Backpacker’s Guide To Tahiti And Her Islands

tahitian lei

Lei made of Tahitian flowers

While destinations like Europe, South America and South East Asia are often touted as popular backpacking destinations, another lesser-know option is French Polynesia, more commonly known as “Tahiti,” named after one of the destination’s largest islands. There are many ways to make a trip to Tahiti budget-friendly, as well as plenty of options for having authentic local and lesser-traversed experiences. The following guide will give you some insight into successfully backpacking Tahiti and some of her nearby islands.

Budget Tips

Advertisements and brochures lead you to believe Tahiti is one of the most expensive destinations in the world, and it can be. That being said, there are many ways to make a trip to French Polynesia more budget-friendly, for example:

1. Stay At Pensions

Pensions are simple accommodations run by families and locals that can help you save money while also getting to stay with a family (essentially, it’s a homestay). Although basic, you can still get a waterfront room, private bungalows and delicious communal meals served family-style so you can meet other travelers.

2. Take Advantage Of Free Activities

Whether you stay at a pension or resort there are usually certain free activities included, like kayaking, cycling, hiking, snorkeling and certain cultural experiences. Check beforehand what accommodations include to compare and contrast what you’d enjoy doing.

3. Skip The Luxury Resort Restaurants

Luxury resort restaurants tend to be the most expensive. Instead, if you’re n Tahiti head to Vai’ete Square on the waterfront to check out the mobile food trucks (an especially lively area after 6pm) or the small mom and pop establishments serving local favorites for a cheap price.

4. Skip The Taxis

Especially if you’re backpacking solo, taxis can be expensive. Skip the taxis altogether and opt for Le Truck, a colorful open-air vehicle that costs about $2 per person. Bikes are another popular mode of transportation that can save you money while helping you to really feel the beat of the island.

5. Travel During Shoulder Season

For French Polynesia, shoulder season is April through June and September through November. During this time, you’ll be able to snag cheaper flights, hotels, tours and packages.

6. Choose Lesser-Known Islands

Traveling to Bora Bora, Tahiti and Moorea will typically be more expensive than the other islands as they are the most touristy. Keep in mind there are other islands with much to offer visitors that are less frequented and less expensive.

7. Opt For An Island Hopping Flight Ticket

If you’ll be traveling to a number of islands on your trip, opt for Air Tahiti’s flight hopping passes — good for up to six islands — which can save you about 30% on domestic flights.

8. Book A Package Deal

Do some digging and see what kinds of packages you can find that include air, accommodation and meals. As French Polynesia tends to be an expensive destination, this can often help you save money in the long run.

maroto valley

Maroto Valley with view of Tahiti’s highest peak, Mount Orohena at 7,352 feet/2.241 meters

Tahiti

The largest of the Polynesian islands, Tahiti boasts volcanoes, waterfalls, mountains, archeological sites, lagoons, valleys, barrier reefs, lively markets, tropical gardens and many activities and attractions.

For a bit of culture, head down to the Papeete Market. Covering 7,000 square meters (75, 350 square feet) visitors can peruse flowers, fruits, Polynesian handicrafts, vanilla, pearls and more. It’s also a great place to get a cheap bite to eat. Another way to see how the locals live (and eat) is walking along the Waterfront Esplanade, checking out the buskers, street stalls and view, and spending some time in the lively Vai’ete Square. After 6pm, the square fills up with mobile food trucks know as Les Roulettes selling everything from pizza to chow mein to poisson cru — a typical Polynesian dish that’s reminiscent of tuna ceviche — and beyond.

Marae Fare Hape

Marae Fare Hape on Tahiti

To help satiate your sense of adventure, explore as much of the scenery as possible. Scuba dive a ship or plane wreck, go deep sea fishing, hike the Fautaua Waterfall or Mount Aorai (requires two days), go barefoot water skiing, go on a 4WD safari adventure through the Papenoo Valley or horseback ride through the Taravao Plateau. There are such diverse landscapes with myriad ways to explore them, you could spend weeks trying to do it all. You should also see what activities your hotel offers for free, as many offer things cycling, kayaking, hiking, snorkeling and certain cultural activities.

