Taking advantage of a ridiculous $485 roundtrip flight deal (normally $1200-1500) from DC we found last March, Mrs. Barred and I jetted off in mid-January for a trip to one of the more remote places on Earth, French Polynesia. Despite usually preferring big cities to relaxing vacations, what we found during the 10 day trip, on the islands of Tahiti and Moorea, was one of the best places we’ve ever visited and truly paradise.
French Polynesia, which consists of 100+ islands and stretches over 1200 miles, holds a unique status among France’s many overseas possessions-as an “overseas country” it is semi-autonomous with control of or veto power of many governmental functions. It shares the same time zone as Hawaii (5 hours behind DC).
Unlike many travelers from the U.S., we skipped Bora Bora since it would have literally cost another $400 to fly a couple more hours and lodging there was cost prohibitive. We don’t regret that choice at all.
Despite all the negative feedback we heard before the trip, we found Tahiti to be beautiful and appealing in its own way. 2/3 of French Polynesia’s 250,000 people live there and it’s where most of its important business is done. It was cool to get a window into what people who live there actually do as they live their lives. I’m glad we stayed there 4 nights out of our trip.
After flying 6 hours on Delta from DCA, we had another 8 hour overnight flight to Fa’aa International Airport in Tahiti on Air France (note: on the way back we had a 14 hour overnight layover in LA, got a $100 room at the Hilton LAX and went out in West Hollywood). We arrived at 6am and were greeted inside the airport by a band playing traditional Polynesian music, which was awesome.
We took a $25 taxi to the recommended Manava Suite Resort Tahiti ($200/night via Hotwire). If you can’t snag a similar price/deal at the Intercontinental closer to town, stay here. The boutique hotel featured an incredible infinity pool with a lively swim-up bar; the sunsets from there were the best I’ve ever seen. It was great to have a convenience store a 5 minute walk away (stock up on cheap food and beer) as well as a Thai restaurant and a couple roulettes (more on that later) another 5 minutes further. Several shuttles scheduled throughout the day took us to central Papeete (French Polynesia’s capital and largest city) and were only $14 round-trip/person (otherwise a taxi was roughly $25-30 one way).
In Papeete, the main attraction is the large Marche (market). I’d recommend coming by right after getting your bags stowed away to peruse all the food (tons of mangoes like there were all over the islands, and if you can find a fresh passionfruit get one), wares, and other souvenirs. You can spend a good couple hours here and in the many shops (both souvenir shops and fancy surrounding it-Mrs. Barred picked out a beautiful pair of black pearl earrings at the Tahiti Pearl Market for a lot cheaper than you’d expect). Papeete gets a bad rap for not being all that pretty but we found it charming with a nice palm-tree lined boulevard along the water and an impressive ferry terminal.
Our stay coincided with an annual free music festival; the city shut down the main waterfront boulevard which featured 4 stages stretching over a mile with clearly popular local bands playing both covers and original pop hits that we heard elsewhere on our trip. It was really amazing to see all the locals of all ages enjoying the evening.
We rented a car one afternoon ($90 from EcoCar; free delivery of the car to our hotel and free drop-off before 5p) and drove to the very peaceful north side of the island. We checked out the beach at Pointe Venus (also with a cool lighthouse) which was full of locals enjoying the too-hot-for-our-feet black sand beach; watched the amazing kitesurfers at Hitimahana beach; scoped out the Faarumai Waterfall; and experienced the very real Arahoho Blowhole. Plan better than us and circle around the island by getting an earlier start.
Food-wise, you’ll definitely want to eat at one or more roulettes, which are all over the island. These are food vans which each serve a type of food (local, French, burgers, pizza, Thai, Chinese, etc.) with tables (usually with servers taking orders) that set up each night. They are usually very affordable ($15-20 or less dinners). The best place to go is the Vaiete Square in Papeete as many posted up each night.
Papeete has many bars and clubs (the only late night scene in all of French Polynesia); we enjoyed house-made brews at Les Tres Brasseurs (known as 3B’s, it’s a chain in France, Canada and overseas) on the waterfront and sampled the scene (and free pool) at the spacious indoor/outdoor Morrison Cafe (featured in an episode of Bravo’s Below Deck) (it was dead until around 11p when a heavily young-skewing crowd showed up to dance and not really drink as they chugged before they got in). Elsewhere on the island, we also went to the upscale Marina Taina, eating dinner while a live band played at Pink Coconut (also shown on Below Deck); there are a few other spots there to check out at the marina. Our hotel’s pool bar was buzzy during happy hour and right after ($20 cocktails are $11 during daily 5-7p HH) with both hotel guests and locals.
