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Tahiti and 118 attendant islands and atolls make up the captivating, tropical country of French Polynesia, a French overseas territory that is spread across an area of the South Pacific that is as big as western Europe.
Its earliest explorers thought they had found paradise on earth when they came across these picture-perfect islands, and today's travellers are no less entranced by the volcanic mountain peaks clothed in lush tropical vegetation and exotic flowering plants, and encased by coral reefs, warm waters, and white sand beaches. Add to this abundant beauty the warm hospitality of locals, a collection of world-class resorts, spas, fine restaurants, nightclubs, and vibrant markets, and one would imagine the islands would be overrun with exuberant vacationers.
So it is surprising to discover that despite being a dream destination for many, French Polynesia remains gloriously uncrowded. The lack of tourist hordes is mainly the result of the remoteness of the islands, ensuring that travellers who do manage to visit find the destination friendlier, more authentic, and less crowded than many similar destinations. This means it is possible for a visitor to tuck a (Tahiti's national fragrant white flower) behind their ear, pack their swimsuit and (sarong), and head off to find their own idyllic piece of Polynesian paradise.
One group of travellers who reliably come to French Polynesia in droves are surfers, for whom Tahiti is an established paradise. The famous French Polynesian surf spots are mostly not for the faint-hearted, with notorious breaks such as Teahupo'o treated as serious testing grounds for world-class surfers. However, despite its formidable reputation as a big wave surfing destination, French Polynesia does also offer fodder for beginners and surf can be found all year. It is also a gem of a travel destination for scuba divers and snorkellers.
French Polynesia has much to offer anyone who fancies a tropical holiday destination. Those who are willing to travel a little further afield than usual to enjoy one will be richly rewarded.
French Polynesia consists of more than 100 islands so it can be hard to know where to start exploring. Most trips begin in the capital, Papeete, which is situated on the island of Tahiti, home to more than 60 percent of French Polynesia's population and the country's main airport. Tahiti is one of the most popular islands with travellers, boasting vibrant markets and some famous surf spots as well as good infrastructure and pretty beaches.
Other famously attractive French Polynesian islands include Bora Bora, known for its beautiful luxury resorts and a favourite with honeymooners and celebrities; the lovely Moorea, which is conveniently close to Tahiti and celebrated for its sandy beaches and watersports; and Rangiroa, which is widely considered one of the best scuba diving and snorkelling destinations in the world.
Travellers might also want to investigate the various charms of islands such as Huahine, Raiatea, Taha'a, Wallis, Nuka Hiva, Tikehau, Fakarava, and Hiva Oa. The options are almost endless and natural beauty is guaranteed whichever island travellers visit.
Island hopping can prove expensive as the islands of French Polynesia are widely spread over about 1,600 square miles (4,160 sq km), which is one reason that many first-time travellers are more than content to explore Tahiti and nearby Moorea, which are connected by a regular ferry service. Cruises can be booked and cargo ships are often happy to transport travellers for a fee, but flying is still often the only practical option.
Part of the Tuamotu Archipelago, Rangiroa is one of the world's largest atolls. It is a ring of low land encircling a deep, crystal-clear turquoise lagoon, which is so vast that the whole island of Tahiti could fit inside. Located about an hour's flight from Tahiti, the island offers, among other things, world-class scuba diving. The water is so clear that visibility is estimated at least 150ft (46m) and the temperature delightfully hovers around 80°F (27°C) all year round. The stretch where the lagoon opens to the ocean, known as Tiputa Pass, is particularly rich in marine life and is recognised as one of the world's greatest shark dive locations.
Arguably the most dramatically beautiful of the French Polynesian islands, Moorea lies only a few miles northwest of Tahiti (10 minutes by air or under an hour by ferry from Papeete). This little tropical island gem is characterised by spectacular bays, white sandy beaches, and towering craggy volcanic peaks that form a jagged central spine, reflected in the surrounding crystal-surfaced lagoons. All sorts of water activities and excursions are offered on the island, as well as several land-based activities such as hikes and mountain safaris. A fun way to explore the island is to rent a scooter or bicycle.
Satellite pictures of the tiny island of Bora Bora, from hundreds of miles above the earth, show it to be almost glowing, its dark green centre surrounded by a coral necklace and an iridescent aquamarine lagoon.
Little wonder that this is the dream destination for celebrities, honeymooners, and lovers who live in splendour in the island's luxurious spas and resorts, while enjoying privacy and anonymity on its magical secluded beaches.
The lagoon forms the centre of activities for holidaymakers, being the stage for numerous adventures, from shark-feeding excursions and swimming with giant turtles to scuba diving, snorkelling, jet-skiing, glass-bottom boat cruises, descending into the 'lagoonarium', kite-sailing, picnicking on a motu, and more. Bora Bora also offers plenty of cultural and historical attractions.
Like all of French Polynesia, Tahiti enjoys tropical, warm, and humid weather all year round, averaging eight hours of sunshine per day over a year. The islands experience a rainy season, generally between late October and early March, when cloudy skies and brief heavy rain showers can occur.
The rest of the year rain is rare and temperatures constantly high, tempered sometimes by refreshing breezes. The water temperature ranges between 79°F and 84°F (26°C to 29°C) making for extremely pleasant bathing all year round.
The best time to visit Tahiti is between May and October, technically the winter months, when the weather is warm and sunny and rain is less likely. Some travellers may find the summer months uncomfortably hot and humid but they are somewhat less crowded.