And for those who want to experience French Polynesia’s famous beaches, the serene Punaaui Beach offers white sand, translucent waters, tropical fish and colorful corals.

Keep in mind, while you often see photos of Tahiti with luxurious overwater bungalows, the island is home to plenty of family hotels, family-run guesthouses, pensions, bed and breakfasts and even dormitories. Some top picks include Pension de la Plage, Chez Jeannine (pensionchezjeannine@mail.pf), Pension Chayan and Pension Te Miti.

fakarava

Fakarava beach and lagoon

Fakarava

An hour and 10 minute plane ride from Papeete on Tahiti, Fakarava is an easy jaunt with much to offer backpackers.There is only one hotel on the island (built with respect to the surroundings to protect the natural landscape), although plenty of budget-friendly pensions abound, allowing you to stay with locals and enjoy home-cooked meals while sleeping in a private beachfront bungalow. One of my top picks is Pension Tokerau Village, which includes breakfast and a delicious famil- style dinner each night as well as free Wi-Fi, kayaking and snorkeling and bikes for hire.

A biosphere reserve of UNESCO, Fakarava is known for its protected atoll, rare flora and fauna, Tahitian pearl farms and world-class diving. In fact, while French Polynesia in general is known for diving, Fakarava is touted as one of the very best within the islands. The northern coral reef pass of Garuae is the largest in French Polynesia and is known for its “big fauna”, drift dives and unique corals. Some highlights include hammerhead sharks and eagle rays (from November to April), manta rays (July to October), grey sharks and mating grouper (may to June) and year round turtles, dolphins and oceanic sharks.

And if you’re not a diver, snorkeling, kayaking or swimming in the warm turquoise waters of the lagoon are great ways to experience the local landscape.

tahitian pearls

Famous Tahitian pearls

Visitors should also check out one of the island’s pearl farms, as there are only a few islands in French Polynesia where you can visit these. For example, at Hinano Pearl Farm, visitors can see how pearls are made from start to finish. You’ll learn about how the oysters are caught, how to open the oyster and manipulate its pearl pocket and why the oyster shells iridescence is so important (hint: it’s what makes the color of Tahitian pearls so unique). The tour ends with a stop in their pearl shop so you can make a purchase or just browse the different shapes and classes of the pearls.

Cycling is a popular activity on Fakarava, with many of the accommodations offering to rent bicycles for about $10-$15 for a half day. It’s a great way to get a feel of the island vibe, passing through long stretches of palm tree and beach before entering villages full of friendly locals selling art, fruits and inexpensive meals.

raiatea kayaking

Kayaking from Raiatea (Raiatea Lodge) to Motu Miri Miri

Raitaea

One of French Polynesia’s lesser-traversed islands, Raiatea is a budget-friendly option for backpackers as it remains largely untouched by tourism. Known as the “Sacred Island,” Raiatea is the cradle of Polynesian culture and is thought to be the first island that was settled. Its unique history can be explored through one of French Polynesia’s most important marae, Taputapuatea. Already established by 1000 AD, it was the first royal marae — a sacred place ancient Polynesians believed priests could call on gods to come to Earth to give them strength — in French Polynesia. This particular marae was a gathering place for priests and navigators from all over the country for ceremonies, the giving of offerings to gods and deep discussions about the origins of the universe. As this particular temple was devoted to Oro — the bloodthirsty god of war — human sacrifices were thought to be a particularly generous gift. Today, visitors to the open-air temple can view seven marae sites beautifully constructed from coral and stone.

Raiatea is also a land known for its untouched natural features, like deep bays, coral-filled lagoon, majestic waterfalls, lush jungle and French Polynesia’s only navigable river, the River Faaroa. Much of the landscape you can choose to explore on your own (free of charge) or by hiring a local guide. Interestingly, atop Raiatea’s Mount Temehani is the only place in the world the Tiare Apetahi flower grows, and you can trek to the top for a once in a lifetime adventure with a knowledgable local. Moreover, cycling around the island allows you to take in its wild nature as well as visit local pearl farms and vanilla plantations.

