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Paradise in French Polynesia

View of Bora Bora from an InterContinental overwater villa.

It was an incredible sight: a gorgeous Polynesian woman in a bikini emerging from the shallow, ice-blue, translucent waters of the Pacific with two oysters in her hand. She promptly pried them open and offered them to me.

My toes were in the sand. The sun was on my face. I savored the taste of brine as I sucked down the freshest oyster I’ve ever eaten. There was no question I wasn’t in Minnesota anymore, my home state where the late April weather forecast still included snow.

Polynesian woman emerges from sea with oysters.


I’ve always been a bit confused by French Polynesia. Never having visited, I wasn’t clear on the difference between Tahiti and Bora Bora, for example, two of the best-known islands. Now I know.

I recently returned from shooting two episodes of my public television series in French Polynesia, a trip that took me from Papeete, the capital city on Tahiti, to Bora Bora, Moorea, Fakarava and Hiva Oa—one of the Marquesas Islands approximately 850 miles from Tahiti.

All international visitors fly to Tahiti. Most give short shrift to the urbanized island and move on to the popular honeymoon destination of Bora Bora. Or they choose the less commercial island of Moorea, a short ferry ride away from Tahiti. Nothing is wrong with either decision, though I’d suggest spending more than one day on Tahiti. And if you really want to get away from it all, the atoll of Fakarava and Hiva Oa are just what the travel doctor ordered.

Worshippers in their Sunday best at a Protestant church in Papette, Tahiti.

When I returned from the trip, many of my friends asked me what French Polynesia was like. The best I could say was Hawaii squared.

If there are flowers everywhere on Hawaii, there are more flowers on the islands of French Polynesia. If the waters of Hawaii are blue and inviting, the waters of French Polynesia are even bluer and more inviting. And thanks in part to the influence of the French, the croissants are better in French Polynesia.

Polynesia’s 300,000 people are scattered across 118 islands and atolls, some unoccupied. Native Polynesians—who have inhabited the islands for 1,500 years—make up about three-quarters of the population. The area also is home to Chinese, local French and metropolitan French—those who moved from France.

Cakes in the morning market, Tahiti.

Technically, French Polynesia is an overseas collectivity of France. If it wasn’t for the palm trees and year-round temperate weather, Tahiti might be mistaken for France with its French road signs and the prevalence of the language. This is one of those rare places in the world where you can have a good café au lait after a dinner of ceviche made with locally caught tuna.

In my next post, I’ll get more specific about islands, hotels, and the Paul Gauguin, the nice cruise ship that sails the seas, for the benefit of readers who would like to plan a trip to French Polynesia.

Photos by Rudy Maxa


Thanks for this article Rudy. I am enamored with French Polynesia and am planning a visit soon. I look forward to your further findings.

Jim in Orlando on 6/2/2011 6:11:22 PM
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I honeymooned on Tahiti and took in the islands on Windstar and an overwater bungalow.
Beautiful but incredibly expensive unless deals are found.

Jim on 8/14/2011 5:03:36 PM
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About Rudy Maxa

Rudy Maxa

Rudy Maxa is host and executive producer of the public television travel series, Rudy Maxa's World. The 78 episodes he has hosted have won numerous awards, including a 2008 regional Emmy for his episode "Rajasthan." He's a contributing editor with National Geographic Traveler magazine and has written for a host of national travel magazines and newspapers. For nearly 15 years he offered consumer travel commentary on public radio's business show Marketplace as "The Savvy Traveler," which was also the name of a one-hour, coast-to-coast weekend show on public radio that he co-created and hosted for four years. Prior to his career as a travel writer and broadcaster, Maxa was an award-winning Washington Post investigative reporter, magazine writer, and columnist for 13 years, during which time his reporting was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. He was a senior writer at The Washingtonian magazine and Washington, D.C., bureau chief of Spy magazine. The author of two non-fiction books, Maxa lives in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota.