WHETHER FINE-DINING IN TAHITI, surfing the famous break at Teahupoo, or enjoying a sunset barbecue on a deserted atoll, French Polynesia is paradise found.
Float through a South Pacific idyll of pink-sand beaches and villages surrounded by frangipani and bougainvillea, dive for black pearls, indulge at a luxury spa in Bora Bora, and watch whales breach against a backdrop of ancient volcanoes. It is all here, just waiting to be discovered.
French Polynesia is made up of 118 islands split into five island groups: the Society Islands Archipelago, composed of the Windward Islands and the Leeward Islands; the Tuamotu Archipelago; the Gambier Islands; the Marquesas Islands; and the Austral Islands.
The capital is Papeete in Tahiti, which is the most popular point of clearance. Arriving by sea is relatively easy if you use an agent. Like most foreign countries, you just need to fill in the arrival documents supplied by your agent, providing the standard certificates, passports, insurance and yacht particulars.
The agent will arrange for customs and immigration officers to come to the yacht shortly after your arrival. Usually, all crew have to be sighted by the immigration officer with their passports and filled arrival forms. Normally, the whole operation is over pretty quickly, unless you have crew that need special visas, such as South African nationals who must hold a visa issued by a French Embassy.
Crew arrivals by plane can be more complicated, so you need to make sure they’re carrying an SRB, Letter from Captain, Contract, Registration Copy and Crew List – as well as a Bond Letter from the agent issued by customs with the crew member’s flight details. The crew member needs to show this letter at check-in at the airport they are departing from.
It normally takes a couple of days to get visas issued, so you need to plan well ahead.
Every crew member is given a three-month visa, and this can be extended once for another month. This procedure also takes time so requires more forward planning.
You can clear into French Polynesia in locations other than Tahiti if you want to start your itinerary on the way, such as if you’re coming from the Marquesas or Easter Island. You can clear into Bora Bora and work your way through the Society Islands to Tahiti. Alternatively, you could start out in the Tuamotus, clearing into Rangiroa or Fakarava, but you would have to fly the official out to you. Clearing out can be done in the same fashion, depending on which direction you’re heading after French Polynesia.
My first trip, I came down from the Gilbert Islands in the North Pacific, clearing in Tahiti and then exited via Bora Bora to Fiji.
If you are staying in Marina Taina, there is plenty to keep the crew happy, including a good range of bars, restaurants, resorts and beaches to enjoy.
Right at the back of the boat is the Pink Coconut, a popular bar, restaurant and nightclub. Just next door there is a new fusion Asian restaurant with a great outdoor dining area, and the pizza restaurant Casa Bianca is also inside the marina.
One the best places for crew to wind down and enjoy great food and drinks around the pool is the Belvedere Restaurant up in Pira’e, which has an amazing view of the Tahitian mountain rising up behind and the beautiful island of Morea in the foreground.
There is a lot to do in town as well with shops and market stalls selling local arts and crafts, island fashion and the famous black pearls of French Polynesia.
Day workers can be found in Marina Taina through one of the agents located in the marina, and you will get asked for work most days. There is a good group of local guys that have been working on superyachts for years and know the standards that need to be met. Standard daily wages are pretty much the same as worldwide, ranging within €100 – €150 unless you get them through the agent, which incurs a 20 percent fee.
Fuelling can be done in Marina Taina depending on the amount you need and timeframe, but the easiest option is at the commercial dock in Papeete. The only problem here is that sometimes the fuel trucks run off to fill the ferries halfway through your bunkering!
Fuelling in the outer islands can be difficult if you’re after jets or tender fuel, so be prepared with extra jerry cans if you have room.
There are only a couple of local provisioners that can accommodate superyachts and big orders. The fresh food only comes on certain days and runs out quickly, so if you do your provisioning at the supermarket you’ll need to find out when the ship is arriving.
The local markets only supply local produce; it’s not a great range or selection, but you can still find plenty of fruit and veg.
During the cruising season between May and September, the most popular event is the Heiva i Tahiti in July, which is a Polynesian song and dance contest held in the famous surfing village of Teahupoo.
Tahiti and the Society Islands have a busy calendar of local and international events happening throughout the year.
