We were lucky to spend a year in French Polynesia, a beautiful and widespread collection of islands and atolls. While we didn’t improve our French language skills, we loved the excellent diving, hiking, and culture. From the Marquesas to the Tuamotus and the Society Islands, these are our best of French Polynesia.
About French Polynesia
French Polynesia has several island groups, but many visitors only go to the Society Islands. You’ve probably heard of Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora Bora. If you can, I recommend exploring the ones you haven’t heard about. The more remote archipelagos of the Marquesas and the Tuamotus are unforgettable. These island chains couldn’t be more different: the Marquesas are lush, mountainous, and full of vegetation. Conversely, the Tuamotus are arid atolls with limited land life and clear waters. We didn’t even make it to other parts of French Polynesia like The Gambiers and Australs. Read on for which locales we think offer the best of French Polynesia.
Two islands in French Polynesia are our favorites for hiking. If you want to go hiking, visit Ua Pou or Moorea. Nuku Hiva also offers a good variety of hikes.
Some islands are just bad for hiking, full of private land and no paths for independent hikers, or they’re flat and featureless. In good news, most of The Marquesas islands have at least one or two hikes that are worth doing.
Ua Pou is good for hiking independantly, but for the big hike, hire a guide. All the hikes involve altitude, and everyone we know who did the cross-island hike alone got lost. The hills are high and the views are stunning, but there’s not much civilization so packing lots of water is a must for any of these treks.
After a year in French Polynesia and a lovely but too short visit to Niue, we sailed to Tonga. Only a week after we arrived in Vavau, Tonga, we got stuck! Our starting motor died so while we waited for a replacement, we had a lot of time to explore and enjoy the best of Vavau Tonga.
Vava’u (pronounced va-vuh-ooh) is an island group in The Kingdom of Tonga, and the most popular area of the country for sailing. It consists of 50+ islands, the biggest of which is Utu Vava’u. This is where we spent several weeks on a mooring ball waiting for a new starting motor. On a boat, there’s always something that needs fixing! We maximized our waiting time by seeing the sights and visiting the bars and restaurants, discovering the best of Vavau.
You should know: In Tonga, churches are everywhere and Sunday rules are strict. No working. No tours on the water and no noise aside from singing in church. Fortunately, resorts and bars catering to tourists are open on Sundays, but not much else.
French Polynesia is a vast area, with five major island groups: The Marquesas, Tuamotus, Gambier, Austral, and Society Islands. We are traveling west with the winds after crossing from Panama and landing in the magical Marquesas islands. After a few weeks or months in The Marquesas, the next island group is usually the Tuamotus. Cruising the Tuamotus is like nothing we’ve experienced, and a great reason to get the long stay visa. We can’t believe we almost raced through all of these islands, a necessity with the standard French Polynesian three month visa.
Introduction to The Tuamotus
Motu in Tahitian means a small islet of coral reef, an atoll. The Tuamotus is a chain of 70+ of these small islets, many sparsely inhabited.
To sail from The Marquesas to anywhere in The Tuamotus takes 3-4 days, depending on departure and arrival points, and, of course, the wind. Once you’re in the chain, you can do short day or overnight hops to get from one motu to the next.
The archipelagos’ total population is only about 15,000 people. That’s right, across almost 80 islands. The main industries include pearl farming, copra cultivation (coconut oil), and a small amount of tourism in a few places.
As often happens in our sailing lives, plans changed when we visited our second Marquesan island. We thought we’d stay for a few days but we were having so much fun we spent a week in Ua Pou!
About Ua Pou
Ua Pou (pronounced Wah Poe) is another mountainous Marquesan island. We were told the name means “two pillars” for the twin peaks rising above the other mountains, dominating the island’s landscape. Located south of Nuku Hiva in the northern Marquesas, we made it our second stop in French Polynesia.
The third largest Marquesan island with 5 towns and over 2,000 people, Ua Pou covers over 40 square miles.
We happily anchored in the main port of Hakahau, with stunning views of the mountains and near the conveniences of town.
One of the highlights of our week in Ua Pou was culture day. The islanders took advantage of shutdowns for a Catholic holiday and had a big cultural celebration.
We have a big trip ahead of us from Panama to French Polynesia (FP). The sail of over 3000 miles will take us around a month. Can I repeat that? Since we’re not going to The Galapagos, our sail will take about a month. Which is why we’ve spent most of our time prepping for our Pacific crossing. We want to do this right.
I had numerous checklists (I am that type) and our preparations fall into a few categories: making Sava ship-shape, getting everything we need for the passage, and mentally readying ourselves for the longest trip of our lives.
We are leaving today, so we’re done prepping for our Pacific crossing. We’ll see in a few weeks what we did right.
Getting Sava Ship-Shape
We’ve been pretty good about keeping Sava up-to-date, including our most recent lithium battery upgrade. But boats are like houses: something always breaks. Before we set sail, we want to make sure everything is in working shape, and that we have backups of our backups. It’s an important part of prepping for our Pacific crossing.