For more than 200 years Tahiti has represented the tropical-paradise myth for Europeans, but ask almost anyone about French Polynesia and they will look at you blankly. Tahiti is, in fact, just one island in one of the five island groups that make up French Polynesia. It's the region's biggest, most famous and historically interesting island, but the glossy pictures of aqua-blue seas and palm-fringed beaches that you see in travel agents' windows are almost certainly some other French Polynesian island.
People come to French Polynesia to live it up in stylish resorts, scuba dive in lagoons teeming with tropical fish, gorge on the unique mix of French and Polynesian cuisine and, basically, experience a little French chic mixed with South Pacific charm. And why not, since French Polynesia is stunningly beautiful, but the enduring myth that it is also an unproblematic tropical paradise was clearly exposed during the riots that rocked Papeete's streets in early 1996 following the resumption of French nuclear testing at Moruroa.
The 118 islands of French Polynesia are specks in the vast South Pacific Ocean. They are divided into five groups: the Society Islands (which include Tahiti), the Tuamotus, the Marquesas, the Australs and the Gambiers. Only six of the islands are larger than 100 sq km, and the northernmost island, Hatutu, is more than 2000km from the southernmost island, Rapa. The nearest continental land masses are Australia, 5200km to the west, and South America, 6000km to the east. The territory's nearest Pacific neighbour is the Cook Islands, to the west.
The islands are a mixture of volcanic high islands and coral atolls. The high islands have rich, fertile soil and support a much wider diversity of vegetation than the atolls. Magnificent Tahitian tiare flowers grow abundantly on the high islands and these are woven into leis or worn in the hair. Many introduced flora species exist in the region, including hibiscus and bougainvillea. Most of the land-based creatures were introduced and include wild pigs and fowl, semi-domesticated goats in the Marquesas and sheep on Tahiti, the Australs and the Marquesas. Small geckos abound and there are large centipedes that have a decent sting. French Polynesia has perhaps 100 species of birds and they include terns, petrels, noddies and frigatebirds. The abundance and diversity of marine life is immediately obvious when you poke you head underwater.
French Polynesia's tropical climate has two distinct seasons. The wet season, between November and April, has average temperatures around 27 to 30 degrees Celsius with high humidity, ample rain (75% of the annual rainfall) and brief, violent storms. The dry season, between May and October, has little rain, drier air and slightly cooler temperatures. There are prevailing winds which can blow with a force of 40 to 60km/h. The maraamu is a south-easterly that is common in the dry season, and the toerau is a north-north-easterly that blows occasionally in the wet season.
When to Go
The month-long Heiva i Tahiti festivities in July are to Tahiti what Carnaval is to Brazil and people come in droves to be part of them. The festival occurs in the drier and cooler June-through-October period which is, perhaps, the best time to visit the territory. Visitors during this period should, however, take into account the maraamu tradewinds which can bring unstable weather from the south between June and August. The weather gets warmer and more humid between November and the end of May. The Northern Hemisphere holiday periods - Christmas to the beginning of January, late February/early March, Easter, early May and the long northern-summer holiday in July-August - are busy times and flights can be hard to get.
Facts for the Traveller
Visas: Only French citizens can enter French
Polynesia without a passport and the visa requirements are much the same
as for France itself. Western European and Scandinavian citizens are
allowed to stay for up to three months without a visa. Citizens of
Canada, the USA, Japan, Singapore and New Zealand can stay up to one
month without a visa, but all other visitors need a visa to enter.
Money & Costs
Currency: Cour de Franc Pacifique (CFP); its
value is fixed to the French franc.
The cost of living in French Polynesia is about as expensive as it gets anywhere in the world. There are no taxes levied on personal income, but indirect taxes and import duties are high and, given that almost anything that you can buy is imported (and subject to duties of up to 200% of the product's value!), it's understandable that nothing's going be cheap. There are, however, cheaper accommodation options with some dorms in the larger towns and family-run pensions in the outer areas, and it's also possible to eat relatively cheaply in the snack bars that abound.
If you eat at the cheap snack bars, stay in bottom-end accommodation, catch le truck and fill your days with snorkelling and exploring the archaeological sites and island interiors on foot, you'll probably get by on US$80-100 a day. If, however, you want to eat in restaurants, stay in comfortable rooms, hire a car or scuba equipment, take a tour and dabble in the nightlife, you can easily multiply these numbers by three or four.
The banks are pretty mean when changing currency or travellers' cheques and generally you can expect to loose about 5% with each transaction, although exchange rates and fees vary from bank to bank. There are plenty of automatic teller machines on Tahiti, and other touristy islands will have at least one or two. Your Visa or MasterCard will get you around most of the heavily touristed parts of French Polynesia, but once you go to the smaller motus or out-of-the-way places it's strictly cash.
Tipping is not the usual practice in French Polynesia and you won't be expected pay more for goods and services than the listed price. But neither can you expect to pay less than the listed price - nowhere in the Pacific is bargaining accepted and a vendor would regard it as demeaning for a customer to haggle. Black pearls and expensive jewellery, however, do have some margin for `discounting'
Publics Holidays in Tahiti