My top things to do in French Polynesia from ATV-ing to whale watching
Editor’s note: Tahiti Tourism provided TPG with a free trip to French Polynesia as the country reopened during the COVID-19 pandemic. The opinions are entirely the author's and weren’t subject to review by Tahiti Tourism or any external entity.
After having to cancel and rebook a trip to French Polynesia several times during the pandemic as travel and entry restrictions kept changing or getting extended, I finally got to go on what turned out to be a fantastic vacation there.
Here were eight activities I enjoyed during my journey to French Polynesia last fall that already have me planning a return visit.
Snorkeling and dolphin spotting in Rangiroa
Jumping dolphins, circling sharks, a variety of stingrays, the Blue Lagoon and an explosion of color from schools of tropical fish were just a few of the highlights of a day out on the water in Rangiroa. It's one of the largest atolls in the world, and the hour-long flight from Papeete's Faaa International Airport (PPT) runs about $350 round-trip on Air Tahiti, the sole carrier that flies the route.
Just arriving on the island was a thrill for me as a big aviation geek since I got to fly on one of Air Tahiti's little ATR planes and land at Rangiroa Airport (RGI).
I stayed in a small beach bungalow with a private plunge pool at the Kia Ora Resort and Spa, but the resport also has some overwater bungalows.
I went out on the water with a small group of other tourists on an excursion arranged by the Kia Ora Hotel with a tour company called Kaimana Excursions Rangiroa. We went to a reef island and to see the Blue Lagoon, which is a sort of lagoon within a lagoon surrounded by little islands and coral reefs teeming with marine life.
I got to swim and snorkel with sharks and stingrays and then have lunch on a little motu, or small island. Full-day trips like I took start around $82.
The tour guides picked us up at the resort on a small boat at 9 a.m. We first looked for stingrays and dolphins en route to the Blue Lagoon. Inclement weather prevented us from seeing much at first, but by the time we got to the Blue Lagoon the rain was gone, and we got to do some snorkeling with sharks and stingrays.
We saw lots of blacktip and grey reef sharks and I even saw a lemon shark on one of the short snorkeling opportunities the guides offered. Considered threatened, lemon sharks are fairly rare, so I considered it a treat to get to see one from my spot swimming around our boat.
Lunch was served on a spectacular motu we got to wade to from our boat. The mini-island was surrounded by baby reef sharks and pink-hued sand. There were palm trees and lots of interesting local birds, as well as a home-cooked Polynesian meal set up for us. The food included a few raw fish dishes and coconut bread.
The best part, from my point of view, was toward the end of the day. Before heading back to the resort, we got to ride the waves along with bottlenose dolphins jumping out of the water around us in the Tiputa Pass (also called "The Aquarium"), a channel where the peaceful waters of the lagoon meet the more turbulent ocean waters of the Pacific, creating a perfect spot for dolphins to feed on passing fish.
In the evenings, people gather onshore to watch the jumping dolphins, but you can also follow them in a boat. On this trip, I got to try both experiences, and it was pretty spectacular. I've never seen anything like dolphins leaping out of waves while hunting for fish.
Whale watching and foodie outings on Moorea
One of the most incredible experiences of my life so far was seeing whales up close underwater.
After a night at the Sofitel Kia Ora Moorea Beach Resort, Corallina Tours picked some fellow guests and me up at the hotel dock in a small speedboat. We spent three hours fruitlessly searching for whales. We would find a group, but whenever we jumped in the water to spend some time with them, they would disappear.
Finally, on our last run, we got lucky. Our boat got close enough to three of the behemoths for us to jump in the water and swim after them. I wasn't able to get pictures, but that close encounter with the giants under the waves will stay with me for the rest of my life. Essentially, we were able to swim alongside a mother humpback and her calf, along with an adult male who was trying to court the female. The experience was truly awe-inspiring.
Related: Booking Tahiti on points and miles
But it wasn't all about humpbacks. We also got to see many other sea creatures, including a stingray that I was able to photograph.
A three-hour tour like the one I took starts around $110 per person and is absolutely worth budgeting for.
Back on land, I took a local food tour with Heimata Hall, who started the Moorea Food Adventures tour right before the pandemic started, but has managed to ride it out and is still open for business.
He picked me up at the Terevau terminal ferry dock in Moorea and took me on a driving tour of the island. Unfortunately, it was pouring rain, so Hall couldn't take me to the many food trucks offering local treats that day. We did get to stop at a few mom-and-pop shops to pick up local delicacies, and we ended up having lunch at Hall's home in the hills of Moorea. It wasn't quite the food truck tour we both were hoping for, but I got some local hospitality instead, which turned out to be even better.