While Raiatea is home to budget-friendly pensions — some of which include the Pension Te Maeva, Pension Tepua and Pension Yolande — the island offers for the rare opportunity to stay in a comfortable 3-star hotel called the Raiatea Lodge Hotel for just a little bit more money. Additionally, Raiatea Lodge Hotel includes free activities that can help you explore Raiatea’s landscape without spending money, like bicycle rentals for cycling around the island, kayaks for paddling to nearby Motu Miri Miri and snorkeling equipment for exploring their lagoon’s vibrant coral gardens. Through their food and beverage program, you can sample dishes made with local seafood and produce, as well as cocktails infused with Raiatea fruits and flowers.

tahaa

Hiking on Tahaa

Tahaa

Tahaa does not have an airport, but can be reached by boat in about 25 minutes from Raiatae (most accommodations will pick their guests up from Raiatea). Known as the “Vanilla Island,” Tahaa is where over 80% of French Polynesia’s world-renowned vanilla comes from. While there are many plantations across the island, La Vallee de la Vanille (Valley of the Vanilla; vanillavalley@gmail.com) is a top pick, as it is one of the island’s few organic operations. You’ll see how Brian Hansen and his wife Moeata Hioe grow the vanilla pods on a lush hill slope observing the pollination, drying, weighing and selling of the vanilla. They also feature a boutique selling an impressive array of vanilla-infused products, some of which include rum, soap, body oil, cooking oil, sea salt, coffee, perfume, cologne, volcano rocks, shampoo and more. Bonus: Tours of the plantation are free and include a cold juice drink and fruit tasting, as their 4,000 square-meter property grows an array of tropical fruits.

vanilla plantation

Valley of the Vanilla Plantation

Tahaa is also known for its untamed vegetation and abundance of tropical fruits, as well as for being a giant natural aquarium. These features allowing backpackers to satiate their adventurous side as they explore the island’s flora and fauna. In the lagoon, snorkel or dive to see eels, gray sharks, napoleon wrasses, schools of barracuda and enchanting coral gardens, or kayak to a nearby uninhabited motu for a picnic or short hike. Moreover, cycling around the island allows you to take in the lush jungle and vibrant flowers, while trails like the “Route Traversiete” take hikers deep inland into virgin forest while granting views of Haamene and Hurepiti Bays from the top.

In terms of accommodation, Fare Pea Iti is a clean and comfortable pension with an air of romance. Bungalows are a mix of traditional French Polynesian — with walls made of interwoven peue leaves, bardau shingled roofs and Monoi oil bath amenities —
as well as Japanese with sliding shōji doors and Japanese snacks in the mini bar. On the grounds you’ll find a white sand beach littered with palm trees, an in-ground pool surrounded by cushioned lounge chairs, a lounge area with free Wifi, books and games, and lush tropical foliage and fruits. Room amenities include a self-catering kitchen (which can help you save money on food), mini bar, oversized stone walk-in shower and a patio with beach views. To help you save money, free activities like cycling, kayaking and snorkeling are offered.

33 Comments

    1. @Alex: Thanks! I won’t say it’s the cheapest place on Earth, but it definitely doesn’t have to be expensive either. I always love backpacking places people don’t think of as backpacking destinations, and while you won’t find a “backpacker circuit” on the islands it was really nice to just enjoy a beautiful place on my own 🙂

  1. I had kind of given up on the idea of going to French Polynesia one day since I was one of those people who think it’s an expensive place with solely expensive resorts. Good to hear the contrary! You have given me new hope! 😉

    1. @Sarah: Good to hear. That was my intention when writing the article and why I backpacked it solo, to see if it was possible. It is! 🙂

  2. thanks for your interesting info about the islands!
    is it posible to stay in a tent on the islands or ilegal?
    planing to do abudget solo trip
    do you think it will work?

    1. @moshe: I would just double check with the landowner of where you want to camp to ensure it’s okay and you don’t get in trouble. Enjoy your trip!