French Polynesia enjoys tropical, warm, and humid weather all year round, averaging eight hours of sunshine per day. The islands experience a rainy season, generally between late October and early March, when cloudy skies and brief heavy rain showers can occur. During the rest of the year, rain is rare and temperatures are constantly high, tempered sometimes by refreshing breezes. The water temperature ranges from 79°F to 84°F (26°C to 29°C), making for extremely pleasant bathing all year round. The most popular time to visit is between May and the end of October, when temperatures are a bit milder and there is less rain, but outside of this peak season the comparative emptiness of the resorts and corresponding special prices compensate for the hotter weather.
The unit of currency in French Polynesia is the French Pacific Franc (XPF), divided into 100 centimes. The exchange rate is fairly stable as it is linked to the Euro. Apart from Maupiti, all the main islands in the Society group have at least one banking agency, while only Rangiroa has permanent banking services in the Tuamotus. There are Banque Socredo agencies on 'Ua Pou, Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa in the Marquesas, and some banking services on Rurutu and Tubuai in the Australs group. Banks are the best place to change foreign currency, though rates of exchange are not as good at hotels. Travellers will find ATMs on main islands; hotels and restaurants on main islands accept credit cards.
Though French is the official language,Tahitian is widely spoken. English also has a fairly strong presence.
The electric current in most hotels is 220 volts, 60Hz. European-style two-pin plugs, with a round pin plug, are in use.
US nationals: US citizens require a passport valid for three months after intended travel. No visa is required for a stay of up to 90 days.
UK nationals: British citizens require a passport valid for three months beyond travel period but no visa to enter French Polynesia. All other British nationals require a passport valid for three months after intended travel, and no visa is required for a stay of up to three months. Visa extensions are obtainable.
CA nationals: Canadians require a passport valid for three months after intended travel. No visa is required for a stay of up to three months in any six month period.
AU nationals: Australians require a passport valid for three months after intended travel. No visa is required for a stay of up to three months.
ZA nationals: South Africans require a passport valid for three months after intended travel. A visa is required for South African citizens wishing to travel to Tahiti and French Polynesia.
IR nationals: Irish citizens require a passport valid for three months after intended travel. No visa is required.
NZ nationals: New Zealand nationals require a passport valid for three months after intended travel. No visa is required for a stay of up to three months.
All foreigners entering French Polynesia must hold return tickets or documents for onward travel and proof of sufficient funds. Although French Polynesia doesn't officially require it, it's recommended that passports have six months of validity remaining prior to travel.
A yellow fever vaccination is required for travellers to French Polynesia arriving from an infected area. Vaccinations for hepatitis A and hepatitis B are recommended, and those staying long-term and eating outside of major hotels and restaurants may also want to consider a vaccination for typhoid. Malaria is not a concern but cases of dengue fever are on the rise so precautions against mosquito bites should be taken.
Tap water in hotels and resorts should be safe to drink, but bottled water is also available throughout the islands. Tahiti has decent medical facilities and there are a few private doctors and clinics in the outer islands but healthcare options are limited outside of major cities. The only decompression chamber is at Papeete. Comprehensive medical insurance is recommended for all travellers.
Tipping in Tahiti and the islands is not required or expected - it is seen as contrary to the local custom of hospitality. Generally prices quoted are all-inclusive.
Visits to French Polynesia are usually trouble-free. The crime rate is low, but sensible precautions should be taken with valuables. Tropical storms and cyclones can occur between November and April.
The culture in Tahiti and French Polynesia is relaxed and welcoming, with hospitality and generosity considered important values. People greet each other with a handshake or kiss on the cheek, and it is considered impolite not to greet everyone in the room unless there is a large group. Guests should remove their shoes when entering someone's home.
Business etiquette is relatively informal in Tahiti and French Polynesia. French is the main language of trade, however English is often understood in more popular tourist areas and main urban centres. Business hours are generally 8am to 12pm and 1.30pm to 5.30pm Monday to Friday.
The international dialling code for French Polynesia is +689 and the outgoing code is 00, followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 0027 for South Africa). Wifi is available in the larger hotels and resorts; travellers can purchase local SIM cards for unlocked phones.
Travellers aged 18 or over who are arriving with goods purchased in the EU do not have to pay customs duty on 800 cigarettes, 200 cigars or 1 kilogram of tobacco; 90 litres of wine, 110 litres of beer or cider and 10 litres of alcoholic spirits. Passengers arriving from non-EU Member States do not have to pay duty on 200 cigarettes, 50 cigars or 250 grams of tobacoo; 4 lites of wine, 16 litres of beer or cider and 2 litres of spirits.
Tahiti Tourisme, Papeete, Tahiti: www.tahiti-tourisme.com
Embassy of France, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 944 6000.
Embassy of France, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 7073 1000.
Embassy of France, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 789 1795.
Embassy of France, Canberra, Australia: +61 2 6216 0100.
Embassy of France, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 12 425 1600.
Embassy of France, Dublin, Ireland: +353 1 277 5000.
Embassy of France, Wellington, New Zealand: +64 4 384 2555.
United States Embassy, Suva, Fiji (also responsible for French Polynesia): +679 331 4466.
British Embassy, Paris, France (also responsible for French Polynesia): +33 1 4451 3100.
Canadian High Commission, Wellington, New Zealand (also responsible for French Polynesia): +64 4 473 9577.
Australian Consulate-General, Noumea, New Caledonia (also responsible for French Polynesia): +687 272 414.
New Zealand High Commission, Alofi, Niue: +683 4022.
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