Visiting French Polynesia

Two Days in an Overwater Bungalow in Moorea

After seven wonderful days on our Windstar Cruise in French Polynesia, we sailed back into port at Papeete, Tahiti. Fortunately, we had decided beforehand to extend our stay in French Polynesia by booking rooms at the Hilton Moorea property on the north shore. Having seen many dreamy pictures of overwater bungalows in exotic locales, we decided to give the bungalows on Moorea a try and we were not disappointed. Our budget would only afford two nights, but that was better than nothing (rooms can run about $1,000/night or more, depending on location, meal plans, season, etc.).

We chose Moorea because its proximity to Papeete (only a short ferry ride away), rather than an expensive flight back out to Bora Bora.

The uncrowded ferry to Moorea. The ferry terminal was right next to the cruise ship terminal.

From the ferry dock in Moorea, we found a taxi to take us to the Hilton, about a 20 minute ride to the northwest around the coast. The luggage claim was a bit of a zoo, I wish I would have gotten a photo of the chaotic scenes of several ferries and luggage stacked up at the terminal–almost comical. No problem finding our bags however.

View of Hilton Moorea property from the beach.

There is no lack of things to do in this setting – hit the beach, hit the pool, have a casual lunch, paddle board, jet ski (a blast in the nearby stunningly scenic bays), snorkel, take an island tour, etc. (See our post on our cruise stop in Moorea). Our hotel package included a wonderful buffet breakfast. We ate dinner one day at the hotel in a beachside cafe and the second evening we got a taxi to a restaurant on the beach a few miles down the coast.

There’s nothing like waking up in the morning, stepping down to your own private swim platform and jumping into the calm water for a quick swim and watching rays and other fish swim by.

Our bungalow for two nights. The room had a glass floor so you could look down and see the water and fish.
A short video showing our bungalow room.
It’s a surreal setting – it does feel like a dream!
It was funny watching our very cruise ship pass by the Hilton Moorea (exactly one week later after our cruise!)
A sunset on Moorea–the end to another perfect day!

Huahine – French Polynesia’s Quiet Island

Ok, if you REALLY want to get away from it all, the island of Huahine in French Polynesia may be your spot. This was the last stop on our Windstar Seven-Day Cruise. Huahine is 86 km (54 miles) southeast of Bora Bora, and to the east of Taha’a and Raiatea.

Our cruise ship at anchor in Maroe Bay, looking south towards Huahine Iti.

Huahine has a population of about 6,000 and is actually two islands, Huahine Nui (the north island, larger) and Huahine Iti (the south island, smaller), which are connected by a short bridge. Both islands are surrounded by a reef as is common in French Polynesia.

This is a relief map of Huahine, our ship anchored in Maroe Bay in the upper middle of the map, you can see where the island halves nearly touch. You can also see the reef surrounding the island(s), and that there are not many entrances into the lagoon from the sea.
An image of the bridge connecting Huahine Nui and Huahine Iti.

Huahine Nui Tour

Given the quiet nature of this island, we decided to “wing it” for the day and managed to hire a car and driver to take us around Huahine Nui (the north island and where most of the population lives). There wasn’t much of a tour desk (basically a park bench) when we arrived via tender from the cruise ship, but I think there was a number to call, or someone called for us, and we secured a driver. There is one road circling the island.

Below are a few pictures from our morning excursion on Huahine. What a lovely, quiet day in another idyllic spot in French Polynesia.

These are vanilla beans drying. Vanilla is a major cash crop on Huahine, as is the case for several of the French Polynesian islands.
A ancient fish trap on Huahine, the Polynesians would use the tides to pull the fish in the direction of the trap and then it would just be a matter of scooping them up with nets in the stone circle at the far end.

The tour was 2+ hours, and in the afternoon Windstar offered our last water skiing opportunity with their small boat so I went skiing in the bay with a few other passengers. A great way to end seven fun-filled, relaxing days in French Polynesia!

