a whale watching tour, or even learn everything about the Tahitian black pearl trade. Here are 15 of my favourites activities to do in French Polynesia as a scuba diver for you to find some inspiration. Note most of these activities include places below 600 m of altitude. Still, for the few locations which are above, altitude is indicated so you can safely plan your itinerary between scuba diving and sightseeing during your stay in French Polynesia.
1 – Stay at least one night in an over-the-water bungalow in Moorea or Bora-Bora
If there is something French Polynesia is famous for (beyond scuba diving), it’s for its overwater bungalows! I mean, who hasn’t seen these appealing pictures of a couple on their honeymoon having the most romantic time of their lives on one of them?
I guess you won’t be surprised if I say this is the most expensive way to stay in French Polynesia. If this is still part of the dream for you, you could book “budget” accommodation for most of your trip and then splurge on your last night in Tahiti before flying back home? To give you an idea, standards rooms in luxury hotels in French Polynesia start from 200€ a night when overwater bungalows start from 700€ a night. Good to know, you will find better prices in Tahiti and Moorea than in Bora-Bora the most expensive island of French Polynesia.
2 – Embark on a whale watching tour in Tahiti, Moorea or Rurutu
If you visit Tahiti from July to November, you can go whale watching. Every year, humpback whales come from the Antarctic waters to mate or give birth to their calf in the warm waters of the South Pacific.
While Moorea is the most popular area in French Polynesia for whale watching, I recommend heading to the Tahiti Peninsula to get the best experience as there is only one operator in the area. By the way, the Peninsula is also where you will find the best diving in Tahiti.
This is the guarantee of a peaceful encounter with female whales and their calf but also lone males looking for a new partner. Highly-trained guides always put the well-being of these gentle marine mammals first and will let you know if it will be possible to get into the water with them safely. The tour lasts half a day during which you will learn tons of amazing facts about whales.
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 demonstrated by each guide.
The island of Rurutu is located in the archipelago of the Austral Islands. Being more south, the whale watching season starts earlier and ends later but also by being so remote, humpback whales are far less disturbed than in the waters of Moorea.
3 – Drift dive with hundreds of reef sharks in Fakarava
Located in the Tuamotu Islands, Fakarava is the second-largest atoll of French Polynesia after Rangiroa, measuring 60 km long by 21 km wide. Fakarava has two passes on the opposite sides of its inner lagoon: The Garuae Pass in the north and the Tumakohua Pass in the south. The plankton growing inside the lagoon escapes by these natural gates through the reef and attracts pelagic species in numbers. These passes and their abundant shark populations are the reason why the Tuamotu Islands became famous worldwide with scuba divers.
It is the ultimate shark dive if you love them as much as I do. The south pass of Fakarava is the home of about 700 resident reef sharks. The best of it? This dive is without any feeding or baiting: it’s a 100% natural encounter: the proof you don’t need feeding or baiting to swim along hundreds of sharks!
Beyond the incredible number of sharks, the most surprising thing was maybe how accessible it is even to beginner scuba divers. As there is no need to dive deeper than 20 m, from the moment you are comfortable with the soft current of a gentle drift dive, you can do it.
4 – Meet manta rays by dozens in Hiva Oa
Scuba diving in the Marquesas Islands might be the ultimate off-the-beaten-track experience considering how remote the islands are. If you love unique adventures, you will discover a staggering marine ecosystem and a real manta ray highway.
The visibility is usually low, from 5 to 15 m, so be prepared for something completely different from what you could expect from diving in the South Pacific. What can sound like a disadvantage is actually a strength from a pelagic species encounter point of view.
The islands are young volcanic islands (2 million years old) and have the unique feature in Polynesia to have no coral reef and hence no lagoon. This directly impacts the concentration in plankton which attracts pelagic species close to the shores of the Marquesas Islands. At Kii Point in Hiva Oa, you can scuba dive with a dozen manta rays and even hammerhead sharks are frequently seen!
5 – Learn about the Tahitian black pearl trade where it all started in Manihi
Manihi happens to be the place where the culture of the Polynesian black pearl was born in the 1960s. The very first pearl farm of French Polynesia was founded in the lagoon of Manihi by a team of Polynesian members and Japanese oyster grafting experts. For many years, only Japanese grafters performed the crucial step of grafting a tiny nucleus made of seashell inside a living oyster.
Don’t miss the opportunity between two dives to visit a pearl farm in the Manihi Lagoon. A fee is usually requested for the group, but you will learn everything about the pearl culture. I was so surprised about the time it takes growing a baby oyster to the harvest of the pearl: 4 to 7 years. It is important to note that French Polynesia is one of the rare places on Earth where oyster larvae are captured in the wild for pearl farming.