After several days in Tahiti, we taxied to the Papeete ferry terminal and took the $15 Aremiti 6 (no need to buy in advance unless you are bringing a car over but check the schedule in advance), which quickly delivered us to the island of Moorea in 25 minutes. Eschewing a taxi, we grabbed a seat on the rickety bus that apparently greets every Aremiti ferry to take us to our hotel. (although it was just $2/person vs. $25 taxi, I wouldn’t recommend it if you have big luggage as there are not really luggage racks and our luggage fell off the moving bus before we were able to retrieve it).
We stayed at another Manava, this time the Manava Beach Resort Moorea. The place (still referred to by many by its former name, The Pearl) was awesome ($275/night, though we used some Chase Points to defray that), featuring a spectacular open lobby, a spacious infinity pool (mostly views of the underwater bungalows but they don’t detract), and free diving equipment/snorkeling equipment/kayaks/paddleboards. Though we did not stay in one of these bungalows, our room was still great – a two-story loft studio with kitchenette with a huge balcony. The biggest benefit of staying there wasn’t even the amenities, however; it was the location. Unlike much of Moorea, we were within 10 minutes walking distance to a small village (Maharepa) with shops, restaurants, bank, and a drop-off laundry spot. Meaning we could stock up on snacks and drinks, avoid being cocooned at our resort, pay $15/load for laundry vs. $5 per item, and generally encounter more of Moorea life than otherwise without having to rent a car.
Soon after arriving, we realized that the peaceful and green isle was the most beautiful place we’ve ever visited. Our time in Moorea was mostly spent in or near the water. At the hotel, this included either lazily sitting reading on a beach chair or while lounging in the pool (it was hot and because French Polynesia is so close to the equator, the sun was strong, so this was mostly in the shade), or more strenuously, paddle-boarding (first time), kayaking, or snorkeling.
The absolute highlight of the trip (and really a lifetime) was a 6-hour lagoon tour arranged through the hotel from Moorea SeaFari Cruises ($130; $50 more than larger cruises but way worth it). We joined 6 others on a small boat that took us all along one side of the island, exploring the famous Opunohu Bay and Cook’s Bay, the reef, and the lagoon. It was so informal and relaxed, as if were just hanging out on some dude’s boat. We literally swam with (and pet) stingrays, reef sharks, and other fish in the sparking blue water. The captain and his assistant taught us how to dehusk a coconut (showing us how to make this tasty banana/coconut/lime snack), poured us some great mai tai’s (yes, they were drinking them too; I told you it felt like we were just hanging out), and generally gave us information about what we were experiencing. For lunch, they cooked up a feast (fish prepared three different ways) which we ate on table set up in the friggin water while we sat with our legs submerged and our toes in the sand.
Also memorable was the inner island 4×4 tour ($50). A native Polynesian woman picked us (and two other couples) from our hotel up in the tour company’s (didn’t catch the name but there are many providers) truck. We sat facing each other on padded seats (yes, seatbelts were there) in the open-air truck bed. She took us up the extremely steep/bumpy road to see the awesome vista from Magic Mountain, spent some time in the pineapple plantation, enjoyed the spectacular views from the Belvedere Mountain lookout, learned about vanilla and tasted local marmalade and ice cream at the Moorea Tropical Garden, and ended the 3+ hour tour at the Manutea Tahiti – Rotui Juice Factory & Distillery, tasting a few of their ubiquitous liquors and juices (the pineapple wine may not be worth buying as we found out; still drank it all though).
Our hotel also hosted a great Polynesian show (with plenty of fire and great music) twice a week (Wed & Sat around 7:30p); we were lucky because our hotel was half empty so we were able to eat dinner without having to pony up $70 for the buffet (note you don’t have to pay for dinner; ok to sit near the bar and nurse some drinks).
