French Polynesia is renowned for its crystal waters with world-class diving, dramatic backdrops of lush volcanic peaks and providing next level luxury for the upper echelons of society.
While it delivered on all these fronts, some up close and others from slightly further afield (we are looking at you overwater bungalows!), there were a few things we weren’t expecting to find in French Polynesia.
From baguettes on every corner to eerily quiet rainforests, there’s a whole lot more to these beautiful islands than just beaches and a luxury getaway.
Oven-fresh baguettes spilling from baskets beside Parisian cafes is about as French as you can get.
Being in ‘French’ Polynesia this simple food item may seem like an obvious thing to expect, but seeing laid-back Polynesians with toothy grins cycling between the palm trees with half a dozen baguettes dangling from their handlebars was not something we had anticipated.
As one of the cheapest items you can buy and an ingrained part of the culture, baguettes are a firm staple on the islands. So widespread is the baguette that on one island we woke up early to watch the sunrise and in driving along the winding roads to find a good vantage point, we noticed several woman in various states of disarray, clearly just woken up sitting at the bottom of driveways or at bus stops clearly not ready to be going anywhere. Many were in pyjamas, brushing their hair out on the street, visibly sleepy and chatting away. We wondered what the occasion might be until we saw a small van coming down the road. The baker was out delivering the fresh baguettes and other pastries for breakfast. Now that is service!
With lush dense tropical jungle covering a large part of many of French Polynesia’s islands, this would make an incredible playground for monkeys and exotic birds alike. But walking through the greenery and hearing barely a sound was strangely bizarre.
Given its isolation in the Pacific, birds that migrated east set up camp on islands reached earlier in the journey. In fact, as you move east across the Pacific, the biodiversity on the islands slowly decreases as migratory animals found their homes before reaching the Polynesian islands. While rats, dogs and evidently chickens were brought across with the Europeans for companionship, food or as stowaways, little other wildlife seems to have made the journey.
Considering these are small pieces of land surrounded by water, we had expected expansive strips of silky white sand with clear turquoise water lapping at its shores. Alas, on the islands we visited anyway, there were very few beaches to be found. Many islands have created their own for locals to enjoy.
The glorious exception which we eventually discovered is obviously the motu – little sand islets with sandy beach all the way around scattered right in the middle of the reef. These beaches, and being on your very own island, beat those on the mainland any day.
This is truly a tropical paradise, with crystal clear waters, white sand, delicious food and friendly locals. Yet when you compare it to other similar getaways in South East Asia or Costa Rica where tourist booms have all but destroyed places that used to be idyllic, French Polynesia is incredibly undeveloped.
Rather than being reduced to a kind of nice beach backed by resorts, where trash is strewn across the roads and tourists crowd the streets bouncing to music that pumps down the smallest alleys until the wee hours of the morning, these islands still feel like they are waiting to be discovered.
While we avoided Bora Bora where tourists swarm and development is more concentrated, the islands we did visit seemed relatively untouched. There were still long stretches of coastline without a building or boat to be seen, where a charming ‘town’ was made up of a shop, a church and a speckling of small huts.
After struggling to find many of our favourites at the various markets we asked a few of the locals and were basically told the fruit was out of season as it was winter (April through October).
Apparently, the ‘chilly’ 27°C Polynesian winter is not suitable for tropical fruit.
While we could sometimes see the fruit hanging from trees in private gardens, the majority was green and finding them ripe in the shops, with the exception of bananas, proved to be nearly impossible. So when we did come across huge bags of ripe, juicy and delicious passion fruits we jumped on it.
Part of what made French Polynesia so intriguing was the mix of cultures and contrast of environments. Cuddly Polynesians with gap-toothed smiles and laid-back attitudes coming out with an eloquent sing-song of French. White sand beaches here, dark rocky volcanic shores there, rows of palm trees today and dense tropical jungle tomorrow.
All the things a cliche of tropical islands has to offer with the unexpected mix of European sophistication and island time living was precisely what made our experience here so unique.