Related: Air Tahiti Nui to French Polynesia in premium economy
Shopping and exploring in Papeete and the rest of the island of Tahiti
There is plenty to see and do in the Tahitian capital of Papeete aside from Faa'a International Airport. There are shopping centers, a busy downtown area with offices and shops and a ferry port, and several luxury resorts to boot. I booked a tour of the bustling downtown area with a local guide named Nadia Roustan. After a driving tour of local sites, including the Port of Papeete and City Hall, we got dropped off at a massive shopping area. A half-day tour exploring downtown Papeete will cost you about $97.
She took me to the Marché Papeete, or Papeete Market, for a bit of Tahitian culture.
The market sells everything from flowers to fish and scents to souvenirs. It's the spot to stock up on gifts for the home, including jewelry, pearls, beads and T-shirts. Nadia was super helpful at pointing out what the locals consider the best shops in the area, including some hidden gems you aren't likely to find on your own. That said, if you want to spend a half day exploring on your own, you could probably do it without the help of a guide.
I got out of the city to see some other parts of the Island of Tahiti with La Ora Na Tahiti Expeditions. A four-hour tour starts at around $50 per person. My guide, Teuai Lenoir, gave me a history lesson in Polynesian culture on the drive to Papenoo on the island's east coast and through a large nature reserve. Along the way, we stopped at several waterfalls in the Papenoo Valley and at a couple of important archeological sites. The Polynesians call some of the traditional gathering places "marae," and they are preserved religious gathering places to this day. Some of the sites in French Polynesia date back to 1,000 A.D.
We ate a homemade lunch of sandwiches and fresh fruit that was brought along by Lenoir. Our only company in the forest was a hungry audience of stray cats that keep us entertained. It was a great day in Tahiti.
Off-roading in Bora Bora
There are many ways to see Bora Bora — both from land and the water — but one of the most exciting is from an all-terrain vehicle.
To get an overview of Vaitape, Bora Bora's largest town, and its surroundings, I joined a group excursion with Bora Bora ATV Tours. The 2.5-hour outing, which costs $279 per person, was a blast.
We started our ATV adventure in Vaitape itself, where we caught a glimpse of the town's day-to-day happenings. Once we were suited up for our quad vehicles and given instructions on how to operate them, we followed our guide down a two-lane highway for several miles until we reached a path that took us on a steep climb up Mount Popoti.
Related: Which Bora Bora resort is best for you
After about 40 minutes of navigating the muddy trail, which is one of several reportedly created by Allied forces during World War II, we reached the top of magnificent Mount Popoti, where panoramic vistas of Bora Bora's lagoon awaited us.
Before ending our tour back in Vaitape, we stopped at a local farm for fresh fruit and some shopping.
I had some downtime while waiting for my hotel's water shuttle to get to Vaitape, so I decided to check out the city center, which I highly recommend. It may be small, with just a couple of blocks comprising the main downtown area, but it features all kinds of shops selling everything from pearls to clothing, so you'll find it easy to pass the time for an hour or two.
Be sure to visit the market, which has multiple stalls, including some selling gorgeous local flowers and others offering colorful wraps.
Related: Moorea or Bora Bora — which island paradise is right for you?
Exploring the vibrant lagoon in Bora Bora
Whether you're traveling with a partner, in a group, or on your own, you'll want to book at least one excursion to explore Bora Bora's breathtaking lagoon.
Even though the six-hour boat tour I chose was operated by Bora Bora Romantic Tour — a tour company that clearly specializes in romantic options for twosomes, not solo travelers like me — I still had a fantastic time. It was a postcard-perfect day out on the water and well worth the $220-per-person price tag.
Several couples and I were picked up in a boat driven by a guide who doubled as the tour's entertainment. We started our adventure cruising around the lagoon, listening to soothing tunes coming from the guide's Tahitian version of a ukelele as we went. The music he played throughout the tour really helped set the tone for the day.
During our boat ride, we circled famous Mount Otemanu and got a close-up look at one of Paul Gauguin Cruises' ships. Before long, we stopped to jump out and swim with blacktip reef sharks and various species of tropical fish. I was admittedly nervous at first, but once I jumped into the shallow, crystal-clear water and saw how sedate the beautiful creatures were, I quickly overcame my fear of sharks and enjoyed my time snorkeling around the lagoon.
After that, we spent an hour searching for elusive stingrays before savoring a picnic lunch on another motu prepared by a local islander, who opened up her home to us for the meal. From my perspective, it was the ideal way to spend a day in Bora Bora, even if I was the only single person in sight.
Related: Cleared for Takeoff: A honeymoon in French Polynesia with Chase and Amex points
Although you might want to spend a few days lazing in the sun on your overwater villa's private deck or snorkeling the placid waters of a pellucid lagoon, there are also plenty of outdoor adventure activities to enjoy while in French Polynesia.
My top recommendations are whale watching (or diving), seeing the underwater sights on Rangiroa and ATV-ing on Bora Bora. I'm already starting to plan my next trip, but I'm going to take the advice of TPG Founder Brian Kelly and get dive certified before my next journey to French Polynesia so I can spend more time exploring its underwater treasures.