Taha’a – Life’s a Beach

From Raiatea, we cruised a few kilometers across the strait in the evening to our next stop, the island of Taha’a and Motu Mahaea, an islet in the reef that surrounds Raiatea and Taha’a. What a great day this was! I had decided to take advantage of the morning cruise excursion, which was a “drift snorkel tour” on the northwestern side of Taha’a. For many passengers (and the rest of my family), they enjoyed the free day on Motu Mahaea, where the cruise line has a nice set-up — lounge chairs on the beach, kayaks, paddle boarding, beach games, snorkeling and swimming, in addition to a great BBQ lunch. I was able to join the rest of the my family on Motu Mahaea for the afternoon after the morning snorkel.

Drift Snorkel Tour

On our way out to our snorkel spot. Our guide was wearing a t-shirt map of Taha’a and Raiatea, very helpful to get our bearings. The island of Taha’a is in the background.

Our snorkel spot was on the northwestern reef of Taha’a, with a spectacular view of Bora Bora providing the backdrop. The channel has a strong current and you literally just drift along with the current taking in the underwater sights.

This was the channel in the reef where we snorkeled. There is a pretty strong current through here–from the ocean side into the protected lagoon (Bora Bora is in the distance).
We did three snorkel tours through this channel taking different routes.
Views of our snorkel tour using my GoPro knock-off camera — works pretty well!
Another snorkel view of the channel.
The abundance of coral and varieties of fish were amazing and beautiful.

There are a few resorts out here on this part of the reef of Taha’a, which would be a nice place to stay, and maybe a little less expensive than Bora Bora.

Motu Mahaea

After our great snorkel tour, we headed over to Motu Mahaea, to join many other passengers for an afternoon BBQ and fun on the beach.

A view of Motu Mahaea as we arrived. Nothing like your own private play island in French Polynesia!
Cruise passengers enjoying a kayak, with our cruise ship anchored in the background.
The facilities on Motu Mahaea were very nice, and you can’t beat the setting!
After our day in Taha’a and Motu Mahaea, we set sail for Bora Bora (my in-laws enjoying the view as we got underway).

The sunset highlights the beautiful coastline of Taha’a.
One more evening view of the gorgeous island of Taha’a.
Leaving Taha’a – I really loved this evening shot showing the difference between the open sea and the calmness and protection that the reef provides.

Why We Chose a Cruise as a Way to See French Polynesia

My wife and I had wanted to visit French Polynesia for a long time – who hasn’t dreamed about this remote idyllic paradise as a place to spend a romantic vacation? Luckily, we made the trip just before the pandemic, and we’re so glad we were able to go. The challenge for us was how to visit – pick one island and stay at a resort? Or visit two islands? Do a cruise? Although cruising isn’t usually our first choice for a vacation (we prefer more independent travel – hence the name of this blog), cruising can be a great way to go for certain locations, and French Polynesia is one of them, especially if you want to see as many islands as possible and do so relatively economically. Air travel between the islands is expensive, as are the resorts (especially the over water guest rooms!).

There are only two major lines that cruise exclusively within the islands – Windstar and Paul Gauguin. It was a bit of a toss-up for us between the two, but we chose Windstar and we were very happy with our choice. Our particular ship provided a bit of an actual sailing experience – the four sails help propel the ship (in addition to diesel engines) and what we especially loved was the fact there were only 150 passengers. Paul Gauguin is more like a typical (although smaller) cruise line/ship that accommodates about 300 passengers.

The Wind Spirit, our home for seven days of cruising in French Polynesia, at dock in Papeete, Tahiti.

Because the ship is small, by the end of the cruise you at least recognize most of your fellow travelers and have become friends with some of them – through participating in some of the same sightseeing tours and onboard activities. With fewer passengers the port stops and embarkations don’t seem overrun and it’s more like a large family reunion on shore and at dinner as well as for the entertainment. The crew is also very friendly. Early one morning while at anchor in a beautiful bay in Moorea I went up to the bridge and had a casual conversation with the Executive Officer – he showed me the bridge controls and gave some great insights about his experience and cruising in the islands.

The Bridge of the Wind Spirit

One night they held a crew talent show and I have probably not laughed as much as during that show – some of the skits were hilarious! Most of the time onboard we just enjoyed sitting on the deck, watching the sea and islands and enjoying the fresh air. The ship also had a water sports deck, where you could borrow kayaks, snorkel gear and use a floating swim dock. They also had a small outboard motor boat that took us water skiing and wakeboarding simply at your request for free – I got to do both, and that was a blast! At the end of this post, I provide a few tips and comments about this beautiful country and Windstar cruises.