One of the things I love about French Polynesia is that once you are inside the reef that surrounds most of the islands, you can find beautiful anchorages everywhere, whether in a nice secluded bay or just on the edge of the inner reef.
In Tahiti, if you’re into surfing, kiting or paddleboarding, there a few anchorages you can choose from that can offer some protection when inside the reef, such as Teahupoo in the south. In Moorea, anchoring at the bottom end of Opunohu Bay with the backdrop of the mountains is spectacular.
We found that it was very safe everywhere we went, but you do need to watch out for locals when they get drunk as they do like to test their skills in the boxing arena, so to speak. They can be a little territorial with surf breaks too, but if you don’t overcrowd the area with big groups and try to make friends before you go out, you’re less likely to cause offence.
There is always a chance of a bit of rain with scattered showers in French Polynesia; you are in the tropics, after all. It’s pretty much like the Caribbean in a lot of ways. With the SE trade winds blowing 15 to 20 knots, the swell and the wind is pretty consistent, but you do get those days when it comes from any and all directions. The swell can be confused and steep as well, so it can get a bit lumpy when transiting between the islands.
The Blue Lagoon, located on the western side of Rangiroa, is a shallow lagoon carved into the reef inside the central lagoon, creating a small natural aquarium no more than 16 feet (five metres) deep.
As there is a continuous supply of fish, deep-sea fishing is also a popular water activity in Rangiroa.
The Pink Sands is a phenomenal deserted beach covered with pink sand at the eastern corner.
Nearby, visit the Ile aux Récifs, ‘Reef Island’ where erosion has created impressively sharp, jutting coral formations on the south side of the atoll.
Located in the main village of Avatoru, the Dominique Auroy Winery produces French Polynesia’s only wine label, Vin de Tahiti. The small vineyard, known as Domaine Ampélidacées, is situated on a separate islet where the grapes are grown on a remote coconut plantation.
Tikehau is a small, circular atoll neighbouring Rangiroa in the Tuamotu Archipelago. The lagoon, formed by an almost unbroken ring of continuous coral, resembles an immense natural swimming pool.
At only 16 miles across and around 30 metres deep, the lagoon is teeming with marine life.
According to the legendary marine researcher Jacques Cousteau, Tikehau has a higher concentration of fish than any other lagoon in French Polynesia.
Tahiti’s first traditional pearl farms originated in Manihi, and many are still in operation today.
We highly recommend visiting one of the small overwater shops where you’ll witness a demonstration of their unique grafting technique, which makes it possible to produce up to four pearls over the course of one oyster’s natural lifespan. You can also purchase these pearls directly from the source.
Fakarava is one of the world’s best diving destinations. There are two notable passes that feed into the lagoon. The first is the Garuae Pass, located on the north side, which is the widest navigable pass in French Polynesia. The second is the Tumakohua Pass, located on the south side. This pass is home to a narrow underwater valley known as Shark’s Hole, which is heavily populated with lemon, whitecap and hammerhead sharks.
There are six marked dives sites in Bora Bora but there are actually eight to be found. They range from three metres and the deepest is 50 metres. For most of the dives, you just need an open water certification. The top sites include Anau on the north-east side, which has manta ray sightings from May to December, and Tupitipiti Point on the outside of the reef to the south-east corner. The Wall is around 45 minutes in a tender but is considered the best dive in the area. It is a drift dive with big fish, sharks, and an array of marine life.
The most popular thing to do on Raiatea is anchor in Faaroa Bay and take the paddleboards and kayaks for a trip up the river. Winding through a lush rain forest, the Faaroa River is the only navigable river in Polynesia and launched many migratory journeys to faraway islands.
A motu is a small islet created by broken coral and surrounded by reef. You can hire them for private use and they make a great beach set-up for guests. There is one in Huahine that is basically free, with a superb anchorage. An old man who has a shack on the island spends his days looking after the beach and helps you set up if you purchase some of his very reasonably priced handmade jewellery and crafts. Each island has a similar offering, yet Huahine has something truly special.
The whale migration season is from June to August, and on the crossing from Moorea to Tahiti, there is a fairly good chance of seeing them up close. Dolphins are plentiful, particularly as you enter the main passes into the reef in Moorea, Huahine and Bora Bora. Dolphins play in the bow wave here: more so than in any other location I have ever cruised.