French Polynesia, also known as the islands of Tahiti, is just a speck in the ocean on a world map. The 118 islands and atolls that make up the region are remote from the rest of the world — it’s a seven-hour flight from Los Angeles. The location is perhaps why, historically, Tahitians were some of the world’s best navigators. They sailed between Tahitian islands and nearby neighbors as early as 200 BC in narrow outrigger canoes called va’a.
In recent years, tourism has brought people from around the world to these paradisiacal islands. French Polynesia actively leans into that tourism boom by leveraging its culture and traditions to appeal to global travelers anxious to trade in their laptops and team building sessions for lagoons and tiki statues.
If you’re thinking about visiting these idyllic South Pacific islands, here are eight experiences not to miss.
1. Try poisson cru
The ubiquitous poisson cru isn’t a complicated dish — raw fish, fermented coconut milk, lime, onion, and copious amounts of salt and pepper — but the combination serves many purposes: It’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner; it’s a midday snack; it’s a hangover cure. It’s also delicious and easy to find across all islands in French Polynesia. The best way to eat it is when the fish is as fresh as possible. Fortunately, fresh fish is easy to come by in a country of 118 islands.
Most restaurants will have poisson cru on the menu, though it’s especially good at local mom-and-pop restaurants where the fisher and the chef are the same person. Poisson cru is one of the country’s first dishes, though it’s likely not quite the same as when Tahitians made it hundreds of years ago with fafaru (fish left to ferment in seawater in the sun for a few days) and unflavored coconut milk. Poisson cru is now made with spices, and the exact recipe varies depending on whether you’re at a luxury or budget restaurant. It’s sometimes served with rice but can be a stand-alone dish — perhaps paired with a local Hinano beer.
2. See the island that inspired Paul Gauguin
As you may have guessed from the name, French Polynesia is a French territory, and it’s long attracted French people searching for something a little less crowded than the streets of Paris. One of the country’s most famous expats is the post-impressionism, early fauvist artist Paul Gaugin, who traveled to Tahiti in 1891. Gaugin eventually settled on the remote Marquesan island of Hiva Oa. He left behind a wife, children, and a lackluster reputation as a failing and underselling artist.
Gauguin didn’t endear himself to the local missionaries or the church leadership, which primarily controlled the island then, but he did immerse himself in the culture. Many of his most famous works, such as “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” and “Fatata te Miti (By the Sea),” were inspired by and painted in Tahiti.
Gauguin worked primarily in his studio home on Hiva Oa, using plant-based red and orange pigments from Marquesan plants like the false sandalwood tree and annatto plant. The fact that he had to sometimes rely on sourcing color from plants partially explains his (at the time) unconventional color choices.
Paul Gauguin’s tomb lies in the ocean-view graveyard on Hiva Oa. However, it’s just a monument — his actual body was buried without fanfare somewhere away from town under the church’s orders. Church leaders looked down on the way Gauguin encouraged nudity, alcohol consumption, and general anti-religious sentiment on the grounds of his home in Atuona. You can also tour his home, which sits next to a large Paul Gauguin museum displaying painted reproductions of his work (some with more artistic skill than others.)
While Gauguin’s legacy on the islands is complicated — he fathered a few children and likely had questionable relationships with several Marquesan women — Gauguin’s works were some of the earliest representations that Western audiences saw of Tahiti. Famous singer Jacques Brel — who died in 1978 — is also buried very near Gauguin.
3. Explore the wild side of Moorea
Moorea is to Tahiti what Palm Springs is to Los Angeles — an easily accessible weekend escape, made even easier by catching a ride on the quick 30-minute Aremiti ferry running several times a day from Papeete to Moorea. As such, Moorea has a popular tourist area, where guests will find a few luxury hotels, dive shops, and sites like ancient maraes (sacred sites) and the Manutea Tahiti Rotui Juice Factory & Distillery (which makes a pineapple wine).
But to experience Moorea as it was before those amenities developed, book a tour south with Yvette of Moorea VIP tours. She’s lived on the island for years, speaks multiple languages, and will pick you up in her covered open-air truck.
Yvette has the scoop on all things Moorea. She can talk endlessly about everything from life on the island, its geological history, what plants you can use to tell the time (hibiscus, tiare ‘aute), and which plants act as a natural bug repellent (tamanu nut oil.) She’ll guide you through as-of-yet unexcavated archaeological sites to hidden waterfalls or walk with you through a coconut farm to learn about copra, the island’s main export. Tours start at around $70.
4. Go scuba diving with big and majestic marine wildlife
If you’ve never been scuba diving, there’s no better place to try it than French Polynesia. It’s famous for its clear blue water, warm ocean temperatures, and migration seasons, where you can dive with everything from hammerhead sharks to enormous eagle rays.
The ocean is inextricably tied to Polynesia, both literally and figuratively — the nation’s origin story says that the god Maui used a massive fish hook to pull the various islands from the sea. Turtles are a sign of royalty and strength because of their hard shells, and deep-sea eels are a harbinger of bad luck in Polynesian traditions — sometimes literally, as they surface hours before tsunamis make landfall. Diving into the underwater world is as essential as diving into the experiences on land to truly get to know French Polynesia.