The aft deck and pool and hot tub on the Wind Spirit.

The staterooms were a reasonable size, the food was excellent, and there were just enough entertainment options on board to keep us occupied (if desired) without it feeling like we were at a Las Vegas casino hotel.

Our stateroom aboard the Wind Spirit.

Our cruise visited 5 islands (7 day cruise, see map below) and we decided to stay an extra few days afterwards on Moorea in an overwater bungalow–highly recommended (Hilton), and then we toured a bit of the island of Tahiti on our last day before our flight left for the mainland that evening.

Our cruise visited 5 islands, and gave us a good feel for this part of French Polynesia. The ship spent two nights in Bora Bora. Bora Bora is about 172 miles from Papeete. Moorea is only a ~30 minute ferry ride from Papeete.

Since our cruise started and ended in Papeete, Tahiti, I’ll show a few images of this island and city and in future posts we’ll cover the other islands we visited.

A view of Papeete, Tahiti.
A street scene in Papeete, Tahiti. Most roofs are made of corrugated metal, they probably hold up best in this tropical climate.
A big market in Papeete, Tahiti. Lots of local items available here, a good place to shop before heading home.
Our guide for our afternoon tour of Tahiti before we flew home, in front of the LDS Temple in Papeete.
Locals enjoying a Sunday afternoon at the beach near Papeete. The beaches on the north shore of Tahiti are black sand.
Another view of the north shore of Tahiti, a rugged and beautiful coast line.
On our short tour of the island of Tahiti, we visited some falls in the Fa’Aruma’i Valley, one of the falls is 300 feet high.
The Arahoho Blow Hole, near the Fa’Aruma’i Valley.
Another beach with surfers along the north shore of Tahiti.
Robyn overlooking the north shore of Tahiti. The island of Moorea is just barely visible on the horizon.

We’ll share more of the French Polynesian islands in future posts. Here are few tips and observations for visiting French Polynesia and cruising the islands:

  1. French Polynesia is not Hawai’i. Outside of Papeete (population of about 100,000), the towns on the islands are VERY small, and the islands (even Moorea) feel remote. While there are a few high-end resorts on several of the islands (especially Bora Bora), in general the islands are very quiet and rural. It’s not hard to imagine what life was like here a hundred years ago.
  2. This is the South Pacific – plan for rain, but mainly short bursts. We went in November, a shoulder season, and had great weather overall, with occasional cloudy skies and some showers. The ocean water was warm and very pleasant for water sports. Plan on diving or snorkeling. We saw lots of friendly sharks and rays.
  3. There are activities on board the ship, but they are limited, and there’s just one small shop. If you want 24/7 entertainment, this may not be the cruise for you. Personally, we enjoyed the quiet downtime.
  4. Arranging port tours. There is always a question in my mind as to whether to sign up for the cruise ship tours (which tend to be more expensive) or plan one on your own once you get off the ship at a port. We did some of both. Since these islands have small populations, we weren’t sure what the availability of tours/transportation would be when we got off the ship, and so we booked several tours ahead of time as part of the cruise. Don’t expect a ton of tour guides mobbing you as you get off the ship (we were actually ferried to shore in tenders at all stops), usually there was one little desk with a tour agent, and that was it! In Bora Bora we decided to wing a tour of the island, and had a great time doing a land tour and private boat tour of the lagoon (HIGHLY recommended – seeing the island from all sides was really great, and the water adventures as part of this tour were great too). In addition, I did a diving tour on Bora Bora as part of the cruise offering. I would say in general it made sense to book through Windstar for these islands.
  5. The French Polynesians are extremely friendly and relaxed, they take the tourism in stride and are rightly so very proud of their history and culture. There are ancient connections between the natives of Hawai’i, New Zealand and French Polynesia. Since this is an “overseas collectivity” of France (part of the French Republic), you do find some caucasian French citizens making their home here.
  6. English is widely spoken, along with Tahitian and French of course.
  7. Papeete is about an eight-hour flight from Los Angeles.