  3. Just wondering… where did you stay and what did you do when you landed in Papeete?
    I looked at some of the Pensions and there’s some really bad reviews for some and at the same time I can’t seem to simply google Pensions.
    (I only have 3 full days)

    1. @Sue: All the islands mentioned in the article I went to. Tahiti was my LEAST favorite. More like a city than an “island” (the feel, anyway) unless you go into interior. Fakarava is super peaceful and gorgeous and great for cycling and diving. Raiatea is sort of the “adventure” island and Tahaa is quiet, has lots of outdoor activities and was my favorite for watching the sunrise. They also have coral gardens that you can snorkel that are otherworldly.

      1. Thanks
        What’s the best way to the islands you mentioned.. Sorry for all the questions but bloggers are my only hope in surviving and enjoying this costly country

  4. Hey Sue, no worries. Pretty much all my best travel tips can be found in this article for Tahiti. If you scroll up you’ll see I talk about flying to the different islands. I’ll paste the paragraph here:

    If you’ll be traveling to a number of islands on your trip, opt for Air Tahiti’s flight hopping passes — good for up to six islands — which can save you about 30% on domestic flights.

    Hope that helps!

    Jessie

  5. @Sue: What are your interests? It might be worth it to go directly to another island like Tahaa or Raiatea and then go back to Tahiti. I don’t know you so I don’t know what your interests are, but most people go to French Polynesia for the beautiful beaches and islands life. Tahiti is the last place you should be if that’s what your looking for. The flights are less than an hour to these other islands so it’s super simple to get around.

  6. My plan is night time arrival: check out nightlife and sleep, day 1: Safari 4×4 tour/ check out some markets/ travel time to another island, day 2: make use of the kayaks, snorkelling gear the accommodation has to offer, day 3: diving/ helmet diving/skiing, head back to Papeete airport 12am departure. Would love to eat some cultural food and go to a festival too but I’m not sure how to find festival dates for all events

  7. Hi there! i would like to know how can I stay in pensions as you said. Do they have any website where I can book it or contact them before to arrive?
    thank you!

    1. @Danitza: Try contacting the tourism board. They’ll definitely be able to help you out. Here is one contact you can try — Keikura: hvaxelaire (at) tahiti-tourisme (dot) pf.

      Have a great trip! 🙂

  8. Hey Jessica!
    Your trip sounds really awesome and thanks so much for all the tips! I’m planning on going there next year after a 4 months trip to Hawaii. How much time would you recomment spending in French Polynesia?

    Do you also have tips for Hawaii? 😉

    1. @Julie: Thank you for reading! Timing really depends on how many islands you’d like to do. I was only in French Polynesia for 10 days and did 4 islands, and to be honest I did feel a bit rushed (even though the plane rides are short). For me, the vibe of the islands calls for a slower pace of life, so flying so often didn’t feel 100% in-line with that, you know? Oddly enough, Tahiti itself was my least favorite of the islands. If I went back I would try to stay longer and do at least one island from each of the five French Polynesia island groups.

      And yes, I went to Hawaii’s Big Island less than a year ago! Did a road trip and loved it. You can learn more here: http://jessieonajourney.com/tag/hawaii/

      Note: My favorite post is this one: http://jessieonajourney.com/island-adventures-road-tripping-across-hawaiis-big-island/

      Happy trails! 🙂

  9. Awesome post. Nice to finally find some information about this part of the world. Is the internet usable here (either via prepaid sim or WiFi); I depend on it for my income whilst travelling. Also is boat travel between islands a possibility?

    1. @Lee: Certain islands have boat transport, but for the most part you’ll take budget flights. My experience was either it was REALLY expensive at luxury hotels or really crappy at more budget places :/

  10. Hello there!!! Amazing post.
    Im about to go to the French Polynesia, and I just want to know how much money should I take with my? (doing it budget and staying for 2 weeks or so)
    Also, is there atm there? Or I have to take cash with me?
    Regards from Argentina!!! 🙂

  11. Hi there,

    Just came across your article which sounded awesome with lots of information and more from previous comments.

    How and where from did you get to the French Polynesia and what time of year did you go? How much roughly did it cost over the 10 days? Thanks

    1. @Paul: I left from NYC and it was spring. Because it’s been awhile I’m not 100% sure how much I spent. It’s definitely not an easy place to go on an extreme budget, but it doesn’t need to be as lavish as people think. Stay away from the private islands and overwater bungalows! 🙂

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