If you want to see a lot of French Polynesia, be prepared for quite a bit of flying. Of the 118 islands in this French overseas territory, 67 are inhabited, and regular flights operate to 47 of them. It all means that French Polynesia is well serviced by air even if some of the distances can be vast.
Other French Polynesia transportation options include a fast ferry service to Moorea, slow cargo-style boats to the Society Islands, cruise ships, rental cars, local buses and bicycles. Read on for a run-down on getting around French Polynesia.
French Polynesia by Air
Getting to French Polynesia is relatively easy from the West Coast of North America. The national carrier Air Tahiti Nui flies from Los Angeles to the capital Papeete at least once a day. Flight time is approximately 8.5 hours.
Air France also operates three flights a week from Los Angeles with a similar flight time, while Hawaiian Airlines has one flight a week from Honolulu to Papeete with a flight time of about six hours.
All flights land at Tahiti-Faa’a airport (pronounced Fa-ah-ah), which houses both the international and domestic terminals. The airport, built over the lagoon, is just a few miles west of downtown Papeete; many of the popular resorts are less than 10 miles from the airport.
All scheduled flights within French Polynesia are operated by domestic carrier Air Tahiti. Its network covers 47 islands spread over a huge area. For instance, traveling to nearby Moorea by air takes just 15 minutes, traveling to Bora Bora around 50 minutes and to Rangiroa in the Tuamotu group an hour and 15 minutes. A flight to the island of Mangareva in the Gambier Islands, 994 miles from Papeete, is a 3.5-hour journey.
Air Tahiti’s fleet comprises two types of ATR aircraft that have either 48 or 68 seats, along with Twin Otters (19 seats) and Beechcraft (eight seats). The smaller planes are perfect for small islands with short runways.
Baggage weight limits are strictly enforced to prevent overloading (23 kilograms or 50 pounds of checked luggage and 3 kilograms or 6.6 pounds of cabin luggage). Scuba divers are allowed an extra 11 pounds of gear but must present documentation.
Flying across the Pacific and its blue lagoons and islands is one of the joys of travel, and French Polynesia delivers this in spades. Landing at Bora Bora is not to be missed; the right side of the plane is best for landings and the left for take-offs! From the air you can see where the reef meets the lagoon and the rows of overwater bungalows spread out across the lagoon like rosary beads. Flying low over the Tuamotu Archipelago is another buzz; the low islands are like white coral pancakes, sprouting a few palm trees, adrift in the blue.
The most affordable way to visit several islands is with an Air Tahiti Pass. These passes connect islands of the same archipelago, or two different archipelagos, while extensions to the far-flung Marquesas and Austral islands can be added on to the other passes. The cheapest is the Discovery Pass, connecting Moorea with Huahine and Raiatea, but many other combinations are available. Those purchasing a pass must complete their travel within 28 days and only visit each island once; however, not all islands have to be visited. Passes offer good value when compared with multiple point-to-point air tickets.
Travelers who want to island-hop using private planes or helicopters can do so. These operators offer inter-island transfers and sightseeing tours.
The most popular ferry trip is the 30- to 40-minute journey from Papeete (Tahiti) to Moorea 12 miles to the west. It’s a wonderfully scenic journey and much cheaper than flying. Two companies operate the route: Aremiti and Terevau. Aremiti has two vessels — the Aremiti Ferry 2, which carries 967 passengers and 146 vehicles, and the Aremiti 5, which carries 697 passengers and 30 light vehicles. Both ferries have snack bars and TV lounges.
The Terevau is a rapid catamaran carrying 360 passengers and several cars. Onboard are a snack bar and a TV lounge area.
Aremiti boats operate from the ferry dock on Motu Una, an island connected to the mainland in downtown Papeete opposite the tourist office. Terevau’s boat leaves from the maritime station on Pomare Boulevard right in the heart of Papeete. Both pull in at the Moorea dock in Vaiare, on the northeast side of the island.
Both companies run six to seven return voyages a day and five on Sundays. Public buses are available at Moorea wharf as they meet the ferries. There are also car rental companies at Moorea wharf, while those who have prebooked their island accommodation will be picked up by the hotel/resort transport. (There are no public buses directly to the wharf in Papeete; they stop in town a few blocks away. Similarly, there are no rental car depots at Papeete wharf; they can be found in the city itself and at the airport.)
Terevau (no website): +689 50-03-50 or +689 50-03-56
Sea Travel to Other Islands
It is possible to travel by boat from Tahiti to the other Society Islands of Raiatea, Tahaa and Huahine, but the journey is long, not very comfortable and operated by basic cargo ships — the Hawaiki Nui (three cabins with two single beds) and the Taporo VI (no cabins).