For dinner in Moorea, fortunately several restaurants (ask your hotel for details) do free pick-ups (expectation is that you eat an entrée) from hotels around the island. We did this for one spot-the highly renowned Rudy’s-and it did not disappoint. Still very casual, the cooking was refined; get the crab-stuffed parrotfish and one of the many affordable wines they have. Rudy’s is also walkable from the hotel, as was the Moorea Beach Café (the “Veuve spot” as you may refer to it as the champagne brand is emblazoned on every inch of the space). We walked to the latter for their sunset happy hour and some bites. The completely outdoor space is directly off the water; some tables are even on the beach. Happy hour deals are pretty good and the drinks are great. Even a DJ plays here every night and the spot was open past 10 in low season; it may be the only real non-hotel affiliated bar open late on the island. Our hotel also had a solid bar (HH 5-7p meant cocktails were $8 instead of $16) and a rum bar open on weekends (unfortunately not open while we were there, but they do have affordable rum flights).
For a bit more casual scene, we also took a taxi to Fare La Canadienne. Opened up by a Montreal couple who visited Moorea and decided to move, the spot focuses on ridiculously affordable burgers ($7-8 for simple one) with creative toppings for bit more. Felt like a hunting lodge in the middle of paradise. The village of Maherepa had several good lunch spots: Moz Café (breakfast/lunch, cash only), Carameline (crepes and pastries for breakfast and lunch); Manuia Grill (get the fish/shrimp kebobs during evening); and Le Grand Voile (go away from the village, open all day, cash only. Tuna sandwich was so fresh).
Coming from DC, we actually didn’t find French Polynesia food/drink to be that expensive. Yes, burgers at hotels were $20+ and entrees were in $30s and up but that’s pretty standard for hotels everywhere. Beers at grocery/convenience stores were around $3/each, $5-7 at bars/restaurants; fancy cocktails were $15-20. Since service and tax is essentially included, this is pretty comparable to DC.
If you like seafood, you’ll definitely be happy in French Polynesia. Fresh fish and other seafood (prepared in so many ways) were a common part of our meals. The poisson cru (raw fish in coconut concoction) was seemingly the national dish. Crates of baguettes for each less than $1 were had at every convenience and grocery store. Tuna/ham/chicken sandwiches (often pressed as a panini) were ubiquitous for $4-6 at small restaurants and stands all over. We actually got sick of mangoes as they were every where (sadly, there appeared to be either a pineapple shortage or they weren’t in season as many restaurants said they were out). Fresh, cold coconut water directly drank from the coconut were sold everywhere for $3-4; we tried to drink that as much as possible. The Manutea juice company sold cartons of fresh juice in the stores; we highly recommend the painapo (Tahitian for pineapple), which was 100% juice, over the slightly cheaper ananas (French for pineapple) which only contained a small portion of fruit juice.
As for booze, Hinano, as a beer and an all-encompassing brand, was ubiquitous. The distinctive Polynesian logo (a woman sitting in traditional garb) was everywhere, on cans, bottles, posters, t-shirts, etc. Their main product comes in a blue can, along with gold, amber, and white varieties (the latter, a bier blanc, was our choice of the trip). Another popular brand was Tabu (“The Tiki ___ Beer”), which had tequila, mojito, and vodka flavored (just the essence/flavor) bottles that were an acquired taste. Even Manutea had a few beers. For liquor, you must buy at least one carton of Tahiti Drink; it is a mixed drink that was very popular (also came in strawberry daiquiri flavor) that we also used to mix. I drank many mai tai’s and pina coladas (made with fresh coconut), though liquor in general (though local rum was available and really good) was pricey. Sadly, owing to its location on the other side of the world from France, unlike when we visited Guadeloupe in the Caribbean (also part of France), we rarely drank wine because it was expensive as hell and do you really want to drink wine in paradise? If you want some wine or harder stuff, I would highly recommend buying a couple liters of vodka or wine at the duty-free in your last airport in the States.
Instead of the euro, the CFP franc is used (pegged to the euro); 90-100 CFP francs roughly equals $1 (frequently vendors even took US dollars though you’re always better off paying in local currency). Credit card machines were pretty ubiquitous (no contactless payment though); most of our cash was used to buy fruit from roadside vendors and for taxis. The latter were really the most expensive part (aside from lodging) of our trip; going 4 miles cost around $25-30; even a mile or two was minimum $15. We found it easiest for the hotels/restaurants to call a cab for us (there were taxi stands in Papeete), as there is no Uber/Lyft.
French is the official language though we heard a lot of Tahitian (hotel staff would say Hello/welcome in both languages when they greeted us).