Experiencing French Polynesia with the Locals

Go beyond languishing in quintessential tropical lagoons and beaches and truly experience the traditions of French Polynesia by participating in the many activities that make these islands such a joy to visit. The easiest way to visit French Polynesia is aboard a small cruise ship so that you can experience the unique features of more than just one island during your holiday.  I just returned from a 7-day cruise aboard the m/s Paul Gauguin, visiting five islands in the archipelago.

Serene Huahine is the most authentic with its laid-back lifestyle and numerous vanilla farms on the mountain flanks where tropical fruits abound.  Here I learned the history of Tahitian dance, the meaning of movement, and participated in a dance class.  Fortunately, the Tahitian dance classes were available daily so I could become adept at the fluid steps – at least the slow ones.  I also learned different ways to tie a pareo as well as the tradition and meaning of Polynesia tattoos.

The island of Taha’a is shaped like an orchid, surrounded by “motus” – islets along the barrier-reef.  Nicknamed the “vanilla island”, 80% of the local vanilla is produced here.  The island is also the ideal place to forget the world while soaking in the incredible quiet and natural beauty.  With abundant coconut palms, I learned the traditional way to shred the meat from the large nut to make coconut oil and skin cream. It was also easy to enjoy the water with the snorkeling gear and kayaks provided by the ship.

We spent two days visiting Bora Bora, mesmerizing us with the stunning palette of sapphire, indigo and turquoise and a back drop of soaring rainforest-covered basaltic peaks.  The nice thing about this island is that you can mix slow-paced activities with action-packed adventures:  diving, snorkeling, lagoon tours, hiking and parasailing are all readily available.  I took a break from the beach and stopped in at the historic Blood Mary’s restaurant, named for the character in the movie South Pacific.  Even though it is very touristy, it’s been popular since 1979 and visited by celebrities from around the globe.

Moving to Moorea, we dropped anchor in Opunohu Bay, one of two bays embracing Mt. Rotui.  After a quick tender ride to shore, a private guide shared the islands many features, from Cook’s Bay to Belvedere Lookout with breathtaking view of both bays and the surrounding green valleys.  I visited the Moorea juice factory and sampled a few of the many juices using local fruit.  There is a dolphin and turtle care center dedicated to the protection of endangered turtles (managed by the non-profit Te Mana o Te Moana).

I have to say that the best part of sailing French Polynesia is being with the talented group of entertainers, Les Gauguines.  Not only do they perform, but they provide most of the programs about life in French Polynesia.

When is the best time to go, you may ask?  Islanders will tell you that they have two seasons: “A long season of short rains” (March – October) and “A short season of long rains” (November – February).  In my mind, it is lovely to be in the lush green tropics any time of year, but if you want clear blue skies, try to go in June, July or August