Located in the middle of the South Pacific triangle, roughly equidistant from New Zealand, Easter Island and Hawaii, French Polynesia is a once-in-a-lifetime vacation destination. Comprised of 118 islands and atolls, across five distinct archipelagos, the country spans over a thousand square miles of ocean, but is connected by a distinct language and love of the sea.
Known for white-sand beaches with coconuts and mangos, well-preserved coral teaming with tropical fish, and a surging renaissance of traditional culture, the group the islands reopened its borders this fall to visitors from the U.S. and Europe. To do so, the Tahitian government put in place a rigorous testing protocol to enter, requiring specific types of tests within three days of travel and proof of a negative result.
Even with precautions, travel right now might not be for everyone, and that’s OK. After thorough research on the number of local cases, testing that we would need to go through, and assessment of the risk, we opted in. Looking back, I’d probably do the same. Here’s why you should consider a trip to this remote saltwater paradise.
Reason 1: It’s Safe.
First off, I wouldn’t be advocating for travel during a pandemic if it wasn’t safe. From my first-hand experience, I believe the country is balancing safety with business in a proactive and progressive way, and I’d like to see other places try to replicate this effort. After a recent trip to Tahiti, I walked away impressed with the diligence to testing protocols and adherence by the locals and visitors alike at wearing masks. Despite a heavy dose of skepticism going into the trip, it was safe–we tested negative before, during, and after. Still, this calculus is different for everyone and you might decide to wait for the vaccine.
Before departing Friday evening, we got tested with an RT-PCR test Wednesday morning, fitting it within the 72-hour window but giving the lab enough time to get the results back to us. We also decided to do two rapid tests, one on Monday and one on Friday morning, just to be sure. When we landed in Tahiti we were given another test and instructed to take it four days later. We got a fifth and final test when we returned to LAX, to be sure we were still negative. Of course, we were strict with masks in public areas and did our best to social distance from others. With these precautions we felt safe during our entire trip.
Reason 2: It’s Empty.
With considerably fewer visitors than normal, we had many beaches nearly to ourselves, private scuba sessions and snorkeling tours, no lines at restaurants, and ample of empty trails to run and hike. Many hotels are at quarter-capacity, leaving everyone a lot of room to spread out and enjoy yourself. Even in peak season sans COVID, Tahiti sees the same number of tourists in a year that Hawaii sees in a week.
Some of our favorite places to stay included the Le Tahaa Resort in Raiatea, Sofitel Kia Ora Resort in Moorea, and the InterContinental in Bora Bora. All three provide high-end service, offer delicious food, include amenities like take-and-go kayak and paddleboards, snorkeling, scuba lessons, and stunning overwater bungalows with private swimming spots. Further, they all are taking COVID seriously, requiring all staff to wear masks, offering hand sanitation in every building entrance, and disinfecting rooms. Although the local atmosphere isn’t as gloomy as the States, we were fully aware of the global pandemic.
Reason 3: It’s Easy To Get There.
With direct eight-hour flights on Air Tahiti from both San Francisco and Los Angeles, the trip is quick and relatively painless. We left our home in Wyoming at 5 p.m. local time and were in Tahiti by 7 a.m. the next morning, sleeping on the flight and arriving without a ton of jetlag. Air Tahiti provides a pair of meals, making the flight a bit more comfortable. Getting around the islands does require puddle-jump flights and/or short ferry rides, which we found fun and enjoyable, despite adding a little transit time.
Many of the resorts are located on the atolls, separate from the main islands, and are accessed by a short boat ride. This isn’t terribly cumbersome, but do take extra planning when you’re heading out for the day to hike, explore nearby towns, or grab a bit away from the resort. If I ever return to Tahiti, I’d love to bring both a mountain bike and a surfboard with me, to tap into the local network of trails on Raiatea, and catch the break on a few islands.
Reason 4: The Cultural Renaissance.
In the last 40 years, French Polynesia has made a dramatic return to their traditional heritage, pushing against two centuries of Christian missionaries and western philosophies. Local Tahitians are once again practicing traditional rituals like tattoos, dances, Tahitian language (previously banned in schools), farming and agriculture, canoe building and navigation. And unlike other indigenous groups across the Pacific and beyond, the reborn Tahitian culture is starting to thrive.
Best exemplified through local guides, Tahitian culture is most effectively learned through locals who graciously share their traditions, history and knowledge with guests. We spent a full day exploring Raiatea with Tahiarii, an expert ocean navigator and cultural historian, learning about the food and Tahiti’s deep connection to outrigger canoes. Years ago he sailed over 1,000 miles from New Zealand to Raiatea without computers or GPS, just using the sun and stars as navigation.
A few days later we spent a day with Teuai Lenior on the main island of Tahiti, hopping in the back of his 4×4 to explore the heart of the island. There we hiked to waterfalls, learning about the flora and fauna and their traditional uses, ate a traditional meal, tattoos and Tahitian dance, and talked extensively about the history and impact of white settlers and the Tahitian religion and way of life. On our last day, we circumnavigated Bora Bora by boat, joining Narii on this cultural and snorkeling tour. There we swam with rays and sharks, exploring the coral reefs, ate another traditional meal and learned about his family’s story and the local fishing and boat traditions.
Reason 5: There’s Something For Everyone.
The warm, clear water provides ample opportunities for snorkeling and swimming, and scuba outfits like Top Dive Moorea provide fun lessons and unique experiences for all skill levels. Resorts offered us kayaks, paddleboards, snorkeling gear and an overwater balcony to relax on, if we were feeling like a low-key afternoon of napping was best. Add in world-class hiking, cultural experiences, and the best mangos you’ll ever eat (I promise), and the experience is truly unlike any other.
— See more recent dispatches from Cochrane, including an electric mountain bike expedition across Death Valley, a look at life on an Alaskan crab boat, coverage of the Baja 1000, and the tale of an emergency canyon evacuation deep in the Mexican jungle.
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