Azure waters against lush green crags; golden sunsets and sunrises; balmy temperatures without humidity; all manner of bold fish and sea creatures savoring thriving coral.
This bucket list destination is, indeed, like stepping into a living postcard. Compared to Hawaii, French Polynesia is way more remote, compact and untouched, so you are intimately caressed in its beauty.
After a two-year delay, my husband and I enjoyed 11 days in paradise August, 2022: 1 night in Tahiti, then 5 each at the Hilton Moorea and St. Regis Bora Bora (why do those four words sound so magical?). Here’s what you need to know.
- French Polynesia is very French!
- Living overwater
- Paradise found (and how to swim with whales)
We’re from Florida, so the journey was painful. We stopped in San Francisco a couple of nights en route and that helped. We stopped in Hawaii on the way back and that didn’t help at all as it was the same time zone as French Polynesia.
- Tip 1: Beware that flights to/from Papette and within the islands are irregular and may not align with your preferred plans. We started with an ambitious trip to five islands, so signed up with Tahiti Legends to help with logistics. We ended up with just two islands and could have done it ourselves.
- Tip 2: Tahiti doesn’t merit more than an overnight we were told. We stayed at the Te Moana with a great view of Moorea. But some people we met seemed to really enjoy Tahiti, making day trips rather than staying at the more expensive islands.
- Tip 3: Inter-island flights offer wonderful views. Seating is first come/first serve so note how people are hovering by the doorway to get out to the tarmac. (Airports are tiny with few amenities.) Ask the steward which side to sit. For us, left to Moorea and Bora Bora was awesome. We also loved arriving at Bora Bora and stepping outside to the dock and our boat shuttle.
- Tip 4: We flew Hawaiian Air from Papette to Honolulu. Prior to departure, they sent emails inviting us to bid for first class, starting at $999pp. When we checked in for the flight, we upgraded for $385pp!
French Polynesia is very French!
Well, yes, duh. But many more guests were French than we expected. And locals often had such thick accents it was hard to understand them, or they didn’t quite follow our queries. We occasionally felt like foreigners, outsiders, even.
- Tip: We got some French Francs but didn’t need them.
Those amazing images of bungalows in the midst of the ocean are very cool in person. With a caveat.
We were over-the-moon living in an aquarium at over-water-bungalow 79 at the Hilton Moorea. So many fish and other critters to watch and track and swim with, right at our deck. My husband has less mobility, yet was able to enjoy spying string rays and sharks and fish from our room and the boardwalk—we saw an octopus on our last day! We stayed five nights, long enough to see the giant sea cucumbers move, and observe how the rains and winds impacted our reef life. What a joy to be surrounded by blue waters, colorful fish, craggy mountains and sparkling sunsets and sunrises.
When we got to over-water villa 115 at the posh St. Regis Bora Bora we were dismayed to realize there is almost no coral and therefore very few fish around. It never occurred to us that over-the-water would be just water, no fish. As mesmerizing as the blue waters are, that alone is not worth the OWB money to us. Thus we learned that when the water is stunningly blue, it means there’s no coral. We spent a lot of time at the St Regis Lagoonarium, where they planted coral 17 years ago, and is home to a lot of fun fish.
St. Regis was gorgeous, with ginormous villas and very good restaurants. But we preferred the more modest Hilton Moorea because of the sea life in our backyard (and better sunsets and sunrises).
- Tip 1: If you study the maps and reviews, there are more favorably positioned OWBs—not too close to main traffic; with views of mountains in addition to water. You can make requests. We loved 79 at the Hilton. 115 at St. Regis was pretty good with a side view of Mt. Otemanu.
- Tip 2: The Hilton is positioned so you can see both sunrise and sunset!
Food was definitely better at the St. Regis. At the Hilton Moorea, we ate at the grill and creperie, both of which were OK—pizza was the best. They have luaus three days a week—I peeked in and was not impressed. We went to famed Rudy’s in Moorea, where I had amazing parrotfish, and the Beach Club, where there were a lot of mosquitoes. They both provided transfers but you have to wait on fellow diners to depart. How expensive was it? $100 and $125 for appetizers and entrees with no alcohol.
At the St. Regis, we had the meal plan and enjoyed their three very good restaurants plus the Wednesday luau.
- Tip 1: Bookings: I was able to book the external restaurants on Moorea online; the Hilton really wants you to wait until you get there (but, in August, it didn’t seem you would have a problem). St. Regis let me prebook their restaurants via email. For the luau, go early to get the best seats, which appear to be the first row facing outward inside the main dining room—that will give you a clear view of both inside and outside entertainment.
- Tip 2: The resorts are isolated, so bring drinks and snacks from Tahiti. I lugged a bunch of diet sprites across the islands and was glad I did.
- Tip 3: The Hilton let me customize the free drinks they provide in the fridge (we don’t drink beer and prefer diet drinks). It didn’t work perfectly but may be worth the effort.
Paradise found (and how to swim with whales)
The temperatures, the views, the sea life, the pampering. Yes, it’s pretty much paradise!
We’ve active people and really loved the underwater world (diving is famous here!). In addition to our backyard aquarium, we took two tours. In Moorea, I got close to three whales for a minute; and frolicked with sting rays and sharks at the string ray flat where locals feed them regularly. In Bora Bora, I snorkeled high above massive manta rays and tracked a fever of eagle rays. I was fascinated by what looked like colorful worms, then was told they are the lips of clams!
- Tip 1: Swimming with whales. If this is a high priority for you, as it was for me, know what to expect. The Moorea ships are supposed to stay 657 feet away. So you have to swim nearly twice the height of the Statue of Liberty to where they last dove and are likely to resurface (usually with a tour group). If you get lucky, the whales might be where you are waiting, and hover long enough for you to enjoy them. I got to see one whale surface and disappear, and two dive and disappear. Both happened so fast I couldn’t quite grasp or appreciate it (how do those giants move so quickly!?) The best memento for four hours is a picture my husband took from the boat: the back of my head bobbing very close to the body of a whale.
- Tip 2: In late August, it rained a few days and was often windy. That disrupted the lagoon life so there wasn’t much to see; and made the current even trickier at St Regis. So take advantage whenever the water is calm!
- Tip 3: You should try to get out of the resorts into the islands. In Moorea, I rented a car from the Hilton, stopping at the Belvedere viewpoint, hiking up steep Magic Mountain (where you can see the Hilton), and checking out the Sofitel from the Toatea Lookout. It was easy and pretty and allowed me to get some exercise. In Bora Bora, I did a village/hiking tour with delightful Django, arranged through the St. Regis. He gave us an intimate look at local life and customs (they bury loved ones in their front yards!), and took us on a hike through the woods to a ledge under Mt. Otemanu with great views.
Here are our top pictures, should you be interested.
One thought on “Paradise Found: French Polynesia”
Wonderful commentary and pics, my friend!!