Such a trip is really only for those who like to rough it and have plenty of time to kill. There are two services per week, and the trip from Papeete to Huahine takes nine hours; it’s 11 hours to Raiatea, 12 hours to Tahaa and 13 to Bora Bora.
A more comfortable ferry is available for transit between Bora Bora, Raiatea, Tahaa and the small island of Maupiti (25 miles west of Bora Bora). The 140-passenger high-speed boat Maupiti Express II operates in a loop three times a week.
Maupiti Express (no website): maupitiexpress@ ; +689 67-66-69
Cruise Ship Travel
The Paul Gauguin is a five-star, 332-passenger ship offering an all-inclusive fare and fine dining. Departing weekly from Papeete, the ship visits Huahine, Tahaa (for an all-day picnic on a private island), Bora Bora and Moorea. From time to time the ship sails 10-day itineraries that travel out to the Tuamotus and sometimes as far afield as the Marquesas, the Cook Islands and Fiji.
The Aranui 3 is a cargo/passenger ship that runs a regular 14-day trip from Papeete to the Marquesas Islands, calling at the Tuamotu islands of Fakarava and Rangiroa and six islands of the Marquesas group. In mid-2015 the current vessel will be replaced by the Aranui 5, a more luxurious vessel that will include balcony suite accommodation.
Holland America Line and Princess Cruises also offer cruises to French Polynesia, as round trips from the West Coast of the U.S., as part of transpacific voyages en route to Australia and as round trips from Australia.
It is possible to rent vehicles on most of the islands, even Rangiroa in the Tuamotus, which only has a 10-mile road. Driving is on the right-hand side of the road, and there are quite a few roundabouts to negotiate in Papeete.
On islands other than Tahiti, traffic is very sparse, so driving is easy. The general speed limits are 40 kmph (24 mph) in the towns and villages, and 80 kmph (48 mph) on the open road, but there are varying speed limits on the stretches of road leading into and out of Papeete and on its limited highway network. (Ask about the Papeete rules when you pick up your rental car from the international airport.)
Avis and Europcar are the main international companies; depots are usually located at the airport, ferry quay or both. There are several other small rental companies, many of which are attached to hotels or small pensions.
Motor scooter rental is also available on most islands.
A note about directions: On the main Society Islands of Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora, road distances are measured by PK signs (meaning pointe kilometrique in French or kilometer point). The PK sign measures the distance from a designated starting point (such as the airport on Moorea) to a place such as a hotel, restaurant, attraction or someone’s address on the main coastal road.
On all three islands the PKs go in both clockwise and counterclockwise directions. For example, on Moorea, the airport is marked as PK0. As the island road is only 61 km long, the town of Haapiti (which is considered the other main point on the road) is measured as PK24 in the clockwise or southeast direction, and also as PK37 in the northwest counterclockwise direction. It’s less complicated than it sounds! If you’re driving, make sure you have a map with the PK distances on it. Then look out for the PK markers on the road.
Bicycles and Bugsters
As many travelers spend a lot of time lounging at their resorts or on activities where transfers are offered, a rental car can be seen as a waste of money. For short trips on flat coastal roads (say, to a shop, cafe or beach), a bicycle is all that’s needed. Many pensions and resorts rent out bicycles to guests.
For a snazzier alternative, there are also “bugsters” (a bit like a dune buggy), also known as roadsters. The smarter ones look like small convertibles without a roof or doors. The best place to hire one is Moorea, where they can be rented for four, eight or 24 hours. Most people think four hours is quite enough to get around the island and have lunch somewhere. During the rainy season they are equipped with a roof and windshield.
Buses known as Le Truck operate in some of the Society Islands and are a cheap way to travel around the coastal roads. On Tahiti and Moorea, there are separate buses for different directions — clockwise and counterclockwise. There are two bus stations in downtown Papeete servicing the separate routes (east- or west-side buses), while buses run from Moorea’s ferry port, also in two different directions. Fares are cheap: just a couple of dollars to get around the metropolitan area of Tahiti and little more to travel all around the island road.
There are bus stops in the main towns and villages, but if you’re in a remote coastal area and you see a bus coming, just hail it and it should stop.
Note that there are fewer services at night, and very few, if any, on Sundays.
Complimentary Restaurant Transfers
Many restaurants on Moorea and Bora Bora offer free pick-ups and return rides for their diners. They pick up from the hotel/resort or from the hotel’s landing pier (if guests are staying out on a motu in Bora Bora). Not all restaurants provide this service, so check with the hotel concierge. This service encourages guests to leave their hotels and try the islands’ independent restaurants.
–written by Caroline Gladstone