With only one scuba diving centre on the atoll, Manihi is a fantastic place to scuba dive in French Polynesia if you don’t like the crowds underwater!
6 – Visit a coconut oil factory in Fakarava
For a private discovery of Polynesian culture in a small group, from ancient religion to today’s environmental challenges, ask for Enoha of Fakarava Tour. He took me all around the atoll by car for half a day from the coconut oil shop to the northernmost tip of the atoll via a stop at Rotoava Church.
At the coconut oil factory, I learnt all the different application of the traditional Tahitian “monoi”. This is pure coconut oil infused with different local plants and flowers to obtain certain health benefits. The most popular of all with “Tahiti tiare” or Tahiti flower, is perfect for protecting your skin from the sun, while “monoi” with “tamanu” can help with mosquito bites.
7 – Try some Ori – Tahitian Dance – moves
In Fakarava, I had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with the local tourism association on the day they were preparing surprises for the visitors at the Airport: black pearl necklaces, palm hats and flower crowns. While I had a lesson of palm waving to make a natural basket, a traditional music band was rehearsing.
After taking a couple of pictures, Hinano, the group leader, insisted I should give a try at Tahitian Dance moves. She called me “Tiare Iti” (little flower in Tahitian), put Tahiti flowers around my neck, a grass skirt on my hips and a palm back on my right elbow, and here I was, completely falling for the music and the sometimes-amusing moves which are miming the lyrics (Hinano was translating for me step by step)!
8 – Sample some of the best local specialities at Papeete food market, Tahiti
Under the elegant white and red metal structure, on a surface of more than 7,000 m², the Papeete 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 available, it’s the perfect place to enjoy a delicious tropical breakfast with a French touch to start the day.
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 back home. There is no point of carrying additional weight as you will be limited on the small planes of the domestic flights between islands.
9 – Walk in hiking paradise in Tahiti or Moorea
Thanks to their topography and high summits, the islands of Tahiti and Moorea offer numerous opportunities to go hiking with Incredibles views.
For instance, the Belvedere in Moorea, at 240 m of altitude, has a breath-taking view of Mount Rotui with on each side Opuhonu Bay (on the left) and Cook Bay (on the right). The belvedere is the starting point of many hiking trails. The most popular one leads you to the Afareaitu waterfalls.
With a maximum altitude of 2,241 m, the island of Tahiti offers so many hiking trails that it can be hard to choose. Some are accessible even to families with children, but others require climbing or crossing torrents. One of the most popular hiking trails without being too challenging is the Valley of Papenoo which is famous for its waterfalls.
10 – Discover Polynesian heritage sites in Tahiti, Moorea, Raiatea, Fakarava or Hiva Oa
The marae are Polynesian open temples. They look minimalistic with their stone wall and trees all around, but it represents more than what it seems. There are usually educational boards nearby them to tell you everything you need to know to understand how they were used for the Polynesian rituals. There are many sites with marae in Tahiti, Moorea, Raiatea and Fakarava. The most famous place in Tahiti is called Marae Arahurahu and is close to the south-eastern shore of the island, near Paea.
Hiva Oa is also the home of invaluable Polynesian archaeological sites which include numerous and impressive tiki statues. The main sites are located on the island of Hiva Oa: Puamau, supposedly counts more than a thousand tiki statues, Hatiheu is famous for its petroglyphs, and Upeke is the home of the tallest tiki statue of French Polynesia with a height of 2.60 m
11 – Fly over the atolls and lagoons of the Tuamotu Islands
While there are a few opportunities to sail between the islands, you are most likely to fly to go island hopping in French Polynesia. The good news is flying above the islands of Polynesia is something not to be missed, especially if you fly between Tahiti and the Tuamotu Islands. Important to remember: after repetitive dives, you need to wait 24 hours before flying to avoid any decompression accident.
At the check-in at Faaa Airport in Tahiti, try to get a window seat on the left side of the plane to enjoy the fabulous view of the Tuamotu atolls from the sky. These rings of sand and coral seem to float at the surface of the deep blue Pacific Ocean. With a clear turquoise lagoon inside the atoll, it might be one of the most beautiful natural landscapes I have ever seen.
The largest atoll of all the Tuamotu is Rangiroa and is usually the first one you will fly over on your way to any of the islands in the Tuamotu. Still, my favourite one from the sky remains Fakarava.
Are you looking for more inspiration for fun things to do in other safe travel destinations? If so, have a look at these additional pages:
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