Bungalows perched over blue lagoons are a classic icon of the South Pacific. That thatched “hut,” built on stilts over the water, originated in French Polynesia.
This French territory, comprising 118 islands in five archipelagos — the Society Islands, the Tuamotus, the Austral Islands, the Marquesas and the Gambier group — is officially called French Polynesia, despite the fact that many opt for the shorthand form and call it Tahiti. It has a diverse offering of digs, with the overwater bungalow being the most romantic and the most expensive.
The Society Islands, which are home to the main island of Tahiti and the paradise of Bora Bora, receive the lion’s share of tourism and have the biggest spread of accommodation. Lodging options range from luxurious resorts to small family-owned pensions, and from villas with cooking facilities to basic campsites. In the outer archipelagos beyond the developed Society Islands, there are fewer resorts and more authentic, family-style accommodations. Not sure where to stay? Read on for your full guide to French Polynesia lodging.
A symbol of romance and seclusion, the overwater bungalow is believed to have been invented by three Californian guys who came to the island of Moorea in the late 1950s to run a vanilla plantation. Known as the Bali Hai Boys, the trio (Jay Carlisle, Don “Muk” McCallum and Hugh Kelley) dreamt up the unique style of accommodation that has been associated with French Polynesia ever since.
Some dispute the legend, claiming that the first overwater bungalow was built in Bora Bora as part of the famed Hotel Bora Bora, which opened in the 1960s but is now closed and undergoing renovation. Whatever the truth, this iconic “hotel room” certainly originated here.
The overwater bungalow is by far the most expensive of all lodging options, and visitors pay a premium for an “end of pontoon” overwater bungalow — that being the farthest away from the shore.
Many resorts offer overwater bungalows along with garden and shore-side bungalows. The more luxurious the resort, of course, the more glamorous are these bungalows. They began as little huts perched over the lagoon on stilts with attached bathrooms. Today the most exclusive mimic land-based hotel rooms with several rooms, plunge pools and terraces.
A classic feature of an overwater bungalow is a section of glass floor, through which guests can view fish and other marine life. The witty locals call this “Tahitian television.”
Overwater Bungalow Resources
French Polynesia’s three- to five-star resorts are mostly located on the popular Society Islands of Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora, with one or two on less-visited Raiatea and Tahaa, and on Tikehau and Rangiroa in the Tuamotu Archipelago.
International brands such as Hilton, Le Meridien and Sofitel can be found in the main islands, along with the 4.5-star chain Pearl Resorts. InterContinental has a big presence in the region with four resorts, two of which are in Bora Bora. All four of the chain’s resorts are owned by local company Pacific Beachcomber, which also owns the three-star Maitai hotel group and five-star cruise line Paul Gauguin.
The big news in French Polynesia is the opening of the long-awaited Brando, on the island of Tetiaroa, a 20-minute plane ride from Tahiti. Named for actor Marlon Brando, who bought the island in the 1960s, the boutique property of 35 villas is now claiming to be the most exclusive in French Polynesia and the only one to be nearly “carbon neutral.” It boasts a long list of eco-friendly features and practices, such as the use of seawater for the air-conditioning units, solar and biofuel energy, a carbon-offset purchase program for guests, organic gardens and an eco-station where scientists study the fragile environment, flora, fish and birdlife. Opened in July 2014, it is managed by Pacific Beachcomber, whose owner, Richard Bailey, was a friend of the famous actor.
Beyond the Brando, most of French Polynesia’s best resorts are located in Bora Bora, and the most expensive of these (such as the St. Regis and the Four Seasons) are situated on the motus — the small islands that ring the acclaimed Bora Bora lagoon. All are low-rise, have traditional thatched-and-timber design, and are spread over several acres of lush gardens.
Resorts on Tahiti and Moorea tend to be fashioned with distinct Polynesian design, featuring high-pitched thatched roofs and island decor; however, some Tahitian resorts have traditional hotel-style wings that can be as high as three stories. Only two resorts on the island of Tahiti — the InterContinental and Le Meridien — have overwater bungalows.
All resorts feature multiple restaurants, a spa, boutiques, a tour and car rental desk, and water sports activities. Most will offer a weekly Polynesian dance show and other cultural activities such as weaving and carving.
Breakfast is usually not included, unless in a package, while Wi-Fi is also extra. Very few resorts have dedicated kids’ clubs, although activities and child-sized sports equipment are on offer. Check-out time is usually 11 a.m.
French Polynesia Resort Resources
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Villas (Furnished Vacation Rentals)
Rental villas vary quite widely in French Polynesia. They range from just a home with several bedrooms (with or without a pool) to a small collection of individual bungalows on the same property with cooking and laundry facilities. Some villa operators, such as the budget-style Villas Bougainville and Huahine Vacance on the largely undeveloped island of Huahine, also provide a car and small boat for guests’ use.
Some villas are by the lagoon; others are a walk, drive or boat ride away from a beach. While they lack the facilities of big resorts, they are much cheaper and allow guests to integrate by shopping for food in local markets and living simply in beautiful surroundings. Bookings are generally made directly with the owner/manager, who will usually meet guests at the airport or the villa and show them around.
There are many such rentals available on Moorea and in Tahiti, and a sprinkling of them on Bora Bora, Huahine and other islands. They are harder to track down than hotels, but a TripAdvisor search will bring up many, as will other websites specializing in top-end homestays.
French Polynesia Vacation Rental Resources
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Family-Run Guesthouses and Pensions
Staying in a family-run lodge or pension (French for guesthouse) will provide the most authentic Polynesian experience. There are four types of Ministry of Tourism-approved accommodations: bed and breakfast, half-board (breakfast and dinner), self-catering and full-board (all meals). Whatever the category, all family-run pensions and lodges must have 12 rooms or fewer.
If you opt to stay in a pension with a half-board or full-board meal plan, the meals will most likely be delicious. Dinner will usually be a three-course set menu featuring fresh fish and home-grown vegetables or perhaps a French specialty. Self-catering accommodation has full cooking facilities.
Standards differ widely within each category: most will provide hot water and ceiling fans, while the more upmarket will have air conditioning, Internet access (in the main lounge and perhaps in the rooms) and a pool. Some pensions on the remote islands can be quite basic and lack hot water, but these are rare. Most (aside from those near the capital city of Papeete) will be near the lagoon or ocean.
While cheaper than resorts, some small family-run properties can be stylish and quite expensive. Generally family-run accommodation appeals to those who want to escape the huge resorts and also to those on a budget. To find a suitable family-style hotel, contact the tourist office on each island, or check the resources below.
French Polynesia Pension Resources
Hostels and Camping
As family-run accommodation encompasses a wide range, there are many budget and backpacker-style accommodations within this group, especially on Huahine, Tahiti and Moorea. Some of these low-cost pensions will also have dormitory-style rooms and/or campsites. Camping can be as cheap as $17 a night.
French Polynesia Hostel and Camping Resources
The capital city of Papeete has a clutch of low-rise (three- to five-story) hotels built in the business style. As most visitors to Tahiti prefer to stay in one of the international resorts located outside the center of town, the downtown region has suffered from a lack of good accommodation. However, the new Hotel Tahiti Nui, with 91 rooms and suites, filled the gap when it opened a few years ago. Downtown hotels are likely to appeal to those who are flying in at night and boarding a cruise ship the following day.
Tahiti also has the 46-room Tahiti Airport Motel within walking distance (although up a hill) of the airport, providing free Wi-Fi and breakfast on request.
French Polynesia City Hotel Resources
–written by Caroline Gladstone
Editor’s Note:is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc.