Paradise really does exist here on Earth and it’s found roughly halfway between California and the east coast of Australia in French Polynesia. Better known as the islands of Tahiti, French Polynesia’s 118 islands and atolls stretch over 1,200 miles in the South Pacific Ocean, serving as a massive natural water playground for families. Beyond swimming and water activities, families can enjoy a pleasant climate and a range of accommodation options including brand-name resorts.
The unique blend of French and Polynesian cultures makes for the perfect family-friendly vacation experience. As each of the islands in French Polynesia has its own character and attributes, the only hard part of visiting is choosing where to explore and make a base. From Tahiti to the well-known Bora Bora through to lesser-visited islands such as Raiatea, here’s a rundown of five stunning family-friendly islands in French Polynesia.
1. When visiting the islands in French Polynesia don’t skip Tahiti
Tahiti is your first introduction to French Polynesia as all international flights land here. Over 60 percent of French Polynesia’s residents call Tahiti home and as a result, the capital Papeete has everything you could possibly need, including the colorful markets for fresh fruits, vegetables, and knick-knack supplies. As far as capital cities go, Papette is compact and therein lies its great charm.
Many people jump straight on a plane to the outer islands of Bora-Bora or Moorea from Tahiti without taking time to explore its stunning coast, beautiful black sand beaches with mountainous backdrops, swimming holes and iconic surf breaks.
The island’s coastal road follows a roughly figure-eight shape as Tahiti is divided into two circles connected by an isthmus. The larger circle is home to the capital and is known as Tahiti Nui (Big Tahiti) and the smaller is known as Tahiti Iti (Little Tahiti).
The east coast of Tahiti Nui is full of natural wonders for families to explore. Here you will find the Faarumai Waterfalls, a series of three waterfalls which you can hike to. Vaimahutu, the first, is only a short walk from a nearby parking lot and is easily accessible by those with a young family in tow. The other two, Haamarere Iti and Haamarere Rahi, fall side by side and require another 20 minutes of walking.
Families with a keen surfer may have heard of the surf spot Teahupoo, which is found on Tahiti Itti. The Tahiti Billabong Pro is held here every May, a surfing competition that attracts the best surfers from all over the world. Boat excursions are a fun activity here too and a half-day trip usually involves a visit to Vaipoiri Cave, a picnic lunch, and a trip out to the big waves to watch the die-hard surfers.
2. Huahine is perfect for families who prefer under-the-radar destinations
Huahine is less commercially developed than Tahiti and this is probably its greatest charm for families who thrive on experiencing lesser-visited destinations and don’t necessarily require a five-star resort to have a great time. That’s not to say that luxury can’t be found, it definitely can, but it doesn’t dominate the island with brand-name resorts like on Bora Bora or Moorea.
Like Tahiti, Huahine actually consists of two islands, Huahine Nui (Big Huahine) and Huahine Iti (Little Huahine) except on this island, the two sections are connected by a man-made bridge. Huahine Nui is home to most of the main tourist facilities and the village of Fare. In contrast, Huahine Iti is quieter with long stretches between tiny villages, the island’s best beaches, and a wonderful azure lagoon.
Although your accommodation can organize a tour for you to see the highlights of Huahine, the barely trafficked roads make hiring a car to explore on your own a really easy option. Lagoon tours are an enjoyable outing for families to experience Huahine’s sparkling lagoon and usually include stops for snorkeling among coral gardens, a picnic on a motu (a very small island), and a visit to a pearl farm.
3. Head to Moorea for picture-perfect scenery and comfort
Moorea’s lagoon and mountainous peaks are out of this world and due to the wide range of brand-name resorts and pensions (private guest houses) to choose from, and its ease of access by boat from Tahiti, the island is a popular choice for families.
While many of the other islands in French Polynesia involve a plane trip over the ocean to reach them, you can get to Moorea in 45 minutes via a catamaran at a cost significantly less than plane travel. This is of particular benefit to families who are often forking out for three or more tickets compared to a single or couple.
One of the best ways to experience the island is by taking a 4WD land tour. Most tours visit the two beautiful waterfalls in Afareaitu, the island’s administrative center, Opounohu Bay, a vanilla plantation and pineapple farm, archaeological sites, and the fruit juice factory. The tours cover a lot in one half-day and provide the opportunity to learn of the island’s history from the guide.
Likewise, the best way to discover Moorea’s lagoon is by joining a lagoon excursion. Typically this will include a stop at two bays, shark or fish feeding, swimming with stingrays, and a picnic lunch.
4. Raiatea is the best island in French Polynesia for a local experience
Home to the second-largest town in French Polynesia (after Papeete in Tahiti), Raiatea shares its large lagoon with a smaller island, Tahaa. Raiatea features a lush-green mountainous interior and is considered to be the spiritual center of all the islands due to Marae Taputapuatea — the most important traditional temple in French Polynesia. Raiatea does not get many tourists making it ideal for families seeking to truly experience French Polynesia without the tourist hype.
Both Raiatea and Tahaa have very few beaches but don’t let this put you off, as the lagoon surrounding the islands features numerous white sand motus, that make up for it. Many of the motus are picture-perfect, particularly Moto Ofetaru which you can visit on a day trip to enjoy the turquoise water, coconut trees, and great snorkeling.
Moto Ofetaru is particularly suitable for families as the snorkeling is shallow, ensuring they don’t miss out on the bright tropical fish that swim around the large heads of coral. There are toilets on the island but no shops so you will need to bring your own lunch.
Much like in Moorea, one of the easiest ways to experience the island is by a guided excursion. The day trips often focus on the island of Tahaa but also ensure you see the best of the islands, including snorkeling in a coral garden, visiting a pearl and vanilla farm, and a picnic lunch on a beautiful motu.
5. Bora Bora is ideal for a luxurious flop and drop family vacation
Despite its reputation as a honeymoon destination, Bora Bora’s expansive lagoon, brand-name resorts, and countless tourism offerings make it particularly family-friendly. The fact that it looks exactly, if not better than the tourist brochures is a huge bonus.
Bora Bora is particularly mountainous and as a result, the airport is located on its own tiny island, where visitors are then transported by boat to either their accommodation or the town of Vaitape, the island’s main settlement. Regardless of whether you stay in an ultra-luxurious over-water bungalow or a value-for-money pension, this is a very safe and comfortable option for a family vacation.
A half or full-day cruise on Bora Bora’s lagoon is one of the best ways to orientate yourself and tour operators know the best spots for snorkeling and swimming. Although the island is all about the lagoon, a 4WD excursion into the mountainous interior is a great introduction to the WWII historical sites, local archaeological stops, and lookouts that you may want to come back and explore at your own pace before you leave.
One particularly enjoyable attraction is the traditional dance shows held at various brand-name resorts a few times a week. The entertainment is family-friendly with traditional Polynesian dancing, costumes, drumming, and ukulele playing. A buffet is usually on offer with a variety of food to please even the pickiest of young eaters.