There are plenty of dive shops in the country, but Top Dive is one of the best as it operates in six locations across French Polynesia. That’s ideal for travelers visiting several islands since you can book multi-island dive packages rather than having to work with a new shop on every island.
And don’t worry if you’re not keen to dive with hammerheads (though French Polynesia has never had a fatal shark attack on a scuba diver). Many dive sites inside the country’s lagoons are well-protected reefs that don’t attract any creatures bigger than the occasional green sea turtle.
5. Paddle a traditional canoe
Seafarers from Asia discovered the islands of French Polynesia over 3,000 years ago and first settled in the Marquesas Islands. From there, expert navigators took to the seas in double-hulled canoes. Using the stars, bird patterns, and a little bit of luck, they discovered different islands and landmasses, reaching destinations as far as Easter Island and New Zealand.
Though it’s hard to believe, travel was in tiny canoes with no more than a wooden panel and a few strong men to propel the boats. Today, paddling is still a hugely important part of Tahiti’s culture. Children learn to paddle in school, there are sailing clubs on every island, and you’ll see dozens of locals rowing around the lagoons in the Tuamotu and Society Island chains.
If you want to get firsthand experience of what traveling the seas in a traditional canoe is like, hitch a ride with Moana Explorer on the big island of Tahiti. You’ll be picked up in a double-hulled canoe with room for about four guests and paddle along the Tahitian shoreline, stopping for a few swim and snorkel spots along the way. Guests are encouraged to lower themselves into the narrow canoes and paddle with the guide, though raised netting provides an over-the-water place to relax once your arms inevitably get tired.
6. Learn all about the art of Tapa
Tapa has existed nearly as long as Tahiti has been inhabited. It’s a material made from plant fibers sourced from breadfruit trees (dark brown tapa), banyan trees (reddish-brown tapa), or mulberry (white tapa, which takes the longest to produce.) Once treated, tapas cloth is used for various purposes, from decoration to clothing to household items. In the last century, it’s become more of a heritage product, but it was an essential craft for the Polynesian culture for centuries.
Making tapa is a complicated and time-intensive process. Tapa makers will first use a machete to strip the outer bark from a branch, then gently cut the inner bark to peel off a layer. Then, using a heavy piece of ironwood, artisans beat the tapa for hours, slowly softening and stretching the material until they end up with a piece nearly four times as large as the original bark. It then has to be dried precisely the right way to preserve the fibers. The process is labor-intensive, so in general, the more tapa a warrior wore, the richer and more powerful he was.
In the 1800s, missionaries banned many forms of art, which included tatau (tattoos). Artisans began painting their family tattoo patterns onto tapa cloth and hiding them from missionaries to preserve the images and tradition. Today, free expression and religion are welcome in French Polynesia, but painting cultural symbols on tapa is still a tradition. You’ll find tapa for sale at most artisan centers. The island of Fatu Hiva is particularly known for its tapa-making displays and beautiful pieces.
7. Take a cargo ship to the Marquesas Islands
As a whole, Tahiti’s culture is well-preserved — but in the Marquesas, the most remote and least populated archipelago in the country, the culture all but disappeared in the 1860s. Due to violent encounters with Europeans, warfare among islanders, and new diseases — plus the tendency of French and English missionaries to ban Marquesas music, religion, and art deemed “anti-Christian.” It’s no surprise that by the 1940s, much of the island’s traditions were lost. Fortunately, older locals remembered bits and pieces of the history, and today, the islands take great pride in everything from tatau and tapa to bone carving and traditional dance. The Marqueses were the first inhabited islands in Tahiti, and recently uncovered archaeological sites reveal much about the ancient culture.
Tourism isn’t a huge draw in the Marquesas — yet. So if you’re going to go there, your options are limited. You could fly to some of the islands, but if you have the time, consider hitching a ride on the Aranui 5, a half-supply-half-cruise ship that travels from Tahiti to the islands on regular supply runs. While the crew unloads the boat, guests get to visit sites like Puamau (home of the country’s largest tikis) and the Kamuihei archaeological site, where you may be lucky enough to catch a traditional pig dance. Fares for luxurious rooms aren’t cheap, but dorm rooms start at $3,400 for the entire 13 day trip, including all activities and food. Nearly all the crew are Tahitian, and while meals on board are European and American cuisine, lunches on the islands are at tiny neighborhood restaurants.
8. Stay in a guesthouse
Tahiti has a reputation for being the island where honeymooners spend big bucks to stay in overwater bungalows — but visiting doesn’t have to be expensive. Across every island are pensions (guesthouses) which range in price and offerings. Some are no more than local open-air hostels, while others are roomier properties with restaurants, pools, and beachfront bungalows. If you’re on Moorea, try the bungalows at the beachfront Green Lodge, or opt for Fare Pea Iti if you’re visiting Taha’a (famous for its vanilla). Rooms at Pensions can be as low as $50 a night. In Tahiti, booking through Facebook is very common, so don’t be alarmed if you find a pension without a website — just send the owners a message on Facebook if you’re thinking about booking.