The Incredible Islands Of French Polynesia
Photography and Text By Heide Van Doren Betz
If you dream of brilliant, blue, warm ocean waters, warm breezes, towering palm trees, scents of tropical flowers, friendly natives, and a slow pace to enjoy it all, French Polynesia could be your ideal destination. The official languages are French and Tahitian (which has many different dialects). English is spoken in most hotels.
Eight hours by air from Los Angeles in the midst of the Pacific Ocean, half way between the west coast of the United States and Australia, are 118 islands in five archipelagos. The largest and most visited islands are Tahiti, Bora Bora, and Moorea. I visited the lesser known Taha’a, Rangiroa, and Tikehau. These incredibly beautiful islands are scattered over 1,600 square miles, yet are barely a dot on the globe. The entire French Polynesia population is about a quarter of a million people, with some towns having fewer than 500 inhabitants. Much of the transportation is by motorbike, bicycle or boat – and for tourists – 4X4 flatbed trucks. Many of the inhabitants have tattoos, which are prominent as a symbol of tradition and honor for men, and a sign of beauty for women.
Amazingly, these 118 islands have only as many hotel rooms as a typical hotel in Las Vegas. Many, such as the Ritz Carlton, the Intercontinental, Le Taha’a Resort, Kia Ora Resrt & Spa, Tikehau Pearl Beach Resort offer five-star luxury accommodation with the iconic and exquisitely furnished Tahitian huts built over the water. Polynesian cuisine is based on fish, coconut and French bread. Local homes have bread delivered fresh every morning in their mailboxes (not mail). A variety of sport activities including, of course, swimming in the most incredibly soft waters, snorkeling, deep sea diving, fishing and touring dozens of motus (very small islands you can walk across in five minutes) by small boat, will keep any visitor busy. Many of the smaller islands are self-sustaining ecological habitats and international nature reserves. One must be very cautious not to tread on the hundreds of hermit crabs living a protected life in the sand. There are over 800 species of fish (including many sharks). Fish outnumber people one million to one in some areas.
To date, Hawaii gets more visitors in 10 days than the Tahitian islands do in one year. I have a feeling that will change soon.